November 2nd, 2008


On Working, The Good War and Dying

In Memorium

On an otherwise very pleasant and lovely drive home on Friday, Halloween, NPR's All Things Considered reported on the passing of noted Chicago author and interviewer Studs Terkel at age 96. I first ran into Studs in bits and pieces I read in the Chicago Tribune while I was in college at Northwestern, but it was the NU yearbook photography crew where I really learned to appreciate the man. A fixture of classical radio station WFMT-FM in Chicago for 45 years, Studs didn't interview people -- he held conversations where he either told the stories of others or teased the stories out of the people he interviewed. During long hours in the darkroom, I could count on the hardcore photographers to have Studs' show on the radio when it was on. Little "n" news, one might say. He was at once both patient and insightful as well as quite a character. He was a lefty who was blacklisted from television only to resurface on the radio and still manage to make his career. He cared about people.

My late father-in-law, Bob Morrow, dearly loved to read and listen to Studs Terkel. I always assumed Studs would go first and Bob and I would debate the merits of his works. Alas, Bob didn't live that long and Studs Terkel didn't make it to one-hundred. Such are vagaries of life. But that's exactly what Studs wrote about. He took on the great historical and life events of Americans -- working, World War II, the Depression and even dying itself.

The Chicago Trib's obit is here.

"My epitaph? My epitaph will be 'Curiosity did not kill this cat,'" he once said.

It is, as they say, the end of a era.

Dr. Phil
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The Digital Divide

The Great DTV Conversion

It is some 108 days until midnight 17 February 2009. For most Americans, that date isn't a really big deal. But it is the date and time when broadcast television finishes the conversion from VHF/UHF analog to DTV/HDTV digital. Millions of otherwise perfectly working (or sometimes not so perfectly working) television sets will stop working -- unless they are hooked up to cable or satellite.

Since the government is ultimately forcing the conversion -- we could have gone on with a dual analog/digital system for decades -- and frankly wants the old bandwidth back, there is a government rebate program. You can get up to two $40 coupons to pay for the digital to analog converter boxes.

That's the background.

A Lone Outpost

Okay, so we're too cheap to buy any big screen HDTV sets and even our latest 20" TV isn't digital ready. But the TV's upstairs are hooked up to cable, so our conversion is delayed. However, though I've had the parts to run cable downstairs to the basement, we found in the U.P. that using a four-way splitter isn't as effective as even a three-way splitter. And frankly, the outlet box we need to convert is located under the staircase and I'm just too lazy to go stringing cable back there.

Besides the TV we have in the basement was a really crappy old B&W TV which never picked up any signals well and we only used it when there was something major going on. We did, however, have the 13" Sony color TV we bought in the U.P. in the mid-80s. It's tuner doesn't work very well, but the monitor inputs work great.

So I ordered the converter box coupons in August, kicking myself for not getting them earlier so we could watch the Summer Olympics. They had a 14 November 2008 expiration date, so on the way home on Halloween, I stopped by Circuit City and chose the Zenith over the APEX box, picked up an amplified RCA smart antenna and a couple of odd bits. Yeah, the digital antenna is the gotcha of the "free" converter box program. While the converter boxes aren't exactly $40 -- at least not yet -- the antenna runs just about as much as the box. So be it.

Too often I buy parts for a project and they sit around. But my motivation for doing this on Halloween was so we could go downstairs to put the kitties to bed on Tuesday night and still have election results. And so we dragged the parts downstairs and hooked up the whole thing, fighting through a small mountain of wrapping, cable ties and other detrius.

And it works. Mostly.

Seven Channels Found

That sounds good, until you realize that DTV channels have four sub-channels, so four of the seven are from WGVU-PBS, and two are WZZM-ABC and WZZM Weather (actually a really good thing to have). CBS, NBC, FOX, etc. -- not showing up.

This may change as we mess with antenna positions, etc. Or if I can find a more powerful amplifier. But we have "something." Yay us.


There are downsides, of course.

The big one is that DTV is, well, digital. Either it works or it doesn't. No more watching distant stations with audio only or putting up with jumpy fuzzy pictures. Not only are DTV transmissions at lower power, I believe, they have neither the range nor the penetration into buildings and basements as VHF/UHF did. And your old non-digital ready VCR ain't going to work except on the last channel you set the converter box to.

For us, the signal from WZZM-ABC must be borderline, because it freezes up, audio gets choppy and the images begin to pixelate as it loses video updates. The weather sub-channel is better. That should be what we need in the winter.

But we are NOT getting the number of channels we did before. And I'm not sure we'd get the whole set even if we set this up in the upstairs of the house. A lot of people are going to be pissed. A LOT of people.

And that 800-lb. gorilla lurking in the hallway? Well, just because your cable provider is still going to continue analog broadcast over cable after 17 February 2009, doesn't mean they will do so forever. We will have to replace our TVs or get another sort of converter box sometime. And I'll rant about it when it happens.

Not at all the clean and simple conversion people think this will be. (sigh)

Dr. Phil
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