Monday, June 25, 2007

Seriously hacked cellphones

Why is the first I've ever heard of Heather Kuykendall's hijacked cellphone is through a story on WBUR's Here & Now today?

I don't begrudge Here & Now's newsbreaking capacity, but you'd think this would show up on the high tech blogs at least a while before it hits mainstream. This is potentially a HUGE deal.

It took an extra twenty-three years, but we officially live in 1984.

UPDATE 6/29/07: According to Mike Elgan at Computerworld, the whole thing is "bogus". I think Mike's judgement is rather harsh...the kind of elitism I often see from tech people, directed at non-tech people. I do agree that if Mike is correct, then the media has really fallen down on the job here, and is guilty of scaremongering (Fox News? Scaremongering?!? Say it ain't so?!?)

I think something Elgan has overlooked is that while he seems to have found the simple answer, for some reason the local Fircrest, Washington police have not found it. Nor have the wireless carriers themselves, but I expect their tech support to be completely useless by now.

But getting back to the police, I find their apparent inability to recognize Elgan's simple fixes either unlikely or disturbing. Either it's unlikely it's that simple, and something truly sinister really is happening here....or it's disturbing that they're that clueless. Either way, it's in poor taste for Elgan to sneer from is tech-savvy perch. If he's gonna preach about clueless users, he should be preaching that the police can't afford to be clueless users. Not in today's high-tech world, and a high-tech world where people are kept in a constant state of fear.

I'd like to think our law enforcement has to be the voice of knowledge and reason; a place where citizens can turn to not just to see justice done, but also to make us feel a little safer. So far Fircrest's finest seem to have failed in that aspect.

Beyond Broadcast 2007

I've been remiss in blogging about the Beyond Broadcast conference back in late February.

First and foremost, kudos once again to Jake Shapiro and many others at PRX and the Berkman Center for pulling together an excellent conference.

Second, I noticed that the "problem" with the first BB conference was back in force with this year's. That is, there weren't many answers for a lot of really pressing questions. Everyone seems to know that there are significant needs for radio to diversify across additional media channels, but nobody really seems to know how to actually do it...or at least do it in a way that makes money. Even just enough money to break even, never mind turn a profit.

So these conference sessions are fascinating discussions...sometimes veering into bulls**t sessions (but that's okay)...but there's not a lot of the rubber meeting the road here. I suppose that's okay, gotta start somewhere and it's not a bad thing to have a really high-level discussion at the conference that can then spark more mid-level planning back at your station (or comparable media organization).

On a snarky note, there were some definite technical glitches during the conference, too...especially in getting a presenter's videoconference to work. I don't mention this to blame anyone, but more to call attention to how web media has traded flexibility for robustness; your average AM or FM radio is very simple, and has a very well-known and defined set of expectations assigned to it. Not surprising given how radio has been around for more than five decades. Duplicating this remarkable reliability in the web has been frustratingly difficult.

WESU 88.1 Wesleyan University

My wife is a Wesleyan University graduate, and a month or so ago we went down to Middletown for her class reunion. I got to spend a little time with Ben Michael, the most-excellent General Manager of WESU, chatting about the joys (and pitfalls) of managing a college radio station, and the history of WESU overall.

I finally got around to posting some of the pics I took while I was there: enjoy!

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Power of Norms, or "Are Bostonians Hard Little Bastards?"

This morning while riding the Red Line there was a middle-aged woman wandering back and forth in the train, panhandling for a dollar.

Sound run of the mill? Not so fast...

I won't speak for the Blue Line, which I rarely ride...but over my eleven years in Boston, I've regularly commuted on the Green, Red and Orange Lines for four of them. And I've never seen anyone actually panhandling on the trains. It's pretty rare in the subway stations, too.

Granted there's lots of panhandlers right next to the entrances to the stations...but not in the stations themselves, and definitely not on the trains. I mean, it's a pretty serious faux pas to even talk to someone else on the train unless you know them. "Nobody botherin' nobody" is the motto.

So in this case, the best I could describe the vibe on the train was almost one of stunned surprise. You've got to be a bit hard to live in any city to begin with, and Bostonians are notorious jerks to boot. But people seemed blown away that someone had the audacity to panhandle on the train.

Interestingly, this woman seemed outwardly "normal". She certainly didn't look like your stereotypical bum beggin' for change. In fact, I think most people would've thought she really did need the dollar for the bus...if it weren't for her rather loudly (and melodramatically) bemoaning the fact that her parents died here, she's just visiting because her children are in foster care, and Boston is a nasty town and the people in it are mean because they won't give her a lousy dollar even though she's not drunk and "doesn't look dirty and nasty like a bum."

But back to what I wanted to talk about: the reactions of the people on the train. People weren't really ignoring her, they were practically it was a car wreck. The expressions on their faces really did seem like: This just isn't done! What the hell is going on here!?!? I don't know what to do?!? This...just...ISN'T...done!!!! The social norms had just been shattered by this one poor woman begging for a dollar...who, regardless of whether or not she was telling the truth, was obviously very upset over the whole thing.

I have a degree in psychology, and I work for a show about mental health and psychological I'm sure someone, somewhere, has done a study on this effect. I'll have to look around and see if I can find it; after living it this morning I have to think it'd be a fascinating read.

Ed.note: I didn't give her a dollar, either...I was a little too creeped out by her diatribe.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Numbr for Crgslst

That bastion of nifty tips known as Lifehacker turned me on today to a handy little webpage called Numbr. It's a free "fake" telephone number you can use for anywhere between an hour and a month, and set it to forward to any other number.

The main purpose behind this is to provide a phone contact on your Craigslist postings, or eBay as well, I imagine. Put the Numbr'd number up on your post, set it to forward to your real phone, and take calls. Interestingly, Numbr will pass the caller ID on to your you can see who's calling you (assuming their phone doesn't block caller ID).

I have to think this has uses beyond Craigslist...some no doubt for good, some no doubt for evil...but nothing practical for radio is immediately coming to mind. Any ideas, folks?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

I gave the MBTA a Piece of my Mind

I like going to public meetings for the MBTA. I get to be the "reasonable" guy in the group. :-)

So on Tuesday I attended the T's PMT/Service Plan Workshop in Cambridge. It's one stop on the Red Line from my job, and it is rather fascinating to see what people, and the T management, have to say. Like most things in life, it's hard to hate the T when you see there's just regular people working there. People who, by and large, are pretty nice and are actually trying to do a decent job.

Anyways, when you're in Cambridge at a public meeting, you're guaranteed to get some passionate people there, sometimes unreasonably so. Tuesday was no exception...the meeting is supposed to be about the MBTA looking for ideas to guide the next 25 years of operation. When you're talking 25 years, that's a pretty "macro-level" discussion. You can't get mired in the nitty-gritty details.

Well, so much for that idea...the discussion of our 10-person group almost instantly devolved in a giant bitchfest about how lousy the MBTA service is. I give the discussion leader credit, she didn't stifle it, and did try her best to interpret the griping into long-range planning ideas. So it certainly wasn't a loss...far from it. I think some definite themes arose that can guide the plans for the next 25 years:
  • Communication: Riders are annoyed at buses (and subways) that are late. But they're really annoyed that they have no idea how late until the bus finally shows up. Everyone feels there's no excuse to not to track buses and subways and do two things: put a countdown timer at the stops, and map the buses/subways in real-time on a website. After all, several metro systems in Europe and Asia do least for the major routes
  • An "Urban Ring" is desperately needed: Nobody working for or riding on the T denies that the "spoke" system of subways and trolleys is hideously inefficient, and that "rings" that connect all the lines at points outside the downtown area are needed. The problem is that most of those areas are densely inhabited and there are precious few right-of-ways already. Any subway built in a ring is going to have gigantic construction costs and disruptions. Regardless, people DON'T want the "Phase II" Urban Ring that is mostly bus lines; the buses are considered too unreliable (Boston traffic IS pretty bad). People would rather wait longer for the payoff and just skip the bus part, and spend the time and money on subway lines instead.
  • The CharlieCard ain't so bad: Widely derided when it was installed six months ago, people have come around to the CharlieCard. At least the regular commuters have...I still argue that the CharlieCard system is more unfriendly to limited-use riders (tourists, especially) than the old token system, but these meetings are dominated by regular commuters so I hope that the MBTA planners are adjusting for that.
  • Need more buses! People will ALWAYS suggest a subway over a bus, but when that's just not going to happen, there needs to be more buses. I can get behind this...many of the buses run extremely infrequently...scheduled for every 20 or 60 minutes during off peak times, and the exact times vary wildly due to you could end up waiting (literally) hours for a bus on some lines. That's worse than useless.
  • Need more customer service training: The rudeness of T employees was a surprisingly oft-quoted problem. I fear this is one of those things that will never change...not until the management gets more power to just fire employees that suck. Fat chance with the unions we got in this town. Not that I'm anti-union, but the Carmen's Union is outta control.
I had two suggestions myself that I thought were rather useful: the first would be to add a CharlieCard scanner at the rear doors of Green Line trolleys and at buses. That way regular commuters can enter quickly and easily, without having to wait behind cash-paying riders. I don't begrudge cash-paying riders, but the fare collection boxes on buses & trolleys forces you to enter the money VERY slowly. But, you say, who makes sure people who go in the rear door are actually paying? Well, how is it really any different than the "Show-n-Go" system now? And when you get a few cash-paying fares, the driver often waves everyone in because the bus/trolley is suddenly way behind schedule. Anyways, the MBTA managers there seemed to like this one. Probably because it's pretty simple, relatively cheap to implement and is a highly visible service improvement.

The other suggestion is a bit more wide-ranging; I've often felt that a major delay on the Green Line's B, C and E branches is that they have to wait for traffic lights at street intersections. So install a system that lets the trolley override the traffic light and immediately let the trolley through. Yeah, it buggers the car traffic up badly, but hey...more incentive to use public transit! Anyways, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that such a system is in trials right now on the Silver Line buses through the Washington Street corridor. Unfortunately, it breaks down a lot, so results have been inconclusive. To me, this says that something's been done wrong with the system...either poorly made, poorly installed, or poorly maintained...but regardless, it's good to know that this isn't a "sacred cow"; the MBTA is at least trying the idea.

If you have ideas you want to share with the MBTA for them to do over the next 25 years, there's still one public meeting left: Thursday June 21st at 5:30pm at the Newton City Hall. Technically this is for the western "spoke" of transit, but they'll listen to ideas about any area of the MBTA.

Monday, June 18, 2007

It's Alive!!! Robot Chicken does Star Wars

My wife is routinely amused and disturbed by my sense of humor. Robot Chicken is a prime example of this. Rarely does an episode fail to make me bust a gut laughing.

Robot Chicken, for those of you not initiated, is usually a 15-minute long string of short videos shown on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim". The videos are just stop-motion animation, usually of toys and action feature, and the sense of humor driving it is just warped beyond pale. That's saying something considering the fellow shows on Adult Swim!

It's not surprising, though - one of the main guys behind it is Seth Green, who is one sick (yet funny) little puppy. Added bonus, through his work on Family Guy, Green often manages to rope Seth MacFarlane into doing voices on Robot Chicken, and both of them are master voice artists.

Now Robot Chicken has released a special half-hour parody of all things Star Wars, with guest voices from George Lucas, Amhed Best (Jar Jar Binks), Mark Hamill, Conan O'Brien, Malcolm McDowell, Hulk Hogan (!!!) and James Van Der Beek.

If you have even a passing rememberance and/or fondness for the Star Wars movies, I highly recommend checking out this special. It's a pricelessly brilliant skewing of the Star Wars pop culture. This clip, which opens the show, really sets the tone perfectly.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Trusting your employees?

I read this article about "mystery shoppers" in hospitals in the Boston Globe this week. Interesting concept, using "fake patients" to take notes on the sly about how well a hospital/medical waiting room is serving patients.

I don't disagree with this concept. The medical profession is, in many ways, a service profession. So applying the "mystery shopper" concept to "check up on the employees" isn't an inherently bad thing. And if done correctly, I would choose to believe that employees would welcome the feedback; it could lead to needed resources being allocated to a poor-scoring office. And sometimes we just don't realize that something we're doing is being taken in a bad way by others. I know I'm mighty far from perfect so I kinda welcome the occasional dope-slap like this.

But at the same time, it's hard to get away from the feeling that this is management showing a marked lack of trust in their employees' ability to do their jobs. And if management uses this as an excuse to scapegoat the front desk, it could really undermine those workers and make for a lousy work experience.

The article in question did touch on this issue:

Brigham and Women's Hospital, however, will not mystery shop its employees. "Is it a little devious, a little misleading to staff, and how would they react?" said Dr. Michael Gustafson, vice president for clinical excellence.

But for a two-page article that barely scratched the surface...I do wish a little more attention had been paid to it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

God I'm SUCH a Red Sox Fan

We've got a 9.5 game lead in the AL East.

Our interleague record is already 5 - 2 (last year was 16 - 2, IIRC)

And yet all I can think of is "We're only beating these NL teams by a run or two...we're gonna get clobbered in July!"

I swear, members of the Red Sox Nation are physically incapable of not worrying. We're ALWAYS convinced the Olde Towne Team is one step away from total implosion. What's WRONG with us?!?

UPDATE 6/15/07: Apparently, after last night's loss, I'm not the only one starting to worry. Although at least I'm cheered by this funny video of Roger Clemens in 2057. And hopeful that lying slimeball Barry Bonds will get beaned every time he's at bat this weekend in the Fenway.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sportscasting and RBDS

Recently I had a chance to catch a Sox game on their Rhode Island outlet, 103.7 WEEI-FM. Interestingly, I thought the audio quality was "better" on their Boston AM outlets...680 WRKO-AM and 850 WEEI-AM...but the real nice thing is that WEEI-FM uses RDS to show what the score is and what inning it is.

I can't speak for other baseball teams, but the Sox announcers have a pathological aversion to announcing the score and the inning as part of their play-by-play commentary. Pretty much the only time you hear it is at the beginning and end of each inning...which could be a long time to listen depending on how good/bad the pitchers are that day. Drives me absolutely bonkers when I just want a quick update as to what the blankety-blank score is!

I've long suspected this is's a clever way to get people listening to become invested in listening. They sit there, waiting for the score, long enough to interrupt whatever else they were doing...and that means they're more likely to listen during the commercial breaks.

Still drives me bonkers, though. And the RDS provides some nice relief from that.

But I this age of multiple "data streams" hitting us media consumers all at once (just tune to any cable news TV channel and there's a talking head, a powerpoint slide, an animated graphic, and at least one news crawler at the bottom of the screen) I wonder if the style of game announcing will suddenly and radically change as the "old school" sportscasters retire and the newer breed fills their shoes. With a new mandate from corporate, no doubt.

I'd be curious to see if there's an actual strategy for a "new way" to announce sports games being formulated as we speak by program directors at sports stations.

I Respect an Honest Company

Okay, this is just random silliness, but here's a cameraphone image of a charter (presumably) bus I saw on Boylston Street this Saturday. The "destination" screen reads "I'M LOST / DON'T FOLLOW ME"

Ya know, I respect a company that's honest. And hell, the roads in Boston are pretty confusing...

Monday, June 04, 2007

Directed Electronics drives into the car HD Radio market

The "broadcaster's buy" from iBiquity in early 2007 included a new offering to the HD Radio tuner market: the Directed Electronics DMHD-1000 "car connect" radio. It's an "add on" tuner designed to work with your existing car radio. Overall I'd say it's a mixed bag: it has some good things, and it has some not-so-good things.

First a little description of the radio: the actual tuner/converter box is about the size of a small paperback book, meant to be hidden behind the dash or under a seat. A small, wired, display/control unit is barely bigger than the (mostly redundant) remote control that also comes with the unit.

Rounding out the package are a wiring harness for power (with nice, long wires), some extra fuses, the equipment manual and two RF jumper cables with Motorola plugs so you can install the tuner in-line with your existing antenna. The latter is especially nice as it avoids the growing problem of Part 15 transmitters (for iPods and whatnot) causing interference to licensed stations.

The user interface (UI) is pretty good. There's not much "hidden" in the menus; most every function has a button you can find by touch. The radio has five preset buttons but uses a "bank" button to cycle through four rounds of presets, for twenty total. The display is a black LCD characters with an amber backlight. The dimmer & contrast settings are good – you can run the dimmer from very bright (suitable for daylight) to very dim (or even off). Contrast is flexible enough to handle most any viewing angle.

Like any good engineer, I like to see how intuitive the design is by working without reading the manual. I found I didn't need to check it for anything; the installation was pretty intuitive, save for one big exception I'll come back to. After my tests, I browsed through the manual (PDF) and found it to be reasonably well-written. The last page had a ton of interesting (albeit, somewhat cryptic) specifications, such as “1st adjacent rejection” (SNR=60dB at D/U = -25dB) and “post-detection bandwidth” for DBB (Adjustable from 8kHz down to 3.5kHz). See my blog for the full list of specs. Finally, there’s no visual indication of it, but the DMHD does seem to decode C-QUAM AM Stereo based on my listening tests.

Good morning Mr. Phelps
My greatest challenge (if I chose to accept it) with this review is that I live in the city, so I don't own a car. I had to borrow a friend's car, install the DMHD, drive around listening for the day, and uninstall it…leaving no trace. Ten years ago, the wiring on many car radios would've made this impossible…but today it was no sweat.

The test vehicle was a 2006 Ford Escape SUV that, by chance, also had a similar-styled XM satellite radio tuner. A little struggling with a DIN tool popped out the factory radio, the in-line RF modulator installed in less than a minute, and I jury-rigged the three power wires to a cigarette lighter adapter. In less than 30 minutes I was on the road.

Downtown Boston is notorious for multipath, intermediate-frequency and blanketing interference. As expected, the HD Radio signal really shined here; as soon as HD blended in, all the pops, hiss and clicks just disappeared. The XM satradio's RF modulator also co-existed nicely with the DMHD.

I did notice that for HD listening, the radio isn't quite as sensitive as I'd prefer, but it’s not bad. Large FM stations were no trouble, but smaller Class A FM stations have inherently low HD wattages, and they seem more susceptible to being "lost in the noise floor" on this radio. Analog reception was acceptable; there weren't any places where the Escape's OEM radio was getting noticeably better FM reception than the DMHD. AM listening is tougher since we only have three stations transmitting HD in Boston, but the DMHD didn’t seem to have any particular trouble acquiring a digital signal from any of them.

All-in-all, I wouldn't consider it "dynamite" radio for reception…but it's far from "deaf". Your average listener shouldn’t notice a significant difference in reception between the DMHD and most OEM car radios, nor with your average HD Radio car tuner.

Keep your eyes on the road!
DMHD handles HD Radio PSD (Program Service Data) quite well; the display is not large, but the design & layout of the text makes the most of it. The “status bar” along the bottom edge will always contain critical info like call letters and preset bank.

The rest of the display can be cycled through several modes by the DISP button, and exactly what gets shown depends heavily on what the station is transmitting…in either HD or RBDS. It can be call letters, frequency, a slogan, artist/title, etc. If no HD PSD, or more generic PAD (Program Associated Data), is available the radio defaults to some combination of call letters and/or the frequency. Overall, I found most every mode was useful. A nice touch is the HD "program guide" mode which shows the current artist/title for all the multicast channels at the same time.

However, with RBDS I have one big criticism of PAD on this radio. If there is dynamic PS (Program Service name), as many stations have…each time the PS refreshes it resets the RT (Radio Text) field’s scrolling to the beginning. This means much of the RT field may never get displayed.

Wait, isn’t this supposed to sound better?
Another big gripe immediately appeared when I tried to use the RCA line-level outputs: serious distortion! It sounded badly over-driven, although it got somewhat better as the tuning unit got warmer. A second and third DMHD proved to have the same problem. A call to Directed's tech support said I just return it for an exchange, but a colleague at iBiquity told me the solution he stumbled across: you have to ground the tuning unit's chassis (or in some cases, try grounding one of the RCA's shields). This is in addition to the ground wire on the power connector. I suspect many people will never even notice since they'll bolt the tuning unit to something metal behind the dash. But there's no specific mention of this in the manual, and if you don't ground it – the sound is inexplicably awful on the RCA outputs.

It’s hard to get around the problems with the RCA outputs…and the lack of documentation, or viable tech support about it, is disappointing. This is something I can see the average user immediately demanding a refund for their “broken” radio. The strange behavior of PAD from RBDS was also minor, but annoying and highly visible. And the tuning unit gets quite warm, although at least the documentation warns about this.

In addition, with an MSRP of $200 the DMHD1000 unfortunately has come out right at the same time Walmart announced that they’re selling the JVC KD-HDW10 car radio for $190. Of course, the JVC is a replacement radio; if you want to keep your existing car radio, the DMHD might be a good pick.

THUMBS UP:* Small and well-designed control unit
* Decent signal sensitivity
* In-line RF modulator (instead of free-radiating)
* Easy installation

* RCA outputs sound terrible unless grounded & manual doesn't mention it
* RBDS doesn't display properly
* Tuning unit gets quite hot

MSRP: $200
Specifications (from the manual):
Thanks to David Maxson & Lew Collins of Isotrope, LLC for their assistance!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Mall of America

I was in Minneapolis this weekend, and my hotel was almost across the street from the Mall of America.

Words fail me.

Actually, after visiting it, I was somewhat impressed. Yes, it's disgustingly huge...four tall floors of consumerism about a mile from the airport. But if you're going to have that, at least do it right...and I'd say the MOA is "done right".

Mall of America mapIt's basically every "mall store" you can imagine all packed into one giant building. Granted, most of these mall stores are the usual "overpriced crap you don't really need" kind of store, but at least it's got ALL of them under one roof.

Even better, the whole thing wraps around a sizable amusement park...complete with two roller coasters, two water flume rides, trampolines, and a variety of other carnival-esque rides. Plus the Lego store (and several "play stations" for kids to make Lego creations). Everything you need to keep the kids occupied while you get your shopping done.

Me in the Mall of America
Also smart, the area where the MOA is located isn't very residential at all...there's little out there besides the airport, the airport hotels, some office parks, some industrial plants, a giant IKEA store, and the intersection of two major roadways...I-494 and MN Rt. 77.

I didn't buy anything but some funnel cake while I was in there. But at least I can say I was at the Mall of America. :-) That's me with the amusement park area in the background. Pepsi is apparently a major sponsor.

I-35 detourWhile I'm on the subject, I'd like to give a tip of the hat to the Twin Cities for being confident enough in their drivers and their overall roadway infrastructure that they can just shut down the main north-south highway between Minneapolis and the southern suburbs (and the airport) for the weekend. It was a mild pain in my butt, but overall having I-35W closed from 10pm Friday thru Sunday (to tear down an overpass to widen it) was not a big deal. The news covered it, there were ample detour signs...the traffic was a little worse than usual, but nothing hideous.

I remember when the DNC came to Boston in 2004, and they shut down I-93 through the city. What a giant mess that was. Actually it wasn't a mess, but only because they scared the crap of everyone for five months beforehand, and half the city went on vacation far, far away. The fact that Minneapolis pulled this off is a testament to the logical layout of their city, and the overall intelligence of the transportation planners.

The Skyways throughout the city are pretty damn cool, too. Why can't Boston have them?

Brand Management

A nifty blog called "Websnark" had a great discussion of "brand management" recently. Just yesterday I had cause to reflect on this. I was visiting Minneapolis and my rental car happened to have Sirius satellite radio. I was getting my weekly WWDTM fix and during the "commercial" break Sirius ran a promo for the Sirius "Patriot" Channel, which is their conservative talk channel. And this was your typical "We're here to stop liberals from destroying America" promo. Literally, I think the promo guy actually said that once.

Now I'm not going to lie politics skew pretty liberal/progressive. So yeah, I don't like conservative talk - it's typically ultra-right wing. It gets my blood pressure rising quite a bit, but what really got my goat in this case was that I was hearing on the NPR Now channel on Sirius!! This is, by any definition, a massive failure of brand management!

While I, and many others, think the "ultra left wing" label that NPR often gets slapped with is, to put it mildly, rather undeserved. It's far more centrist these days, with perhaps some liberal/leftist leanings. So most of its listeners are probably not going to be conservative talk radio fans, so why the heck was Sirius running "Patriot" promos on the NPR channel?

It's certainly not going to "broaden their listening horizons" best it's going to make them wonder what the heck is going on. At worst they'll shut their radios off. While that might not matter too much to Sirius since subscribers pay whether the radio's on or should matter to NPR. Contract or no contract, it looks bad for NPR to have this exact-opposite programming popping up in the middle of their flagship entertainment program.

To paraphrase Websnark: bad promo manager! No donut!