Chain Reaction

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Chicago reactor team. Enrico Fermi, first row, first on left.

For more than a year, physicist Enrico Fermi and his team had been building a pile of blocks under the racquet courts at the University of Chicago.

The pile was made of alternating bricks of uranium and graphite.

Inserted into the pile were cadmium coated rods that could be withdrawn.

This was the world’s first nuclear reactor and no one knew if it would work.

On December 2, 1942, Fermi and his team began to withdraw the cadmium rods.

Cadmium has the power to absorb neutrons.  The uranium, being radioactive, gave off neutrons. And each time a neutron from the deteriorating uranium hit another uranim atom, it caused a small reaction which gave off both heat and an addition three neutrons.  As neutron hit atom and each atom in turn went from U238 and U235, the newly formed atom of U235 in turn gave off an additional 3 neutrons.  One became 3 became 9. 3 to the third over and over and over, each giving off more and more energy and the reaction took off.  The pile went critical and the reaction was self sustaining for 28 minutes.

The world’s first chain reaction.

The successful experiment under the University of Chicago’s football stadium was the foundation of the Manhattan Project and the basis of the Atomic Bombs that the US would ultimately drop on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki three years later.

New technologies do not occur in a vacuum.

Once unleashed, they, like the pinging loose neutrons in Fermi’s pile, begin to set off a series of chain reactions impacting on other technologies and industries until those industries and technologies are also changed… or simply explode.

Take the Internet.

The Internet itself was the product of the US military’s desire to protect command and control from the power of nuclear weapons. As warheads grew ever larger in megatonnage, the military had initially responded by burying their command deeper and deeper in the earth.

It soon grew apparent that it was far easier to ratchet up the megatonage of the bombs than keep digging deeper into the earth.

So the military went to the Rand Corporation and asked them for a solution.  They came up with a rather novel one: networks.

If you build a network of nodes, they said, connecting the nodes together, then even if one or two or four nodes are destroyed, the others will continue to function.

The US Dept of Defense did just that. Under their  Advanced Research Projects Agency, ARPA, they built something called ARPAnet. A network of mainframe computers joined together by phone lines.  Think The Forbin Project.

This ARPAnet was to become the Internet.  Opened to the public, it’s network growing far beyond its initial 8 nodes to what we know today.

As each new node was added, as each new computer and user and server came online, as each new functionality was added, the national network of the web, formerly Arpanet, now grew, a bit like Fermi’s pile in Chicago. Each begetting more and more and each new line of code or added function or added computer adding more and more, larger and larger, until it hit critical masss itself.

Had you told the people building Arpanet for the Defense Department that their 8 mainframes and dial up telephone links would one day destroy the newspaper business, they would have thought you insane.

But it did.

Had you told them that it would destroy all the television networks in the country, they would have had you institutionalized as a raving lunatic.

But it will.

Had you told them that it would one day render Bell Telephone worthless because you could use VOIP protocols for free, they would not have had the vaguest idea what you were talking about.

But all of that was to come true.

It was the inevitable result of the chain reaction set off the day Bolt Beranek and Newman, the engineering firm hired to build Arpanet, turned it on.

As Andy Grove, the Chairman of Intel said, “listen to the technology. It will tell you where to go”.

Look at the confluence of technologies impacting now on the television and journalism business.  Cellphone with video cameras inside. A web that carries video content globally for free.  Listen to the technology.  Where is it taking us? It may not be where you want to go, but most assuredly, this is where we are headed.

And unlike Fermi’s reactor in Chicago, there is no way to turn it off or to slow down the reaction.  We are rapidly approaching critical mass.

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Quality?

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Much hysteria on the blogosphere of late as first WUSA in Washington, DC and then yesterday KPIX in San Francisco announce that they are going VJ.

The quality! The quality!

The quality will suffer!!!

Viewers will leave in droves because without a professional cameraman, the quality will deteriorate.

As if this were a given.

Nonsense.

I have spent a good deal of time this week screening the finalists for the Concentra Prize for Videojournalism.  $15,000 to the winner, and a breaking news winner as well.

We had several hundred entries from all over the world.

Now we are down to the final 50 or so, and I am still screening.

Above, one of the local entries, from John Munson from the Newark Star Ledger. Munson was a still photographer who picked up a video camera.

Take a look.

Do you really think the quality has suffered?

Does this look like Youtube?

Does this look like he really would benefit from having a camerman accompany him? How about a reporter?

The day of the two man team is rapidlly drawing to a close.

But ‘quality’ does not seem to be suffering too much from what I can see.

in fact, as with the coming of the Leica and 35mm film to photojournalism, I think we are in fact at the beginning of a much more interesting period for television and video journalism.

KPIX in San Francisco goes VJ

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Two down, three to go…

KPIX, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco announced today that they are moving to a VJ-driven newsroom.

The official press release today said:

Ti

Feb 11, 2009 3:58 PM ESTKPIX management told the staff today the station intends to go VJ within a year, pending union contract re-negotiations.

The station’s GM said voluntary training will begin in the near future, with lightweight cameras and servers to follow.

The current AFTRA contract permits on-air staff only limited use of technical equipment except in emergencies. The station’s technical unions gave up jurisdiction some years ago.

Reply With Quote
This is hardly news to any of us who have been with the VJ movement for a long time.
In the next few months prepare to see more and more stations in major markets going to VJ as well.
This is the inevitable upshot of the combination of economic necessity and technical reality on the ground.
There is simply no longer any justification for the old 2-man crews and big heavy gear.  As we said a long time ago,
this is going to happen, and it is going to happen everywhere.
Ironically, only yesterday, The Wall Street Journal ran an article pointing out that local TV news stations were in real danger of simply disappearing altogether.
If they have any hope of surviving, they are going to have to cut their costs and make their operations vastly more efficient. The days of employing 150 people and putting 8 cameras on the street are simply over, not that they ever made any sense.
AFTRA’s San Francisco local has vigorously opposed members performing technical duties at KPIX and has threatened sanctions against those who do.The station’s GM said the decision to use VJs as part of a mix with traditional crews was his alone and was not the result of a CBS corporate edict. He said he recognizes the very real possibility of failure but something needed to be done to reduce expenses.

The World’s First Liquidity Crisis

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The in-laws arrive for sunday brunch….

Watching Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner yesterday on CNN was a terrifying experience.

The depth of the current financial crisis is far more than a mere recession.

Trillions of dollars seem to have effectively disappeared.

This is bad.

Very bad.

It is a financial crisis of epic proportions, and I for one can only hope and pray the the people in Washington have the intelligence to figure this out before it is too late.

The first credit crisis did not resolve itself in so neat a fashion, and as Santayana says, ‘those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it’.  In this case, I hope not.

In 1294, Europe experienced its first liquidity crisis, and one that has strong parallels to what we are experiencing today.

Credit, of course, in Medieval Europe was a relatively new phenomenon, as indeed was the entire concept of money.  In the early Middle Ages, relationships of any kind were largely barter, local and based on a Feudal land-driven hierarchy.  But by the early 13th Century, as Western European kings began to extend their military reach (including the Crusades) armies had to be paid.  In cash.  The more a King used his military, the greater his need for ready cash.

Christian restrictions on charging interest made cash a not so ready commodity, but there were sources in Europe. Greater inter-European trade had resulted in the use of forward contracts – credits for goods to be delivered.  And so there was indeed a credit market by the mid 1200s.  By the late 1200s, credit, at least to Kings, was relatively easy to come by, and all across Europe, monarchies were learning to fund their military adventures on debt, which was easier than endlessly raising taxes on their own inhabitants.

Then, as with all markets (seemingly), there came a crash.

In 1290, the Pope, hitherto a source of liquidity, called in all of his debts.  At the same time, the French King decided to levy a massive tax on the credit merchants.

In England, King Edward I, (pictured above), was engaged in war on two fronts:  Against the French. And now against the Scotts to the north who had rebelled against him and joined the French.  Ever see the movie Braveheart?  Yeah, Mel Gibson plays wonderful, brave and good looking William Wallace, who led the Scottish rebellion against the English.  Remember the crotchety old evil English King?  That was Edward I!

Full disclosure: which is what makes all this so uncomfortable.  Edward I, the evil King in the movie,  was also my wife’s great great great (many times over), grandfather.

In any event, Edward I now found himself committed to two wars at the same time, and with no access to credit what so ever.  It was a crisis of liquidity, just like now.

Edward, however, was no Barack Obama (to say the least).

He froze all the assets of the bankers in Britain (this is not too different from Britain freezing all the assets of Iceland last month when Iceland went effectively broke).

But then, instead of funding the bankers, Edward I took the rather unpleasant (from my perspective) step of seizing all their assets and then expelling all Jews from England.

There would be no Jews permitted in England until Cromwell allowed them back in in 1655.

As we say in Manhattan… oye.

Let us hope Mr. Obama has some better ideas.


Right Facts, Wrong Conclusion

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Gets it… but doesn’t…

Columnist and writer Michael Kinsley in the New York Times today opines, You Can’t Sell News by the Slice.

Kinsley, like everyone else, is grappling with the search for the Holy Grail of how to keep newspapers alive.

In the course of his grappling he posts some interesting statistics:

Newspaper readers have never paid for the content (words and photos). What they have paid for is the paper that content is printed on. A week of The Washington Post weighs about eight pounds and costs $1.81 for new subscribers, home-delivered. With newsprint (that’s the paper, not the ink) costing around $750 a metric ton, or 34 cents a pound, Post subscribers are getting almost a dollar’s worth of paper free every week — not to mention the ink, the delivery, etc. The Times is more svelte and more expensive. It might even have a viable business model if it could sell the paper with nothing written on it.

The problem, Kinsley writes, is that even if you charged every online user $2 a month, that would only bring in $24 million, a drop in the bucket to The Washington Post or The New York Times.

What is killing The Times, The Post, The Trib and every other paper in the country is not so much the declining revenues from advertising (though that is a problem) but rather the cost of running the paper under the old, conventional model.

85% of the cost of a newspaper is the physical reality of the paper. The paper, the ink, the presses, the buildings, the delivery of a physical item to each and every reader’s kitchen table each morning.

This costs a fortune.

And it is no longer necessary.

It is, in fact, a burden.

Sell the building, sell the trucks, close down the presses, lose the pressmen, the ink, the paper and all the rest.

Cut your costs to the bone.

And then take out the bones.

What do you have?

A very profitable operation.

Smaller, for sure, but profitable.

And suddenly you have global distribution to more than 2 billion readers.

That’s a lot.

Apparently more people read The Guardian online in the US than buy the physical paper in the UK daily.

That’s what used to be The Manchester Guardian.

Editor Alan Rusbridger is rapidly turning what was once a local English paper into the best global newspaper in the world.  Very far indeed from it’s Manchester origins. You can’t hardly find a Manchester local story in the paper, but you do find some of the very best reporting and writing in the English-speaking world.

When it comes time to cut costs because revenue is down, it is an act of suicide to cut the editorial side. Why do you think people read the paper in the first place?

What should be cut are the vestiges of an old and unworkable business model for distributing the news.

Paper.

The solution to the crisis facing newspapers today?

More of the news…. less of the paper.



Travel Channel Academy Results

Jeff Day had never touched a video camera or an edit system before he walked into the Travel Channel Academy course in DC on Thursday.

We put him through our extremely rigorous 4-day video bootcamp.

We emphasize excellence.

The video above is the first video Jeff Day has ever made.

Pretty impressive.

And Jeff Day is no kid. He’s in his 50s.

But not all that unusual for TCA students.

The technology has made it possible for millions of people who had never touched a video camera or an edit system to learn how to do this quickly and efficiently.  And the quality of the small, digital hand held cameras (we use SONYs), is just astonishing. You can see it for yourself.

The Travel Channel is committed to creating a global corps of 1,000 trained and certified content providers.

We’re partners in this very interesting venture.

Soon Travel Channel will have a vast cohort of content producers all over the world who can begin to create content for the channel to sell not just programs for the channel itself, but also content for Travel Channel Media’s vast demand for online and on phone (!) video content.

So great job Jeff.

Keep at it.

And congrats to all the grads from this week. And we’re looking forward to our New York session next week.

See what YOU can do.

Travel Channel Academy – DC