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The Giant Zero

The world of distance

Fort Lee is the New Jersey town where my father grew up. It’s at the west end of the George Washington Bridge, which he also helped build. At the other end is Manhattan.

Even though Fort Lee and Manhattan are only a mile apart, it has always been a toll call between the two over a landline. Even today. (Here, look it up.) That’s why, when I was growing up not far away, with the Manhattan skyline looming across the Hudson, we almost never called over there. It was “long distance,” and that cost money.

There were no area codes back then, so if you wanted to call long distance, you dialed 0 (“Oh”) for an operator. She (it was always a she) would then call the number you wanted and patch it through, often by plugging a cable between two holes in a “switchboard.”

Distance in the old telephone system was something you heard and paid for.

Toll-free calls could be made only to a few dozen local exchanges listed in the front of your phone book. Calls to distant states were even more expensive, and tended to sound awful. Calls outside the country required an “overseas operator,” were barely audible, and cost more than a brake job.

That’s why, to communicate with our distant friends and relatives, we sent letters. From 1932 to 1958, regular (“first class”) letters required a 3¢ stamp. This booked passage for the letter to anywhere in the country, though speeds varied with distance, since letters traveled most of the way in canvas bags on trains that shuttled between sorting centers. So a letter from New Jersey to North Carolina took three or four days, while one to California took a week or more. If you wanted to make letters travel faster, you bought “air mail” stamps and put them on special envelopes trimmed with diagonal red and blue stripes. Those were twice the price of first class stamps.

An air mail envelope from 1958, when the postage had gone up to 7¢. This one was mailed from a post office, where the sender paid an extra penny for the second green imprint on the left there.

The high cost of distance for telephony and mail made sense. Farther was harder. We knew this in our bodies, in our vehicles, and through our radios and TVs. There were limits to how far or fast we could run, or yell, or throw a ball. Driving any distance took a sum of time. Even if you drove fast, farther took longer. Signals from radio stations faded as you drove out of town, or out of state. Even the biggest stations — the ones on “clear” channels, like WSM from Nashville, KFI from Los Angeles and WBZ from Boston — would travel hundreds of miles by bouncing off the sky at night. But the quality of those signals declined over distance, and all were gone when the sun came up. Good TV required antennas on roofs. The biggest and highest antennas worked best, but it was rare to get good signals from more than a few dozen miles away.

In TV’s antenna age, you needed one of these if rabbit ears wouldn’t do. The long rods were for channels 2–6 (no longer in use), the medium ones were for channels 7–13, and the short ones were for channels 14–83 (of which only 14–50 are still operative). The pigeons were for interference, and often worked quite well.

All our senses of distance are rooted in our experience of space and time in the physical world. So, even though telephony, shipping and broadcasting were modern graces most of our ancestors could hardly imagine, old rules still applied. We knew in our bones that costs ought to vary with the labors and resources required. Calls requiring operators should cost more than ones that didn’t. Heavier packages should cost more to ship. Bigger signals should require bigger transmitters that suck more watts off the grid.

A world without distance

Everything I just talked about — telephony, mail, radio and TV — are in the midst of being undermined by the Internet, subsumed by it, or both. If we want to talk about how, we’ll have nothing but arguments and explanations. So let’s go instead to the main effect: distance goes away.

On the Net you can have a live voice conversation with anybody anywhere, at no cost or close enough. There is no “long distance.”

On the Net you can exchange email with anybody anywhere, instantly. No postage required.

On the Net anybody can broadcast to the whole world. You don’t need to be a “station” to do it. There is no “range” or “coverage.” You don’t need antennas, beyond the unseen circuits in wireless devices.

I’ve been wondering for a long time about how we ought to conceive the non-thing over which this all happens, and so far I have found no improvements on what I got from Craig Burton in an interview published in the August 2000 issue of Linux Journal:

Doc: How do you conceive the Net? What’s its conceptual architecture?

Craig: I see the Net as a world we might see as a bubble. A sphere. It’s growing larger and larger, and yet inside, every point in that sphere is visible to every other one. That’s the architecture of a sphere. Nothing stands between any two points. That’s its virtue: it’s empty in the middle. The distance between any two points is functionally zero, and not just because they can see each other, but because nothing interferes with operation between any two points. There’s a word I like for what’s going on here: terraform. It’s the verb for creating a world. That’s what we’re making here: a new world.

A world with no distance. A Giant Zero.

Of course there are many forms of actual distance at the technical and economic levels: latencies, bandwidth limits, service fees, censors. But our experience is above those levels, where we interact with other people and things. And the main experience there is of absent distance.

We never had that experience before the Internet showed up in its current form, about twenty years ago. By now we have come to depend on absent distance, in countless ways that are becoming more numerous by the minute. The Giant Zero is a genie that is not going back in the old bottle, and also won’t stop granting wishes.

Not all wishes the Giant Zero grants are good ones. Some are very bad. What matters is that we need to make the most of the good ones and the least of the bad. And we can’t do either until we understand this new world, and start making the best of it on its own terms.

The main problem is that we don’t have those terms yet. Worse, our rhetorical toolbox is almost entirely native to the physical world and misleading in the virtual one. Let me explain.

Talking distance

Distance is embedded in everything we talk about, and how we do the talking. For instance, take prepositions: locators in time and space. There are only a few dozen of them in the English language. (Check ‘em out.) Try to get along without over, under, around, through, beside, along, within, on, off, between, inside, outside, up, down, without, toward, into or near. We can’t. Yet here on the Giant Zero, everything is either present or not, here or not-here.

Sure, we are often aware of where sites are in the physical world, or where they appear to be. But where they are, physically, mostly doesn’t matter. In the twenty years I’ve worked for Linux Journal, its Web server has been in Seattle, Amsterdam, somewhere in Costa Rica and various places in Texas. My own home server started at my house in the Bay Area, and then moved to various Rackspace racks in San Antonio, Vienna (Virginia) and Dallas.

While it is possible for governments, or providers of various services, to look at the IP address you appear to be using and either let you in or keep you out, doing so violates the spirit of the Net’s base protocols, which made a point in the first place of not caring to exclude anybody or anything. Whether or not that was what its creators had in mind, the effect was to subordinate the parochial interests (and businesses) of all the networks that agreed to participate in the Internet and pass data between end points.

The result was, and remains, a World of Ends that cannot be fully understood in terms of anything else, even though we can’t help doing that anyway. Like the universe, the Internet has no other examples.

This is a problem, because all our speech is metaphorical by design, meaning we are always speaking and thinking in terms of something else. According to cognitive linguistics, every “something else” is a frame. And all frames are unconscious nearly all the time, meaning we are utterly unaware of using them.

For example, time is not money, but it is like money, so we speak about time in terms of money. That’s why we “save,” “waste,” “spend,” “lose,” “throw away” and “invest” time. Another example is life. When we say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure,” careers are “paths” and choices are “crossroads,” we are thinking and speaking about life in terms of travel. In fact it is nearly impossible to avoid raiding the vocabularies of money and travel when talking about time and life. And doing it all unconsciously.

These unconscious frames are formed by our experience as creatures in the physical world. You know why we say happy is “up” and sad is “down”? Or why we compare knowledge with “light” and ignorance with “dark”? It’s because we are daytime animals that walk upright. If bats could talk, they would say good is dark and bad is light.

Metaphorical frames are not only unconscious, but complicated and often mixed. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that ideas are framed in all the following ways: fashion (“old hat,” “in style,” “in vogue”), money (“wealth,” “two cents worth, “treasure trove”), resources (“mined a vein,” “pool,” “ran out of”), products (“produced,” “turning out,” “generated”), plants (“came to fruition,” “in flower,” “budding”), and people (“gave birth to,” “brainchild,” “died off”).

Yet none of those frames is as essential to ideas as what Michael Reddy calls the conduit metaphor. When we say we need to “get an idea across,” or “that sentence carries little meaning,” we are saying that ideas are objects, expressions are containers, and communications is sending.

So let’s look at the metaphorical frames we use, so far, to make sense of the Internet.

When we call the Internet a “medium” through which “content” can “delivered” via “packets” we “uploaded,” “downloaded” between “producers” and “consumers” through “pipes,” we are using a transport frame.

When we talk about “sites” with “domains” and “locations” that we “architect,” “design,” “build” and “construct” for “visitors” and “traffic” in “world” or a “space: with an “environment,” we are using a real estate frame.

When we talk about “pages” and other “documents” that we “write,” “author,” “edit,” “put up,” “post” and “syndicate,” we are using a publishing frame.

When we talk about “performing” for an “audience” that has an “experience: in a “venue,” we are using a theater frame.

And when we talk about “writing a script for delivering a better experience on a site,” we are using all four frames at the same time.

Yet none can make full sense of the Giant Zero. All of them mislead us into thinking the Giant Zero is other than what it is: a place without distance, and lots of challenges and opportunities that arise from its lack of distance.

Terraforming The Giant Zero

William Gibson famously said “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Since The Giant Zero has only been around for a couple decades so far, we still have a lot of terraforming to do. Most of it, I’d say.

So here is a punch list of terraforming jobs, some of which (I suspect) can’t be done in the physical world we know almost too well.

Cooperation. Getting to know and understand other people over distances was has always been hard. But on The Giant Zero we don’t have distance as an excuse for doing nothing, or for not getting to know and work together with others. How can we use The Giant Zero’s instant proximity to overcome (and take advantage) of our differences, and stop hating The Other, whoever they may be?

Privacy. The Giant Zero doesn’t come with privacy. Nor does the physical world. But distance alone gives some measure of privacy in the physical world. We also invented clothing and shelter as privacy technologies thousands of years ago, and we have well developed manners for respecting personal boundaries. On The Giant Zero we barely have any of that, which shouldn’t be surprising, because we haven’t had much time to develop them yet. In the absence of clothing, shelter and boundaries, it’s ridiculously easy for anyone or anything to spy our browsings and emailings. (See Privacy is an Inside Job for more on that, and what we can do about it.)

Personal agency. The original meaning of agency (derived from the Latin word agere, meaning “to do”), is the power to act with full effect in the world. We lost a lot of that when Industry won the Industrial Revolution. We still lose a little bit every time we click “accept” to one-sided terms the other party can change and we can’t. We also lose power every time we acquiesce to marketers who call us “assets” they “target,” “capture,” “acquire,” “manage,” “control” and “lock in” as if we were slaves or cattle. In The Giant Zero, however, we can come to the market as equals, in full control of our data and able to bring far more intelligence to the market’s table than companies can ever get through data gathered by surveillance and fed into guesswork mills that: a) stupidly assume that we are always buying something and b) still guess wrong at rates that round to 100% of the time. All we need to do is prove that free customers are more valuable than captive ones — to the whole economy. Which we can if we build our own tools for both independence and engagement. (Which we are.)

Politics and governance. Elections in democratic countries have always been about sports: the horse race, the boxing ring, the knockout punch. The Internet changes all that in many ways we already know and more we don’t. But what about governance? What about direct connections between citizens and the systems that serve them? The Giant Zero exists in all local, state, national and global government contexts, waiting to be discovered and used. And how should we start thinking about laws addressing an entirely new world we’ve hardly built and are years away from understanding fully (if we ever will)? In a new world being terraformed constantly, we risk protecting yesterday from last Thursday with laws and regulations that will last for generations — especially when we might find a technical solution next Tuesday to last Thursday‘s problems.

Economics. What does The Giant Zero in our midst mean for money, accounting and everything in Econ 101, 102 and beyond? Today we already have Bitcoin and its distributed ledger, the block chain. Both are only a few years old, and already huge bets are being made on their successes and failures. International monetary systems, credit payment and settlement mechanisms are also challenged by digital systems of many kinds that are zero-based in several different meanings of the expression. How do we create economies that are both native to The Giant Zero and respectful of the physical world it cohabits?

The physical world. We live in an epoch that geologists are starting to call the Anthropocene, because it differs from all that preceded it in one significant way: it is altered countless ways by human activity. At the very least, it is beyond dispute that our species is, from the perspective of the planet itself, a pestilence. We raid it of irreplaceable substances deposited by life forms (e.g. banded iron) and asteroid impacts (gold, silver, uranium and other heavy metals) billions of years ago, and of the irreplaceable combustible remains of plants and animals cooked in the ground for dozens to hundreds of millions of years. We fill the planet’s air and seas with durable and harmful wastes. We wipe out species beyond counting, with impunity. We have littered space with hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbiting crap flying at speeds ten times faster than bullets. The Giant Zero can’t reverse the damage we’ve caused, or reduce our ravenous appetites for more of everything our species selfishly calls a “resource.” But it puts us in the best possible position to understand and deal with the problems we’re causing.

The “Internet of Things” (aka IoT) is a huge topic, even though most of the things being talked about operate in closed and proprietary silos that may not even use the Internet. But what if they actually were all to become native to The Giant Zero? What if every thing — whether or not it has smarts inside — could be on the Net, at zero distance from every other thing, and capable of interacting in fully useful ways for their owners, rather than the way they’re being talked about now: as suction cups on corporate and government tentacles?

Inequality. What better than The Giant Zero’s absent distance to reduce the distance between rich and poor — and to do so in ways not limited to the familiar ones we argue about in the physical world?

The unconnected. How do we migrate the last 1.5 billion of us from Earth to The Giant Zero?

A question

I could go on, but I’d rather put another question to those of you who have made it to the end of this post: Should The Giant Zero be a book? I’m convinced of the need for it and have a pile of material already. Studying all this has also been my focus for a decade as a fellow with the Center for Information Technology and Society at UCSB. But I still have a long way to go.

If pressing on is a good idea, I could use some help thinking it through and pulling materials together. If you’re interested, let me know. No long distance charges apply.


This piece is copied over from this one in Medium, and is my first experiment in publishing first there and second here. Both are expanded and updated from a piece published at publius.cc on May 16, 2008. The drawing of the Internet is by Hugh McLeod. Other images are from Wikimedia Commons.

 

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chevyradio

You won’t find an AM radio in a Tesla Model X. You also won’t find it in other electric cars, such as the BMW i3. One reason is that AM reception is trashed by electrical noise, which computing things constantly cause. Another is that the best AM reception requires a whip antenna outside the car: the longer the better. These days car makers hide antennas in windows and little shark fins on the roof. Another is that car makers have been cheaping out on the chips used in their AM radios for years, and the ones in home radios are even worse.

Demand for AM has been waning for decades anyway. AM doesn’t sound as good as FM or digital streams on laptops and mobile things. (Well, it can sound good with HD Radio, but that’s been a non-starter on both the transmitting and receiving sides for many years.) About the only formats left on AM that get ratings in the U.S. are sports and news, and sports is moving to FM too, even though coverage on FM in some markets, relatively speaking, sucks. (Compare WFAN/660am and 101.9fm, which simulcast.)

AM stations are back in the pack at best in the ratings. In Raleigh-Durham, WPTF/680 ruled the “the book” for decades, and is now the top of the bottom-feeders, with just a 1.0% share. KGO/810, which was #1 for a lifetime in the Bay Area, is now #19 with a 2.0% share. Much of KGO’s talent has been fired, and there’s a Facebook page for disgruntled fans. Not that it matters.

In Europe, AM is being clear-cut like a diseased forest. Norway ended AM broadcasting a while back. Germany killed all AM broadcasting at end of last year, just a few days ago. The American AFN (Armed Forces Network), which I used to love listening to over its 150,000-watt signal on 873Khz from Frankfurt, is also completely gone on AM in Germany. All transmitters are down. The legendary Marnach transmitter of Radio Luxembourg, “planet Earth’s biggest commercial radio station,” also shut down when 2016 arrived. Europe’s other AM band, LW or longwave, is also being abandoned. The advantage of longwave is coverage. Signals on longwave spread over enormous territories, and transmitters can run two million watts strong. But listening has gone steadily down, and longwave is even more vulnerable to electrical noise than MW. And running megawatt transmitters is expensive. So now Germany’s monster signal at 153KHz is gone, and France’s at 162KHz (one of 2 million watt ones) is due to go down later this year. All that’s keeping BBC’s landmark Radio 4 signal going on 198KHz is a collection of giant vacuum tubes that are no longer made. Brazil is moving from AM to FM as well. For an almost daily report on the demise of AM broadcasting around the world, read MediumWave News.

FM isn’t safe either. The UK appears to be slowly phasing out both AM and FM, while phasing in Digital Audio Broadasting. Norway is following suit, and killing off FM. No other countries have announced the same plans, but the demographics of radio listening are shifting from FM to online anyway, just as they shifted from AM to FM in past decades. Streaming stats are only going up and up. So is podcasting. (Here are Pew’s stats from a year ago.)

Sure, there’s still plenty of over-the-air listening. But ask any college kid if he or she listens to over-the-air radio. Most, in my experience anyway, say no, or very little. They might listen in a car, but their primary device for listening — and watching video, which is radio with pictures — is their phone or tablet. So the Internet today is doing to FM what FM has been doing to AM for decades. Only faster.

Oh, and then there’s the real estate issue. AM/MW and LW transmission requires a lot of land. As stations lose value, often the land under their transmitters is worth more. (We saw this last year with WMAL/630 in Washington, which I covered here.) FM and TV transmission requires height, which is why their transmitters crowd the tops of buildings and mountains. The FCC is now auctioning off TV frequencies, since nearly everybody is now watching TV on cable, satellite or computing devices. And at some point it becomes cheaper and easier for radio stations, groups and networks to operate servers than to pay electricity and rent for transmitters.

This doesn’t mean radio goes away. It just goes online, where it will stay. It’ll suck that you can’t get stations where there isn’t cellular or wi-fi coverage, but that matters less than this: there are many fewer limits to broadcasting and listening online, obsoleting the “station” metaphor, along with its need for channels and frequencies. Those are just URLs now.

On the Internet band, anybody can stream or podcast to the whole world. The only content limitations are those set by (or for) rights-holders to music and video content. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s very little music on podcasts (they’re almost all talk), it’s because “clearing rights” for popular — or any — recorded music for podcasting ranges from awful to impossible. Streaming is easier, but no bargain. To get a sense of how complex streaming is, copyright-wise, dig David Oxenford’s Broadcast Law Blog. If all you want to do is talk, however, feel free, because you are. (A rough rule: talk is cheap, music is expensive.)

The key thing is that radio will remain what it has been from the start: the most intimate broadcast medium ever created. And it might become even more intimate than ever, once it’s clear and easy to everyone that anyone can do it. So rock on.

Bonus links:

 

wmal-sites

A few months back I wrote a post with a headline in the form of a question: How will WMAL-AM survive losing its transmitter? Here was my best guess at the time:

To stay on the air, WMAL will need to find replacement acreage, somewhere that allows the signals … to cross as much of the Metro area as possible, meaning it will have to be northwest of town. For that Cumulus will need to either buy land out that way, or co-site with some other station already operating there.

The only two stations with transmitters out there are WTEM (“ESPN 980″) and WSPZ, both sports stations (on 980 and 570 respectively) and owned by Red Zebra Broadcasting (in which the main stakeholders are also those of the Washington Redskins)…

Of those, WSPZ’s site looks like it has more room. It’s in Germantown, about 22 miles from downtown Washington, more than twice the distance from downtown Washington as WMAL’s current site. I suspect the signal patterns could be “tightened” to concentrate energy toward Washington, though, and that might help. But ground conductivity — which matters hugely for AM signals — is poor in Maryland and Virginia, which is one reason AM stations there tend to suck in the ratings.

Now comes word that Cumulus plans to use the WSPZ/570 site. Here are the day and night signal applications to the FCC. The day power will be the same as at the current site: 10000 watts. But the night power will be only 2700 watts, rather than the current 5000 watts. As I expected, the signals both day and night are “tightened” to a headlight beam shining toward the District. The day signal is on the left and the night signal on the right. (Source: fccinfo.com)

wmalday

wmalnight

WSPZ has similar day and night patterns, at 5000 and 1000 watts, using the same four towers.

Here is how Radio-Locator.com sees WSPZ’s day and night patterns. Since the two stations are close in frequency (which greatly affects propagation: lower on the dial is better), expect WMAL’s coverage to be about the same as WSPZ’s.

 

 

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I can’t help but notice — since I follow these things — that the FCC has issued construction permits for three low power FM (LPFM) stations in Santa Barbara:

  • KGSB/92.3, with a 100-watt signal radiating from one of KZER-AM/1250’s two towers east of the airport, and licensed to ST. RAPHAEL SCHOOL, 160 St Joseph Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93111-2367
  • KZAA/96.5, with a 100-watt signal radiating from roughly the corner of Calle Cesar Chavez and Montecito Streets, and licensed to LA CASA DE LA RAZA, 601 E. Montecito St., Santa Barbara, CA 93103
  • KVSB/96.9, with a 100-watt signal radiating from a corner of Salinas and Lou Dillon Lane on the east side of town, and licensed to:SOUTH COAST COMMUNITY MEDIA ACCESS CENTER, 329 South Salinas Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93103

That’s a lot for a town this size. I’ll be interested to see how those go. Also the new FM translators for AM stations in the market:

This completes our test of interest by anybody, even those who live in Santa Barbara, in stuff like this.

Thank you for listening.

 

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ice-floes-off-greenland(Cross posted from this at Facebook)

In Snow on the Water I wrote about the ‘low threshold of death” for what media folks call “content” — which always seemed to me like another word for packing material. But its common parlance now.

For example, a couple days ago I heard a guy on WEEI, my fave sports station in Boston, yell “Coming up! Twenty-five straight minutes of content!”

Still, it’s all gone like snow on the water, melting at the speed of short term memory decay. Unless it’s in a podcast. And then, even if it’s saved, it’ll still get flushed or 404’d in the fullness of time.

So I think about content death a lot.

Back around the turn of the millennium, John Perry Barlow said “I didn’t start hearing the word ‘content’ until the container business felt threatened.” Same here. But the container business now looks more like plumbing than freight forwarding. Everything flows. But to where?

My Facebook timeline, standing in the vertical, looks like a core sample of glacier ice, drilled back to 1947, the year I showed up. Memory, while it lasts, is of old stuff which in the physical world would rot, dry, disintegrate, vanish or lithify from the bottom up.

But here we are on the Web, which was designed as a way to share documents, not to save them. It presumed a directory structure, inherited from Unix (e.g. domain.something/folder/folder/file.html). Amazingly, it’s still there. Whatever longevity “content” enjoys on the Web is largely owed to that structure, I believe.

But in practice most of what we pile onto the top of the Web is packed into silos such as Facebook. What happens to everything we put there if Facebook goes away? Bear in mind that Facebook isn’t even yet a decade old. It may be huge, but it’s no more permanent than a sand dune. Nothing on the Web is.

Everything on the Web, silo’d or not, flows outward from its sources like icebergs from glaciers, melting at rates of their own.

The one exception to that rule is the Internet Archive, which catches as much as it can of all that flow. Huge thanks to Brewster Kahle and friends for giving us that.

Anyway, just wanted to share some thoughts on digital mortality this morning.

As you were. Or weren’t. Or will be. Or not.

Bonus link: Locking the Web open.

bob-kauffmanWhen the Los Angeles Clippers open their first game at home this season, I want them to pause and celebrate their original franchise player: Bob Kauffman, the team’s all-star center for its first three seasons, when they were the Buffalo Braves.

In fact, I think the team should retire Bob’s jersey, #44. For the ceremony the team should also bring out his four daughters, all of whom were also basketball stars: Lara and Joannah at Georgia Tech, Carey at Duke and Kate at Clayton State. Bob died on July 27 at age 69.

Bob was an amazing player to watch, a privilege I enjoyed often as fellow student at Guilford College. Guilford was nowhere before Bob arrived and a powerhouse by the time he left. Same went for the Braves.

At 6-8 and 240, Bob was a big guy, but he played bigger. Here’s what Guilford wrote about him a couple days ago:

Kauffman scored 2,570 points on 64 percent field-goal shooting and collected 1,801 rebounds in his 113-game career, all current school standards. He also holds Guilford marks for career scoring average (22.7 ppg.), single-game rebounds (32), single-season rebounds (698, 1967-68), career rebounding average (15.9), career field goals (943), single-season field goal percentage (.712, 1967-68), single-season free throws (273, 1966-67), career free throws (684) and single-season free-throw attempts (344, 1966-67).

Great stats, but none suggest how tough and intimidating Bob was as a player. I remember watching one Braves game against the Celtics on TV, pleased when the announcer said Bob was the only center in the NBA who knew how to play Boston’s Dave Cowens, straight up. Amazingly, I just found an account of what followed, in 30 Things About Dave Cowens:

…he slugged Guilford’s Bob Kauffman, appropriately nicknamed “Horse,” at the foul line, then patiently waited for Kauffman to swing back. Kauffman hit Cowens so hard Cowens finished the game wearing an eye patch.

And yet he was totally generous: a consummate team player. I remember Bob McAdoo’s first game with the Braves, against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Bob grabbed an offensive board he could have put right back in; but instead he kicked it out to the rookie, so the kid could get off his first pro shot.

Bob’s pro career started as what today we’d call a lottery pick: he was taken third in the 1968 draft by the Seattle Supersonics (now the Oklahoma City Thunder) behind future Hall-of-Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. But the Sonics didn’t know what to do with Bob. Nor did the Chicago Bulls, where he played the next year.

Then Bob got lucky. Thanks to various trades and player shufflings, he landed with the Buffalo Braves, an expansion team, for their inaugural season. The fit was perfect. Here’s Jerry Sullivan in The Buffalo News:

In the Braves’ first season of 1970-71, Kauffman averaged 20.4 points, 10.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He averaged 18.9 points and 10.2 rebounds in ’71-72 and 17.5 points and 11.1 rebounds in ’72-73. He made the Eastern all-stars in all three seasons for Buffalo teams that lost 60 games.

As his daughter Lara put it to Jerry, Bob left his heart in Buffalo:

“The Buffalo fans from all over, people who moved to Atlanta or wherever I go, they all remember my dad,” Lara Kauffman said. “What people remembered about my dad was he played very blue-collar. I think he was sort of a reflection of a lot of people in the Buffalo community the way he played. He wouldn’t back down from anybody. He played against Lew Alcindor at the time. He matched up against Wilt Chamberlain. My dad would go head-to-head with those guys.

“He was undersized. He was 6-8 and played a face-up game. But because he was so physical, oftentimes he would match up against the toughest player. He would go toe-to-toe with them. I think his style of play reflected Buffalo a lot. He was a hard-working player. Every timeout, he ran off the court. He was the first to the bench.

“He tried to set a good example of hard work and play,” his daughter added. “If my dad had a late night the night before with the guys, he was up at 5 a.m. running six miles. He never stopped. He was just a committed athlete. He was also a gentleman. He would sign autographs. He had all the patience in the world with the fans. They were important to him. He never treated people as second-class. He always had time for them.”

And that’s how I remember him as well. Back at Guilford, there wasn’t a bigger man on campus than Bob, yet he was sweet and friendly with everybody.

Bob’s career as a player was sadly short. Hip problems forced him to retire at 28, from the Atlanta Hawks. After that he coached the Detroit Pistons for a year and then returned to the Hawks’ front office before leaving the game for other work. (If memory serves, Bob was the GM for Detroit when they hired Dick Vitale as coach.)

My favorite testimony to Bob’s value as a player was uttered by his coach at Guilford, Jerry Steele. After Guilford’s play-by-play announcer told Jerry that Catawba College guard Dwight Durante (“the best 3-point shooter you never saw“) appeared that week in a Sports Illustrated piece, Jerry replied, in his usual slow drawl, “Well, Dwight Durante may have his picture in Sports Illustrated, but I’ve got Bob Kauffman’s picture in my bedroom.”

The announcer was Carl Scheer, known today as a legendary NBA executive, former GM of the Carolina Cougars, Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers and Charlotte Hornets — and the inventor of the Slam Dunk Contest, among other distinctions. If it weren’t for Bob, Carl might still be a lawyer in Greensboro. Suzanne Dietzel in Greater Charlotte Business:

After a respectable run in undergraduate college basketball and baseball, Scheer graduated from Marquette Law School and began a career in a small law firm in Greensboro. After realizing that his desire to litigate cases would likely be unrealized due to the size of the firm, he visited Guilford College and asked to be slated to broadcast basketball and football games – a passion he had indulged in graduate school.

Scheer had made fast friends with many in the sports community when opportunity knocked. According to Scheer, “Guilford was embarking upon an aggressive, small college basketball campaign, largely driven by star player, Bob Kauffman. I had announced his college career, and once he found himself in demand by two competing leagues, he asked me to represent him for his contract negotiations.”

Scheer elaborates, “In 1968, agents were unheard of. Knowing I was a lawyer, Bob asked me to represent him.” He jokes, “I am sure I left the poor guy quite a bit of money on the table! But, really, the experience introduced me into the world of sports and business; I was hooked.”

Not surprisingly, his work ethic and comfortable personality helped to foster a good rapport with team owners, and he was asked to interview for the position of assistant to the commissioner of the NBA.

Recalls Scheer, “The NBA commissioner at the time, Walter Kennedy, told me after my third interview that he liked me and thought I was a great candidate, but the job was going to ‘the other guy.’ At the time I was content with that. I had had that 15 minutes of glory and was happy to go back to my small North Carolina law firm. But months later he called back and told me the other candidate declined the position, and asked if I would like to be reconsidered. It was a dream come true. I moved to New York and began my indoctrination into the game. There, my sports career started.”

The best lives have the best consequences. I’d like one of Bob’s to be a celebration of his place as the Clippers founding all-star — who also happened to be a four-star dad.

Links:

 

Right now every FM and TV station in Santa Barbara and San Diego can be heard in both places. Between them lays more than 200 miles of ocean across a curved earth. I’m not there right now, but I see what’s happening remotely over my TV set top box. (Thank you, SlingBox.) But, more importantly, John Harder‘s tropo map tells me so:

sb-sd-tropo

Tropo is tropospheric refraction of radio waves across a distance. Atmosphere has refractive properties that don’t matter most of the time. But we can see changes, for example, with mirages ahead of us above a hot road, which causes the air above to refract light at a low angle, essentially reflecting the sky, other cars and landscapes on the horizon. Something like this also happens over land and water.

I see by the map above that tropo is happening in other parts of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. I also see that it’s starting to happen here in north central North Carolina, where I can already pick up stations in South Carolina:

nc-sc-tropo

On 88.1fm, for example, I’m getting WRJA from Sumter, South Carolina, atop WKNC in Raleigh. WRJA is about 160 miles away while WKNC is only 40 miles away. But WRJA is 100,000 watts atop a thousand-foot tower, while WKNC is 25,000 watts on a 260 foot tower. (It’s actually as little as 35% of full power in most directions from the transmitter at NC State. They have a construction permit to change that a bit.) So they’re making a hash of each other here.

Back when I lived in the woods north of Chapel Hill, long before the Internet showed up and made all of this stuff irrelevant for listeners (who can get the same stations on the Net, anywhere), I had a directional Finco FM-5 antenna and a Channel Master Crossfire 3610 antenna (both salvaged from abandoned structures) on a pole next to my 1-story house. I rotated them by hand. If I had the same rig here I could point at either WRJA or WKNC and “null out” the other. I did this on hot summer mornings for fun back then, and eventually logged nearly every FM station from Pennsylvania to Georgia. (It’s a summer thing, and coincidental with heat waves over large areas.)

Here is a whole-country map that shows tropo happening pretty much everywhere:

wholecountry-tropo

I would love to have had this kind of resource back in those days. Now that I do, it’s hardly worth the trouble, since nearly all my radio listening is over the Net.

Anyway, if you’re wondering why your local station is being obliterated by a signal coming from a state or two away, or why you’re suddenly getting far-away stations where none were before, tropo is the most likely reason.

The second most likely one is Sporadic E skip, which brings in stations from distances of 800-1200 miles or so away. In that case the E layer of the ionosphere turns into something like a hot road surface, reflecting distant signals, but only at a certain angle. I’ll cover those in a later post when the phenomenon is actually happening. It’s not right now.

Meanwhile, if any of this intrigues you at all, check out William Hepburn’s amazing Worldwide Tropo Forecast Maps. Great eye and brain candy, because it exposes a real-world view of the world that isn’t what you see with your eyes.

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The radio dial here IMG_8116in “upstate” Manhattan and the Bronx is packed with pirate radio signals. Many are smack next to New York’s licensed landmarks. Here’s what I’m getting right now on our kitchen radio…

  • 88.1 “Romantica New York” Spanish announcers, music in English and Spanish. Right next to WBGO (@wbgo), New York’s jazz station (licensed to Newark).
  • 89.3 Spanish. Right next to WFDU and WNYU (@wnyu), the Fairleigh Dickenson and NYU stations that share time on 89.1.
  • 89.7 Spanish. Talk. Call-ins. Right next to WKCR (@wkcrfm), the Columbia University station on 89.9.
  • 91.3 Spanish, as I recall. It just popped off the air. Right next to WNYE on 91.5.
  • 92.1 Spanish, currently playing traditional Mexican (e.g. Mariachi) music and talking up a Mexican restaurant. Right next to 92.3 WBMP “Amp radio” (@923amp) in New York.
  • 94.3 Spanish talk. Not next to any local station, but two notches removed from 94.7 WNSH “Nash” (@nashfm947ny) in New York (licensed to Newark).
  • 95.3 Spanish music. Right next to 95.5 WPLJ (@955plj) in New York. (Note that in the screen shot above, of my kitchen radio, it lights up the ST (stereo) indicator.)
  • 98.9 Spanish talk and music. Right next to 98.7 WEPN-FM (@espnny98_7), ESPN’s flagship station on 98.7.
  • 99.3 Spanish talk. Right next to 99.5 WBAI in New York.
  • 101.7 Spanish music. Right next to 101.9 WFAN-FM (@wfan660) in New York.
  • 102.5 English talk, with a Caribbean accent. Just heard ads for businesses in The Bronx (nail salon) and New Jersey (dentist), massage therapy (50 fremont ave, East Orange, NJ), a reggae music concert, 708-282-8741. Right next to 102.7 WWFS, “Fresh 102.7” (@fresh1027ny) in New York.
  • 102.9 English talk and music, with a Jamaican accent. I believe this was the same station that earlier today was rebroadcasting a Kingston station, no doubt picked up off the Net. Also right next to WWFS.
  • 105.5 Some kind of Christian pop, I think. It’s not WDHA in Dover, NJ. I just checked that station’s stream online. Totally different.
  • 105.7 Music in English right now. Right next to 105.9 WQXR (@WQXR) in New York.
  • 106.1 English. Reggae dance. Ads: Mizama Apparel Plus, 4735 white plains road. Kings Electronics, 4372 White Plains Road. Jumbo concert in Mt. Vernon… Also right next to WQXR on the dial. All but blows QXR away, in fact. (QXR’s signal radiates from the same master antenna as most other New York stations, on the Empire State Building, but is just 610 watts, while most of the rest are 6000 watts.)
  • 106.9 English music. Caribbean accent. Right next to 106.7 WLTW “Lite FM” (@1067litefm) in New York.

This is a nearly completely different list of pirates than the one I compiled last fall from this same location, in the 10040 area code. (There were pirate signals on 89.3 and 89.7 then, but I’m not sure if these are the same.), None of the pirate signals match anything on this list of all the legitimate licensed signals radiating within 100km (60 miles) of here.

Man, I wish I knew Spanish. If I did, I would dig into as many of these as I could.

All of them, I am sure, are coming from the northern end of Manhattan and the Bronx, though 102.5 has so many ads for New Jersey places that I wonder if it’s actually over there somewhere.

All of them serve some kind of marketplace, I assume. And even though I don’t understand most of what they’re talking about (when they do talk), I’m fascinated by them.

At the same time they are all illegal, and to varying degrees interfere with legitimate licensed stations. If I were any of the legitimate stations listed above, I’d be concerned. Weaker stations (e.g. WKCR, WBGO and WQXR) especially.

There are a few New York pirate radio stories out there (here, here and here, for example); but they’re all thin, stale or old.

This is a real phenomenon with a lot of meat for an enterprising journalist — especially one who speaks Spanish. Any takers?

meerkatLook where Meerkat andperiscopeapp Periscope point. I mean, historically. They vector toward a future where anybody anywhere can send live video out to the glowing rectangles of the world.

If you’ve looked at the output of either, several things become clear about their inevitable evolutionary path:

  1. Mobile phone/data systems will get their gears stripped, in both directions. And it will get worse before it gets better.
  2. Stereo sound recording is coming. Binaural recording too. Next…
  3. 3D. Mobile devices in a generation or two will include two microphones and two cameras pointed toward the subject being broadcast. Next…
  4. VR, or virtual reality.

Since walking around like a dork holding a mobile in front of you shouldn’t be the only way to produce these videos, glasses like these are inevitable:

srlzglasses

(That’s a placeholder design in the public domain, so it has no IP drag, other than whatever submarine patents already exist, and I am sure there are some.)

Now pause to dig Facebook’s 10-year plan to build The Matrix. How long before Facebook buys Meerkat and builds it into Occulus Rift? Or buys Twitter, just to get Periscope and do the same?

Whatever else happens, the rights clearing question gets very personal. Do you want to be recorded by others and broadcast to the world or not? What are the social and device protocols for that? (Some are designed into the glasses above. Hope they help.)

We should start zero-basing some answers today, while the inevitable is in sight but isn’t here yet.

It should help to remember that all copyright laws were created in times when digital life was unimaginable (e.g. Stature of Anne, ASCAP), barely known (Act of 1976), or highly feared (WIPO, CTEA, DMCA).

How would we write new laws for the new video age that has barely started? Or why start with laws at all? (Remember that nearly all regulation protects yesterday from last Thursday — and are often written by know-nothings.)

We’ve only been living the networked life since graphical browsers and ISPs arrived in the mid-90’s. Meanwhile we’ve had thousands of years to develop civilization in the physical world.

Relatively speaking, digital networked life is Eden, which also didn’t come with privacy. That’s why we made clothing and shelter, and eventually put both on hooves and wheels.

How will we create the digital equivalents of the privacy technologies we call clothing, shelter, buttons, zippers, doors, windows, shades, blinds and curtains? Are the first answers technical or policy ones? Or both? (I favor the technical, fwiw. Code is Law and all that.)

Protecting the need for artists to make money is part of the picture. But it’s not the only part. And laws are only one way to protect artists, or anybody.

Manners come first, and we don’t have those yet. Meaning we also lack civilization, which is built on, and with, manners of many kinds. Think about much manners are lacking in the digital world. So far.

None of the big companies that dominate our digital lives have fully thought out how to protect anybody’s privacy. Those that come closest are ones we pay directly, and are therefore accountable to us (to a degree). Apple and Microsoft, for example, are doing more and more to isolate personal data to spaces the individual controls and the company can’t see — and to keep personal data away from the advertising business that sustains Google and Facebook, which both seem to regard personal privacy as a bug in civilization, rather than a feature of it. Note that we also pay those two companies nothing for their services. (We are mere consumers, whose lives are sold to the company’s actual customers, which are advertisers.)

Bottom line: the legal slate is covered in chalk, but the technical one is close to clean. What do we want to write there?

Start here: privacy is personal. We need to be able to signal our intentions about privacy — both as people doing the shooting, and the people being shot. A red light on a phone indicating recording status (as we have on video cameras) is one good step for video producers. On the other side of the camera, we need to signal what’s okay and what’s not. Clothing does that to some degree. So do doors, and shades and shutters on windows. We need the equivalent in our shared networked space. The faster and better we do that, the better we’ll be able to make good TV.

This is about AM radio stations being worth less than the ground they stand on. Case in point: WMAL-AM in Washington, DC. You can see the problem with this Google Map:

wmal-from-space

The heart-shaped patch of green between the legs of I-495 and the I-270 spur is populated by four towers radiating the signal of WMAL, a landmark on Washington’s radio dial (at 630am) since 1925. The station’s 75-acre transmitter site is nearly as big as the nearby Bethesda Country Club golf course and the Westfield Montgomery Mall. It also sits deep in the suburbs, surrounded by trees and highways, most of which appeared long after WMAL erected the towers on cheap open land, far from the bustling Capitol, many decades ago. That land is worth a lot more now.

So it’s no surprise to read news (via The Sentinel) that Cumulus Media, which owns WMAL-AM & FM, has put the land up for sale. Says the report, “Local real estate experts estimate the property could be worth hundreds of millions.” I don’t know what WMAL-AM is worth, but I’m guessing it would be a few million, tops. So it makes financial sense to sell off the land. 

But what about the signal? Many AM stations have already “gone dark” (as they say in the business). Will WMAL do the same? In the first comment below, Jon Elbaz, who wrote the Sentinel piece, says Cumulus intends to keep WMAL-AM on the air somehow. But a question is raised: how long can any AM station on desirable land stay on the air? And by what means?

Back in radio’s golden age — when AM ruled the waves — the stations battling for the top of Washington, DC’s ratings heap were WTOP and WMAL. WTOP peaked when it went all-news in the 1960s, and has stayed at the top ever since. It did that by doing great work, and by wisely moving to FM a few years back, taking over the channel (103.5) long occupied by classical WGMS-FM, whose owners by then had unloaded its original 570am signal, which is still on the air as WSPZ. (More about that below.) WMAL also has an FM signal, on 105.9. That one is #9 in Nielsen’s latest figures, while WTOP is #1. WMAL-AM doesn’t show at all.

So I have to wonder about Cumulus commitment to keeping the signal on the air. Finding a new transmitter site is not a cheap undertaking. To explain, I’ll need to get technical.

To transmit, AM radio stations require a substantial sum of real estate. AM waves are hundreds of feet long, and require long radiating antennas. These take the form of towers. If a station has a directional signal, more than one tower is required to create the signal’s pattern. WMAL has two different asymmetrical patterns for use in the day and night. Here is how the four towers are arranged, and the patterns they produce:

towerimage

Each tower is a quarter wavelength high, which at 630am makes them about 400 feet tall. Surrounding them is also a “ground system” of buried conductors running hundreds of feet in all directions from the towers. This is why WMAL needs those 75 acres. To stay on the air, WMAL will need to find replacement acreage, somewhere that allows the signals you see above (or slightly modified versions of them) to cross as much of the Metro area as possible, meaning it will have to be northwest of town. For that Cumulus will need to either buy land out that way, or co-site with some other station already operating there.

The only two stations with transmitters out there are WTEM (“ESPN 980”) and WSPZ, both sports stations (on 980 and 570 respectively) and owned by Red Zebra Broadcasting (in which the main stakeholders are also those of the Washington Redskins). (Here are aerial views, via Bing, of the WTEM and WSPZ sites.)

Of those, WSPZ’s site looks like it has more room. It’s in Germantown, about 22 miles from downtown Washington, more than twice the distance from downtown Washington as WMAL’s current site. I suspect the signal patterns could be “tightened” to concentrate energy toward Washington, though, and that might help. But ground conductivity — which matters hugely for AM signals — is poor in Maryland and Virginia, which is one reason AM stations there tend to suck in the ratings. (For evidence of how much ground conductivity matters, compare three AM stations, all 5,000 watts, and all on 570am: WSPZ in Washington, WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota and KLIF in Dallas. The latter two cover enormous territories, while WSPZ basically covers the District and bits of adjacent Maryland and Virginia. Ground conductivity in the middle of the country is about 15x better than the area served by WSPZ.)

In fact WSPZ is way out of town today because its owners a few years back did exactly what Cumulus is doing with WMAL today: they sold the land out from under the towers. This topo map shows where the WSPZ towers used to be, when it was still WGMS: a site in Potomac, across the Beltway about three miles from WMAL’s site. Believe me, the old signal from the old site covered the metro a helluva lot better than the new signal from the new site. Expect the same results if WMAL moves there.

So again, why keep WMAL-AM on the air at all?

One argument is that the WMAL-FM signal isn’t a great one. While it’s licensed for 28000 watts, it only hits that max to the northwest and southwest of its transmitter in Merrifield, outside the Beltway on the southwest side of town. Toward the district (northeast of the site) its signal has a huge dent, down to around 1/4 of what it puts out in the other directions:

wmalfm

So getting a bit of help on the AM side might still be worth the trouble.

Still, one wonders… How much time will pass before the land under WSPZ becomes far more valuable than the station — or even WSPZ and WMAL put together?

This kind of question sits in front of many AM station owners’ minds right now. I expect what we’ll have in the long run are AM stations standing on land with little or no market value. The rest will disappear along with their real estate.

[Later…] I also wonder about Cumulus’ commitment to saving the signal. In 2011 it acquired (by merger) KAAY/1090am in Little Rock, Arkansas — a 50,000 watt giant with rich history and a night signal that stretches from Cuba to Canada. Or used to. Wikipedia:

Unfortunately, owners of KAAY in later years allowed the stations famed transmission facilities in Wrightsville, AR to fall into disrepair. Copper thieves stole a large amount of transmission line, degrading the stations signal significantly. Roof damage allowed water to enter the 50,000 watt transmitter – knocking it off the air. Currently, KAAY has reestablished 50000 watt service during the day, but has yet to rebuild the 3 tower directional array, so nighttime service remains under an STA at 1250 watts non directional.

KAAY is the biggest AM station in Arkansas. If Cumulus cared, it would restore the station to full capacity. But the format is “brokered/Christian,” which is tends to be low-cost dial-filler. Only one AM station makes the published ratings for Little Rock, and it’s Cumulus’ KARN/920 “The Sports Animal.” Not KAAY. KARN is also at the bottom of the heap. Higher rated are four other Cumulus stations, all FMs.

So the Company isn’t suffering there. Its portfolio of stations does fine, and that’s what matters, right? If the market won’t miss WMAL-AM, why bother keeping it?

[Later again…] This story features an offer sheet on the property, and says offers need to be in by March 12. I also found this older story, about Cumulus’ plan to sell the land under KABC’s transmitter. I can find no evidence that the land has been sold, or is still on the market. KABC also has no construction permits to move to a new location.

[Later again…] Well, apparently they do think it’s worth the bother. Jonathan O’Connell reported this in a February 13 story in The Washington Post:

When the towers are torn down, it will not affect WMAL, said Cumulus spokesman Collin Jones. Jones said the company would lease transmission facilities elsewhere after the sale closed.

“Listeners will literally have no idea that it happened,” Jones said.

Well, some listeners. Others will. There is no way WMAL can move to another site without compromising the signal in some directions.

[May 5…] A buyer for the land has been found, stories in Bethesda Magazine and Radio World report. In a search on FCCInfo.com, however, I see no applications or construction permits at a new site, but perhaps Cumulus is still in negotiations for leasing space at other locations.

 

 

 

 

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