Archive for February, 2008

Crawford’s MPEG-4 Platform to Unveil at Satellite 2008

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Start getting ready!

Next week brings us the SATELLITE 2008 conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C. On the schedule: a hockey game that may prove to be a conference highlight.

(No word yet on whether the press releases emanating from the conference will be any better this year. But we digress.)

Of course, what makes SATELLITE 2008 truly interesting for satcom buffs and worker bees is the unveiling of new technologies. Among the "must see satellite technologies" that will be introduced to the marketplace is Crawford Satellite Services’ MPEG-4 HD platform, which will utilize SES AMERICOM’s satellite AMC-18 for domestic distribution into cable and DBS (digital broadcast system) providers:

With its HD launch on December 31, 2007, cable television network Tennis Channel utilized Crawford’s MPEG-4 service to allow satellite partner DIRECTV to access the signal…

Crawford has selected Motorola’s MCPC (multiple channel per carrier) MPEG-4 HD platform with redundant encoding and multiplexing (mux) as its video compression system. With this state-of-the-art equipment, the Company is able to employ DVB S2 advanced modulation and MPEG-4 compression technology which better utilizes satellite bandwidth.

DVB S2 allows for the distribution of a greater number of channels on a single transponder. The MPEG-4 technology compresses an HD channel so that it uses less than half of the bandwidth required as compared to an MPEG-2 HD signal. The result of the combined technologies gives Crawford the capacity to deliver seven to eight HD channels per transponder while maintaining outstanding HD quality.

Crawford got in on SES-AMERICOM’s AMC-18 capacity before it recently sold out, though they also have C-band platforms on AMC-10 and Galaxy-11

The Tennis Channel HD also includes a new production studio in Culver City. "The new multiple-studio, master control and post production facility is the home to the only 24-hour channel dedicated to the sport of Tennis," according to the press release from the company. 

The Tennis Channel is certainly breaking new ground in the use of MPEG-4 compression. As for programming, we recommend running old footage of McEnroe from when he played competitive tennis. No one’s ever made the sport more interesting:

DIY Friday: Snowmaking

Friday, February 15th, 2008

China plans to halt rain for Olympics – I didn’t beleive the headline when I read it the first time, but I guess this isn’t a pipe dream:

The Chinese are among the world’s leaders in what is called "weather modification," but they have more experience creating rain than preventing it. In fact, the techniques are virtually the same.

Cloud-seeding is a relatively well-known practice that involves shooting various substances into clouds, such as silver iodide, salts and dry ice, that bring on the formation of larger raindrops, triggering a downpour. But Chinese scientists believe they have perfected a technique that reduces the size of the raindrops, delaying the rain until the clouds move on.

The weather modification would be used only on a small area, opening what would be in effect a meteorological umbrella over the 91,000-seat Olympic stadium. The $400-million stadium, nicknamed the "bird’s nest" for its interlacing steel beams, has no roof.

This isn’t that unusual, apparently. Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming have all experimented with cloud seeding this winter, mostly to relieve draught conditions.

And, of course, people have been playing with weather for years. Take Hunter Mountain in NY – they were one of the first places to use snowmaking technology, and the first to have 100% coverage.

So in honor of Hunter Mountain and my planned weekend ski-trip there (if I ever get this post done), I bring you DIY-Snowmaking. MAKE links to a this site with a number of free plans. There are two main options:

Internal mix snow makers operate by mixing compressed air and water inside the plumbing of the snow maker. This design does work but it has its drawbacks. One of the issues with this design is maintaining the air and water pressure balance to keep an even flow of water coming out the snowmaker, this issue causes a reduction in efficiency. Another problem is the likelihood of having water back into the airline and doing permanent damage to your air compressor. Choose from one of the Internal mix designs below.

External mix snow makers mix air and water outside the body of the snowmaker. This design eliminates most of the problems associated with internal mixing. External mixing completely eliminates the issue of water entering the air line because they are not connected. External mixing also utilizes the water and air more efficiently (less energy}.

Don’t be intimidated. A ten-year-old, frustrated by the lack of snow, built one:

WEST LINN, Ore. – Talk about ingenuity – a 10-year-old boy built his own snow machine and filled his backyard with enough snow to make it look like a blizzard had blown through.

"It was just hypnotizing," said Forest Pearson, who built the snow machine out of a 30-gallon air compressor that he got for Christmas, a pressure washer and a whole lot of research.

Or just buy a machine. Backyard Blizzard has the goods (for $2,400) and the New York Times has a story on your options.

Arab States Crack Down on Sat TV

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Over the opposition solely of Qatar — which, not incidentally, is the home of Al-Jazeera—  information ministers of the 22-member Arab League voted Tuesday to adopt a document that would impose regulations on Arab satellite television.

AFP reports:

The meeting was called at the request of Egypt, which hosts the Arab League and serves as base for several Arab satellite channels.

It calls for the stations "not to offend the leaders or national and religious symbols" of Arab countries.

Cairo and Riyadh frequently complain of criticism of their regimes in talk shows aired by Al-Jazeera and other satellite channels.

The Cairo document authorises signatory countries to "withdraw, freeze or not renew the work permits of media which break the regulations".

It stipulates that satellite channels "should not damage social harmony, national unity, public order or traditional values."

The Financial Times provides more detailed background on what has motivated members of the Arab League to crack down on private satellite channels: 

In recent years the explosion in satellite channels – there are now about 500 – has meant that states have lost control over what their populations could see on television.

Channels like al-Jazeera, which at times has upset most Arab governments, have provided platforms for opposition groups and have breached taboos by broadcasting stories about human rights violations and election fraud.

An Egyptian court last week fined an al-Jazeera journalist for damaging the image of the country by filming a documentary containing reconstructions of torture in a police station. Saudi Arabia has also long had problems with al-Jazeera, though gulf watchers say the channel appears to have toned down its coverage of the kingdom after a recent rapprochement between Doha and Riyadh.

Abd-al-Bari Atwan, the editor in chief of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, comments that "The Arab ministers have started to coordinate in an admirable way in order to take the Arab media back to the dark ages," or to "a media of praise":

 [U]nder the new rules, the government of Nuri al-Maliki in the new Iraq can demand the closure of any Arab satellite channel if the channel refuses to call the Iraqi resistance of the U.S. occupation terrorism, and continues to host its leaders or those sympathetic to it on its satellite channels….

The Arab governments, and in particular the Saudi and Egyptian ones, want to take Arab public opinion to the previous lifeless era which prevailed before the satellite channels boom and in which the official media played the heroic role, that is, political programmes that had nothing to do with reality and reflected the views of the intelligence services and their rulers [rather than those of the public.]

More seriously, these two countries are also the ones who are investing the most, through some of their followers, in the entertainment and amusement channels which are multiplying at a frightening rate. Many believe that they aim to corrupt the young generations and steer them away from the fundamental and essential issues which affect their future, such as unemployment, corruption, human rights violations, and all kinds of freedoms.

Noting that "the time when the Arab citizen tunes in to the BBC to learn about his country’s news [was] supposed to have gone forever" with the advent of satellite TV and the internet, Atwan wonders if the new document adopted by the Arab League will spell the end of an independent Arab media.

Time will tell.

HDTV Whopper

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008


In the earnings release issued by DirecTV earlier today, lots of good news with numbers. Or should I say lots of numbers with good news?

"DIRECTV’s content and service leadership continue to drive superior results in a tougher marketplace that reflects increasing competition and a slowing economy. Advanced services–including the launch of the industry’s best HD programming–played an increasingly important role in DIRECTV U.S.’s top-line and bottom-line results," said Chase Carey, president and CEO of The DIRECTV Group, Inc. "Strong net subscriber additions of 275,000 were punctuated by the lowest monthly churn rate in eight years. This 15 basis point reduction in monthly churn to 1.42% was largely due to the significant growth in customers with HD and DVR services–increasing from about 30% of our subscriber base last year to over 40% this year–as well as tighter credit policies. The continued strong subscriber growth coupled with an 8.3% increase in ARPU drove revenues up 14% to $4.38 billion. As with churn, the strong ARPU growth reflects the improving quality of our customers who are purchasing an array of new services."

Billions of dollars, double-digit percentage increases. Good for them.

What all the "satnuts" are asking is where are the 100 channels of HD you promised us a year ago?

To satisfy the insatiable appetite for a greater number of movies in HD, DIRECTV will offer an expanded line-up of HD programming available from all premium movie channels.

"This is DIRECTV’s break-out year for HD," said Chase Carey, president and CEO, DIRECTV, Inc. "The launch of our two new satellites will complete the largest capacity expansion in DIRECTV history, and no other video service will be able to match the sheer volume and quality of our HD programming. With HD adoption now reaching critical mass in the U.S., and 40 million homes projected to have HD-capable TVs this year, DIRECTV will be uniquely positioned as the best choice for HD programming."

With the launch of DIRECTV 10 and DIRECTV 11 satellites in 2007, DIRECTV will have the ability to deliver more than 1,500 local HD and digital channels and 150 national HD channels, in addition to new advanced programming services for customers.

I think I read they ended the year with 97 channels of HD. Three weeks after they made that announcement, Sea Launch had that horrible failure (the NSS-8 satellite was lost when the rocket exploded on the pad). Considering both DirecTV 10 & 11 satellites were on the Sea Launch manifest in 2007, getting 97 out of 100 is not too shabby.

DirecTV 10 was launched out of Kazakhstan, but there was some trouble with the spot beams during testing. Boeing just delivered DirecTV 11, which is scheduled for a March launch via Sea Launch.

More HDTV: that’s what people are looking for. Comcast says they’ve got twice as much (thank you, on demand HD). Cablevision is offering all local New York sports in HD — for free. Dish Network has a new $30 package of "HD essentials. Cox in California has a bunch, too. And don’t forget Verizon FiOS. Even smaller rural telephone cooperatives like West Kentucky are getting into the HD action.

So all these people who bought or gave HDTV sets recently are probably feeling like they’re in the new Burger King TV spots. They want a Whopper. In this case, HD content — and more of it. Like the Wendy’s commercial from the mid-80s, TV viewers want the beef…


Russia, China Propose Ban on Space Weapons

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

Warning that the militarization of space could produce "unpredictable consequences" for global security, Russia and China presented a draft treaty of their space disarmament proposal at the UN-sponsored annual Geneva Disarmament Conference on February 12.

Initially put forward in 2002, the Sino-Russian proposal has been making the rounds of world capitals

The document, which bans the use of force and threats of force against spacecraft in orbit, is designed to rectify shortcomings in international space laws, encourage the further use of space, ensure the security of space property and reinforce global security and arms control.

Lavrov said that the draft, distributed last June, has received a positive reaction from most of the partners, who are ready to work on the issue.

He said Russia hoped to persuade the United States of the need to prevent the deployment of weapons in space.

The United States criticized the Russian-Chinese initiative, especially following China’s anti-satellite missile tests last year, which we blogged about here.

In that test, China shot down an aging weather satellite in low orbit. We blogged a video simulation of the anti-satellite test

For its part, China recently denied that the test represents participation in an outer space arms race. 

The Winds of Thor are Blowing Cold

Monday, February 11th, 2008


A Proton rocket launched Telenor‘s Thor 5 satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome over the weekend, delighting Cato Halsaa:

“I was delighted to see THOR 5 successfully being launched”, said Cato Halsaa, CEO of Telenor Satellite Broadcasting. “I would like to thank our partners, Orbital, for carrying out the entire THOR 5 mission programme and ILS, for performing a successful launch.

The THOR 5 satellite will now go through extensive in-orbit testing before it is brought into its final geo-stationary position at 1 degree West and commence operating commercial services.  From 1 degree West, THOR 5 will carry all broadcasting services which currently reside on Thor II and provide additional capacity to allow growth in the Nordic region and expansion into Central and Eastern Europe.

THOR 5 is the first new satellite to be launched in Telenor Satellite Broadcasting’s replacement and expansion programme for satellites, which has a total investment frame of 2.5bn NOK. With the completion of the programme, Telenor will have doubled its capacity on 1 degree West, which will facilitate both organic growth and expansion for Telenor.
“The satellite replacement and expansion programme demonstrates Telenor’s commitment to the satellite industry and our firm belief that satellites will continue to play an important role as a distribution platform for TV entertainment”, says Cato Halsaa, CEO of Telenor Satellite Broadcasting. “Driven by HDTV, new niche channels, and the expansion within emerging markets, the need for high powered capacity is increasing, and with our new satellites, we will are able to support the future growth requirements of our customers in Europe”.

Pretty cool: a daytime launch is something I haven’t seen in a while. The weather was on the cold side, with the high temparature that day of 10° F and a low of -15° F (-12° C and -26° C, respectively). Here’s the roaring launch clip:



Power Pants

Monday, February 11th, 2008


We told you how to "put a rocket in your pocket" a while back by downloading an authentic Atlas rocket launch countdown ringtone to your mobile phone. Now we’ll show you how generating electricity for that phone — or other device — can be as easy as a walk in the park.

Researchers at the Simon Fraser University (S.F.U.) Locomotion Laboratory in Burnaby, British Columbia, now think they can put some power in your pants, via Scientific American:

Exercise may soon do more for you than tighten up your sagging muscles. Advances in biomechanical engineering could use energy generated while walking, hiking or running to power any device requiring portable power, including night-vision goggles and other battery-operated devices used by soldiers as well as robotic prosthetic limbs, cell phones and computers in remote locations where no other energy sources are available.

A team of researchers at the Simon Fraser University (S.F.U.) Locomotion Laboratory in Burnaby, British Columbia, are studying the amount of energy that can be generated by 3.5-pound (1.6-kilogram) aluminum and steel knee braces worn while walking or running. Volunteers, wearing a brace strapped on each leg, generated about five watts of electricity per person during a recent experiment, enough power, researchers say, to run 10 cell phones concurrently and twice that needed to keep a computer running (something useful in developing regions of Africa where electricity is scarce). They report that one brace-wearing subject generated 54 watts of power by running in place.

The best area to place a device for harnessing human energy is near a joint, because this is where the muscles—the body’s power source—work hardest, says Max Donelan, Locomotion Lab director and an assistant professor at S.F.U.’s School of Kinesiology. "There’s a long history of human power generation using hand cranks and bikes, but these require your dedicated attention, so you don’t do it for very long." The key to energy harvesting is extracting the energy from the body’s natural movement and, aside from breathing, very few unconscious muscle movements are more automatic than the action of walking.

Donelan and his team of researchers targeted a particular part of the stride, halfway through the swing of the lower leg after it has left the ground (when the hamstring comes to life to make sure you don’t have uncontrolled extension) through the time the foot returns to the ground. The brace designed to capture this energy features gears, a clutch, a generator and a computerized control system that monitors the knee’s angle to determine when to engage and disengage power generation.

The specific amount of energy generated from Donelan’s device depends upon the weight of the wearer, the difficulty of the terrain, the speed of the person’s gait and how long the device is used. In the prototype, energy generated is dissipated into resistors, although future models could include an onboard battery for energy storage. The researchers hope to be able to test their device within a year on Canadian soldiers at a field site.

Another effort underway to convert motion into energy relies on the Faraday law of induction, named after English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, which holds that the movement of a conductor (such as a metal wire) through a magnetic field produces a voltage in that conductor proportional to the speed of movement. M2E Power, Inc., in Boise, Idaho, has developed a system of magnets and coils that, when moved, generates energy that can be used to power their host device. M2E’s technology originated at the Idaho National Laboratory, a Department of Energy–funded research group.

A good example of this would be walking with a cell phone in your front pocket or attached to your belt. The phone’s movement would cause the magnet and coil to generate energy that could be transferred to a bank of ultracapacitors that charge the phone’s battery when a certain voltage level is reached. "Think of it as a minigenerator whose power comes from movement," says Regan Warner-Rowe, M2E’s director of business development. "Because power management is such a critical issue for cell phones, we have been in discussions with handset companies." (Warner-Rowe declined to name them.)

Another goal of M2E’s research and development is to develop technology that could be used by the U.S. military. (The Australian army is working with contractors to develop its own wearable, rechargeable battery system, as well.) Much like Donelan’s work, the objective is to eliminate several pounds of weight that soldiers must lug around in the form of spare batteries. M2E has done some work developing prototype energy-rechargeable "D" cell batteries.

I like it: power walking. Very cool.



Monday, February 11th, 2008

What is Hurling? Other than being “some old Irish game“, most Americans have no clue. Too bad, because the game is pretty cool. Here’s the gist: it is a field sport, similar to field hockey or rugby; players carry wooden axe-shaped sticks (called a hurley). The object of the game is to hit (or “hurl”) a small ball between goal posts for one point or in the keeper-guarded goal for the equivalent of three points.

YouTube has you covered:

Don’t resist watching (in awe) some more hurling highlights. Also, check out “What is Hurling” parts one, two, and three for a little more background.

Hooked, yet? You’ll need Setanta Sports to keep up with the action (which we blogged about before). Satellite TV makes it possible to watch hurling and other great European/Commonwealth sports: rugby, Aussie football, cricket, and British soccer, to name a few. Setanta is available on Dish Network and DirecTV.

The network was formed by a couple of Irish guys in the Bronx who were looking for a way to watch these sports in the U.S. They started a channel distributed in bars and pubs; the company rapidly grew; and now the whole enterprise may pay-off:

Sports broadcaster Setanta Sports has received takeover approaches from several large media companies and is evaluating whether to conduct an auction, a source familiar with the matter confirmed today.

The company is discussing its next move with financial adviser Goldman Sachs, added the source. Both Setanta and Goldman Sachs declined to comment.

Reports say the firm has received offers of over €1.3 billion for the company. It is also believed to have received the unsolicited approach from an unnamed European media company before Christmas.

Setanta is understood to be looking for a valuation in excess of €1.3 billion, even though the company has yet to make a profit.

Among those that may express an interest are BT, ITV, Virgin Media and Disney – the owner of sports network ESPN. ESPN executives have made it clear that they are interested in breaking into the lucrative UK football rights industry.

The company, which in 2006 agreed to pay €500m over three years to share live Premiership football coverage with BSkyB, hopes to break even by the end of the year.

€1.3 – not bad for a couple Gaelic-bronxite-fanatics, but it didn’t all happen by accident. In addition to being advised by Goldman Sachs (who is advising Yahoo! to reject Microsoft’s bid) and JP Morgan, Setanta saved millions by moving part of its operations to Luxembourg:

PAY-TELEVISION broadcaster Setanta Sports has slashed at least £17m from its tax bill by setting up a subsidiary in Luxembourg. The windfall will boost the firm’s valuation as speculation increases that a sale of the company is likely.

Over 1m British and Irish subscribers pay into Setanta’s new Luxembourg subsidiary called Setanta Sports Sarl.

Setanta pays “super reduced” Vat of only 3% on subscriptions routed through the grand duchy against 17.5% charged in the UK and 21% in Ireland.

Setanta has also set up subsidiaries to support its entry into the Canadian and Australian markets this year. Its ultimate parent company remains in Ireland, where more than half of its 450 staff are employed.

Let’s just hope Setanta’s content doesn’t disappear. Cork’s hurling and football teams are on strike.

DIY Friday: USB Guitar

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Shredding Guitar Hero I, II, 80s, and Legends to its raging, satanical death? Maybe its time to stop the make-believe rocking and pick-up a real guitar.

You could pick-up a late 60’s Gibson Les Paul. Hell, Jimmy Page has one. The price tag? $12,500. Ouch.

How about Eric Clapton’s axe, a Fender Stratocaster? Ditto on the cost – looks to be pushing 20k.

Better just find a cheap electric guitar. But don’t stop there – integrate Guitar-Hero-like features into a real instrument. Build a USB Guitar:

Why would you want a USB port in an electric guitar? The answer is simple: convenience. By putting a small USB port and audio codec in a guitar, you’re adding an extra sound board. So when you record, your guitar is digitized locally and the signal is transmitted to your computer over a USB cable. The guitar retains all its standard analog capabilities but outputs to USB as well. Now you can rock steady until your hard drive is full. Here’s how to do it.

The full instructions are here. After purchasing a guitar and a Micro USB interface, measure, cut, and plug:

Here’s an approximation of the jack and module layout. The Micro USB module fits easily into the control cavity. The topmost jack is the normal guitar analog output. I’ll change the stock jack (very inexpensive) to a rugged Switchcraft jack. The second jack was intended to be an auxiliary input jack, but that didn’t work out, because it wasn’t -technically feasible to add a second jack for a microphone or another guitar. The third jack is a stereo headphone jack. For durability, I used a 1/4-inch jack. The female USB jack is from L-Com. It’s the smallest panel jack I could find, and I liked the chromed plastic shell. A mini USB connector wouldn’t be rugged enough, so I went with a full-size A-style connector.

Too complicated? You can buy an off-the-shelf guitar for about $400. Check out the demo:

Now that you have the equipment, better learn how to play (if Guitar Hero hasn’t already prepped you).

Beautiful Launch: STS-122

Thursday, February 7th, 2008


Spectacular shuttle launch from The Cape today:

Space shuttle Atlantis and its crew of seven astronauts launched on spectacular plumes of gold-tipped smoke today carrying Europe’s primary contribution to the International Space Station – the Columbus science laboratory.

The lab is filled with racks for experiments and research euipment and has fixtures on its exterior to also host research exposed to the vacuum of space. It represents the latest international addition to a facility already made of structures from the United States, Russia and Canada.

“It shows that there is a real partnership between communities,” NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said.

The launch was crucial for the European Space Agency because the Columbus lab represents a cutting edge research facility for Europe and the continent’s first manned spacecraft.

“Today we are opening a new chapter for ESA,” said Jean-Jacques Dordain, the European Space Agency director general. “Just as Columbus discovered the New World, with Columbus, we are discovering a whole new world.”

The launch came seven years to the day after Atlantis carried NASA’s science laboratory named Destiny to the space station.

“It’s great to have two laboratories in space,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations.

Atlantis’ liftoff came despite concerns that a weather front would interfere. But those concerns did not materialize and the launch team sent Atlantis aloft at the appointed time.

“We did set ourselves up to be ready, to be prepared,” said Leroy Cain, chairman of the Mission Management Team.

The crew of Atlantis will now check out its systems and inspect the heat shield while chasing down the space station. It is to dock with the station Saturday. There will be three spacewalks during the flight so astronauts can attach the Columbus lab and connect its power and fluid lines.

The flight is to last 11 days and end with Atlantis returning to Kennedy Space Center.

Here’s the video: