Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Pixel and Ink Stained Year in Review

IT's the end of the year as we know it. This year in review and its companion peek into my pixel and ink-stained crystal ball at the year coming up will be largely "pixel" posts in that I'll talk about commercial AV. Perhaps one or two literary mentions to round things out. And more on the Year-to-Come post later. This is a very quick highlight of just a few AV trends from the past year. There is, of course, more. There's always more. For now, in no particular reason are some thoughts that stuck in my mind from 2013. 

My look forward at 2014 will come as part of the SMW team on our ExpresShen's blog. You'll still see me here, but I'll also be spending some time there along with some of my very bright and talented colleagues, not only in the AV discipline but our data, security, medical planning, and acoustics disciplines as well. That should be an exciting part of the new year and something in which I am greatly looking forward to participating.

2013 was the year....

....that the HDBaseT "standard" hit a saturation point and stopped being interesting. 

Crestron, AMX, Extron, Kramer, Aurora, Purelink, Lightware, Muxlabs, and probably a half dozen others I'm not thinking of at the moment all have what is, for all intents and purposes, the same digital videl ecosystem: modular card-frame based switcher, smallish form-factor standalone transmitter/receiver units, 2-gang wall plate transmitters, etc. Some added an array of input and output formats (3G-SDI, VGA and other analog formats, etc), most have single- and multi-mode fiber options, and if you squint just a bit it's hard to tell which one you're looking at. I kinda flew through the "HDBaseT Pavillion" at Infocomm without too much catching my eye. 

This is part of the reason I'll not post on "switcher wars" anymore; so many of the decisions are so project-specific that it's almost impossible to compare various manufacturers in a vacuum. Do you need SDI outputs to feed a production switcher or capture appliance? Multi-format inputs for a variety of legacy devices? SDI inputs for broadcast cameras? A smaller form-factor and lower heat load because you're stuffing it into a credenza? Does it need to fit with some existing asset management infrastructure? Projects aren't one-size fits all, and we've gotten to the point at which we look at subtle details rather than "this one is good. That one is bad." 

....but some manufacturers have found ways to step out of the box

I'll list two that surprised me a bit. One is the Altinex Muse, technically not quite HDBaseT, but similar technology and interesting nonetheless. Their innovation (shown off in a pretty popular booth at Infocomm) is 150W of AC power right at the receiver. This means that you can plug in a smallish flatpanel with nothing but a single Cat5e or Cat6 cable and without an electrician. Highly groovy and a bit surprising.

Another one that caught my eye is Aurora Multimedia's L2 series of receivers. These have a tiny webserver and control processor built into them. This is terrific for very small, one- or two-input rooms with fairly simple control needs. It lets you run the space with a single-gang decora-style keypad *and* monitor it via your favorite building-management solution. I'd rather have a more robust control system for more complex spaces, but this is a thoughtful solution which certainly has its place.

....Dante took the lead in the digital transport battle

No. Not that Dante.
Audinate's Dante and the AVNu Alliance's AVB are the two available choices to replace the aging Cobranet protocol. 2012 saw Audinate introduce Ultimo, a smaller chipset capable of handling two inputs and two outputs. 2013 saw manufacturers such as Atterotech and Stewart Audio release an array of small form-factor amplifiers and breakout boxes, including wall-plates. A virtual sound card is available to bring multiple channels of audio into and out of a PC (for processing, recording, streaming, or any other purpose one can think of), digital mixing consoles have accepted Dante as one of several standards they support, an a variety of DSPs are now using Dante for audio connectivity.

The real surprise for the year  - and the reason I see Dante as taking the lead - is that Audinate announced that once AVB is ratified as a standard it would be possible for Dante-based hardware to become fully AVB compatible. The folk at Audinate tell me that this would be either/or; one could run the hardware as a Dante system using any layer three switch or as part of an AVB network using the added features in AVB-compliant switches. This adds, at the very least, a future-proofing security blanket.

...but not everybody gave up on Cobranet

A speaker with Cobranet
Amplifier built in!
I thought this would finally be the year we stop talking about Cobranet, but that seems to not be the case. Soundtube opened the year with the introduction of IP-addressable speakers using the venerable Cobranet protocol. Their stated reasons for sticking with this over Dante are that the Cobranet chip is small enough to fit into the speaker back-can along with an amplifer.  They also contend that, for many applications, the latency and channel counts available from Cobranet is more than sufficient. I have my usual level of skepticism, and am concerned about the extra layer of complexity conversion to Cobranet will add in systems which are primarily Dante or AVB. That said, there is a somewhat compelling point and it does seem an interesting solution for certain applications.

...we learned to think small

2013 saw quite a few collaborative solutions for small "huddle" type spaces, from Barco's smaller (and cheaper!) clickshare to Vaddio's Groupstation and wired pushbutton collaborative interfaces from FSR, Extron, and others. This fits not only with different ways in which people are working, but also with the growing prevalence of software-based communications tools as either a supplement to or sometimes a replacement for appliance-based enterprise videoconference systems. Many of us have some combination of Skype, Google Chat, or Apple Facetime either at home or on a personal device. Some of use  Microsoft Lync, Cisco's WebEx or similar on our desktop machines. We become familiar with these technologies, comfortable with them, and look for ways to expand them to use in room systems. Sometimes this sacrifices quality, but especially for small spaces can give a measure of functionality at a fraction of the price of hardwares solutions.

...The blackbirds roosted in the pomegranate tree

What? I'm sure you were expecting something on streaming (another post) or 4K (another other post!) or the like. Instead, I'll close with a literary note. Almost two-decades ago, American writer Mary Ellen Sanger spent six weeks in a Mexican prison. I met her years later at the home of New York-based author Talia Carner as part of a writers' critique group. This year, she finally published a book telling the stories of her time in prison and the women she met there. There are beautifully written, poetic tales. If you're looking for something thoughtful, interesting, and different to read this holiday season, feel free to pick up a copy in dead-tree or Kindle format. Enjoy!

That's the year past. Stay tuned for the year to come, nestled sometime between Christmas and New Years.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Fan Fiction, Culture, Matchsticks

There's been a bit of a kerfuffle recently about the producers of the BBC television series Sherlock having their actors read aloud from someone's erotic Sherlock-inspired fan-fiction at an official event for the upcoming launch of the fourth season. I'll not go into all of the details here, but the short version is that it is universally (and accurately) seen as an attempt to mock the fan-fiction writer and, as such, in bad form. The actors were uncomfortable, someone who loved the characters enough to write about them in her spare time was humiliated, and the hosts of the event now have egg on their collective faces. It's a lose-lose-lose. If one positive thing can come of it, that would be a discussion on the fading boundaries between fan-fiction and commercial fiction, between professional and amateur, and our overall cultural heritage.  There is a larger issue here than fan fiction. It's the question of who owns these characters and ideas themselves. We know who does legally, but I'm not sure who does morally.
Not this kind of fan fiction

What's most ironic about this incident, and what writer Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out in her take on the topic, is that the BBC series itself is, arguably as much "fan fiction" as the slash pieces they found it so very amusing to mock. Yes, I know that there's a legal lineage running back to the heirs of the Doyle estate, but that doesn't much interest me. Sherlock Holmes is, at present, a part of our culture as are Achilles, Superman and, most importantly, Mickey Mouse.

Why is Disney's famous rodent so important? Because he's arguably the one keeping the cultural commons from growing - at least in a legal perspective. One of the arguments presented to Congress in discussions on extending copyright protections first for fifty, and now for seventy-five years past the creator's death was the specter of commercial Mickey Mouse pornography. In reality, the fight was less about protecting the innocence of a fictitious rodent than it was about giving the corporation which now owns Walt Disney's work a perpetual cash-cow. It keeps the Mouse as the sole property of a corporation. Superman the property of the corporation which stole him from his original creator, and now the larger media conglomerate that owns them.  We, as a culture, are poorer for it. It wasn't always this way. I'm not an expert in ancient Greek intellectual property law, but I don't believe that Sophocles needed the permission of the Homer estate to write Ajax. (if anyone knows that he did, please correct me. I'd find that fascinating!)

As part of our heritage, these characters and ideas matter. It's a way of carrying on a conversation with the literature and culture which has come before us while speaking to the present generation. I mentioned Ajax in a snarky aside, but it was a then-modern take on  traditional Homeric values. Bringing Sherlock to the modern era might not be as artistically interesting, but it's very enjoyable and lets us reexamine some of the cultural assumptions from Arthur Conan Doyle's time.
It wasn't even a full
8-bits of greyscale

It isn't what I usually write myself, but I find some derivative work to be fascinating. Russian writer Kirill Yeskov wrote a fascinating (if somewhat awkwardly translated) retelling of The Lord of the Rings from the villain's perspective, casting Gandalf as a manipulative warmonger who was the real mover behind the concepts we see in Tolkein's books. Novelist Jacqueline Carey took a more commercially viable route and played the same reversal trick but with the serial numbers filed off in her The Sundering duology. This is the path that one needs to take if one wants to be commercial and doesn't own the rights. Sometimes it works; the TV medical drama House was arguably a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and someone famously turned some erotic Twilight fanfiction into an inexplicably popular treatise on grayscale (at least that's what I assume from the title. I'll confess to having never read the work in question).

I'll close with a bit of fiction; in her piece,  Kowal  stated that she'd welcome fan-stories in her Glamourist Histories universe. In that spirit, I've brought a fairy-tale character into her world, retelling a classic. For those not initiated, the Glamourist histories are regency-era romance novels with the addition of a bit of magic - the ability for some people to create illusions or "glamours". Some can even manipulate hear and cold, although at personal cost to their health.



Three Matches
by L Czhorat Suskin

Cold it was, so terribly cold in London, this long night late in the year without a summer. Cold infused the streets, cold slipped through thresholds of the coldmonger's guildhall in ironic discomfort but, most of all, cold soaked into the young lad's skin, muscle, into the very marrow of his bones. He was a coldmonger, a lucky one to have found work freezing an indoor skating rink and, at  nearly fourteen years, an old one. Today he felt old. He felt his nearly fourteen years the way an older man would feel the weight of decades, his body weakened by years of working the cold. Still, he had a roof in the guildhall and, thanks to this last job, a few coins in his pocket.

And He still had his dreams.

It was, after all, the year without a summer. The year Lord Vincent, glamourist to the Prince Regent himself visited London, reminder of all that the boy had dreampt of. Working glamour as art, delighting people with works of color and shapes rather than pure mechanical manipulation of heat and cold. He'd been practicing too, as much as he could with the strength he had remaining after the hours of drawing cold from the ether. Tonight's work had been particularly arduous; the guild's more educated benefactors explained why working cold is harder on a cold day, but that was all just words. The boy's reality was that it was cold.

It was on this cold night that he saw her. The matchstick girl. Younger even than he, walking on tiny naked feet blue with cold. The boy longed to be an artist; he saw the soot smeared around her eyes, not quite hiding deep purple bruises. From across the street he saw her shiver with her whole body. Saw her stop, desperately, pitifully cupping her hands around a match, trembling hands fumbling to strike it. He saw and, without thinking, reached into the ether, flicked a strand across the match and touched it to flame. 

The faintest hint of a smile touched the girls lips. Oh, how the boy pitied one who could be cheered by something so small. He struggled against the exhaustion in his own weakened body, pulled against strands of ether to paint within the flame a pleasant domestic scene. A warm fireplace, a table laden with food. Peace. The glamoured flames burned brightly, illuminating genuine joy in the girl's face, only to be extinguished as the candleflame bit her finger and went out.

She lit a second match. The glamourist boy was ready now, this time with a festive holiday scene. A magnificent Christmas tree festooned with glass ornaments, gaily wrapped presents beneath, and an angelic figure atop. The little girl reached her fingers into the image as the boy sank to his knees, overtaxed by the effort of maintaining the illusion.

Tears on her face, the girl lit a third match. She no longer felt the chill creeping into her bones, her poor frozen feet, no longer felt much of anything at all. She longed for the flame. For the next vision. The boy saw her from across the street, his vision fading and narrowing. Gone were the streets, the few people who'd take no notice of such wretched creatures as himself and the match-girl. The snow, the buildings... all faded. There was just him and, across the street, the girl. And her final match.

In the flame he painted a picture of the angelic figure from atop the holiday tree. Tears blurred his vision as he imbued the figure with as realistic color, as much art, as was in him. As the boy lost conciousness, the image unravelled, leaving a haze of pure light, then nothing. A smile touched his lips as the young girl whispered, "take me... take me with you."

Their bodies were found late the next morning, cold and lifeless. They were buried in a mass grave, nobody knowing that the girl had found a moment of peace and the boy had died an artist, as he'd wished to have lived.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Holiday Musings on Cooperation and Collaboration in the AV industry

It's non sectarian holiday time in the city. Last night was one of the New York AV community's traditions: the Sapphire Marketing holiday party at the Crestron showroom in midtown Manhattan. In what may or may not become a bee annual party of the transition, George Tucker and Chris Neto broadcast an AV related chat and discussion live from the party. Those who missed it live can feel free to catch the archive here. In addition to the fun and unsurprising revelations as to who cost Redband their TV-G rating and who brought their own booze to the party (no, I won't say here; you'll be missing the experience I'd your don't watch!) an observation Chris Neto made highlighted an interesting thought about the nature of our industry in this age of social media. That thought wad simply this: while he and I are technically competitors, we'd not only made little attempt to kill either but were actively exchanging information. There are fewer secrets than there might once have been in the industry. This is a good thing.
Live webcast at the party.
(Image from the Crestron Facebook page)

We've all met the technician, designer, our engineers who hoard knowledge, as if in fear that if someone else knows what they know it will diminish their value. This, to me, is one of the most toxic kinds of attitude I see in any tech industry. It's obvious that if we're hiding from our co-workers we're weakening our overall team by not letting all members be as efficient and effective as we can be. What about hiding things from competitors? Wouldn't my team at SMW be better off had I thought to poison some of the drinks we shared with our competitors rather than chat with them about technology? As temptingly simple an idea as that may be, it's overall a poor idea.

First of all, poisoning just one colleague's drink makes it much harder to end up on the guest list for future parties. More seriously is a point George Tucker made (and I elaborated on) - we're maturing as an industry. When one looks to build a house, one doesn't look for an architect with secret knowledge of steel or a mason with special, proprietary cement. One expects everyone to know the same basics of how a building is constructed and to apply that knowledge to fit your needs. It's about the process, the planning, and understanding the big picture much more than about the technical capabilities of one piece of hardware or another. As I said to Tucker, my value added isn't in my ability to memorize spec sheets.

Sharing holiday cheer at the party, in a spirit of openness.
A consultant, a vendor, a programmer, and
George (a category unto himself)
(Image from the Crestron Facebook page)
The other reason for openness is that we have reached a point in the industry at which we're seeing changes in quite a few basic assumptions about what constitutes an AV system. The basic changes should be familiar to those who've read this blog or followed the industry as a whole: the "bring your own device" trend, the rise of streaming solutions, the increase in small "huddle" type rooms as opposed to larger formal meeting rooms, and increase in availability of wireless transport, increases in software conferencing as opposed to dedicated hardware Codecs. As an industry, everyone involved looks smarter and more competent if we not only speak the same language but share an understanding of the challenges in this new environment. Not only to all of these raise too many questions for any of us to come up with the answer. Opening dialog creates an atmosphere in which we can all learn from eachother, and all become better at what we do.

I'll close with a bit of news in this vein- news that I alluded to in the Redband interview: starting in January the Shen, Milsom & Wilke blog is going to be re-launched with new content, including at least occaisonal posts from your favorite pixel-and-ink-stained wretch. Don't worry, I'll still maintain this space, but there'll be more engagement from us as a team, including posts from some very bright and talented people I'm lucky to have the chance to work with and learn from. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Christmas Wars?

Warning (in case you didn't get it from the title) - this post contains religion. If you're bothered by back, tune in again next week when there's sure to be another AV post, or perhaps some flash fiction. Maybe both if you're lucky. I probably should know better, but this is still probably safer and less contentious than a "switcher wars" post.

Shots Fired at the Crossroads of the World

The catalyst for this post is the latest shot in the culture wars by the American Atheists organization. For those who've not heard, they put a billboard at Times Square, New York, asking who needs Christ in Christmas. Their answer: nobody! This, to me, goes a step beyond the "good without God" message the Freedom from Religion Foundation ran on a series of billboards and bus ads a few years back. The idea that someone can not believe in a god yet still lead a good and moral life is a positive one and, given the fact that atheists are consistently the least trusted group in America according to opinion polls, an important one for people to hear.  This is closer to American Athests' 2010 campaign "You know it's a myth". True to their belief, yes. Also needlessly contentious and, from a bigger picture, missing what the actual point should be.
From the Times Square billboard

At the risk of losing some of your trust in me, I'll reveal to those of you who don't know or haven't guessed by now that I myself am an atheist. While my fiction (both what I write and am most interested in reading) leans towards the fantastic, philosophically I'm pretty much a strict materialist. No spirit, no soul, no Cartesian duality. Before we're born we're nothing, and when we die we're gone, leaving behind only the effects we had on the world and people around us. Consider this critique as coming from an atheist, even if not a member of the atheist movement.

You know it's a Myth

I'll start with yesteryear's  "you know it's a myth"  message because that, to me, is a clearer illustration of where American Atheists go wrong and, for that matter, how they appear the same as the most fundamentalist of believers. Their position is that as religious claims can't be empirically proven, religion itself is useless and a waste of time. I'll answer them with a quote from the French philosopher (and atheist) Alain de Botton:

"The most boring and unproductive question one can ask of any religion is whether or not it is true – in terms of being handed down from heaven to the sound of trumpets and supernaturally governed by prophets and celestial beings."

Botton goes on to say that the interesting question  - the one which IS worth asking - is how a particular religious faith leads us to live, how it leads us to act, how it connects us to those around us. 

Back to the original question - is it a myth? If so, what does that mean? Too many of the Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens style atheists take "myth" "falsehood" and "lie" to mean the same thing; it isn't true, therefore a lie. A deception. As a writer of fiction and a lover of literature I know that to not be the case. That the events in Moby Dick didn't actually happen doesn't mean that there isn't literary "truth" as a story about, amongst other things, the idea of revenge. Likewise that various holy books contradict eachother doesn't mean that they don't share spiritual truths about how we can best live together. 

Looking at it this way, whether or not the Jesus story is a myth is immaterial as to how it leads Christians to live their lives. Some follow the moral teachings in the Bible while ignoring the supernatural parts (Thomas Jefferson famously edited everything supernatural or miraculous out of the New Testament. He was left with something shorter, but kept the moral messages intact), some take it more at face value, but most find positive messages about charity and love for ones fellow human. I'd not attack that, even if it weren't shockingly rude to do so.

Two sides of the same coin

Literalism at its finest. 
These attacks convey a literal-mindedness which strikes me as remarkably similar to that of religious fundamentalists. See the cartoon from mad-as-hatters young-earth creationists "Answers in Genesis". Pointing at an actual billboard in response to a request to "show me a sign" is a perfect metaphor for what is wrong with the thinking of those on both sides of this debate; it shows not only great certainty in ones own viewpoint but a lack of thoughtful reflection as to how opposing viewpoints can coexist harmoniously, and how those who believe differently can still live well. The atheist who sees the AIG billboard is likely to react the same way as the believer who sees American Atheists; with - at best - an eyeroll and a shrug. 

A Better Way?

The Freedom from Religion Foundation did a bit better in their reponse to the nativity in Madison, Wisconsin: they added a "secular nativity" featuring figures they admire. From their official statement (by FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor):  "FFRF’s baby is black and female, for egalitarianism, and to acknowledge that humankind was birthed in Africa. Our wisepeople depict atheists and scientific giants Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, plus wisewoman Emma Goldman — with humorist Mark Twain and Founding father Thomas Jefferson thrown in for good measure. "

A Secular Nativity. Respectful, or a deliberate
attack? You decide.
Is copying the traditional iconography of the nativity scene a step too close to mockery? Perhaps it is, and I can see that argument. At least it attempts to join the discussion with a positive statement about the things the FFRF reveres. I'd rather they had done so in a less hostile manner, but I'll accept it as a baby step. I still think that, in terms of constructive dialog, they have a way to go.

I semi-recently reconnected through social media with an old friend who's belief has taken a turn towards fundamentalism and young-earth creationism. One lesson I've learned from interacting with her over the years is that, even if I'm certain that she is objectively wrong about some things, the actual age of the earth matters quite rarely in our daily lives. What does matter is that she's a kind-hearted person who loves her family and does her best to be a good mother to her children. If her religion is part of what inspires her towards that, who am I to argue?

What's the Point of All This?

What's my purpose here? What do I want for Christmas? I mean aside from the spiffy Abrasus triangle commuter bag from the Evernote market and a new winter dress coat and peace on earth and all that stuff. What I want is for all of us to listen to each other, and to celebrate our differences respectfully and lovingly. That's one reason I'm "outing" myself as a non-believer; just as not all Christians think that pre-historic humans hunted dinosaurs, not all atheists consider mocking others' belief systems to be a worthwhile sport. Perhaps this winter solstice/Christmas/Hannukah season we can all remember that we have to share this world, and we can look to those things that make us the same.

 Happy Holidays to all reading, no matter which you celebrate.