The NAB: Old technology, lousy content, national security?
Aug 29th, 2010 by scaredpoet

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is a lobbying group that caters to something that hasn’t been relevant in many people’s lives for years: terrestrial, FM radio. And there’s a really good reason why FM radio hasn’t been relevant to lots of people for a good long time: FM radio sucks.

The NAB is of course aware that people aren’t listening much to FM radio these days, and they want to do something about it.  Of course, a common sense thing would be to improve the content that FM radio stations provide: like, say, good music from artists people actually want to listen to.  But common sense doesn’t seem to be something that the NAB has a lot of.  So instead, they’d rather do something else: force phone manufacturers to embed FM receivers in all cell phones and mobile devices, in the hopes that people will be compelled to listen to their crappy content. To do this, they’ve gone to Congress:

...mid-way in the article was something which really caught my attention. Part of the “deal”—and like all things political, it is a deal—would require that all cell phone handsets must have an FM-radio function built in. Wait a second, I thought . . . whether implemented as a separate IC, or added to an existing RF/mixed-signal chipset, it will add cost, power consumption, antenna-design issues, and more to the handset design. And all for what purpose, exactly? To force people to listen the FM band? Yeah, right, that will do it, absolutely.

One of the arguments behind this mandate is the tried-and-true, instill-fear argument that every desperate party turns to: national security and public safety.  The argument goes that people will need to turn to FM radios in the event of a serious crisis or national emergency.  Makes sense, right?

But the public safety argument is merely a red herring.  This isn’t about public safety in the least. The NAB is trying to legislate the foisting of old technology on electronics vendors in the vain hope that it will compel people to listen to FM stations, without their constituency having to make any effort to draw listeners back to them.

But even if those folks at the NAB really were compassionate, well-meaning souls who just want to make sure everyone stays safe and informed, where should this type of nanny-state legislation stop? How about we pass laws that require every US resident to subscribe to a minimum level of cable TV service, since over-the-air or satellite TV might be subject to weather conditions or transmitter failures due to terrorists attacks, and new video technologies like FiOS and UVerse are simply too new? How about we also mandate that every household subscribe to copper POTS wireline phone service (again, Fiber is “too new” and untested) and connect rotary corded phones to that service?

What those fine, well-meaning (I’m sure) folks at the NAB don’t understand is, people like me aren’t listening to FM not because we don’t have FM radios, but because the stations we can receive on those radios provide us with no reason to listen. Perhaps if they innovated, and provided compelling programming, and didn’t play the same 6 songs over and over between 20+ minutes of a commercials per hour, their audience numbers would grow.

What’s worse, most of these FM radio stations no longer have news departments of their own, having sacrificed them as cost-saving measures, in the (quite ironic) belief that people won’t want to listen to the news all the time. As such, most FM stations are not equipped to provide news and information on their own in a serious crisis or emergency. In fact, during past crises, since September 11 on, many have tended to cut over to the audio of CNN or similar news feeds. So… what’s the point? A potential listener like me could just go to CNN to get the video that goes with the audio.

There are of course, pure news stations on terrestrial radio, but the majority of them are on the AM band, and so, such stations would still not be accessible to mobile phone users with their required-by-law FM receivers.  So much for that.

There are entities like satellite radio, online broadcasting stations and online music stores that don’t mandate by law that everyone be forced to own equipment capable of receiving their content, and yet they do just fine. The NAB could learn from their example.

The new police search battlefield: your cell phone
Feb 22nd, 2010 by scaredpoet

One thing that really annoys me about the tattered state of civil rights in the US is how technology is being used by law enforcement as a means to short-circuit basic privacy protections. Flying under the banner of things like “Homeland Security,” the common excuse seems to be made these newfangled desktop and mobile computer-machines don’t operate like the old, analog, physical things that used to replace them, and so somehow, this means the existing laws don’t apply. Sadly, it also seems like lawmakers are in no rush at all to make it clear that our Fourth Amendment Rights apply whether or not our belongings are stashed in a physical box, or whether they’re accessible via a keyboard or touch screen.

The latest arena for the battle for your privacy is your cell phone, and so far, law enforcement is on the offensive here.

Read the rest of this entry »
Sprint knows where you are, and so does the feds.
Dec 2nd, 2009 by scaredpoet


Remember not too long ago, when there was a huge fervor over warrantless wiretapping?  Back in the bad old days of the Bush Administration (and maybe even today), Verizon and AT&T willingly participated in permitting the NSA to monitor communications traffic on their networks, without the need for silly little things like, oh, search warrants and due process.  And boy, everyone sure got all in a huff when they found out!  Despite it being an extension of legislation hurriedly rushed into law to appease a panicky public, the citizenry refused (as they often do) to look at themselves in the mirror for being panicky petes, and instead the “Big Two” carriers mentioned above got the brunt of the public’s ire.  Lawsuits were threatened and all kinds of punishments were dreamed up for the corporate actors in this conspiracy, all while the Bush administration pretty much got shrugged off by the general public for, well, doing what they always did.

Another company to get a pass was Sprint.  You just didn’t hear about what their involvement might’ve been.

But it looks like now more than ever, surveillance is alive and well, and Sprint is making it incredibly easy for Law Enforcement to find out where any use of their network might be.  So easy in fact, that Law Enforcement has tracked the wherabouts of Sprint users more than 8 million times in the past year alone!

Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with its customers’ (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009. This massive disclosure of sensitive customer information was made possible due to the roll-out by Sprint of a new, special web portal for law enforcement officers.

The evidence documenting this surveillance program comes in the form of an audio recording of Sprint’s Manager of Electronic Surveillance, who described it during a panel discussion at a wiretapping and interception industry conference, held in Washington DC in October of 2009.

Consider that Sprint has about 49.3 million customers.  Even if you assume that some users were no doubt tracked more than once, that’s still a pretty astonishing number.  Are there really millions of sleeping terrorists chatting and texting on Sprint phones?  Or has the government continued to be way, way too willing to disregard the freedoms of its citizens in the name of homeland security, while Sprint passively sits by and allows it to happen?

Newton: The iPhone’s grandaddy
Nov 2nd, 2009 by scaredpoet

Newton MP 120 and iPhone 3GS

Before the iPhone, before Windows Mobile, and before Palm, there was the grandaddy of all smartphones and modern handheld computers: the Newton MessagePad.  Back when I was in high school, I wanted one of these so badly. Alas, $700-plus for the MessagPad 2100 back in 1997, was not something I nor anyone I knew at the time could afford.

Over a decade and over a dozen smartphones later, I sit with an iPhone and hear old-timers talk about how revolutionary the Newton is even today.  I would scoff thinking we’ve come a long way from those bulky old things.  Then this Youtube video caught my eye…

Granted, the iPhone now has cut and paste, something it lacked when this vide was made. But there’s a lot of contextual features that modern smartphones still don’t have. Although it doesn’t play videos, take photos, display color or even make phone calls, I have to say there’s stil a few interesting things this video demonstrates that I really wish existed on modern handhelds today.

Linux on your cell phone. Or, is it?
Aug 12th, 2009 by scaredpoet

Android Logo

There seems to be a lot of open source zealotry going on lately over the new crop of “open” touch-screen smartphones coming out. The obvious big contenders are phones that run on Google’s Android, and of course Palm’s WebOS-based Pre. There’s also been a recent announcement regarding LG, and others introducing phones that run LiMo.

So obviously, the big buzz is that all these wonderful phones are running linux now, and all will be right with the world because they’re open platforms and unrestricted and we can write all the wonderful apps we want…. right?

Well, I’m going to make a bold statement here… while a lot of these new platforms claim to be “linux,” there’s more to the story, and users aren’t really using linux.

Saying that Android and WebOS phones are “linux-based” is like saying that the iPhone is “UNIX-based.” In the loosest possible sense you might be able to weasel that into a true statement, but users aren’t truly using the kernel (though you can get some really nice BSD tools running if you jailbreak the iPhone, in which case you probably could truly say you’re using *nix then).

Android boots the linux kernel but then runs the Davlik Virtual Machine on top of it. This is basically modified Java code. It would be better apt to say that Android is more a Java platform than it is a linux platform. The fact that it boots linux is merely a formality, a means to an end.

WebOS is similar. It too boots a linux kernel as a necessary means to get the phone running, but you aren’t truly using Linux. The apps must be written using HTML5, Java or CSS. WebOS would be more accurately called a Web App platform (which is probably how it got its name).

So for now, these aren’t accurately called “Linux” platforms, because users aren’t really using Linux. It’s conceivable that Google and Palm could’ve run their VMs and platforms on top of RIM OS, or Windows Mobile, if that had made sense to them. It just so happens that linux is free and open source and requires no licensing.

Google has been kinda duplicitous on this point. They’ll tacitly speak of linux when they can use that to woo the open source zealots who want to get behind it as a way to strike back at the Big Bad iPhone. But to the general public and the people they want actually using these phones, you’ll hear nary a peep about linux. Google is as it always has been: a company that deals strictly with portable, OS-agnostic web apps, and dreams of an eventual “OS-less” future. Linux just happens to be a convenient tool to get that going for now, and sadly the FOSS community to date has been willing to turn a blind eye to this.

PalmOS on the other hand, calls its platform for what it is: a system that coincidentally boots linux to get up in the morning, but you’re developing web apps and that’s that.

There have been marginally successful true linux-based mobile devices, like the Nokia N800 and N810. They aren’t phones per se, but they do run Maemo, which is based off Debian and runs actual linux apps, including X windowing systems, busybox, Skype, etc.

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