Time itself (external)

This links to a much more complete article from the SWling Post, but unlike most of my external-link posts, I have quite a bit to say about this. The gist is that there’s a pair of antenna arrays in Colorado broadcasting an analog and digital signal on 60kHz. The proposed FY19 PresBud proposes shutting this radio transmitter down. I’m a radio nerd, and an analog nerd, and I’m always lamenting over technological shifts and shutdowns that nobody else cares about. Like, say digital transmissions on the AM band. But this is different. Part of NIST, WWVB broadcasts an incredibly accurate time signal across the U.S. If you have a clock or watch that describes itself as ‘atomic’, it maintains its accuracy because of this radio transmission.

WWVB sits next to WWV, which started its life in Washington, DC1 in 1920. For nearly a century, we have had an official radio broadcast of the time. In 1983, Heathkit released the GC-1000 clock which automatically synched with WWV. It was quite possibly the first clock for consumers to receive radio direction for impeccable accuracy, and one of the only radios to use WWV before WWVB went online. These clocks still routinely sell for upwards of $200, with an unbuilt kit selling on eBay this month for $810. I’m sad to see AM going digital, SW dying out partly because of such a rich legacy of receivers out in the wild. To an extent, this is no different – be it WWV, WWVH (on shortwave, similar to WWV but in Hawai’i), or WWVB, millions of devices seemingly magically pull an impossibly accurate (and official) time standard out of the air.

As the linked post mentions, most people likely have no idea how their ‘atomic clocks’ work. A lot of people seem to think that anything that happens automatically is just the internet at work. Time signals are also by necessity provided by GPS. But a ubiquitous (stateside) terrestrial signal that is easily interpreted and worked into signals… it’s obvious why that caught on (again, with millions of clocks out there in the wild). It’s incredibly disheartening to think that an open, official time broadcast will just disappear… but it’s far beyond disheartening to think about how that will affect millions of clueless users.

The array (originally built in the 1960s) has been upgraded and refurbished several times over the years, and in fact within the past decade. The bottom line is that an official standard is available to the entire nation via an easily received and decoded signal. This standard is time itself. This may seem trivial, but it’s important. Though from a budgetary standpoint it truly is trivial. This administration cuts every tiny thing it feels it can mock while lining the pockets of defense contractors and other private-industry capitalists. If you’re reading this, and you care about the free spread of information… things like WWVB are the prototypical information age. Contact your representatives, and let it be known that this is an unacceptable cut.

  1. This is why WWV, WWVH, and WWVB start with ‘W’ depsite being out west – the original broadcast was in ‘W’ callsign territory. ↩︎

256 pixels

I’ve been restoring a Milton Bradley Microvision and am now happily at the point where I have a fully functional unit. Introduced in 1979, it’s known as the first portable game console with interchangeable cartridges. Anyone who has scoured eBay and yard sales for Game Boys knows that the monochrome LCDs of yore were fairly sensitive to heat and even just age. For a system ten years older than the Game Boy (and one that sold far fewer numbers), functional units are fairly hard to come by. But for a while, I’ve been invested in patching one together, and I plan to enjoy it until it, too, gives up the ghost1.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m so drawn to the Microvision, though I think a lot of it is the simplicity and purity that comes with a 1 bit 16x16 display. While this isn’t the system’s only limiting factor (the 16 bytes of RAM, 100kHz processor, and piezo buzzer are fine contributions), those 256 chunky pixels lend themselves to a very poetic design. Unfortunately, only 12 games were released (only 11 stateside), and as of yet I’ve only collected half of them, but the diversity shown proves that a lot can be done with a little. Part of the system design is that cartridges lay a mask over top of the display2 – this is an interesting way to play with the limited capabilities of the screen. Pinball adds four circular bumpers to the game screen, which the ball bounces off of; it also turns the upper corners into 45 degree angles which change the direction the ball bounces. Bowling has lines on the screen to denote ball return and gutters. Baseball’s overlay looks like a baseball diamond and shows where the fielders are3.

Internally, the unit is extremely simple. The processor is a Texas Instruments TMS110045, but it’s not a part of the console - every cartridge has its own processor. This was a cheap component at the time, and I can only imagine that the cost of the processor (with its internal ROM programmed for the game) was comparable to ROM and interface hardware. The TI chip was a commodity component, but the display driver (the only chip inside the console itself) was custom made by Hughes6 for the Microvision. The display itself was a custom component, and there wouldn’t have been an off-the-shelf solution for driving it. In light of this, it makes sense that the cost for the ‘special’ part would be placed on the unit, and an affordable chip bundled into each game (even if that did mean every cartridge having its own processor).

Externally, the system has a paddle (very 70s), and a 4x3 grid of rubbery buttons. The cartridge overlays this grid with either solid plastic (so you can’t press that spot), or a ‘button’ printed with what it does in-game (think Intellivision). These ‘buttons’ are cheap, crappy membranes on U.S. cartridges, and nice plastic buttons on European ones. The European buttons also use iconography or one-letter representations of what they do, presumably for localization purposes. It’s also worth noting that while all of the U.S. cartridges are kind of a beige-tan color, the European ones are bright, beautiful colors. They look better and the tactile buttons mean they play better, so they’re worth acquiring for the better games.

And what of the games? Well as mentioned, I only have a handful so far:

Eventually I’d like to complete the collection of carts (though Vegas Slots is pretty low priority), because it’s a neat system and it does a lot to show the potential of 256 pixels. There have been some modern hacker-type projects for minimalist systems, like the Meggy Jr. RGB, which uses an 8x8 RGB LED array. I wasn’t being disingenuous when I referred to these sorts of things as poetry earlier, I think it’s entirely apt. There’s a beautiful magic about working within a tight set of constraints, and figuring out how to extract something new from them. Microvision did this wonderfully, and it’s a shame the system didn’t catch on with third-party developers.

  1. Apparently someone is trying to get new LCDs manufactured for these. Fingers crossed. ↩︎
  2. Jay Smith, the designer, went on to design the Vectrex. The Vectrex, too, had a limited display (a monochrome vector CRT), and it, too, used overlays to make more of that situation. ↩︎
  3. The game is unable, of course, to factor in the shift, which kind of wrecks the realism as far as 2018 baseball is concerned. ↩︎
  4. The TMS1100 is a 4-bit processor with 54 instructions and inbuilt RAM, ALU, and oscillator. It’s well-documented; the programming guide is available here. ↩︎
  5. Apparently some actually used Intel 8021 processors (and required two 9v batteries), but MB apparently ported all of the Intel games over to the TI chip and made that the canonical processor. I’m not sure how many Intel versions of the system (wired for two batteries) or cartridges are out there. ↩︎
  6. These have date codes on them, my unit with the functional screen seemingly was from 1980. ↩︎

Accessibility myths: The misguided war on merged cells

One of the stranger accessibility myths that I often run into is that merged cells in tables are to be avoided at all costs. This is entirely antithetical to semantic structuring of data and really points to a larger issue: often, folks who are doing and talking about accessibility have no concept of tabular structure, data relationships, and the importance of context. This goes both ways – often, folks that I receive documents from will have put multiple pieces of data in a single cell, either because they don’t know how to make the cell border invisible, or because they’re afraid to merge a cell that spans all the pieces of data.

Here are four tables that exemplify this. I’m leaving my default table styles intact for the first three, which colors odd and even rows differently. This helps to show what I’m demonstrating in each issue, but if you imagine them styled differently (as in the fourth), they could all very well look the same – but the accessibility of the data varies dramatically. Example one is the correct solution: three people all belong to one office. There are seven pieces of data: the one office that they belong to, their three respective cube numbers, and their three respective names:

Example one
OfficeCube numberName
Office of Fancy Folks101AJan "Fancypants" Binelli
203JSam "the fancy one" Sammy
419BLisa "Fancy-tastic" Glass

In example two, the user wants the office to visually span all three people, but has been told they can’t merge cells, so structurally Jan and Lisa don’t belong to any office. Note that according to my default style, the ‘Office of Fancy Folks’ cell is not shaded as an even row because it’s a table header cell.

Example two
OfficeCube numberName
101AJan “Fancypants” Binelli
Office of Fancy Folks203JSam “the fancy one” Sammy
419BLisa “Fancy-tastic” Glass

Example three only has one row worth of data. All three cube numbers are treated as a single piece of data; all three names are treated as a single piece of data.

Example three
OfficeCube numberName
Office of Fancy Folks101A
Jan "Fancypants" Binelli
Sam "the fancy one" Sammy
Lisa "Fancy-tastic" Glass

Example four is structurally identical to example one (the correct one), but visually it has been restyled to mimic the desired visual effect of example three. This is easily done in Microsoft Word, but the unfortunate reality in my experience is simply that people are insufficiently trained1.

Example four
OfficeCube numberName
Office of Fancy Folks101AJan “Fancypants” Binelli
203JSam “the fancy one” Sammy
419BLisa “Fancy-tastic” Glass

So, what does all of this mean as far as accessibility? When we’re focusing on these invisible structural issues, it’s generally because they cause a discrepancy between the visual experience and the experience afforded a blind user using a screen reader. Tabular data is, at its core, a two-dimensional system of data relationships: a piece of data is somehow related to those in the same column, and those in the same row. Visually, if we’re looking for data in a table, we identify header rows and/or columns, and we scan for the information we know so that we can find the related information we need to know. Screen readers allow users to navigate tables in both dimensions, one cell at a time. Changing rows or columns reads off any necessary header information as well as the cell data.

In example two, as mentioned, Jan and Lisa have no relationship to an office. The two empty cells aren’t actually intended to contain null data, they’re supposed to reflect that Jan and Lisa are members of the Office of Fancy Folks. Without that data there, there’s simply no way for a screen reader user to associate that office with those two names. Example three is slightly less of a problem – in theory, a user could relate all of the data. In practice, all of ‘101A 203J 419B’ will be read off together. If the user is trying to figure out who works in 419B, they need to count entries as that list is being read off, and then remember that they’re listening for the third one in the next cell. While my tables are small for demonstration purposes, this becomes increasingly implausible as more and more individual pieces of data are improperly crammed into a single cell. It completely falls apart if there’s null data – an empty cell will still exist and be appropriately navigable whereas a mere line break is ignored.

Even though visual impairment is seemingly the most oft-discussed accessibility issue, cognitive differences also need to be considered. To this end, I would say that the visual decision made in examples three and four is still less accessible than example one. Borders are incredibly helpful visual aids. This, again, is less obvious on my tiny table, but becomes a larger problem the more data is being presented. There is a fifth possibility which avoids merged cells and ensures absolute clarity from cell-to-cell:

Example five
OfficeCube numberName
Office of Fancy Folks101AJan "Fancypants" Binelli
Office of Fancy Folks203JSam "the fancy one" Sammy
Office of Fancy Folks419BLisa "Fancy-tastic" Glass

Accessibility for users with varying cognitive needs is not a terribly well-discussed or formalized area2. To that end, I’m not entirely sure how the redundant/repeated information and the resulting visual busyness in example five would affect certain users. I’m inclined to believe that it’s a universally clean solution (also, it’s guaranteed to filter/sort cleanly even in poorly-designed systems), but this is just a hunch based on the fact that there’s a perfect 1:1 relationship across all of the data. Perhaps this is what people mean when they say not to merge cells, but they never explain this, and the result is a ton of ‘example twos’ out in the wild.

Ultimately, the key isn’t to never merge cells, nor is it to merge cells indiscriminately. The key is to ensure every piece of data has its own cell, and that cells which are left empty are truly null data3. Tools for structuring tables (that is, creating rows and columns, and merging cells) exist for a reason, and misusing tabular structure has real implications as far as navigation is concerned. Suggestions to avoid merging cells seemingly never come with explanations of what to actually do with that data, nor do they ever ask of the user why they’re merging in the first place.

  1. I don’t, by the way, think that everyone needs to be perfectly trained in Microsoft Office. While basic training that breaks peoples’ bad habits (individual formatting instead of styles, say) would be great, even that seems improbable at my office. But if teams are putting out documents, someone who is well-trained should be performing final quality assurance on these things. ↩︎
  2. Accessibility in general is subjective, of course, but cognitive issues seem like largely uncharted territory. W3C has a Cognitive Accessibility Roadmap and Gap Analysis that goes a long way toward planting the seeds of things document creators should keep in mind. ↩︎
  3. I’ve seen some discussion about making null data read ‘Intentionally left blank’ or the like, but this doesn’t seem widely agreed upon. In my experience navigating tables with a screen reader, it would be difficult to accidentally escape the table mid-way through, as boundaries and the like are clearly announced. Something to keep in mind, however. ↩︎

Lava lamps as HRNGs (external)

I never thought I’d link to one of those terrible sites that forces you to scroll through an entire page worth of image before you can even begin reading, but here we are. If you haven’t visited Wired recently, be warned: it is very user-antagonistic. But this article, despite its brevity and reading like an ad for Cloudflare, is pretty interesting. The gist is that one of Cloudflare’s hardware random number generation techniques involves photographing an array of lava lamps.

Amplitude Modulation

I recently purchased a Sangean HDR-141 compact HD Radio receiver after the local station that broadcasts baseball decided to move their AM/MW2 station (and most of their FM stations) exclusively to digital HD Radio broadcasts. In their announcement, they established that the time was right now that 20% of their audience was equipped to listen. That’s… an astonishingly low percentage, especially given that the technology was approved as the U.S. digital radio broadcast format over fifteen years ago. I, myself, was able to find one acquaintance capable of receiving HD Radio (in their car), and this receiver only handled FM.

Adoption has seemingly been low in the other direction as well. Though the airwaves near me seem flooded with broadcasts, the only HD Radio content is coming from the aforementioned station. Part of this is almost certainly because the standard itself is patent-encumbered bullshit from iBiquity3 instead of an open standard. Transmitting requires not only the encoder, but licensing fees directly to iBiquity. The public-facing language is very vague on the HD Radio website, but receivers also need to license the tech and I imagine if this was free they’d make a point of it (and there’d be more than three portable HD Radio receivers on the market).

It’s ludicrous to me that one company gets to bank off of having a proprietary standard accepted by the government. This would be bad enough on FM, but it’s downright heartbreaking on MW. Radio, especially AM, belongs to the realm of tinkerers. It’s about the most open form of distant communication beyond shouting from a mountain. By its very nature, a receiver can be built from a tiny handful of parts, and it won’t even require power. HD Radio on MW changes all of this. I can’t build a receiver without a power source, a licensed decoder, and a DAC at the very least. On top of that, MW HD Radio transmissions require additional bandwidth, and partially overlap with neighboring frequencies, polluting the airwaves. All of this for what? What iBiquity describes as ‘FM quality sound’. We have an existing technology for that: analog FM radio.

There’s an argument that broadcast radio usage is on the decline, particularly MW. I can’t see how HD Radio is going to do anything to remedy this; though I believe opening up the airwaves would. Most MW radio has historically been talk-based, which does not need anything approaching high fidelity. If there’s a concern over music stations running out of bands on FM, that actually is solved by HD Radio with the advent of multicasting. And again, while I don’t love the idea of FM going digital, I’d prefer a bunch of multicast nonsense in that band over MW losing its essence. And when I have DXing radios3 that pull in MW from 400 miles up the coast and SW from China, I’d definitely prefer that stations spouting digital noise that interferes with neighboring frequencies stay out of the MW spectrum.

I suppose I’m bitter about this whole thing because I didn’t see it coming. As mentioned, iBiquity’s proprietary format was approved for U.S. broadcasting in 2002, and anecdotal evidence suggests it hasn’t really taken off. Even in markets where it has seen adoption, I’ve fortunately mostly seen it on FM. For the intellectual-property-burdened, license-waving capitalists at iBiquity, I’m sure it makes perfect sense. For consumers, for radio enthusiasts, for believers in open communication… it’s not only a travesty, it’s entirely illogical. Nobody listening to MW has ever expected CD-quality transmissions – that just isn’t the point. I would imagine iBiquity’s adoption boasts are what they are not because consumers give a shit, but because their car has an HD Radio receiver and the FM station they already knew happened to start a simulcast. Coincidental consumption is not a great metric.

I hope this experiment fails for my local station. I hope FCC licensing is opened up to remove the burden for amateur broadcasters on MW, if there’s any genuine concern out there about the airwaves falling out of favor. If iBiquity wants to leach money from the air, let them leach it from FM. Free and open AM is too precious.

  1. I may review the radio later, but so far my take is that the UI is poor compared to the C. Crane Pocket I used in the bed/bath before, but reception is very strong. It seems sensitive to placement, though, easily wiped out by nearby electronics. The quality of HD Radio is so unimportant, but the noise floor is noticeably silent which may be appreciated. RDS is certainly nicer than Shazaming everything. ↩︎
  2. For folks who aren’t radio nerds, AM (Amplitude Modulation) is the manner in which the signal is broadcast, whereas MW (Medium Wave) is the band of frequencies typically associated with ‘AM Radio’. Since amateur/shortwave transmissions also use AM, this is a distinction I will be making throughout this post. I won’t be discussing FM (Frequency Modulation) enough to need to distinguish technology from band. ↩︎
  3. iBiquity was a merger of USA Digital Radio and Lucent Digital Radio, now owned by DTS (a brand of Xperi). I don’t want to link to any of their sites, though it’s tempting because they’re so comically shit. Completely transparent buzzword-laden marketing nonsense and intellectual property wankery. ↩︎