CNNI: It’s the Pictures

CNN International, the five regional feeds that CNN provides outside of the United States, was the subject of a bold and risky redesign earlier this month. The new design was created with several considerations in mind:

  • Easier navigation. The new design greatly minimizes the clutter of text that has become the norm on other channels. They have pared away all but the most essential information.
  • Slower. An irony of the new design is that it seems to transmit information slower than a screen filled with information. This is in stark contrast with CNN’s competitors, but it seems to be a result CNN is taking baby steps toward. Last year’s Headline News redesign stripped away all but a fraction of the on-screen data. CNNI goes even further, by removing the ticker that has been a staple of American cable news since September 11th, 2001.
  • Edgier. A major goal of the CNNI redesign was to allow the video to “breathe.” They accomplish this by letting the text out of its box, so to speak. The text is now white on a black background that tightly borders it – it looks a lot like closed captioning. The new look frees up space behind the text to allow the video to show through.

I haven’t been able to see what the the design looks like in motion, but if it’s as good as it looks in stills, I think it’ll be a major improvement. I do feel that the “flipper” still takes up too much screen space, but I think many people appreciate that second channel of information, so it’s probably not going to go away. Also, the CNN logo is kind of distracting in its new home. I personally would like to see it when the “navigation box” is not on-screen, but to speak of removing continuous branding in today’s competitive world is sacrilage, so I don’t expect that to happen either.

All in all, it’s a significant improvement, but I wouldn’t call it perfect yet.

The World Live Web

The web is vast, but not all of it is current. Many pages (like this blog during 2005) languish into disuse. There’s even a page that links to a web site, now long gone, that I created ten years ago. It’s unlikely that any web user today has never experienced the dreaded 404 error message that marks the place where a piece of history has since disappeared.

What fascinates me about the World Wide Web is how it has evolved from its roots as a place to publish papers, to the fastest way to spread information across the world.

Keep in mind that the Common Gateway Interface, the technology that enables dynamic web sites, has only been around since 1993 – three years later than the formation of the web itself. Since then, a variety of very cool ideas have contributed to making it easier to find information online.

RSS has been the foundation of much of the technology behind the live web. Originally developed by Netscape, RSS is a simple file that contains a list of links in a format that computers can understand. Today, all weblog systems and many other sites provide RSS (or a competing format, called Atom). Programs called aggregators read RSS feeds from multiple sites, and combine them into a single screen. planet 432 is an example of an aggregator – in this case, an aggregator focused on combining the posts of college students studying telecommunications technology.

One excellent resource for exploring the live web is Technorati, a search engine developed specifically for that purpose. Tecnorati combines RSS processing with some other so-called Web 2.0 technologies to provide a real-time glimpse of the conversation of the web. It’s a fascinating way to get a cross-section of opinions from people around the world about a significant world event. Often, thousands of blogs will weigh in within seconds of a story breaking.

The pulse of political discourse has shifted. It is no longer found on street corners or in a government building, but is instead carried out across multiple web sites 24 hours a day.

Please Stand By…

Blogger downtime screenshot

Blogger just came back up from an hour and 13 minute maintenance window. It looks like the outage was system-wide – an extremely rare occurence for Google. With over 10,000 Google servers spread across the globe, it takes a significant issue to bring the entire system down.

Thankfully, the outage didn’t affect Waileia, but it did keep me from reading the blogs of a large number of colleagues and friends. While I waited for the affected blogs to return, I realized that despite how important our modern telecommunications infrastructure is to us, it goes largely unnoticed until something goes wrong. Nobody expected Blogger to be unavailable today, and I doubt that anybody save the companies directly involved thinks about what damage a telecommunications failure could cause to the economy or even human life.

The telephone is probably the most reliable telecommunications device we have, due to an ironic combination of the simplicity of the landline telephone and the complexity of the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Yet, it took government regulation to grow the network to the point where this is possible. I think that if the early AT&T was not so paranoid about losing its government-sanctioned monopoly, the telephone of today would be seen in a very different light.

Television also requires substantial reliability. In an industry where revenue is measured in seconds of air-time, even a small error can be a severe inconvenience for people, and a substantial financial cost to a TV station.

Even the reliability of the Internet is something of a myth. There are surprisingly few network paths out of Hawai’i. We have much better connectivity than we did, say, five years ago, but there are still conceivable situations where we could lose enough network capacity to reach the rest of the world reliably. In theory, we could route to the U.S. via New Zealand or something equally exotic, but we would saturate available capacity fairly quickly.

With all of the gadgets and gizmos that go into delivering bits from one place to another, it’s a wonder telecommunications works at all ;).

Restraining Monks

The Bible didn’t survive until the 21st century by accident. It took the commitment of thousands of monks who chose to study the scriptures over the centuries by hand-writing new copies of the manuscripts. The process was tedious and time-consuming, but for these monks it was an act of devotion. It wasn’t until Gutenberg’s printing press that the Bible could truly be distributed to the masses.

Today, monks are no longer needed to ensure the Bible’s availability, but there are scholars that continue to study the Word and find new interpretations to share with others. One of those people is Sean Boisen. In addition to maintaining his blog, Boisen takes information about the Bible from a variety of sources, analyzes it, converts it into modern, standards-compliant formats, and distributes the results at no charge on his web site, Semantic Bible. The beauty of his work is that it extracts concepts from the text and formats them in a way that computers can use to draw conclusions and find patterns.

Boisen has lofty goals, but in a blog entry he posted yesterday, he expresses his frustration with a license on an e-Bible that prevents him from developing anything based on it.

I understand his disappointment. I’ve also found that copyright has become a stumbling block rather than a means to encourage innovation. With the exception of large companies, I think many people who create find ourselves stymied when we want to share or improve on the ideas of others. It’s sad, but society in this age compartmentalizes information through laws like patents and copyrights to such an extent that improving on them is usually out of the question.

One of the underlying causes for the problem is the length of time that copyrights are valid. While copyright has a purpose, it’s been abused and lengthened far beyond what’s needed to stimulate progress – and arguably, progress has been eliminated altogether because very few copyrighted works have expired in the last 70 years. I think that it’s very disappointing that books written in the 1930’s still can’t be used freely today, and yet the ideas contained in them are being lost forever due to damage, theft, and other causes.

We are fortunate to have a plethora of English translations of the Bible that make it accessible to everybody. The publishers of these translations provide a useful service, and they should be paid, but 100 years is too long to keep a translation locked up. (I blogged my thoughts about Christian commercialism in 2003.)

The irony of all this is that the original texts these scholars worked from would probably be inaccessible today if copyright law prevented the monks from hand-copying them over hundreds of years.

Gutenberg was extremely excited about the possibility of using the printing press as a tool to enable copies of the Bible to spread:

Religious truth is captive in a small number of little manuscripts which guard the common treasures, instead of expanding them. Let us break the seal which binds these holy things…

I won’t be surprised if Gutenberg’s trend of “breaking the seal” reverses itself very soon. We’re already beginning to see lots of content, including Bibles, protected by digital restrictions management that threatens to take the bits that hold our culture and faith together as hostages.

I truly consider Sean Boisen a 21st century monk. Our society needs to loosen the chains of copyright law so he can accomplish the work he’s been called to do.

Telegrams Stop

In a move that marked the end of an era, Western Union discontinued all of their telegram and commercial messaging services on Friday, January 27, in an effort to complete their transition to a financial services company. New telecommunications services such as telephones, fax machines, and e-mails contributed to the end of the service.

Modern telegraphy (I suppose “modern” is relative) dates back to 1844, when inventor Samuel Morse sent the message “What hath God wrought” between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. According to Western Union’s history, the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company was formed in 1851 to take advantage of Morse’s invention. The company was renamed to Western Union in 1856, and continued to develop the telegraph and other innovations well into the twentieth century.

According to the United Kingdom’s Independent,

The company said the last 10 telegrams sent included birthday wishes, condolences on the death of a loved one and the notification of an emergency. They also included messages from several people trying to be the last telegram sender.

Despite intense competition from the modern telecommunications industry, which benefited from modernized technology and ubiquitous among customers, the telegram survived throughout the 1900’s, mainly for the novelty value and as a way to send relatively inexpensive messages in real-time from the edges of civilization.

While other companies will be happy to send a telegram for you, purists are still disappointed by the loss of what many feel is the canonical telegraphy company.