Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Rare Moment Of Misty-Eyed Reflection

The day after the election, I was outside in the unusually mild weather, playing with my kids on the school's jungle gym. My youngest, having tried his hardest to traverse a particularly difficult part of the course with particularly short legs, said to me, "Help me! I can't do it!" I've read all the books and watched "Supernanny" marathons, so I used my child psychologist-approved, well-practiced, correct parental response and told him, "Yes you can, you can do anything if you try."

Almost immediately, it hit me. He really can. Who he is, where he comes from, who his parents are... none of that matters if he wants to achieve something and is willing to work hard to get there. If a mixed-race guy with a non WASP-y name, who grew up in a low-income, single parent house, can not only put himself through what is generally assumed to be one of the finer (and pricier) universities in the country and, eventually, become president, there's now no reason for any kid, or their parents, to assume that some goals are unattainable because of difficult circumstances or because of what they are. Now, not even the kids of so-called minorities living below the poverty line can say "I can't do it", because there's a guy whose history proves them wrong. The guy who is, tonight, in control of what is arguably the most powerful office in the world, came from nothing, had nothing, worked hard and made history. What happened today immediately nullifies millions of "I can't" arguments in one fell swoop.

I wouldn't be the first person to point out that not so long ago, Obama could have been another man's property. Nor would I be the first to point out that there are some states in this country whose laws would have deemed his parents' mixed-race marriage as illegal, but despite those statements frequency in articles and profiles since Obama's win, it's hard not to be humbled by the fact that they're genuinely true. Really, really think about what an astonishing moment in this country's history we all witnessed today, and how totally out of the realms of possibility it seemed. NBC's Keith Olbermann made an astute point on election night; politically, Obama's election was "man on the moon". A feat that not so long ago seemed so ridiculously out of reach, so astonishingly unattainable, so unthinkable... has actually happened. Hell, even as recently as two years ago if someone were to tell me that not only would an African-American take the oath of office within my lifetime, but that someone with the name "Hussein" would be doing anything other than cleaning out coffee cups in the White House, I would have laughed right in their stupid face.

So, as I bask in a rare moment of misty-eyed reflection and try to wrap my head around this historic turning of a page, my hope for the next four years is that what I felt on that November afternoon never leaves me, that Obama's actions as president won't cause cynicism to erode that feeling of "yes we can" when my kids think there's something they can't do.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Travelogue: Watching The Back Of The Bus As It Drives Away.

Part three of my adventures in travel, in which the grass appears to be greener.

There was a time, before I had other monetary commitments and didn't live in the wilderness, that I was hip to the jive when it came to gadgetry. I was really with it, man! Yeah! I was a real swingin' cat when it came to the newest developments in technology. These days, however, it's quite different. I feel, in many ways, that whilst poverty and location drag me away from what's new and exciting in the world of tech toys, there's also an incredibly unprogressive attitude that works against improving the way things work here in America. Britain's not a big country, so one could argue that it's easier for new technology to be introduced and adopted and accepted, but America used to be the innovators. If something needed to be done, America would find a way. The world used to look to America for inspiration, and to see what the next big thing would be, but from the mid-90s on, it's getting more and more behind in technology. Cellphones, for example. I was sending text messages on my affordable mobile phone in 1996. BSB's receivers had on-screen now/next/time/channel information (not to mention all manner of interactive - and FREE - features) as early as 1989. My SkyDigital box that I got in 1997 did more and worked better than my Dish Network box does in 2009. Even the old BSB 'squarial' satellite dishes seem futuristic and progressive, eighteen years after they were rendered useless.

Digital Terrestrial Television
My mum asked me to hook up their spare TV in the room the kids were sleeping in. Presumably so Dad could get their big-ass telly back on to The Hitlery Channel and off of Boomerang. So I grab the TV and get it set up. "Woo", thinks I, "it's got a Freeview tuner built into it!" So I plug in the ol' stalwart antenna that's been in the loft for almost three decades to the fancy new TV (a very nice little plasma screen, see "freebies" below) and boom. Within two minutes of automatic tuning, FORTY TWO TV channels popped up, along with TWENTY SIX radio channels and two text-based interactive channels. Now, admittedly, it took two badly-run companies to go bankrupt (On Digital, launched in 1998, and ITV Digital, from 2001 to 2002) and for a consortium of companies who "get it"; including the BBC and Rupert Murdoch's B-Sky-B, to step in as co-funders for the digital terrestrial system to be a viable competitor to satellite, but the fact is that terrestrial TV is, finally, a viable competitor. The average consumer, assuming they're not happy with the analogue five (due to be switched off in 2010), can drop not much for a Freeview box and instantly get themselves a cornucopia of choice with no monthlies, or a satellite dish and pay for even more choice (plus free, silent, softcore porn at night).

Traditional terrestrial signals are due to be turned off here in the US next month, but what do you get for switching to digital, stateside? If you're lucky, you get your local network affiliate stations plus - maybe - a sub channel. A channel that will probably shows cheap-as-free reruns (coughcoughAndyGriffithcoughcough) and a pre-recorded local news update outwith the usual local news times. Woo. Although, if you don't live in a decent-sized market, chances are you'll only get your traditional local network affiliates, which equates to roughly five channels. The propaganda will claim that these digital terrestrial signals are far better than their analogue broadcasts, and that there's a huge improvement in picture quality, which may or may not be true, but one fact stands out; If, like me, your locals aren't that great to begin with and the product is flawed at the source, you're still getting pish. Digital pish, but pish nonetheless. What does it cost you to get your locals in digitalpish-o-vision? Well, the FCC will issue you with a discount card to the tune of $40 (two per household), so you can go out and buy a $50 digital converter box for $10. This is all assuming that the antenna you're using is good enough to get the signals in the first place. I got nothing at our house with rabbit ears connected to one of these boxes, so if I wanted to receive these whizz-bang new digital channels, I'd have to spring for a new antenna and whatever the cost of installing it would be. And all for five channels that used to cost nothing. So, at a conservative estimate, let's say $120 for a new antenna, installation and a digital box, and you get what used to cost you bugger all. Or, at least, the price of a set of Radio Shack rabbit ears. A Freeview box - assuming your newish TV doesn't already have a digital tuner built in - would spring you less than a hundred US dollars, and look at what you'd get.

DAB Digital Radio
Come the dawn of digital radio, America and Europe went their separate ways, just as they did in the early years of television, and plumped for two totally incompatible broadcast formats. America went for HD (Hybrid Digital radio, not High Definition radio, as some erroneously assume) whilst Europe went for DAB, Digital Audio Broadcasting. There are debates over what constitutes a listenable bitrate on DAB (and pedantic audiophiles will forever moan that it's not high enough, regardless of what it's set at) but the fact of the matter is this: You go out and buy yourself a DAB radio - some of them the size of an ipod and the price of a new DVD - and you're instantly plugged in to at least fourteen BBC stations and (taking my local area as an example) nineteen commercial stations, some national, some local.

The way the two technologies differ is relatively easy to explain; where HD radio is down to the individual broadcaster, DAB is divided into local 'multiplexes' that carry your local stations (who have invested in the technology to broadcast, like HD) but also several national services. These multiplexes are owned an operated by companies who charge "rent" to stations that want carriage, but will offer a multitude of choice for the DAB consumer. Wherever you are inside that area, you're guaranteed to receive all the stations offered. HD, like digital tv, will give you the local station who has turfed out the bucks for the equipment in order to hear the station, but nothing else. Not unless that particular broadcaster has churned out more cash to operate a point-five service, usually something bland and automated, because hardly anyone has the equipment to listen, so it's not worth the broadcasters' while pouring resources into it. Simply put, if no broadcaster in your area has spring the vast bucks for the HD technology (and who could blame the smaller ones), you're S.O.L for HD.

If the FCC had negotiated with a forward-thinking company that had the guts, resources and money to launch a similar infrastructure and offered a few national stations, even if they were piggybacked NY/LA stations at first, and gave people CHOICE rather than sound quality (which Joe Schmoe couldn't give a toss about, frankly) it could be huge by now. It might have worked if they had copied the DAB idea and had individual local companies operating multiplexes that offered all the locals plus a few nationals.

Do you know what my friends both got for committing to eighteen months of mobile service in Scotland? A free phone and an X-Box 360. Each. Do you know what my Mum got for free when she got some cupboards put up in her spare bedroom? A 20-inch plasma TV.

....Do you know what I got for committing two years of my life to a cellphone carrier? A free Motorola "Krazer", easily one of the most sluggish, buggy and frill-free phones known to man. Hmph.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Travelogue: Viva Les Internets! (or, Further Adventures In Customer Service)

Another in my series of stories from my recent trip home. This time, more blah blah blah about some shite or other.

I've been a Skype user since before it was taken over by The Man, and loved every minute of it. Since the end of the last century, when I emigrated, I've been looking for a cheap-as-free way to communicate with the rest of my family who are three and a half thousand miles away, other than by the emotionless IM, the expensive telephone or the outdated snail mail.

My older sister and I tried, and had moderate success with, Yahoo Messenger's push-to-talk voice system which was a system much like that old friend, the Citizen's Band radio; you pressed a button when it was your go to talk, and the sound quality was rubbish. No 'beepitty-beep' at the end of the message, though, and no pre-teens taking up an entire channel playing dance music. Oh, and no truckers threatening to track you down and kill you, either. And in a way, it was a lesser communications format for that very reason. That was in ye olde dayes of flow dial-uppe modem, and it sufficed. In fact, it did admirably well, when you think about how pokey 28.8 was for ANYTHING. How the hell did we survive with those horrid, slow, screechy modems?

Then came Microsoft's OS-embedded NetMeeting, which - when it worked - incorporated all sorts of cool toys like webcam support, shared desktop and whiteboard facilities, for all of our transatlantic conversational, V-flicking and cartoon arse-drawing needs. Problem was, it rarely worked. If you could get connected to the other person, and most of the time you couldn't, the audio would be stuttery, the video practically non-existent or freezy. And besides, everyone knows that it's too difficult to draw a decent cartoon arsehole with a mouse. But that, too, sufficed. For a while.

After NetMeeting came Google Talk, the first voip application (or 'voipplication') that featured incredibly good sound quality. The other applications sounded like CB, or like you were talking into a toilet and being broadcast on medium wave. gTalk's audio quality was supreme, like you were beside the other person. No webcam and no arses, but one was willing to go without because the sound quality was so incredibly great. gTalk had one extremely irritating problem, though, and that was that it absolutely wouldn't stay connected. Halfway through a sentence, the connection would be lost for a second or so, then reconnect. This would happen at least once per minute. There was even a wee meter that looked like a signal strength indicator on a cellphone that would drop from three to nothing, as if you just went under a bridge. Initially, an irritant. In the long term, unusably annoying. Especially since one had to restart a sentence, after fifteen seconds of "can you hear me? are you there? what just happened?" and then a further ten of "ok, where did you lose me?", at which point it was time for it to drop again.

Not long after the gTalk debacle, along came Skype, from the makers of Kazzaa. Skype, at that point, was still owned and operated by those rogue kings of p2p (which, let's be brutally frank, made it all the sexier) and had no frills. No webcam, no file transfer... just an easy on the eye, sky-blue "S" logo and the promise of stability. And boy, was it stable. Fast forward several years and multiple hyperbolic praising, and my entire family are hooked up with Skype, where we can all talk to each other for free.

Now, one of the very cool features of Skype is the ability to make phone calls to or from the UK for around $0.02 per minute, and the option to purchase a local number that will ring in Skype. So, for example, my parents in Glasgow have a 1-304 WV number that I can call them on from any phone, and I have a Glasgow 0141 number that they can call. All very cool, right? My parents' old 1-304 number had expired so, with me being at home, I decided to renew it for them. The time had passed where we could renew their existing number, so I got on the Skype website to buy a new one.

Maybe it was jetlag. Maybe it was the excitement of being home. Maybe I was drunk, whatever it was, I bought them a local 0141 number, rather than the 1-304 they needed. Duurr. The number only cost twelve quid, but twelve quid is twelve quid, so I contacted Skype to explain the problem and see if we could get the number swapped.

I must confess; I didn't hold out much hope. Four years ago, Skype was purchased by Ebay for an obscene amount of money, and there are stories a-plenty of how terrible Ebay's customer service is - particularly when it comes to something going wrong. Exponentially so when the situation demands a refund of some sort. But my experience with Skype customer service was completely the opposite. They responded with a personalised reply within 2 days, and the whole shebang has been sorted within two weeks. Refunds, the lot. AND they were pleasant.

And so, in conclusion, Skype kicks ass.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Travelogue: You Can't Go Home...

As I sit back and reflect on this past christmas' bi-annual trip home, I'll be posting sporadically about the trip, as the mood takes me. This is part one, in which I talk about some rubbish or other. Or something.

Whilst a trip back "home" is primarily about family, I do get rather A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu-ey when I'm there. It is, after all, where I spent my formative years, and it's hard to be away from a place where one's roots grew and come back expecting to eschew nostalgia, so, on ne'erday, I strolled up to where my old high school used to be. Used to be. That old saying quips that one can 'never go home', and I'm finding that it's absolutely true. I left the sprawling metropolis of East Kilbride a decade ago (I say "sprawling metropolis" somewhat sneeringly thanks to that very Scottish trait of the national inferiority complex, but the town really sort of is metropolistic when you compare it to WV's 'cities' with just fifty thousand people) and on subsequent trips back, I've been able to sort of recharge my batteries by visiting facets of my former home town. Not that I miss it particularly, I don't get attached to places, but in visiting things that I remember from my childhood, it means that a part of doesn't have to grow up, that - even for a brief second - I can pretend that I'm thirteen again and have the world at my feet, rather than some beardy schlub who is well into his third decade and has achieved absolutely nothing of substance or importance.

But every time I go home, little things change. Things evolve. I shouldn't fight against it, evolution is a good thing, but difficult to swallow when you go away for two years and the things you think will never change, do.

So, I walked up to where my high school used to be. A towering village of buildings reduced to - literally - a pile of rubble, and it gave me pause to think... Wow, that's finally it. There's hardly anything left. My primary school got knocked down and replacedaround four years ago, the house I grew up in has been improved and remodeled to the point where I'm hard pressed to point to anything there that hasn't been changed, painted or replaced since I left, the shops in the shopping mall I frequented have all changed, and now, my high school.... Gone. Places I could go to to fill up on being a carefree teenager, gone. Landmarks of times gone by, gone. My childhood, gone. The fact is this - it's not my town anymore. It moved on without me. It's different. It changed. It grew. It's not necessarily an "ay, oh, way to go, Ohio" situation, most of the changes are vast improvements to the aesthetics and infrastructure of the old new town, what offends me the most is that it changed without consulting me.

I shouldn't be upset about that. After all, I abandoned it a decade ago. It's only fair that it should retaliate. Good job that my family hasn't altered in the least, or I'd really be perturbed. Long live those massive Irn Bru-flavoured belches and floor rattling farts from my dainty sisters!