Saturday, February 01, 2003

The headline at the Times of India is Kalpana Chawla killed in Columbia Crash. No explanation needed as to who she was. Clearly her going into space was a big deal over there, as it should have been. Further down we have The Karnal girl who did India Proud .

Yes. She did.
The Space Shuttle Columbia has broken up on the approach to landing in Texas. All seven astronauts are clearly dead. This is terrible, terrible news. Dave Winer has a good compilation of links, and will be updating it throughout the day. There is also good coverage over at Samizdata , and Glenn Reynolds is doing pretty well also.

Update: Dale Amon's coverage at Samizdata has been absolutely first rate. Dale has added a lot in the comments section, too, so it is worth looking at those as well as the posts.
This is what I like to see

An estimated Zambian 6000 villagers overpowered an armed policeman and looted food aid consisting largely of maize rejected by the government because it was genetically modified, police said on Tuesday.

(Via Tim Blair )
Jay Manifold quotes Lee Harris

If the whole of the United States were to disappear tomorrow in a catastrophic earthquake like a second Atlantis, it would not materially benefit a single suffering man, woman, or child anywhere on our planet.

there is only one way that ... goal[s] can be achieved on [an] extraordinary scale ... and that is if the United States of America continues to be rich, powerful, and superbly organized.

I was reading an observation from someone (which may have been Bruce Sterling, but I am not sure where I read it) observing that a weakness of our present world system is that all the power is focused in Washington, and that the whole global system is held together by implicit and explicit guarantees made by organisations and people based there, and if (say) someone were to explode a nuclear weapon there, then there is a possibility that the political and economic institutions of the world would simply collapse. Although I think this may be too pessimistic, it worried me, because I am not sure it is too pessimistic. Lee is arguing something more general than this, but this is at least one aspect of what he is saying.

This also makes me think of something else. When I was a youthful lefty, I swallowed most of the "Africa and the poor world is poor because the rich world exploits it to its own ends" guff. As I got older, I actually learned the truth, which is both better and worse than this. And the truth can be best summarised by this observation: If the whole of Africa were to disappear tomorrow in a catastrophic earthquake, the rest of the world would barely notice . Africa is so marginal to the rest of the world both economically and politically that our lives would simply not be affected by such an event in any meaningful way. If we were exploiting Africa, we would at least have some incentive to improve the continent's political, legal, and economic institutions, but we do not.

Of course, there actually are plenty of individual instances of people in the developed world exploiting Africans, but the damage done by these is small compared to the damage done by simple ignorance and stupidity. This is why the reality is perhaps worse than the caricature. If we were exploiting Africa to be rich ourselves, there would at least be a certain amount of logic in it. Instead though we have huge levels of agricultural subsidy for our farmers, which in return for helping make Africa much poorer than it needs to be, make us a little poorer as well.

As far as helping Africa is concerned, I would personally like to participate in some rowdy demonstrations and marches through our capital cities in violent protest against rich world agricultural subsidies. However, this isn't a cause for which I see much great passionate support.
How to tell someone someone inside the beltway from someone outside the beltway. The first thought of someone inside is that the Atomic Heritage Foundation is a nuclear armed conservative thinktank. Someone outside does not.
I now have a copy of the American hardback edition of William Gisbson's Pattern Recognition which I shall be reading over the next few days. On his blog, Gibson is talking about the difficulties of getting the books translated into Spanish.

When I was in Barcelona it was explained to me how excruciatingly difficult the job of translation is, not only because of the texts themselves, but because the resulting translation must be able to work simultaneously in Spain, Argentina, Chile, Mexico – all slightly different in terms of certain usages.

I would add that Gibson's particular style is likely to be difficult to translate. As to whether Pattern Recognition will be harder or easier to translate than Neuromancer , that's an interesting question. Neuromancer was set in an imaginary future where certain types of technology had become all pervasive. The novel, is, however, more interested in the social consequences of the technology than the technology itself. Gibson had to invent the jargon and the language descibing this society himself. This jargon was to some extent made up, and to some extent drew on actual jargon of the early 1980s, but the translators no doubt had some liberty to either simply use the English word Gibson created in the foreign language or to make something up.

Now, however, we have the novel set in the present, which (at street level, anyway) looks rather Gibsonian. Gibson now has to use current, correct, jargon and slang (which he does), and this has to be translated into fairly current, correct, Spanish jargon and slang. And we then find the problem that he describes. The book is set in London, and the translation must be readily understandable in Argentina, and Chile. Presumably the book must be translated in such a way that it doesn't scream "Madrid" to Argentinians, as this might make the London setting less convincing.

As an Australian, though, I wonder if not too big a fuss is being made of this. English speakers don't read very much in translation in the first place, of course, but we read material in English and see television and film from throughout the Anglosphere. (Okay Iain, I've used the word). We become used to a great many dialects of English, and we learn to understand them. (Those of us who travel a lot learn to speak them to some extent, too. Certainly my use of the English language changes depending on the nationality of the person I am speaking to). Do Spanish speakers not learn and do this, too. I would think they would. When we do read in translation, we are normally reading books translated into standard British English or standard American English. And really, this doesn't bother me at all. If a Russian novel set in Moscow is translated into British English or American English, I am not going to notice distracted by which "regional" English it is, because I am completely used to this. (On the other hand, if a Russian novel set in Moscow is translated into Australian English, this will distract me a lot, because I am not used to it, even though I will have no trouble understanding it).

I don't know how much of this is peculiar to me, how much is true simply because I read a lot, and how much is true because I am an Australian and my native dialect, Australian English, is a relatively minor dialect of the language. Certainly, the text of American editions of books published in Britain or Australia is sometimes changed to make the English language in them better reflect American usage, although this isn't an especially big deal, so it my response may not be the universal one.

I suspect also in French there isn't much of a problem, and that when you translate a book into that language you are supposed to translate it into the French defined by the Academie Francaise . French speakers, be they in Paris, or Marseilles, or Montreal, or New Caledonia, or the Ivory Coast, are therefore no doubt used to translations into standard Parisian French.

Spainish no doubt is harder, due to the relative lack of importance of Spain in the the Spanish speaking world for many decades. Rather than a sphere of people containing the language with one or two political or economic centres to impose a standard, either de facto or de jure , the Spanish speaking world is sort of a many headed hydra. Still, however, the Spanish speaking world must have a standard. I would have thought that most serious readers in Spanish would be used to reading books translated into one (or several) standard forms of Spanish, even if these aren't terribly close to the forms they speak themselves.

As one of these dreadful monolingual anglophones, I'm just speculating, however. Other people's thoughts would be of interest.

Update: In my comments section below, Patrick Crozier askes if there is any real difference between Australian and British English, and if there is a difference between Australian and New Zealand English. I would argue yes in both cases.

Australian English is sort of a mixture of 19th century London and 19th century Ireland. It tends to be very colourful in its metaphors, and use of such devices as rhyming slang is quite common. (You will also find such things used by a much wider range of social classes than is the case in England. Also, rhyming slang is something the speaker is often unaware of, because when you use it, you don't use the word that rhymes. For instance, you might use the word "plates" to mean feet, and as you grow up you just think that it is a slang word and you don't realise it is an abbreviation of "Plates of meat" which rhymes with "feet". Australian English is full of things like that.

Plus, in the 20th century, Australian English has been much more likely to adopt American words than English words for new concepts: "truck" instead of "lorry", or "service station" instead of "garage". Australians did use "freeway" instead of "motorway" until a few years ago, but governments started using "motorway" instead when tolled motorways became common and people started complaining about having to pay for a road called a "freeway". (Another peculiar example is "chips". Australia has adopted the British word "chips" for what the Americans call "fries" and the American word chips for what the British call "crisps": that is we use the word "chips" for both. To avoid confusion, when you go into a store you ask for "hot chips" or "cold chips").

Plus of course we have a fair bit of vocabulary of our own. The shoes that are called "trainers" in Britain and "sneakers" in the US are called "joggers" in Australia. A "thong" in Australia is a flip-flop sandal. This occasionally causes embarassment when Australians use the word elsewhere. When I first visited the US and the UK in 1991, I was asked whether I wanted any "ketchup". I had never heard the word before: in Australia it is simply "tomato sauce". In the good old days of my childhood, it was merely "sauce", Australians being relatively unfamiliar with any other kinds of sauce. When I use specifically Australian vocabulary, I am often unaware that I am doing it until a foreigner fails to understand what I say. When talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer I once described Willow as Buffy's "offsider". In Australia, the word is essentially a synonym for "sidekick", and I think the word comes from horsemanship. (Come to think of it, it is possible this meaning exists in Britain, too, because the people who failed to understand it were Americans).

Written Australian English is probably closer to British English than spoken Australian English, particularly in terms of spelling, because we are taught mainly British rather than American English in our schools.

New Zealand English is much more Scottish influenced and much less Irish influenced than Australian English. I am not familiar enough with New Zealand English to come up with examples off the top of my head, however.

Patrick also commented that the rise of Indian English is interesting to watch, and with this I concur, especially given that the contribution to English literature from India and the Indian diaspora is already large, and is obviously going to get larger.

Friday, January 31, 2003

Yesterday I visited a number of consumer electronics, hi-fi and computer stores, just to see how the markets have changed after Christmas.

A couple of quick observations

Plasma displays have just become a consumer product . It is now possible to buy a 42 inch plasma screen for 2000 pounds. This isn't much more than the cost of a 36 inch conventional CRT television (which is as large as they come). These are still an immature product. The cheapest ones come from Samsung and LG, and seem to have a resolution of 852 x 480 pixels. This is less than ideal: this is fine for the US market, where television has 480 lines, but in Europe and most of Asia, where television has 576 lines, one sixth of the lines of that lovely DVD picture are not being displayed on the plasma screen. For this and other reasons, the picture is therefore not as good as on a conventional television or even a rear projection television (although the picture is much brighter than on a rear projection set). I personally am not buying a plasma screen at this price today, because the features I want are not there in screens costing less than four or five thousand pounds. (Also, I am presently unemployed). However, plasma screens are a really cool product, they still look really good, and my feeling is that Samsung and LG will sell as many of these products that they can supply. One retailer was making the point that in inflation adjusted terms, plasma screens are now cheaper than colour televisions were in the mid 1970s. This is a good point, particularly given that I would argue that inflation adjusted terms isn't the key metric. The question is one of affordability, and because incomes have risen faster than inflation, they are even more affordable than that indicates. The Koreans seem to have a clear price advantage here which will do their images no end of good. I think lots of people will choose a Samsung or LG plasma screen over a conventional Sony TV, which is what it comes down to in many cases.

The big consumer electronics companies look severely threatened in the DVD business . Competition in the DVD player business continues to be a big story. As I have mentioned before, competition here is ferocious due no-name players being made in China. It is interesting to compare three different retail channels. If you go into a supermarket, they have no-name players for sale for fifty to a hundred pounds, plus a few more expensive players from brands you have heard of but which aren't top name brands. (Our friends the Koreans Samsung and LG are once again present). Supermarkets are selling large numbers of bottom end players, basically. If you go into a standard mass market electronics store, the players are mostly known electronics brands, from Samsung and LG again through to Hitachi, Sony, Pioneer and Panasonic. These stores are selling lots of players to people who care about brands and have enough money to spend a few hundred pounds, but who don't know much about technical details.

And then, we have specialist hi-fi stores. Because people who play DVDs often want top quality sound to go with it, the home entertainment/DVD business has merged with the hi-fi business. People who go into a hi-fi store to buy a DVD player and a sound system to go with it do care about technical details. And it is in these stores that a basic con of the consumer electronics industry becomes clear.

It has long been the case that low end products from famous name manufacturers have been essentially the same products as some of the higher end products, but with many features turned off. The high end features do not cost much extra to provide, but they are included in some models but not others for product differentiation. As long as everyone played the same game, it worked fine. There is now more competition, mostly from China, and the new competitors do not play this game. In the case of cheap supermarket players, this is not that much of a problem, as Sony and Panasonic can argue (with some justification) that their players are of higher quality manufacture, even if they have fewer features.

On top of this, out of pressure from the content industries, the Japanese manufacturers have crippled their products. They do not make combined DVD-Video DVD-Audio players. They make "region locked' players that can only play discs from one part of the world. In Europe, there has been much stalling on a feature called "progressive scan", which makes pictures clearer, and the content industry are scared by this because they think that widespread piracy of high quality pictures is worse than of low quality pictures. (This is how they justify the argument that "DVD piracy is different from VHS piracy, which is why DVD piracy will kill our industry when VHS piracy clearly didn't).

However, if you go into a hi-fi store, you see something which should really scare Sony and Panasonic. Hi-fi stores are full of people who really care about sound quality, picture quality, and features. The do not want players that have been crippled by Panasonic and Sony, for commercial reasons, or to make the RIAA happy. They simply want players that are as feature rich as possible. Hi-Fi stores are therefore full of players from companies that you have not heard of, but which are of good quality, and which have the best possible feature sets. Yesterday, I was utterly stunned to see this player in Richer Sounds. This is possibly the best featured DVD player I have ever seen: DVD-Audio and Video, PAL and NTSC progressive scan, multi-region, MP3 playback. Onboard Dolby Digital decoder. It comes from a company called Limit, that I have never heard of. And it costs a mere 150 pounds. Specialist hi-fi stores do sell the high end famous brands as well: Toshiba, Sony, Pioneer, Marantz. However, new Chinese brands are taking an ever larger share of their market - the high end market - as well.

We have a situation where new Chinese companies, rather than the traditional electronics companies, are taking very significant portions of the high and and the low end markets, with the traditional companies stuck in the centre. The centre is clearly going to be squeezed from both sides, so potentially, for Sony, it isn't pretty.

I have two conclusions. One the consumer electronics industry is turning into the PC industry. Lots of small companies, commodotisation of components, ferocious competition. Secondly, the Japanese consumer electronics companies are soon going to have to stop crippling their products if they are going to compete. This is going to cause more conflict with the film and music industries, who are pressuring them to cripple their products more and more due to "piracy" concerns.

Thursday, January 30, 2003

I have an article coming on the likely Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations, but I am holding off until after I have seen The Pianist .
From Bush's State of the Union address:

"In this century, the greatest environmental progress will come about not through endless lawsuits or command-and-control regulations, but through technology and innovation."

This is very good. The adminstration clearly gets it.
The van vogtian Jay Manifold quotes a Reuters story on the UN

Iraq is in line to take over as chairman of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in May ...
India now holds it and will be followed by Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland and Israel as countries take the job in alphabetical order.

There is an episode of Yes, Prime Minister in which the predecessor of Jim Hacker at number 10 has died, and the funeral is being arranged and representatives of many foreign governments are attending. Civil servant Bernard Wooley is having a series of rapid phone conversations. One is essentially this.

No, you can't arrange the seating in the abbey in alphabetical order. You would have Iran next to Iraq, and Israel on the same pew. You'd start World War Three... No, Ireland doesn't make it better. Ireland doesn't make anything better!...

I also recall that two or three (soccer) World Cups back, the final Asian qualifying tournament was played in Qatar, and the six finalists were North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. I still don't know how thay managed to play that tournament without starting even one war. I would have thought that two or three were a possibility.
I do like this letter , published in today's Economist.

SIR – Your suggestion that Robert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein be exiled together is excellent (“In praise of exile”, January 18th). Even better is your idea that Mr Mugabe could then lecture Mr Hussein on the intricacies of cricket. Being South African by birth, I naturally love cricket. My Canadian wife, having endured years of explanations of the noble game, states flatly that your proposal would be a fitting punishment.

Charles Poulton

I think "comes from a cricket playing country" is a definite requirement in a wife for yours truly. Thus I am still sorry about Miranda Otto's recent marriage.
This piece by Richard Dawkins on what precisely genetic engineering is and what it means is extremely good, particularly its discussion of how genetics is digital by its very nature.

The consequences are amazing. It means that a software subroutine (that’s exactly what a gene is) can be carried over into another species. This is why the famous “antifreeze” gene, originally evolved by Antarctic fish, can save a tomato from frost damage. In the same way, a Nasa programmer who wants a neat square-root routine for his rocket guidance system might import one from a financial spreadsheet. A square root is a square root is a square root. A program to compute it will serve as well in a space rocket as in a financial projection.

His prediction that the younger generation will be more comfortable with the biological sciences because they are more comfortable with digital technology and will this find it easier to understand is an interesting one, that may or may not become true.
Ski Mt Buller, where the snow is made from recycled human waste .

I'm sure that slogan will have the tourists flocking. (via slashdot)

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Glenn Reynolds has some comments on the fact that more and more news sites are requiring registration. He makes the key point that it isn't so much the privacy issues as the annoyance issues that people have a problem with. I will merely observe that this isn't a new question: Hotwired, probably the first commercial website, had an on again off again policy with respect to whether to require registration in about 1993.

My thoughts on this are simple. I don't really mind registering to use a site. However, there are a few golden rules.

I should never under any circumstances be asked to register more than once by the same website. If I registered in 1995, then I should not have to register again. There are few things more irritating that being told that "If you registered for this site before March 2002, you will have to register again". If the website's present registration scheme asks for more information than the old one, then fine. However, in that case the website should make do with the old information for the old customers. By all means offer old customers some incentive to provide more information, but do not take their access away. My response to being asked to register again is to fill in the form, but with false information. I normally tell the truth the first time.

The registration process should be as painless as possible . That means it should consist of a single form, on a single webpage. This page should contain text and little if any graphics or anything else which requires high bandwidth, and should load very quickly. One thing I do not want is for a registration system to cause my computer to freeze.

Once I have registered on a particular computer, the registration system should subsequently appear like it is not there. That is, once I have registered, then I should be able to go to pages in the website I am accessing without anything getting in the way. I should not have any boxes popping up to ask me questions before giving me further access to the site. (You know who you are, Mr Washington Post). If this does happen, I am once again going to respond by lying. (This is why one or two sites will have been apparently getting increased numbers of visits from Swaziland who were born in 1906).

From the point of organisations setting up sites that require registration, a light hand is crucial. Annoy people, and the data you get through the registration process will be worse than useless.
Yesterday, I felt like a glass of red wine, so I popped around to my local Tescos and picked up a bottle of Penfolds Rawson's Retreat Cabernet Sauvignon 2001. Penfolds introduced the Rawson's Retreat label as a new low end red wine in the mid 1990s, due to the fact that their previous low end red, Koonunga Hill, had become too expensive. At that time, the Rawson's Retreat came in two varieties only, a red and a while. The red varied in its composition from year to year. In some years it was a Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz, and in other years it was a Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz-Ruby Cabernet. My experience in the past was that it was decent in years when there was no Ruby Cabernet in it but a little rough in years when there was. In any event, shortly after that I ceased being a grad student and became a stockbroker, and moved on the more expensive wine, but in my more recent reduced circumstances I have been drinking cheaper wine again. (This is kind of fun, anyway. The trick is to know enough about wine that you can spend three or four pounds on a bottle and still get something good). In any event, I noticed that the Rawson's Retreat in Tescos was a varietal Cabernet Sauvignon, which either meant that they had changed the grape content of that wine dramatically, or they have broadened their range. So I bought a bottle, took it home, and discovered that it was pretty good for the price (It cost five pounds). It's a wine intended for immediate dtrinking, and it has a nice, ripe blackcurrenty flavour to it. Little in the way of obvious tannins, and now bitterness to the aftertaste at all.

A quick check to the Penfolds website indicates that there are now three Rawson's retreat reds: a varietal merlot, the Cabernet, and the old Cabernet Shiraz. Plus there is a Bordeaux blend Koonunga Hill and a new range of mid-level wines called "Thomas Hyland". This actually isn't surprising. Penfolds is owned by Southcorp, a large conglomerate that owns about 25% of the Australian wine industry, which has been accumulated over time by acquiring a large number of smaller wineries. A couple of years ago, Southcorp announced that it was cutting back the number of labels under which it made wine, and concentrating on a few key brands. (Penfolds is their most famous brand, but they also own Lindemans, Wynns, and Rosemount, among others). Clearly we are starting to see the fruits of this, if you will excuse the expression. Clearly grapes from throughout the Southcorp empire are being used to produce much larger amounts of mass wine under the Penfolds brand. As long as the wine is good and doesn't damage the quality of the wine, this is a good move. Southcorp has dramatically increased the amount of wine it sells in the United States in the last couple of years, so it probably needs the extra volume.

The other interesting thing about this wine was the absence of a cork and the presence of a screwtop. This is part of an ongoing saga. Winemakers and consumers complain that with conventional cork, around 5% of all bottles of wine are spoiled by faulty corks, and some winemakers have been attempting to seal their bottles another way. There are two main approaches: one is a synthetic plug the same shape as a cork that can be placed in the top of the bottle in the same way as a cork and removed with a corkscrew, so preserving the ritual of opening a bottle of wine. The other is the screwtop. Both of these approaches have been growing in usage, particularly for ready to drink wines. (Nobody is quite sure what this kind of sealing will do to wines meant for lengthy cellaring, so these almost invariably still use corks). In turns of sealing the bottle best, a screw top probably does a better job than a cork, but there is a bit of a problem with perception. Screw tops are associated with really cheap wine. The Australian wine industry has been trying to shift this perception, but there is still a way to go. Still, a large number of Australian and New Zealand Reslings are being released with screw tops, and it is a trend we shall see more of. (A month or two back, I read about a Riesling producer that was using screw tops on its worst and very best wines, but not on the middle wines. The theory was that people who would buy the most expensive wine would know all about cork taint and the move to screw tops and wouldn't mind a bottle with a screwtop, but the people likely to buy the mid priced wine might not know, so therefore they were still being sold wine with a cork. I cannot remember which producer this one was, however).

Just as an aside, if you are given a bottle of wine in a restaurant that tastes of cork taint, it is acceptable to return the wine. This is one reason why you are given a chance to taste the wine immediately after it is opened, and also why in some restaurants the customer is actually handed the cork immediately after the bottle is opened. The customer can then smell the cork, and if it smells funny, this is the first sign that the wine might be oxidised. (The other reason for this practice is that the customer can look at the winemaker's name on the cork, to check that the bottle hasn't previously been opened and some lesser wine substituted). Still, not all restaurants properly understand the ritual. Geoff Merrill, a fine Australian winemaker (and also a man likely to win any competition held to determine which Australian filmmaker most looks like Merv Hughes) tells a story about once sending a wine back in a restaurant and telling the waiter that the wine is "corked", only to have the manager come over to his table to explain that "All our wines are corked, sir". (This was presumably before the days of screwtops).

And by the way, my Tescos supermarket in a not very upmarket part of South London had an excellent range of Penfolds wine: even a few bottles of the 1996 Grange (the best wine made in Australia) for 106 pounds per bottle. That's right. In supermarkets in Sydney you cannot buy wine. In London it is possible to quickly pop down to the supermarket to get a bottle of Grange.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Scott Wickstein is Wrong

Scott claims that nobody in Australia will start using digital television until movies and sport are available on digital that are not available on analogue, and that the ABC is therefore foolish to be launching new digital children's channels.

On the first point, I think he is quite wrong, and as evidence I would like to point to the British example. There are two things you can do with digital television: you can use it to give more channels or you can use it to give better pictures (high definition television). With either of these approaches, you also get some interactivity as a bonus.

Britain (and Europe in general) chose the option of more channels (although the European system also supports HDTV if anyone actually wants to broadcast it). Britain initially licenced digital terrestrial as an alternative pay TV platform to satellite and cable. This managed to pick up a couple of million subscribers, but the business went bust due to spending vast sums of money on the rights to televise football matches (non-Premiership English league football) that very few people wanted to watch. Basically, though, these were low value customers. People who wanted pay television had options with more channels, and they largely went for them.

Britain now has something called "Freeview". The digital terrestrial frequencies have now been mostly given to the BBC, and a package of about 30 free channels, sourced from the BBC and other places. This consists of a few news channels, a couple of music video channels, a travel channel, a history channel, a couple of other documentary channels, a shopping channel, a BBC highbrow intellectual channel, a couple of channels showing repeats of the programs you missed yesterday, a couple of childrens channels, and that kind of thing. What these have in common is that they are mostly cheap to produce.

When this channel lineup was announced, the financial markets and assorted media analysts were underwhelmed, as most of the best channels were absent, including all the sports and movie channels, and the expectation was that Freeview would not be a great success. But, in fact, it has been very successful so far. Lots of set top boxes and integrated digital televisions have been sold.

The problem is that most of these analysts themselves had satellite of cable television, and they were comparing what was on offer with what they had, and they found it wanting. Football and movies do seem necessary to sell subscription television, but it does seem that free digital is another matter. Compared to five free channels, 30 free channels is good.

For subscription television, the question is "Do you want to sign a contract, agree to pay $50 every month, and have to have someone come out to your home to install a dish on the roof". It requires an incentive like movies or sport for people to say yes to this.

However, for free digital, it is more of a case of going to buy a television and being asked "If you want to spend an extra 100 pounds for this set, you can watch 30 channels instead of five". This is on a par with paying a little extra for stereo sound (which lots of people do) or teletext. And from that perspective, digital is a good deal, which is why people in Britain are taking it. Even if the choice in Australia is 10 channels instead of five, it is still much less of a committment than that you make for pay TV. And therefore, the programming doesn't need to be as good. In any event, within a couple of years a set top box will be so cheap it will practically come for free in a packet of cornflakes. This is clearly a different situation than for subscription TV.

As for the kids programming, of the BBCs digital channels the kids channel CBeebies is clearly the most successful. Kids channels are a mainstay of multichannel television anyway. A kids channel isn't in itself generally a good enough reason for Mum and Dad to pay for Sky: the kids don't pay the bills and it needs some sport as well. However, something to distract the kids is well worth paying 100 pounds extra for, and this seems a big reason for takeup of digital in the UK. It seems to me that the ABC is trying quite hard to copy the BBC, which isn't such a bad thing for it to be doing. Childrens channels aren't such a bad way of encouraging people to take up digital at all.

However, the question as to whether public money should be spent on new channels, or even old channels, is a different one entirely, both in the UK and Australia (My position on the ABC is that I am in favour of abolition. My position on the BBC is I am in favour of dismemberment and then privatisation). Let the commercial channels (and anyone else who wants to) set up new digital channels without regulatory interference. Of course, given the history of regulatory interference in Australia, hell will freeze over before this happens, but still, this is what should be done.

Monday, January 27, 2003

I think I have done enough technical blogging for a little while. I think for the next couple of days I should blog about bunny rabbits or cats or the war against Iraq or something. I suspect cricket blogging shall continue, however, given that the World Cup starts in two weeks.
Here we have a very interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times on the development of CinemaScope movies, with a particular emphasis on black and white anamorphic films.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film department is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the wide-screen format with a 23-movie festival, "In Glorious Black-and-White Scope." The eclectic retrospective highlights the artistry of such cinematographers as Joseph LaShelle, Gordon Willis, Conrad Hall, Raoul Coutard, Jack Cardiff and Otello Martelli.

Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," Woody Allen's "Manhattan," Francois Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," Martin Ritt's "Hud," Robert Wise's "The Haunting," Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," Jack Clayton's "The Innocents" and Cardiff's "Sons and Lovers," along with "The Longest Day," are among the films featured in the festival that kicks off tonight.

I will note that there are some fabulous films in that list, and that it is sad that I am not in Los Angeles and cannot catch up with some of them. Actually, I have written a section on this in my yet unpublished book Much Bigger Than Colour: An Overview of the Future of Television , where I am comparing the transition to widescreen that took place in movies in the 1950s with the transition to widescreen that is taking place in television at the moment. There are perhaps one or two things in it which might be a little clearer with more context. I can provide the context if you really want it.

If anyone out there would like to read some more of the book, let me know. The complete contents is here . If you know someone who might be interested in publishing the book or offering me a job definitely let me know.


While the main focus of the European HDTV standard was, unsurprisingly, high definition television, another minor television option was built into the standard. HD-MAC, and Muse, for that matter, were intended for displaying widescreen pictures with approximately the same shape as a movie screen. The designers of HD-MAC recognised that not everyone would upgrade to HDTV immediately, but that some of these people would still like to be able to view pictures in the same shape as movies are shown in on a movie screen. Muse therefore provided an intermediate standard, called DB-MAC. This was essentially a standard for widescreen television at standard definition. This defined widescreen as having an aspect ratio of 16:9

Until recently, all televisions had screens in which the horizontal width to vertical depth was in the ratio 4:3 (or 1.33 :1, meaning that the width was 1.33 times the depth). Until the 1950s, virtually all movies were projected in cinemas in the so called “Academy Ratio” of 1.37:1, which was extremely close to this ratio, and most movies thus looked very similar in shape on television to the way they looked in the cinema. In fact, television was deliberately designed to have a very similar aspect ratio to that of the movies. In a move that was to become curiously familiar to people who have studied the political movements of entertainment companies and Hollywood studios since, the studios concluded that this new medium would stand a chance of killing the motion picture industry. Rather sensibly, the motion picture industry decided to fight this by improving the product that they were selling. There were various gimmicks invented (Smellovision and the like), but only one change that in the long term took off.. This was widescreen. Rather than projecting an image in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, filmmakers started producing films in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. With a film projection system, making this change is very simple, as you simply change the shape of the image on the film that is being projected. In order to make the image fill up the full screen, you simply adjust the focus and zoom on the projector: it is possible to make any projector produce an image as large or small as you like. The invention of widescreen allowed much more dramatic vistas and scenes to be shown on the screen at the same time. The vast majority of filmmakers preferred this, and it soon became the standard for motion pictures. (At least, it did in America. Many European filmmakers preferred an intermediate aspect ratio of 5:3 (1.67:1), and many classic French and other European films were shot in this ratio. This presented no technical obstacle, as projectors do not know or care what aspect ratio they are projecting. This ratio is still used occasionally, but most European films now use the same 1.85:1 ratio that do American films.

Hollywood was pleased with this for one other reason: as films were now a different shape than television pictures, it meant that movies could not be shown on television. In retrospect, this sounds stupid, and it fairly quickly became clear that it was stupid. However, at the time, Hollywood was delighted, and awarded a special Oscar to the engineers who developed widescreen Hollywood studios started making money through television sales, and the fact that movies were generally a different shape to television screens was once again a problem. A solution to this was quickly found, however, known as “pan-and-scan”. Hollywood was again delighted and awarded another special Oscar to the developers of pan and scan.

The simplest way of showing a widescreen movie on a conventional television is to simply crop the sides off the picture: show what is in the middle of the screen. However, this is not ideal, as the action is not always in the centre of the screen. However, at most times in most films, the important action is going on in one area of the picture – it is happening on one side of the picture or in the centre: not generally on both sides. Therefore, in order to produce a television version of a film, the actual section of the original picture that is shown depends on what is going on in the film. If the film shows two people talking on the left of the film, then everything is cropped from the right. If the action is on the right, the left is cropped. If the action is in the middle, both sides are cropped. (PICTURE). As the film goes onwards, the section of the image pans from side to side as the action moves from one part of the screen to the other. This gives the impression that the camera was moving when the film was shot, when sometimes it actually wasn’t. Sometimes, film directors will shoot extra shots and camera angles when making a film so that a slightly different cut of the film can be released on video that eliminates these problems. In most cases this does not happen, however. It depends on how much care the particular director wishes to take. Some directors, famously Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, are utterly obsessive about producing the best possible presentation, even on television. Others are less so.

This process is obviously not ideal: we are not seeing what the director and cinematographer of the movie intended if part of the picture is cut off. We thus do not see the full scale of the images. 28% of the image is missing. However, the worst problems occur when action is occurring in more than one part of the picture at the same time. For instance, if there are two people on the far left and far right of the screen who are talking to each other, then serious problems occur. Either one of them must be cut off, or the section of the image being shown must move backwards and forwards as the conversation goes on: it appears that the camera is moving from the left to right and back. This is absolutely not what the film-makers intended.

Until about 1990, most people were generally satisfied watching films that were panned and scanned. However, a consciousness gradually arose concerning the quality of the experience of watching movies. (This is essentially what this book is about). People were less satisfied with poor quality images and poor quality sound.

In the 1980s, movie buffs became more and more dissatisfied with the pan and scan process for viewing films on television. Many wanted to see the whole picture, even if it meant that the picture was smaller As a consequence of this, some (relatively few) VHS video cassettes were produced in “letterboxed” format rather than pan and scanned. (These are often referred to as “widescreen” on the packaging, but aficionados refer to them as “letterboxed”, and prefer to retain the word “widescreen” for situations where they actually have a wide screen).

Letterboxed films show the whole image of the picture, and have black bars on the screen above and below the image. Rather than the screen not showing the whole image, we now have a situation where the image does not take up the whole screen. (28% of the screen is covered by the black bars). Therefore, on a small television screen, the image is quite small. On larger screens (which became popular around the same time that letterboxed movies became available, which is probably not a coincidence) the image is quite tolerable.

In 1953, a even wider screen pictures came into being in cinemas with the invention of anamorphic widescreen formats, often referred to by the proprietary names of Panavision or Cinemascope. These formats (usually) use an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. While the invention of this ratio did not take over motion pictures as did 1.85:1 widescreen, it was and is a moderately successful format, popular for epic movies in particular. In recent years, this format has become more popular, with as many as 50% of big budget Hollywood movies being made in this aspect ratio. With an anamporphic film, the image on the film is not the same aspect ratio as the image on the screen. A special anamorphic lens is put on the camera which compresses the image into a distorted shape that better fits the shape of the film. When the film is projected, an identical lens is placed on the projector, which decompresses the image back to its original shape.

Of course, a pan and scanned version of a Cinemascope film loses even more of the image than is the case with a 1.85:1 film. When the sides are cropped off a 2.35:1 film, fully 43% of the picture is lost. The amount of panning that goes on in the pan-and-scan process is greater and more noticeable. When a Cinemascope film is shown in letterboxed format on a standard television, 43% of the area of the screen is covered by black bars. Not everyone finds this tolerable.

One way of improving the quality of widescreen movies is to change the shape of the television screen, to something closer to what movies are projected in. By the 1980s, it was technically quite easy to build a screen in a wider aspect ratio, and various Japanese and European companies set about developing (analogue) television systems that broadcast a wider image. (They also developed analogue systems that provided high definition images with a greater number of lines, but nothing much ever came of this). Both the Japanese and the Europeans (who developed a widerscreen analogue television format called HD-MAC) chose the aspect ratio of 16:9 (1.78:1) for widescreen images. The consumer electronics companies wanted this ratio (which is the square of the existing 4:3), but the reasons why they did are rather perplexing and obscure to many people, given that precisely zero widescreen movies are made in this ratio. In any event, the 16:9 aspect ratio that was decided upon is sufficiently close to the 1.85:1 of most movies that few alterations have to be made to the movies.

When the American Television Standards Committee was developing high definition television standards for the United States in the 1990s, it was decided that new high definition television would use widescreen for most of its programming. The ATSC adopted the same 16:9 ratio that the consumer electronics companies had been keen on before. Similarly the designers of the DVD, and of the European digital television format DVB also chose 16:9.

Anamorphic Widescreen

To some extent, it doesn’t really matter what aspect ratios that the designers of a particular television format had in mind when they designed the format, as this can be changed on a television by television or program by program basis. This can be seen by thinking about what happens if you attempt to display a program on a television with the wrong aspect ratio.

Consider a normal 4:3 television program, and imagine what happens when we play it on a 16:9 television screen. Generally what happens is that the image is stretched so it takes up the whole screen. The image is stretched, and the picture is distorted out of shape.

Now consider what happens if we squeeze the image inwards rather than outwards before transmitting the image. The image is now distorted when we display it on a 4:3 television, but is stretched out again when we play it on a 16:9 television. Therefore, we have succeeded in displaying a widescreen image perfectly successfully on a widescreen television, by transmitting and storing the image in the conventional way we would transmit and store a 4:3 image.

This process, in which we display store and transmit a widescreen image by squeezing the image inwards before storing or transmitting it and then stretch it outwards again before displaying it is known as anamorphic widescreen. By choosing the amount by which we squeeze the image inwards, we can transmit an image that has the right aspect ratio on any widescreen television.

While anamorphic widescreen works perfectly well with analogue television, analogue anamorphic widescreen is not common. This is because the vast majority of analogue 4:3 televisions cannot do anything with analogue anamorphic images other than show a squeezed picture. That said, many modern 4:3 analogue televisions do have a widescreen mode that squeezes the image vertically and places black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. This will allow the image to be presented in the correct aspect ratio, but it requires the user to be aware of the option and to understand when to turn this system on and off. In a world where most people do not know how to program a VCR, this is considered to big a hassle to deal with. In any event, the people who really care about this sort of thing are using digital equipment by now.

Anamorphic widescreen is, however, extremely common with digital equipment, most notably DVD players. The vast majority of DVDs contain anamorphic widescreen movies. (These are often referred to as “16:9 enhanced” on the packaging). Because everything is stored digitally, it is possible for the disc to contain information telling the DVD player and television that it is anamorphic widescreen and designed for 16:9 televisions. The player and television (which know what aspect ratio they are) can then decide what to do with the image. In the event that the television is widescreen, then the image can be stretched and displayed. In the event that the television in normal 4:3, then there are three options. The image can be left as it is, and it will appear squeezed on the picture. The image can be squeezed in the vertical direction, black bars will appear at the top and bottom of the screen, and a letterboxed image will appear on the screen. Thirdly, the image can be stretched, the sides can be cropped from the image, and the resultant 4:3 image can appear on the screen.

DVD players have the option of doing all three of these things. By far the most commonly used is the second. The DVD player converts the image into a letterboxed image which appears on the screen. The disadvantage of this method is that the DVD player does this by chopping lines out of the image being sent to the television, and instead transmitting lines that are completely black at the top and bottom of the image. This means that instead of 480 or 576 lines, the image generated by the DVD only contains 360 or 432 lines. Some of the picture quality stored on the disc is lost. If instead you use a television that has its own letterbox mode, and use the TV rather than the DVD player to letterbox the image it may well be that the number of lines is not reduced, as the television may be capable of showing the same number of lines, but closer together.

In an ideal world, a DVD would contain a full, anamorphic widescreen image, as well as information about which sections of the widescreen image to show in a pan and scan image on a 4:3 television. If the television being used was a widescreen television, the anamorphic image would be stretched and the full image would be displayed. If the television being used was a 4:3 screen, then on the preferences of a user, the image would either have a portion of lines removed from it, so that it appeared letterboxed on a normal television, or it would be stretched, and then the edges would be cropped of in accordance with the pan and scan instructions so that the viewer could watch a letterboxed widescreen movie.

A disadvantage of using anamorphic widescreen is that although the size of the image is changed, the total amount of information stored in it is not. Therefore, pixels are stretched from square to rectangular, and the resolution in the horizontal direction becomes considerably less than in the vertical direction. In instances where an anamorphic image is stretched and then cropped to appear on a 4:3 television, the resulting image has lower quality than if a 4:3 image had just been sent. For this reason, it is better to actually send a non-anamorphic image with more pixels in the first place, but not all equipment can do this, and of course the data storage and bandwidth requirements are greater.

Notwithstanding these reservations anamorphic widescreen is very commonly used in digital television, in both satellite and terrestrial digital television as well as DVDs.

Just slightly more on "fixed links", the engineers fancy expression for "bridges and tunnels". As I have commented before, the United States built most of its key links in the hundred years to about 1950, and there has been little left to do since 1950 or so. In Europe, building the key links was a post WWII thing, and most of the key links have been build between 1950 and today. Some of this is due to later industrialization, some is due to the fact that the needed links were longer and harder to build. (Surprisingly little is because links were built, destroyed in the war, and then rebuilt). In any event, Europe's links are just about complete. One or two really big things (Channel tunnel, Great Belt Link (between Denmark and Sweden), have been built recently, and one or two others (Messina Bridge, various tunnels through the Alps) are either under construction or in the later stages of planning). Japan's links are just about complete, too, although the Japanese have found it difficult to stop building, and they are still pointless building bridges and tunnels because the construction industry almost runs the country.

I have visited most of the key bridges and tunnels in the US, most of the big ones in Europe (with the exception of the Great Belt Link), and some of the big ones in Japan. However, if you look at this table of the longest bridges of various types in the world, either existing or under construction, what is impressive is the huge number of bridges in China that are on the list. The Chinese are clearly on an immense infrastructure building boom. (Actually, what would be interesting would be to see where these all are on a map, to see how this collelates with population, economic growth and various other things). In particular, look at the number of large cable stayed bridges in China. In the US or Europe, most bridges this size were built a few years or decades ago using other construction techniques, but in China, they are being bridged at a time when the cable stayed bridge is state of the art. Therefore the dominance of this type in China. I need to go on a tour of China to see some of these. (Of course, what will be really interesting will be to tour China in 50 years, at which point all the cable stayed bridges will have dated, and will be a quaint reminder of the first decade of the 21st century, in the same way that all the steel truss bridges you see in the American midwest are a similar quaint reminder of an earlier time).

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Australia Day, Mad Max, and more Cricket

Today (Sunday) is January 26: Australia Day. The Prince Charles repertory cinema in London had an Australian films weekend to mark the occasion. They started out with a really old, scratchy print of Mad Max at midnight on Friday night. This is of course the film that made Mel Gibson famous in Australia, and I had never seen it on the big screen before. Very low budget, and sort of a punk comic strip western mixed in with a particularly Australian car culture. It's interesting that an Australian film with a tiny budget and relatively low production values could spawn sequels the way this one has. The fourth film is clearly intended to be a full scale Hollywood blockbuster, and even the third was clearly aimed as much at American than Australian audiences. (It also amazes me that such a low budget film grossed more money in cinemas in Australia than did the original Star Wars , but it did).

Anyway, Mad Max was a lead in to something else at the cinema, which was a digitally projected telecast of the second one day cricket final from Melbourne, digitally projected live on a big screen. I am not a great admirer of digital projection of movies at this point, simply because the resolution of digital projectors used in cinemas so far is much too low. The best digital projectors manage a resolution of 1280x1024, which is much lower than can be managed by conventional analogue film. (You cannot directly compare a digital medium with an analogue medium, so this is problematic, but conventional wisdom is that a conventional 35mm film has resolution somewhere around the 4000x2000 level). However, one advantage of digital projection is that cinemas can now be used to show all manner of live programming on the screen as well as movies. When the material being shown on a screen is standard definition television, which has a maximum resolution of 720x576, current projectors are more than adequate. And it is impressive just how good at showing television pictures current generation video projectors are. It was only a few years ago that video projectors provided extremely blurry images on medium sized screens in pubs. They are now crystal clear. The best ones use a technology called a "Digital Light Processor" instead of the old cathode ray tubes, and they are really good.

Thus I watched the whole cricket match, and my quick comments are that although England were much improved on the first game, they still couldn't finish Australia off. Australia got off to a bad start, but were always able to do enough to just stay in the match. Firstly there was that fine 71 not out from Brad Hogg to get Australia to a score (229) that could be defended. Then there was a fine opening bowling spell from Brett Lee. Then there was a few good overs from Hogg. Then there was Shane Warne, who though nowhere near full fitness, was still able to take the wickets of the two most dangerous English batsmen, Vaughan and Stewart. Then there was Brett Lee's final spell, in which he took three quick wickets to finish England off. (And also my compliments to Brad Williams for not conceding any boundaries of over 49. His job was to make sure that Lee had enough runs in hand to finish off in the 50th over what he had started in the 48th). England only had to prevent one of these things from happening to finish the task of pushing Australia out of the game. However, they couldn't do this. Australia didn't give up, and eventually this meant they were able to win. However, England really shouldn't have lost this game from the position they were in.

Plus we have an injury to Michael Bevan, which means he might miss the World Cup. This would be a major blow, as he is a key player. However, if he has to be replaced, what do you do. You can select Michael Clarke, and reward him for his fine performance on debut the other day. This is what most Australian newspapers seem to think what will happen. Or you can decide that Bevan needs to be replaced by another player of great experience. This means Steve Waugh. It is not likely to happen, but I do think it would increase Australia's chances of winning the tournament.
This piece from the New York Times, about installing an internet service at Mt Everest base camp, is particularly interesting to me because I have been to most of the places mentioned in the article. I went to the Himalayas in late 1997. There are no roads: you fly in to Lukla, and then you walk steadily up the valleys, through the towns and villages, and eventually you get to places too high for permanent human habitation and it is just mountains.

Of course, it is not the lack of roads that makes everything so different from what you are used to so much as the lack of electricity. When you lack this, you simply go to bed when it gets dark as there is nothing else to do. You get up early, perhaps at 6am, in order that you take advantage of all the sunlight you have. Cooking is done entirely with fire. And of course there is no communication with the rest of the world. In the month I was trekking, I was in unable to communicate with the outside world, and no news got to me. It would have been possible to take a short wave radio and listen to the news on the BBC, but we didn't. I quite wanted to, but the people I was travelling didn't. They were people with high powered jobs in Australia who wanted to leave it all behind them. I on the other hand had spent the previous six months sitting in front of a computer workstation writing my Ph.D. dissertation, so I actually felt like being hit by some information.

After a few weeks of this, we walked down the moutain into the town described in this story, Namche Bazar. Actually, before getting to Namche Bazar you get to the town of Khumjung, which is on a plateau, and you then walk down a steep path to Namche itself, which is in a valley directly below. Both Khumjung and Namche are very different from where you have been for the last few weeks, for the simple reason that they have electricity.

It shouldn't actually be very hard to provide electricity for everyone who lives in the mountains in Nepal, for the simple reason that you have mountains, from which snow is constantly melting and flowing down rivers and streams into the valleys. Therefore, small hydro-electric plants are relatively easy to built. And there is a vital environmental reason for building them as well. Due to something of a population explosion, large areas of Nepal are suffering from deforestation, as people chop down trees and use the wood for heating and cooking. Provide electricity instead, and two things happen. One of them is that deforestation stops, and another is that people's lives improve dramatically. Oddly enough, people in Nepal do not wish to spend their lives chopping down trees and carting fire wood by hand any more than you or I would. Give them electric heating and cooking, and they don't have to. However, there are obstacles to building the infrastructure, many of them bureacratic. There are plenty of foreign donors willing to provide equipment and expertise, but the government Kathmandu typically wants a cut of any western money going into the country. If you go trekking, they charge climbing fees. If you want to build a power station in the mountains, they charge a lot for permits and the like. This seriously hinders progress in the mountains. (The NYT article talks about the "seemingly endless bureacratic requirements for importing the radios to Nepal". Everyone always complains about this). Plus there are also Maoist rebels.

In any event, there is a power station near Namche and Khumjung. As you walk into Khumjung from higher up, suddenly everything changes. (This was in 1997. It's probably more dramatic now). You have eaten little but cabbage and potatos for three weeks, and there just off the train is a German bakery. You go in, sit down, and order some pastries and you imagine that you are in the Austrian alps. (This is easy, given that many of the other people in the bakery are German, Austrian or Swiss). After a while, you get up and look around. Compared to anywhere higher up, Khumjung is a large town. (The article in the NYT talks about moving the internet equipment to Namche in the off season, and then beaming the signal "over a hill to a nearby school". This is likely the Hillary School in Khumjung, which was founded and is funded with money raised by Sir Edmund Hillary).

Khumjung is largely a residential town, probably supported by agriculture. You then keep walking, and walk down the steep track into Namche. Namche is different, as it is a market town. It contains shops selling climbing equipment. It contains quite comfortable accommodation. It contains restaurants, and another bakery. And, it even contains a little nightlife. There were signs all over the town advertising something called "Sherpa's Spot". At night, there was a large neon sign outside "Sherpa's Spot". We went in, and the inside was something like the bar out of "Cheers". We sat down and had a couple of beers. They had refrigeration. I don't know if the "drunken climbers who tripped over the wires" in the article had just stumbled out of "Sherpa's Spot" but they may have. It is quite possible that they had just had their first beer for a month though, so it is kind of understandable.

What is my point? Well, compared to the places we had been for the previous few weeks, Namche felt like a modern town. There was still essentially nothing in the way of communication. There was an Inmarsat satellite phone that you could use if you were desperate, but this was so expensive that it was for emergencies only even for westerners. There was television: not in every home, but in a few of the lodges. The television was Star TV, the satellite service that Rupert Murdoch owns and which is based in Hong Kong, but which broadcasts a lot of its programming in Hindi and/or English. I suspect that television watching is a very communal experience in Namche, but by 1997 it was there. Basically, though, we were still cut off. There were no newspapers or magazines or anything like that, and no internet (although there apparently is now). But still, it felt enormously different from the electricity free towns a little way up the path. The advance brought on by a nineteenth century technology, electricity, seemed at that moment much larger than the communications revolution.

The friend I went to Nepal with is trying to encourage me to come with him on another trip. It might be interesting to see how the country has changed since 1997.
Hits to this website have been way down this weekend. Yesterday, it was because a worm had brought the internet to its knees. Today, the internet seems okay, but hits are still down. It's Superbowl Sunday in the US and Australia Day in Australia. Perhaps that's it.
A bad case of geek envy

A DVD player that can also play Divx. Oh boy, do I want one of these.

What does this mean?

Well, in the late 1970s Philips and Sony, but mostly Philips (despite what Sony sometimes tries to imply) invented the compact disc. As most people are aware, this is cabable of storing a total of 74 minutes of music, which takes up a total of 680 Mbytes of data.

If you want to store more than 74 minutes of music, or to store on a disc that requires more bandwidth than does music (for instance video), there are two ways of doing this. One way is to develop a new kind of disc that can store a larger amount of data than can a common CD. The other way of doing this is to compress data containing the music in some way so that 74 minutes takes up less than 680 Mbytes.

In order to fit more data on a disc, the limiting factor is the laser that reads the information off the disc. The smaller the wavelength of the laser, the more data that can fit on a disc. (The CD uses an infrared laser).

The more computing power in the player that will play the disc, the more it is possible to compress the data so that the music (or video) takes up less space without loss of quality.

Initially, the MPEG invented a compression scheme called MPEG-1. MPEG-1 can compress both video and audio. (MPEG-1 compressed audio is often called MP3). With MPEG-1, it is possible to store a lot more than 74 minutes of music on a CD, and it is also possible to store 74 minutes of low quality video. This is known as a Video CD or VCD, and they are incredibly common in Asia.

After this, the MPEG invented a compression scheme called MPEG-2, which allows higher quality video than MPEG-1. On top of this, a new type of disc was invented using a red laser that could hold a total of 4.7 Gbytes. With a combination of the new Disc and the MPEG-2 codec, it is possible to store three or four hours of video. This is the DVD. It is also possible to use new compression schemes to store more and higher quality audio on this new disc. Both the DVD-A and SACD formats do this.

A modern DVD player is capable of playing every format mentioned so far. It can play DVD movies, Video CDs, standard CD audio, and MP3 audio stored on either a CD or a DVD. It would also be able to play DVD-A and SACD audio, except for the fact that the record companies will not allow this because they are frightened of piracy (or something).

The MPEG has invented another compression scheme requiring even more computer power but achieving higher rates of compression: MPEG-4. This allows two or three hours of high quality video to be stored on a CD, and around 20 to 30 hours of high quality video, or two or three hours of high definition video, to be stored on a DVD. There are now official disc formats that use MPEG-4 yet, but the codec is very commonly used on PCs. People frequently use MPEG-4 video to store video that has been transmitted over the internet or generated using a digital camcorder. Having done this, people often use CD and DVD burners to store these MPEG-4 encoded movies on CDs or DVDs. The format that uses MPEG-4 to encode movies on a computer and then store them in this was is called Divx, and this was invented by a PC software company.

However, until now, people have only been able to play these Divx movies back on a PC. This new player is the equivalent of a stand alone DVD player for Divx. This can play back (Divx) MPEG-4 movies that have been recorded using both CD-burners and DVD-burners, as well as standard DVDs, Video CDs, and audio (stored on both CDs and DVDs) in both MP3 and standard DVD format. This is really cool.

Consumer electronics companies such as Sony and Matsushita should be scared sh*tless. They haven't come up with an MPEG-4 based video disc format, but the PC industry has done it for them, and has completely bypassed them . (This happened with MP3 players, too). The consumer electronics companies are, however, working on something called a Blu-Ray disc, which will use a blue laser and will be able to store 27 Gbytes of data. With MPEG-2, this should be able to store three or four hours of high definition television, or 20 hours of so of high quality ordinary television. With MPEG-4, it should be able to store 20 or so hours of High definition television or hundreds of hours of ordinary television. This will be pretty awe inspiring.

Update And here (via slashdot ) we have a hard disc based MPEG-4 camcorder, which eliminates the need for tapes or DVD type discs in the camcorder. It is able to do this, because it uses MPEG-4, which stores the movies in a much smaller space than can the MPEG-2 or DV formats of previous digital camcorders.

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