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Archive for July, 2019

A new bill introduced into the House of Representatives yesterday would force cable operators to offer a family tier of programming, along with an "opt-out" à la carte cable programming option. At the same time, it would apply broadcast indecency standards that restrict indecent programming to the hours of 10 PM and 6 AM to cable and satellite networks. HangZhou Night Net

The Family and Consumer Choice Act of 2007 is cosponsored by Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL) and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and would be the à la carte law that Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin says is necessary. The bill has not yet appeared on the Library of Congress web site, but Ars was able to obtain a copy of the legislation from Rep. Lipinski's office.

Tiers and à la carte

The bill has something for everyone who has been advocating for à la carte cable. Those concerned by the amount of programming available on cable that's inappropriate for young eyes should be pleased, as there's a very real "think of the children" thread running through the bill. "Of those homes with children subscribing to cable service, the vast majority subscribe to expanded basic cable service," notes the bill. For that reason, the bill would mandate the creation of "real family tiers of programming," which the bill defines as all channels in the expanded basic tier aside from those carrying programming rated TV-Mature or TV-14 between the hours of 6am and 10pm.

Those who are tired of paying for channels that they never watch will like the bill's opt-out provision, which will give cable and satellite subscribers the ability to cancel channels on an individual basis. The legislation says that anyone electing to do so would receive a "credit on the monthly bill… for such blocked channels in an amount equal to the amount that such distributor pays for the right to provide such blocked channel."

That rumbling you're hearing is the heavy-duty lobbying machines of the cable companies being revved up and put into gear. Cable and satellite providers have consistently opposed à la carte programming, saying that it would raise overall programming costs while dooming niche networks that have a limited audience. A couple of cable companies—most notably Time Warner—have created family tiers, but those are the exception, rather than the rule. And despite all the discussion about à la carte cable, consumers are generally indifferent to it and unrealistic about its price.

Applying broadcast standards to cable

Moving beyond à la carte and family tiers, the legislation would extend indecent programming restrictions that are currently applied to terrestrial TV to cable and satellite networks. "In accordance with the indecency and profanity policies and standards applied by the [FCC] to broadcasters, as such policies and standards are modified from time to time, not transmit any material that is indecent or profane on any channel in the expanded basic tier of such distributor" except between 10 PM and 6 AM.

Rep. Lipinski and FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who has advocated for expanded indecency regulations, believe that parents need government help in protecting their children from objectionable content. "In today's culture, parents are increasingly worried that their children are exposed to obscene, indecent, and violent programming," Rep. Lipinski said in a statement. "While there is no doubt that parents are the first line of defense in protecting their kids, clearly they need more help."

With the parental controls built into every television set, set-top box, and DVR being sold these days, the need for such legislation seems questionable at best. Unlike broadcast television, which is available to anyone with a TV and an antenna, people subscribe to and pay for cable/satellite. Those who are concerned about the possibility of indecent programming during the daytime already have several options available to them, including not subscribing to cable or using some of the technological means available to block objectionable content.

In a conference call on Thursday, Intel laid out its mid- to long-term plans for the Itanium Product Family (IPF). With all the hype around Penryn and Nehalem and the ongoing popularity of chatter about Itanium's eventual demise at the hands of 64-bit x86, Intel took a moment to remind the press and analysts that Itanium is still here, still posting double-digit year-over-year growth in revenue and unit shipments, and still looking toward the future. HangZhou Night Net

Indeed, Itanium's future was the focus of the call, in which Intel described its IPF roadmap for the next few product iterations. Here's a summary of what was announced.

The next version of Itanium to hit the streets will be Montevale, which is a tweak of the dual-core Montecito with some additional RAS features.

Following Montevale in 2008 will be the quad-core Tukwila, the next major version of Itanium since Montecito brought the platform into the dual-core realm. Tukwila is a 65nm quad-core part (all four cores are on the same die, so AMD would approve) with an on-die memory controller and support for simultaneous multithreading. Intel claims that Tukwila will offer two times the performance of Montecito at the same TDP.

The major feature that Tukwila will bring to the Itanium line is support for Intel's sorely needed and extremely delayed common systems interconnect (CSI). CSI promises a new socket and bus protocol format that will support either an Itanium chip or a Xeon. Intel will also release chipset hardware that will support either processor on the same motherboard. At last, Xeon and Itanium will be drop-in replacements for one another, a feature that should go a long way in helping with IPF's uptake.

Of course, CSI also offers bandwidth improvements and a host of other features that will finally give Intel a real competitor to AMD's HyperTransport, which by then will be in its 3.0 iteration.

Tukwila's microarchitecture will be essentially the same as that of Montecito, which is itself the same as the Itanium2 processor launched in 2002. IPF's basic microarchitecture won't get a major overhaul until sometime around 2010, when the 32nm Poulson chip launches. Intel was pretty mum on Poulson, not giving too many details.

If Poulson details were scarce, details about its successor, codenamed Kittson, were nonexistent. Intel would only give a codename, with no word on a timeframe, features, or anything else.

Opera Software vice president Tatsuki Tomita has confirmed that his company is developing a replacement for the Adobe Flash plug-in for use with future versions of the Opera Mini mobile web browser. HangZhou Night Net

Tomita explained that the reason for this move is that the traditional Flash plug-in uses a large amount of CPU and memory resources, limiting speed and battery life on mobile platforms. The problem is exacerbated when the Flash plug-in is not well-optimized for the platform it is running on; Macintosh users can attest to this firsthand. "You cannot execute and provide a good user experience," Tomita told InfoWorld, referring to running the Flash plug-in on mobile devices.

The new technology will add video capability directly into the Web browser so that users can see and play back video content directly in Opera. As of yet, Opera has not commented on whether or not the new native playback ability for Opera Mobile will be able to play existing Flash content.

Flash playback has often been a sore point for Opera users on various platforms. Earlier versions of Opera had difficulty playing back fullscreen versions of YouTube videos, for example, until Opera fixed that particular bug. Users of Opera on the Wii have noted that not all Flash content is playable on that device.

Tomita did not give a date for when the Opera Mini Flash replacement would be available. He said that he expects the web browser to continue to gain functionality as more and more companies move towards making web-based versions of their applications. He said that the limitations of web-based applications can be overcome if browser providers work with individual mobile device makers to control the hardware and software capabilities natively. In this case, it seems like he is referring to phone manufacturers who want to deliver their own premium video content to users, which he believes the new Opera native Flash replacement will do better than existing solutions.

A few days ago, Ars reviewed the new 17" MacBook Pro. Most of that review also applies to the new 15-inchers, but there is one aspect to the latest incarnation of the 15" MacBook Pro that warrants another look: the LED-backlit screen. HangZhou Night Net

When I started up my new 2.2 GHz 15" MacBook Pro this morning, I wasn't immediately struck by the brightness of the screen. Sure, it was brighter than the screen of the PowerBook I was replacing, and maybe even a bit brighter than the CRT that still decorates my desk, but not by a huge margin. Then again, it was a cloudy day, so no sun to wash out the image on the screen. However after it had gotten dark, I launched an investigation into rumors that the iSight now has a 1.3 megapixel resolution. (It doesn't. Too bad.) Initially, the iSight images were too dark to be useful. So I thought I'd increase the screen brightness, thinking that maybe that would illuminate my face. Did it ever. I almost had to squint because of the barrage of photons sent my way. You can actually video conference in complete darkness, with only the display to light your face. So, yes, it's bright. Apple says that the brightness is the same as the previous model, but remember, I'm upgrading from a nearly four-year-old PowerBook. Also, the screen goes to full brightness immediately. No warming up. The keyboard backlighting is also very bright and is a bit on the purple side.

The next thing I wanted to know was whether the yellow cast observed in some photos of the new MBPs meant that the new screens have a different color temperature than the old ones. They don't. Visual inspection shows no color cast, and looking at the color profile for the screen with the ColorSync Utility shows that the native white point is identical to that of the previous-generation of MBP 15" screens. That would be standard 6500K or D65—the color of daylight on an overcast day. However, looking at the screen from an angle makes the image brown-yellowish. I was a bit worried about the viewing angles, but it's not as bad as I had feared. If you sit back a bit and adjust the screen so it's perpendicular to your line of sight, you're in good shape. When leaning in, however, you'll look at the corners of the screen at enough of an angle to introduce color shifts.

The black level is very good for an LCD screen: it's not entirely pitch black, but it's getting there. The one thing I don't like so much is that the very top of the screen (10 to 15 pixels) is brighter than the rest of the display. But the top of the screen is the best place for this flaw, as it's normally hidden by the menu bar and when playing video, the problem area will likely end up in the letter boxing for wide screen content, as the aspect is 16:10 while wide screen video is 16:9.

Really good LED-backlit LCD screens are supposed to have a wider range of colors (the gamut) than regular LCD displays with cold cathode fluorescent lamp (CCFL) backlights, but cheap LED-powered displays can have a worse-than-usual gamut. Apple says the new screens are identical to the old ones, which is hard to believe considering the fundamental change in underlying technology. So I was very interested to see how the information in the color profiles of the new screen compares to that of its immediate predecessor. If you look at the images closely, you'll see that the triangle that encompasses the gamut of the display is slightly bigger for the new MacBook Pro: it extends farther into the yellow part of the spectrum. However, compared to the sRGB profile, the change doesn't amount to much.

So although Apple's claim that the new screens are identical to the old ones isn't strictly true, it's not hard to see hard to see why they would say that.

A few weeks ago, I agreed to be an interview subject for George Kenney's podcast series, Electric Politics. Kenney is a really interesting guy with an distinguished and varied biography, and his podcast series hosts an impressive range of guests on a variety of topics related to politics and technology. I was honored to follow Chalmers Johnson as an interviewee, and my interview is now available from Kenney's site. HangZhou Night Net

A few words of warning before you download the interview. First, Kenney had mentioned that the particular type of broadcast-quality audio recording equipment that he uses doesn't work as well with Skype as it does with standard phone lines. My house is Skype- and mobile-only, so POTS wasn't an option for me. I typically talk in a fairly low register, so when you combine that with the Skype-related static, it sounds like I really need to cough throughout most of the interview. Not that the audio is bad, mind you, but listening to it I kept thinking, "man, I sound kind of gurgly."

The second caveat relates to the extremely open-ended and wide-ranging nature of the conversation: politics, religion, technology, and everything in between. The spontaneous, open-endedness of it all—there was no plan to talk about one particular topic—and the total lack of visual cues on my end that would let me know when I'm rambling and when I'm staying on topic, made it extremely difficult for me stay focused in my responses. On the whole, I think I did a pretty good job given the circumstances, but there are a few moments that (to me at least) seem to veer into "dorm room bull-session" type territory because I'm on this kind of extended, free-form rant about some super-deep topic.

I was keenly aware of this factor over the course of the interview, and so as I sat there alone in my office, with my Skype headset on, speaking to the voice at the other end of the ether about the problems of empire and the nature of the human condition (not my usual topic of conversation), I was really trying to hold it all together and make coherent, worthwhile points. If you've never been in this position—where you've got 1.5 hours worth of rope to hang yourself with, and no net—then you have no idea what a challenge it is to tell when you're making a point and when you're just thinking out loud. (All the previous interviews I've done have been one-topic affairs, where I could prepare beforehand.)

The end result of all this is that my conversation is rhythmically punctuated with verbal artifacts like "um..", "y'know…," "well…," and so on that are pretty much the stutters and stumbles of an amateur sweating and weaving on a high-wire above the circus floor.

At any rate, George did a great job of navigating all of this, and without him nudging me along it could've been much worse. So I hope you guys enjoy listening to me think out loud for an hour and a half—in spite of the amount of effort involved, it was a good experience and I'm glad I participated.

Oh, and the source of this post title is a term that I must've used at least five times in various contexts in the interview: "flip side." I think this jumped out at me mainly because it's not something I normally say.