Doing The Digital Switchover

Photo of the RTÉ News Studio
RTÉ trying to look cool

We decided to make the switchover to digital TV, a year ahead of the deadline. Not, let’s be honest, for the many wonders this new technology brings. Nor for the early-adopter cool. No, it was mainly because of stuff in the attic.

You see up until now broadcast TV in Ireland has been on both UHF and VHF.

No? My God, do I have to draw diagrams? That means you need two aerials¹. And because our attic is small these are too close together, bouncing signals off each other. So any time you move one it buggers up reception on the other. In short, trying to get a good picture on all channels was about as much fun as being repeatedly stabbed.

So after we moved the aerials to get the attic insulated, I decided it wasn’t worth going through all that again, and that we should skip straight to the new technology. It’s not expensive. You may have heard you need a new ‘digital’ aerial. In fact you just need a UHF one, so if you’re already getting TV3 or TG4 you’ve probably OK. A very nice bonus is that the all-or-nothing nature of digital makes it a hell of a lot less sensitive about position. Even though ours is so off-beam it renders analogue channels in snowy monochrome, we still get a crisp digital picture.

Nor do you need a new TV, you can buy a digital tuner to connect to your existing set for less than €100. And if you rent one, then it’s the rental company’s problem. Ours was more than happy to swap our 21″ analogue CRT for a fairly nifty 26″ flatscreen at the same rent. (It has so many inputs!!!)

 In short then, approximate cost and hassle of switching to digital = Sweet FA.

So should you rush to join me on Saorview?² Yes if you have a bad picture, in which case the switch could make an amazing difference. Otherwise, nah. For one, it’s not guaranteed to work yet. You may find it ups and disappears on you randomly. (Though if it does, you should still be able to tune in the old analogue signal.) While HD is nice and all it’s not exactly a viewing revolution, and only Network 2 is being broadcast in HD yet. There’s 3e if you’re not getting that already, which justifies its existence by showing Futurama, and RTÉ’s new digital channels, which no one remembers asking for. And that’s about it – so far anyway.

Except that this may be your first brush with owning a widescreen TV – or at least, one with a widescreen signal to match. I’d like to say this makes sense of the whole thing, but it’s still a mess. You were used to films being letterboxed on your old 4:3 TV. Now you have to choose between programmes being cropped, stretched, or pillarboxed. And you must choose, because not everything looks best the same way. And you must not choose stretched. Goddamit people are fat enough these days.

Any other cons? Well on this set at least there’s a very noticeable delay when you change channel. Maybe you get used to that. And you’ll need a new Saorview-compatible DVD player to record from the digital signal, so factor that in when calculating… well, calculating the expense the government is putting you to for as yet no very clear reason.

  1. You may prefer to call them antennas.
  2. We call it Saorview, from the Irish Saor, meaning ‘Free’, and the English View, meaning ‘Radharc’.

The TV Is Watching Back

So a company in San Francisco has come out with a TV that watches you. Via a built-in Internet connection it reports on what you’re viewing and returns Web content that relates to the programme you’re trying to watch, and – for all I know – vice versa.

I should sue.

Western Civilization

That’s from a webcomic I did – in 2003.

My idea was actually a more advanced version of what San Francisco company Flingo is offering. They don’t have a camera built in so that you can participate in the televisual experience. Their offering just monitors your viewing to provide you with information about the programmes you’re looking at, and to provide you with better-targeted advertising. Imagine – targeted advertising! Where’s my wallet?

At least my dystopia rewarded you for being observed:

Western Civilization 2

The strip was called Doubt.It, basically because I’d just bought this web domain and I wanted to use it, but it saw print under its “real” name, Western Civilization. I liked that comic, even if trying to do it every day made for some really crappy drawing.

It’s ages now since I’ve done any comic, when I think about it. Maybe one day.

President Of Popular Opinion

Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne speaking at a publ...
It's not even plugged in. He can only talk into microphones now.

Well that was a bullet dodged. Gay Byrne for President. Wow.

Some background here for the overseas reader – in Ireland we elect a President to do nothing. Unlike the American President who is head of both, the Irish President is head of State but not of the Executive. In other words they don’t make decisions at all, they are quite literally there just to look pretty. Well, look stately I suppose. They are meant to be a figurehead for the country, standing above the tooth-and-claw world of politics. Like royalty, but without having to pay for their whole extended family. The Constitution requires them to agree with government policies and never say anything controversial.

Someone thought that this was a job for Gay Byrne?

Gay Byrne was for decades the biggest figure in the Irish media. He hosted both the most popular daily radio show and – by far – the most popular weekly TV chat show. All live. Since his retirement it’s taken at least three other presenters to cover for him. He is is a well-loved, avuncular figure with a twinkly eye who embodies some of the best aspects of Ireland. Some. He can also be irascible and strongly opinionated. I invite British readers to imagine a Terry Wogan with… moods.

As soon as people have calmed down a bit they’ll realise the idea was as mad as a yoghurt with spanners in it. What were the chances of Gay Byrne getting through a seven-year Presidential term without telling the government where to get off?

Zero. There was no chance of that happening. Thank God he turned the nomination down. He would have made Hugo Chavez look diffident.

Electric Car Wars

Nissan Leaf at Tokyo Motor Show.
Fill it with your mighty juice

In an exciting clash of great British institutions, the Guardian’s George Monbiot has taken the BBC’s Top Gear to task over their review of electric cars. You can guess most of it – Top Gear promotes all that threatens safety and the environment, the Guardian takes life too seriously and should relax once in a while. Both these things are true.

Monbiot is wrong though. I watched that episode, and I don’t think it set out to grossly mislead. Yes, the Nissan LEAF running out of power in the city of Lincoln was staged. But everything about the program with the exception of the laptimes – and I’m not even sure about those – is staged. They drop pianos on Morris Marinas, any caravan they come near inexplicably catches light, and if they get an electric car you can be sure the battery will go flat. The programme is blatantly childish, and this is part of its attraction.

“But the point is that it creates the strong impression that the car ran out of juice unexpectedly,” claims Monbiot, “leaving the presenters stranded in Lincoln, a city with no public charging points.”

Well I for one did not get that strong impression. I saw it as Clarkson and May taking off without considering how they were going to charge up, like fools. It was silly, but it highlighted some practical problems with electric cars – problems programmes with an environmental brief are perhaps too happy to make light of in a different sense. To be out of charge in an electric car could make you long for the simple days of a hike with a can to a distant filling station.

Is there any real danger of that? When new, the LEAF has a claimed range of 160 km (100 miles). And though in practice you’d rarely if ever be charging from completely flat, a full recharge at ordinary voltages for Europe will take around 8 hours. (A figure of 11 hours under some conditions was mentioned on the programme, but that does seem to be misleading.) This isn’t actually bad at all. It means it’s capable of a daily commute of anything up to a hundred miles each way if you can recharge at work, which sounds like more than almost anyone would ever want. However it’s not allowing for the unexpected – which always happens. So for a comfortable margin of error you really want to be travelling only half that far, at least until a network of fast-charging stations becomes a reality.

But that’s still absolutely fine for about 90% of the journeys that cars actually make. So when the Top Gear team conclude that “electric cars are not the future” (and that that future is – somehow – hydrogen), they’re clearly wrong. Already a practical proposition for a lot of people, the electric car is the present.

The future is probably no cars at all.

Emergency At 2 a.m.

Well that upset my plans. There I was just polishing my rant about the Vatican (coming later now) when I heard a bang. Of course, you hear bangs in the country. But two in the morning is a little unusual. Also, it wasn’t a bang I recognised. Curious, I turned down the TV.

Another bang. That was definitely strange. I got up and went out of the house. It’s a fairly dark night, but I could hear a strange noise. Again, not something I could put a finger on. Sort of fire-like. Out on the boreen (lane), I saw a light coming from just where it bent behind my aunt’s tractor shed. A… fire-like light. Also the smoke was kind of fire-like too. I was beginning to suspect this was definitely something fire-like. Like a fire. It was just that it was coming from a place where fire didn’t belong. The middle of a little country back-road?

Yet I wasn’t quite prepared for what I saw as I rounded the corner. A fire, with a car in it. A car. On fire. There was a car on fire in our boreen.

It looked like a neighbour’s one, a little Peugeot in an ugly shade of bluey-green. It didn’t look like he was in it though. If he was, it was too late – the car was engulfed.

I called these guys.

The only thing that could make this job better would be if you got to *start* the fires

More of the story later this evening. It’s 5 a.m. now.

The Murdoch Show – A Review

Banana cream pie.
Critical Notice

The end of an extraordinary day, says the TV man. Did anyone else think so? To me it seemed a let-down; predictable, unchallenging, frequently tedious.

What we were watching was, as reader jonolan put it, theatre. And not even good theatre, unless you count the intervention by the pieman – that at least was unpredictable. Otherwise its sole moment of flair was Assistant Commissioner John Yates’ surrealistic claim to be a postbox.

The prince came across more like a villain, and it was the king who vacillated. He wanted to apologise as profusely and humbly as possible – yet he wouldn’t accept the blame. Such inconsistency in a character strains credulity.

The best you can say for the production is that it was well rehearsed. The Murdochs delivered their lines effectively enough: News Corp is a highly ethical organisation, the News Of The World a completely inexplicable and isolated aberration. It was at least a daring conceit. And memorable – though mainly because they kept saying it at every opportunity.

Then in the last act a whole new theme was introduced. The News Of The World was revealed by Rebekah Brooks to be a crusading journal, focused only on protecting children and the rights of soldiers, a paragon of what newspapers should be. But the transformation hadn’t been justified by anything that had gone before, so it lacked conviction.

That’s what this show needs more of. Conviction. Preferably several.

Press versus Politics

Murdoch's papers actually boasted that they could decide elections

What’s happening in Britain today is pretty damn exciting. Bluntly put, politicians have been running scared of Rupert Murdoch for decades. He has been a kingmaker. He owns enough of the media, including dailies and sundays in both the broadsheet and tabloid markets, to influence the entire political agenda, arguably even deciding the outcome of elections.

Politicians have feared him, politicians have tried to appease him. And not just because he could shape the agenda of public debate. He could also use his papers, and the people employed by them, to exert personal pressure. The man who owns the London Times also kept a couple of rottweilers, and had no qualms about using them to intimidate.

The more success he had at pushing politicians around, the softer they went on media regulation and ownership, so giving him more power. His ownership of leading names in all the paper markets was leveraged into a major interest in Sky, the biggest money-earner in UK TV. Money which helped further increase his market dominance and so his ability to push politicians around.

This was never going to end well.

And it looks likely to happen all over again in the US, where his Fox News has helped shift the debate drastically towards the right – and indeed away from debate at all, to a place where actual democratic politics is paralysed by polarisation and shouting. Murdoch is a businessman willing to damage the public cultures of countries within which he operates in order to profit.

What we’re getting to watch here is the worm finally turning. And it’s wonderful to see. Realising that public opinion might for once be on their side, cowed politicians are beginning to get a gleam in their eyes. They are imagining a world where they are not afraid. And they are thrilled by what a better world that could be.

For once, you can sympathise with the politicians. The press must be powerful, it must be free and strong. But dominance by one man and his organisation is every bit as pernicious as dominance by government.

The Cinema Conspiracy

Caroline Munro was definitely bustier too

Have you noticed how quickly special effects become dated now? CGI that was revolutionary when a movie came out seems crappy even before it reaches TV. Golum, once character animation perfected, already looks fake. And when I finally saw Beowulf I couldn’t believe it ever impressed anyone, it looks like it was made in someone’s bedroom. Parts of it especially. I’m not going to bother ever seeing Avatar. At this point it’s going to be about as impressive as Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

There’s something wrong here. Look how long earlier generations of special effects lasted. As a child I was wowed by the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen in films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, the original Clash of the Titans, or – well, about every film I wanted to see. But so were my parents and even grandparents when he did King Kong Mighty Joe Young¹. OK, show it to a child now and they will actually yawn between the frames, but that work lasted for generations rather than weeks.

So things are getting better faster than they used to, and by a sad but inescapable logic that means they get worse faster too. I accept that, I just don’t think it’s sufficient to explain what’s going on.

When the film is released for TV the effects sequences included will actually be reduced in quality from the versions you saw in the cinema. Same again when the DVD comes out. And it doesn’t look worse in HD because the picture is better. How the hell did they ever trick us into believing that? It looks worse because it is worse.

They do the same with old TV programmes too. When I was a kid, Thunderbirds did not have the visible strings I notice now, I’d swear to it. Or Space 1999… Oh all right. But the rest, they had to downgrade.

Why? Because CGI progress isn’t fast enough to meet public expectations. We go to the cinema expecting every new film to be an astonishing quantum leap forward, and that’s just not possible. Look at Pixar’s films. Yes they’re brilliant – but they started brilliant. So the only way to keep blowing our minds is to keep reducing our expectations.

Just like governments do with recessions.

 

  1. Argh, stupid mistake. Stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien did King Kong. Harryhausen learned under him on several films, including the less iconic giant gorilla feature.

The Cinema Conspiracy

Caroline Munro was definitely bustier too

Have you noticed how quickly special effects become dated now? CGI that was revolutionary when a movie came out seems crappy even before it reaches TV. Golum, once character animation perfected, already looks fake. And when I finally saw Beowulf I couldn’t believe it ever impressed anyone, it looks like it was made in someone’s bedroom. Parts of it especially. I’m not going to bother ever seeing Avatar. At this point it’s going to be about as impressive as Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

There’s something wrong here. Look how long earlier generations of special effects lasted. As a child I was wowed by the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen in films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, the original Clash of the Titans, or – well, about every film I wanted to see. But so were my parents and even grandparents when he did King Kong Mighty Joe Young¹. OK, show it to a child now and they will actually yawn between the frames, but that work lasted for generations rather than weeks.

So things are getting better faster than they used to, and by a sad but inescapable logic that means they get worse faster too. I accept that, I just don’t think it’s sufficient to explain what’s going on.

When the film is released for TV the effects sequences included will actually be reduced in quality from the versions you saw in the cinema. Same again when the DVD comes out. And it doesn’t look worse in HD because the picture is better. How the hell did they ever trick us into believing that? It looks worse because it is worse.

They do the same with old TV programmes too. When I was a kid, Thunderbirds did not have the visible strings I notice now, I’d swear to it. Or Space 1999… Oh all right. But the rest, they had to downgrade.

Why? Because CGI progress isn’t fast enough to meet public expectations. We go to the cinema expecting every new film to be an astonishing quantum leap forward, and that’s just not possible. Look at Pixar’s films. Yes they’re brilliant – but they started brilliant. So the only way to keep blowing our minds is to keep reducing our expectations.

Just like governments do with recessions.

 

  1. Argh, stupid mistake. Stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien did King Kong. Harryhausen learned under him on several films, including the less iconic giant gorilla feature.

But It’s OUR Corruption

This is a good one. Michael Healy-Rae, the son of one of our finer politicians, won a ‘reality’ TV show thanks to a public phone-in vote. Several thousand of these calls, it turned out, came from his father’s place of work. As his father is a lone-wolf independent, not exactly popular with other TDs (representatives), it is beyond belief that this was a spontaneous outpouring of support by his fellow deputies. Government phone lines, which are free for representatives of course, were used to call premium numbers – were used in what can only be honestly described as an orchestrated attempt to cheat.

On his father’s retirement at the last election, thanks in part perhaps to the publicity received from the TV show, Michael Healy-Rae took over the seat.

He has now agreed to repay the cost of the calls. Not, he wishes to emphasise, because he admits any liability or responsibility for this wonderful outpouring of support from government offices. Rather, simply so that the House can get over this and go back to concentrating on the country’s real problems.

What he does not understand, or wishes to pretend not to understand, is that the contemptuous abuse of position and privilege to get an advantage over everyone else is precisely the country’s real problem.