Some observations about the proposed Comcast-TWC merger

First of all, allow me to apologise for the recent week-and-a-half of downtime. Storm Darwin took out my phone line. Seemingly, while my connectivity with the outside world was a lot more tenuous than what I’m used to, Comcast announced that it wanted to merge with Time Warner Cable. It’s not my prerogative to complain. I don’t live in America and am not particularly affected by its telecoms market, though I was startled to learn that I have faster broadband than 66% of America (I do now, that is 😛 ). Besides, the last week has seen more than enough complaints about this thing on various sites. All I wish to do is share a few humorous/ironic observations of my own, which I have been formulating during this extensive downtime.

The torch of “The Octopus” has finally been passed

It’s no secret that Comcast owns Universal Studios. Even when their shareholding was only a controlling 51% stake, the 2012 Universal logo announced to the world for the first time that it was “A COMCAST COMPANY”.


The 2012 Universal logo

In the olden days, Universal was owned by the MCA conglomerate, which I discussed last June in my “Sausage Factories” post. Before MCA owned Universal, it was the largest talent agency in the United States of America. With its shady dealings and relentless buying-up of other agencies, it earned the title of “The Octopus”. The agency was dissolved when the company took control of Universal, because of antitrust concerns, among other things.

However, MCA and Universal became more and more closely associated over the years, with the Universal name eventually replacing “MCA” altogether at the hands of Edgar Bronfman Junior. Now, it can be said that Comcast owns what is left of the original MCA, and it is now seemingly vying for the title of “The Octopus” of cable operators, rather than “The Octopus” of talent agencies.

A combination of the current Comcast logo and an old MCA-TV "bug"
Maybe...

One less confusing brand-name on the market

Well, whatever about the implications for competition of this particular deal, I’m glad someone is getting rid of the Time Warner Cable name. From the information available, one would be forgiven for thinking that two of the “Big Three” music companies were about to merge. We have Universal Music, which looks like it is owned by the same company as Universal Studios. We also have Warner Music, which looks like it is owned by the same company as Warner Bros., which is Time Warner. Time Warner Cable also looks like it is owned by the same company.

None of this is true, however. Both Warner Music and Universal Music separated from their respective film studios a decade ago. Time Warner Cable separated from Time Warner half a decade ago. Unfortunately, trademarks are licensed. They all get to keep using each other’s names, under the terms of some obscure agreements. One needs look no further than the comments on this Techdirt post about the lawsuit against Warner/Chappell Music over “Happy Birthday” to see the confusion caused by this.

Therefore, I sincerely hope that Comcast will not renew their trademark licence once the deal comes through, so that this nonsense can finally start coming to an end.

The NBC Peacock finally gets an eye?

Peacocks have fake eyes in their plumage. The well-known NBC Peacock, however, seems to be an exception.

Peacock Closeup vs. NBC 2014 Indent Style

What about Time Warner Cable though? That weird Celtic-esque graphic that it uses as a logo surely qualifies as an eye:

The logo of Time Warner Cable
An eye or what?

What if Comcast got rid of the Time Warner brand, but kept the logo in some way? Would the NBC Peacock finally get something resembling an eye?

Time Warner Cable and Comcast logo fusion
Perhaps needs a bit more polish...

So anyway, that’s my two cent on this Comcast-TWC thing!

Subatomic Particle Simulator now on GitHub!

Well, I have just spent an entire weekend using Windows, amounting to probably more hours than I had spent with this operating system in the previous six months! Of course, this meant that I had to endure loads of automatic updates, their drain on bandwidth and automatic restarts! It was worth it though to get the Subatomic Particle Simulator up, working just as well as it does on GNU/Linux! It’s nice to know that I’ve made this thing cross-platform.

More good news: In the process of porting the code, I realised that the best thing to do was to fork the Source SDK repository on GitHub, and that way avoid all the problems of contaminating a working copy to compile the simulator. It is here, so you can now clone it in a ready-to-compile state, or even download a ZIP file if you would prefer.

Again, same legal restrictions apply – due to incompatible licences, it is not currently possible to (legally) distribute binaries. Once again, I apologise for this, and hope I can sort it out in the future.

PS. If you would like to express your opinions on how legal restrictions like this should apply in the future, please go to this new campaign website.

Release of Source Code of Subatomic Particle Visualiser

Well, this is kind of embarrassing. In October, I implemented the GNU Scientific Library as part of the science project I mentioned in the previous post. Since I was working towards an actual deadline, I guess I was too hurried to thoroughly check what licence the GSL uses. Apparently, I assumed it was licensed under the LGPL, which many GNU libraries tend to be. However, it is actually under the much more restrictive GPL, which forbids me from distributing it combined with any proprietary programme. The code given by the Source SDK for the server DLL (the only thing I actually modified) counts as proprietary, since it is distributed under a licence that forbids selling. Therefore, while experimenting with the two pieces of software together is fine, if I were to distribute my compiled server library, I would be in breach of the GPL.

Therefore, the long and the short of it is that my only option is to distribute my code and the GNU Scientific Library on their own, and let you, the user, actually compile it. To that end, here is an archive containing my code plus the GSL code, in a directory structure that will let it fit right into a fresh download of the Source SDK, plus instructions for getting it up and running:
http://www.vigovproductions.net/simsource.tar.gz
It is currently designed to compile only on GNU/Linux. A Windows version will be made in the coming days.

Here is a game directory to put in your SteamApps/SourceMods folder:
http://www.vigovproductions.net/simulator_mod.tar.gz
Once you put it there, don’t forget that you need to add in a bin folder, with the libraries compiled from the source code. They can be found in “sp/game/mod_episodic/bin” and “sp/game/vigov_simulator/bin”, under the Source SDK directory structure.

I apologise for not being able to release a compiled game. In order to do so, I would need to either pick a different game engine or a different mathematical library (or write the code myself…). I may do one of those in the future.

My return to the blogosphere

The time has come for me to return to this blog and explain my absence for the last few months. I was spending a lot of time working on a project for a prestigious science and technology exhibition. As such, between that and school work, I had basically no time to blog, or upload anything more than trivial logo videos to my YouTube channel.
Well, the project is now “finished”, and a selection of the fruits of my labour has been uploaded to YouTube.

The files for this game/tool will be uploaded to this site in a few days’ time, when I have had a chance to sort through them.

Here are some of the things I could have mentioned had I been actively blogging:

  • The change in Saorview frequencies, and how it left everyone with eight extra dud channels in their EPG.
  • The introduction of RTÉ One HD, and the stretching of classic programmes that came therewith.
  • The court cases involving the NSA.
  • Halloween
  • Christmas
  • The New Year

So what’s on the cards now? Well, apart from school, there’s:

  • Sony Pictures Television History Mark IV – I know, when does it stop, right? Well, significant info has been discovered since Mark III was made. Hopefully I can reuse lots of animation from previous videos – the thought of starting from scratch really doesn’t appeal to me!
  • Updates to the spreadsheet-based corporate timelines published on this site.
  • That new Aperture Ireland release I promised but never delivered. Speaking of which, I wonder if Valve will ever get around to porting Portal 2 to GNU/Linux…

Lollies for Likes?

Well, it appears that yet another trend is emerging in the vast, superficial numbers-game that is social media marketing. A number of my school colleagues went to a nearby careers exhibition today, at which numerous colleges from around the country were advertising their curricula. Having been there myself a year ago, I didn’t bother going again, since I figured I’d already seen everything there was to see. This was not so, however.

Apparently, at one stall, a person had a laptop and a box of lollipops. A lollipop was handed to anyone who would be willing to sign into Facebook then and there, and give a “Like” to the college represented at the stall. To be honest, I don’t really know what to make of this. Is bribery really worse than some of the other shenanigans going on out there, like sock-puppet accounts and Tweet-bots?

In the end, I think this social media marketing concept is pretty ridiculous and, at the risk of sounding like Cliff Clavin, part of me believes that, somewhere sown the line, this will be recognised and the whole thing will be given up as a bad job!

More televisual anniversary celebrations!

Twenty years ago yesterday, Slappy Squirrel was introduced to America as “the crankiest of creatures in the whole wide world”. The next day, however, another contender entered the race: Marty Crane! That’s right, today marks the twentieth anniversary of the début of another excellent television programme, Frasier! This day twenty years ago, a Thursday, NBC donated an extra minute of airtime to their new programme, a decidedly generous move to help the teams at Grub Street and Paramount avoid a last-minute rewrite!

There’ll be no drawing today, but my mind’s eye is currently trying to show me Slappy Squirrel in Marty Crane’s chair, something which I might commit to paper by Friday…

Celebrations are in order…

Yes, I know it’s Friday 13, 2013, but that’s not what I’m talking about.

I am talking about the 20th anniversary of the première of one of the most wonderful (if not the most wonderful) cartoons to ever grace television: Animaniacs!

Yep, twenty years! Life suddenly seems very long, doesn’t it? Since then, we’ve seen two commercial companies bring this weird thing called the world wide web to the forefront and battle to the death for market share. Then, the loser just happened to be absorbed into a conglomerate alongside Warner Bros. Funny how all these things are connected, isn’t it?

Update: A drawing to celebrate:

Irish Digital TV: RTÉ Two’s stretching problem

Here in Ireland, we have a terrestrial digital television broadcasting service called SaorView. There are eight TV channels available:

  1. RTÉ One, which broadcasts in 576i
  2. RTÉ Two, which broadcasts in 1080i
  3. TV3, which broadcasts in 576i
  4. TG4, which broadcasts in 576i
  5. 3e, which broadcasts in 576i
  6. RTÉ News Now, which broadcasts in 576i
  7. RTÉ Jr, which broadcasts in 576i
  8. RTÉ One +1, which broadcasts in 576i

Channels 1 to 2 and 6 to 8 are owned by the state broadcaster, which also administers the SaorView service via its subsidiary RTÉ Networks Limited (RTÉ NL). Channels 3 and 5 are both owned by the TV3 Group. TG4 is a state-owned Irish-language channel separate from RTÉ. It is a DVB-T service, with all channels broadcasting H.264 streams.

Most of these channels are able to dynamically change the aspect ratio of their broadcasts, so 4:3 shows aren’t stretched to 16:9 (widescreen). Unfortunately, this is not the case for RTÉ Two, which happens to be the channel where I watch most of my 4:3 programming. I was eventually motivated to figure out how to manually override the ratio on my decoder. This is actually rather easy, but it’s annoying, and changing it back afterwards is even more bothersome. Anyway, I assumed that, being a HD broadcaster, RTÉ Two was locked to 1920×1080 and couldn’t do anything about it.

However, recently, I was using VLC to inspect the codec information of an MPEG file recorded from RTÉ Two by MythTV, and discovered that the broadcast is actually anamorphic. It broadcasts at 1440×1080, which is a perfect 4:3 picture, then instructs the decoder to stretch it! Even normal widescreen programmes are squashed at RTÉ, then stretched back on my end. At first, I was enraged that this quality compromise was being made at all, but after doing a little research, I discovered that this is common on terrestrial broadcasts because of limited bandwidth. In fact, a quick inspection of recordings from SD channels reveals that they broadcast at 544×576, which is 17:18, but instruct the decoder to stretch to 768 (4:3) or 1024 (16:9) as required. 17:18 does seem like a strange aspect ratio, but I found a long-winded (yet satisfactory) explanation for it here.

So, rage against anamorphicity (if I may make up a word) is basically unjustified, but RTÉ still have some explaining to do. If RTÉ Two actually broadcasts a 4:3 signal, why on Earth can’t they let the decoder show it in 4:3 on appropriate programmes? It doesn’t make sense to me! All the other channels, as stated above, can dynamically change the degree of stretching, but this supposedly high-quality channel can’t simply change it to “no stretching at all”. Am I missing something here? These broadcasts are all standard MPEG-4 streams, using standard H.264/MPEG-4 AVC compression, so shouldn’t they all have the same capabilities?

At any rate, I suppose little to none of it matters to me, as the end result is a paltry 576i composite analogue signal, usually containing letterboxed widescreen video, which gets overscanned on purpose by my bloody LCD television!

“Sausage factories”

It recently came to my attention that Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn likened the Junior Certificate to a “sausage squeezing machine”, “squeezing creativity and curiosity out of the classroom”. [Source: Limerick Leader] So, all of my friends and I have apparently been squeezed through this unmerciful sausage factory in recent years. I can’t really say that I agree with that assessment. Let’s look at some other things worthy of the title of “sausage factory”:

I found out in the last few weeks that the old MCA television production company, Revue (later Universal), was often derided as a “sausage factory”. In all of its television shows, thanks to the regimented formula-driven production management of Lew Wasserman, it basically churned out one hour of the same thing every week, over and over again. Indeed, this prompted an FCC investigation in the late ’50s, into the reasons for the overall poor quality of American television programming. [Source: When Hollywood Had a King]


The Revue Logo

Having watched many episodes of Murder, She Wrote, I can only agree with this assessment of the studio, even though this programme is from the ’80s! In every episode, Mrs. Fletcher gets introduced to a scenario and meets a few people, then after about half an hour someone’s body is found. After that, Mrs. Fletcher collaborates with whatever authorities are involved. She has a sudden stroke of genius towards the end, then confronts the murderer with some ridiculously elaborate story. In many episodes, the murderer finally admits culpability and draws a gun, only to have the sheriff, or whoever, run in and save Mrs. Fletcher. After that, everyone is happy, then some silly joke is made, and we get a freeze-frame of Mrs. Fletcher laughing, then the credits roll!

There’s also the matter of the Scooby-Doo sausage factory. They tried to do new things with the franchise over the last forty-odd years. I was very impressed with the most recent Mystery Incorporated series. Personally, I think they should leave it at that – any more could only go down the old sausage-factory route and ruin a good thing. Besides, there are still the formulaic direct-to-video animated feature-length films they’re doing.

So now, can we really place a fundamental part of our education system, which has existed for many years, on par with the forces behind the production of Murder, She Wrote, Scooby-Doo, and other mediocre television programmes? Somehow, as a student, I’m just not comfortable with that.