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New England is full of ruins. Woods everywhere are veined with stone walls, relics of an agrarian age that ended when the industrial one began. Shipping canals, which were thick with horse-drawn cargo when the Thoreau brothers rowed past them up the Concord & Merrimack Rivers, were abandoned once railroads did the same job better. Mills along canals and rivers have long since been torn down or turned into museums, stores or condos. Bypassed by cars and trucks on highways, old railroad beds have lost their easements or turned into bike trails.

So now what happens to radio and TV — two more old industries with landmarks on landscapes? I visited the subject to some degree over in Linux Journal yesterday, with What if they gave a DTV transition and nobody came? Here I want to go farther, and look at an industry we know is going to die — and to start doing it well before the end arrives.

AM radio, which operates on such low frequencies that signals are radiated by entire broadcast towers, are built as single or multi-tower “arrays” sitting on buried conductors: “ground systems” that can take up more space in soil than their towers occupy in the air above. Most of these facilities were built between the 20s and 80s. Since then scarce land and environmental restrictions have slowed their spread. I would add that available frequencies are also scarce, but that hasn’t stopped the FCC from easing rules, over and over, turning the band at night (when signals bounce off the sky to reach hundreds of miles from their transmitters) into wall-to-wall hash.

FM radio has only been around in a serious way since the 1950s. Operating on a VHF band, where the antennas themselves don’t need to be large (as they do on AM), FM does best when radiated from altitude, meaning the tops of mountains, buildings and high towers. Some of the latter grow to the legal limit of 2000 feet.

With its VHF and UHF signals, television also requires transmission from altitude. When you see a very high tower standing on landscape, or a bristle of short towers atop mountains and skyscrapers, you’re looking at sources of TV, FM or both. A huge percentage of the world’s tallest masts (a category that includes buildings and towers) stand in the U.S., and many are the full 2000-foot height. Most were built for TV stations. (Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of these. Also of tower collapses — a remarkably long list.)

The first set of these to go the way of ship canals is low-band VHF TV. That is, channels 2-6. After June 12, no antenna broadcasting on those channels in the U.S. will continue to operate. Most high-band VHF TV channels — ones operating on channels 7-13 — will also be abandoned, though a few will continue to transmit digital signals. All stations that formerly occupied channels 2-6 will move to a UHF channel (14 to 50).

Old analog TV transmitters are mostly worthless and can’t be re-purposed. (Here’s an excellent piece on that subject, from The Current.)

What I’m wondering about are the towers. The Current’s story suggests that they’re too expensive to take down (not worth enough in scrap), and that most will be re-purposed in any case.

I don’t think so.

It might be easy enough to re-purpose a few former Channel 2 or Channel 4 towers. But what happens when AM and FM transmission is obsoleted by webcasting? This hasn’t happened yet. There are many architectural and UI challenges, plus the added legal burden of copyright restrictions, which are much tougher on music broadcast on the Web than on the air (at least in the U.S.) But the end will come. The brightest writing on the wall right now is the Public Radio Tuner, a project of CPB and several public radio organizations. Last I heard (disclosure: I’m involved in the project), downloads of the free tuner for iPhone were past 1.6 million. This and other tuners, on the iPhone and other portable devices, will account for more and more listening, especially as more cell phone data plans take the ceilings off data consumption — as AT&T has already done for the iPhone.

Some have suggested that TV and FM towers can be re-purposed for cellular use, and to some degree that’s true. But cellular coverage requires many sites at low elevations, rather than a few at high elevations. As one Cisco guy told me, “they might be able to lease out the bottom 200 feet” of a tower.

Still, ends always come, and The End is in sight for over-the-air radio as well as TV. Then what?

Bonus linkage: Scott Fybush‘s amazing series of visits to broadcast towers, over many years; and a few of my own photos of transmitting sites, many shot from altitude. Also the blog and tweets of George Clark, both of which led to this digression.

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Got these shots of St. Louis and the convergence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers while flying to Austin by way of Chicago two Fridays ago. You can see the Gateway Arch, right of center, Busch Stadium, the Edward Jones Dome, the City Museum, and lots of barge traffic on the river.

I actually didn’t see much of St. Louis. My window seat didn’t have well-placed windows, and I couldn’t see downward in any case. But my little Canon Powershot 850 could look for me. So I held it against one of the windows, angled it downward, and shot away, checking from time to time on the back of the camera to see if my shots were accurate. Didn’t do too poorly, considering.

What I want is a small camera like this one that can shoot RAW without taking forever to do it. (As was the case with my old and much missed Nikon Coolpix 5700, which also featured a flip-out viewer, making shots like this much easier.) The PS 850 has no RAW mode, and its processing is rather thick with artifacts. Still, fun to use.

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Form the inside of a de-iced plane, it looks like they poured clear syrup all over it. Or so I was reminded when waiting to take off from O’Hare on Saturday night after a snowstorm. What I found, when I tried to shoot pictures through this rippled ooze, was some fun photographic effects. The shot above is one example among many.

Lights outside were optically exploded into large spongy-looking blobs that resembled models of the universe, cooled meteorites, series of vertebrae, asteroids from old video games…

Anyway, I shot a lot of them.

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The Bank of America and Sun Trust buildings, both called \

Last week I got some nice aerial photos of Atlanta and its surroundings, shooting from a restaurant rather than a plane. Most of the ones in the set above were taken from the revolving Sun Dial restaurant atop the 73-story Westin Peachtree hotel where I stayed. Some were taken from my room on the 54th floor. Above are the Bank of America and Sun Trust buildings, both called “Plazas” — as is the Westin Peachtree, atop which I took this shot.

Here are some shots of a storm as well, shot from a suite on the 67th floor. One sample:

On the left is 191 Peachtree. On the right is the Georgia Pacific building. While there I marveled at the storm coverage on TV. I might put up some of that later.

There was a tornado warning in the midst of all that. This mattered to our hotel, because one last March hit the hotel directly and took out many windows — though no occupants.

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It’s not like this in Atlanta, but it was like this in Boston a few days ago. So, another photo set of ice on storm windows.

And another.

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Chilling out

When it got down near zero (Fahrenheit) a few days ago, the ice formations on the windows were too delicate and interesting to resist shooting. Click on the shot above for a look through the whole series.

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I’ve been shooting stars and planets the last few nights (see here and here), as the Moon passes by Mercury, Jupiter and Venus. It’s the kind of thing obsessives do, when they combine devotions to astronomy and photography. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to identify a few of the stars in the neighborhood Venus was visiting, when I found a star where none should be.

Take a look at the two photos above. The original one on the right is here. On that one I note names and other data for all the main stars in the shot other than the bright blue one near the middle. It’s not on any start chart I’ve consulted. Sooo… what is it?

My fantasy was a nova of some kind. But I doubt that’s it. Judging from the color alone, I’d say it’s a lens flare. Meanwhile it was fun doing detective work with The Kid.

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So I’m here in the Bolt Bus from Boston to New York. There’s wi-fi on board, and power outlets in the backs of most seats. But the wi-fi is slow, so I’m on a Sprint EvDO card. Getting about 1Mb down and .6Mb up. Not bad.

Anyway, I’ve recently uploaded a pile of photo sets to Flickr, where my inventory of photos is now approaching 26,000. Here is a list of just a few sets, mostly shot from airplanes and other moving vehicles:

Wow. It’s snowing now. Hard. We’re still in Connecticut, approaching the Westchester border. The map is quite colorful:

Hm. Not taking. Guess I need a separate post for it.

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Got some nice shots of San Francisco and Marin on Sunday, as we flew off to Chicago on the first leg of the trip home from Thanksgiving in California. Actually, my kid shot most of them, since he had the window seat. Shot some other stuff too, which I’ll put up later.

Mount Tamalpias (better known as Mt. Tam) looms in the background, and Mt. Beacon in front of it.

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Well, the Tea Fire has been upstaged by the Sylmar Fire. (Both links are to LA Times stories. Do LA Times stories still drift behind a paywall after a week? Not sure. If so, I’ll change them to more permanent pages later.) Here’s the latest I’ve heard from KCLU radio…

  • The official toll of burned structures is now 111, although the real number is likely higher than 150.
  • There are still small ground fires to put out along the north side of Mission Ridge Road, and that’s what’s keeping the evacuation roadblocks up.
  • The fire is officially 40% contained.
  • Officials are hoping to lift evacuation notices by the end of the day.

Noozhawk says the number may be as high as 200. Here’s more.

I’m heads-down, finishing a major writing assignment, and won’t be revisiting fire matters until later today. Meanwhile it’s clear that the Tea Fire is in the mopping-up stage, as the life-rebuilding stage has barely begun for hundreds of people here.

A friend just called and said that the barricades are still up, but the cops there also said they expected some areas to be opened within an hour. If you’re in an evacuated area, check with SB County Fire or Montecito Fire.

Other links: on Tea Fire, Edhat news, Noozhawk news, SB Independent news, City 2.0 bulletin boardHere are some pictures of the Westmont campus. Amazed it wasn’t much worse.

More later. (Including the pictures I just put up.)

[Later…] Back home. Other parts of town are still barricaded, but ours isn’t. I’m at my desk now, getting to work.

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