It's A Small World After All

You might not have noticed </I>that in Japan they drive on the left. I ain't got a fraction of a notion why that is. Could be it has something to do with samurai riding on the left so they could swing swords at opponents. Or could be it's something more bizarre.
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SOMEWHERE OUT THERE You might not have noticed that in Japan they drive on the left. I ain't got a fraction of a notion why that is. Could be it has something to do with samurai riding on the left so they could swing swords at opponents. Or could be it's something more bizarre.

Bear with me for a few paragraphs. I think I'm going to end up making some sort of point about the ATSC getting ready to win a Darwin Award, but Nellie the Neuron ain't revealed her grand plan to me yet.

Where was I? Oh, yeah: I don't know whether this is true (and it probably ain't), but someone once told me that before World War II the Japanese drove on the right. Then, after the war (according to this story), they changed sides to spite the occupying Americans.

Hey – as I said, I don't know for sure, but, if it's true, they surely achieved some success. I mean, you can go into any sizable supermarket or department store in the land of Fujicolor and buy Kodak film. In the nation of Sony and Toshiba laptops, IBM does good business. And, in the country that gave us Bridgestone, it ain't hard to find Goodyear tires. But just try to find an American car to stick them on.

There are all sorts of reasons why you might not find American cars all that easily in Japan, but one of them sticks out like a sore thumb: They drive on the left in Japan. Ergo, the steering wheels are on the right. But American cars have them on the left.

"But, Mario, Japanese cars sold in the U.S. have steering wheels on the left. Why can't American cars be made with right-side steering?"

Good question. I don't know the answer. But, if the stuff I read has a grain or two of truth to it, American automobile manufacturers just don't seem to be as flexible in that regard as the Japanese.

Let me see ... . Should I go to Hong Kong's DTV now or to the Darwin Awards? Nellie says Darwin (and I always do what Nellie says).

GENE POOL

This is what the official Darwin Awards Web site has to say by way of explanation: "Darwin Awards celebrate Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by commemorating the remains of those who improved our gene pool by removing themselves from it."

For instance, Nellie seems to recall an early winner who decided he could win a contest to see who could get barbecue charcoals ready fastest. His technique was to apply liquid oxygen to the smoldering briquettes. Methinks one of this year's nominees is a woman who was killed while trying to rescue her Christmas tree from a busy highway after it fell off her car's roof. After the first time she was hit by a car, she tried again. And again.

A trip to the Web site (www.darwinawards.com) is a worthwhile excursion unless you're one of those prudes who feel bad about laughing out loud whilst reading about other folks' deaths. If you are, here's an alternative amusement: Think of things in TV technology that were so colossally dumb that they quickly became extinct.

Let me help get you started. Anyone out there still using a camera with true I and Q encoding, per FCC 73.699? I didn't think so. I ain't so sure the idea of wider bandwidth was so bad, but the 33-degree phase shift wasn't the most brilliantly practical idea, even if it was good science.

Along the same lines, how about SMPTE 256M, the leader you're supposed to be recording at the head of your tapes? No, I didn't think you were. Long after it was needed, a committee came up with a sequence that included a 10 kHz head-azimuth alignment signal.

AZIMUTH ALIGNMENT

What's that you say? You have never in your life aligned the azimuth of a longitudinal audio stack on a videotape recorder? You say you don't even know of a recorder on which it can be done with anything less hefty than a 16-ounce ball-peen alignment tool? My, my!

Then there's the ATSC. It's only one letter off from NTSC, but it surely is different.

Neither of the NTSCs are around anymore (the committees, not the standards they generated), which is just the way they were planned. They didn't disappear because they were stupid. Heck, no! Some of the best danged work ever performed in visual perception came out of those two committees. But, like the Lone Ranger, they finished their work and rode off into the sunset. "Hiyo, Magenta!"

I ain't sure that any part of the ATSC can be considered to be like either of the NTSCs, but that doesn't mean there ain't any good engineering being done in ATSC subcommittees. I'd liken that part of the ATSC more to SMPTE. Good engineers get into a room (more often a conference call these days) and yell and scream at one another until some sort of document emerges for a parent committee to work on.

Sometimes what comes out approaches gem status; sometimes it's more like an irrelevant head-azimuth alignment signal; sometimes it's worse (for instance 704 active pixels, of which more later).

ANACHRONISTIC HD

Heck, even HDTV sometimes seems like an anachronism. Somebody took me to see a movie called "Dancer in the Dark" recently. It ain't a bad movie; I'd even call it a tearjerker. But the first 20 minutes or so were so awful looking that I thought I'd barf.

So I did a Web search to see if I was alone in my opinion and came across an interview with the cinematographer in PostIndustry.com. Here's a little piece of it, expurgated for family audiences:

"'I was very interested in the development of DV because it gives an image that's, how you say?' – the cinematographer struggled for the right word -- '[an adjectival form of a common obscene word for excrement was used here]. The image is [that word again]. But I wanted to see what we could do with that to tell the story.'"

Anyhow, that's the good, SMPTE-like, Dr. Jekyll side of ATSC. Then there's the promotional side of ATSC, out to do battle with DVB and ISDB.

ONE WORLD STANDARD

Back in the NTSC days, RCA usually handled promotion – and maybe that's how the world ended up with NTSC, PAL and SECAM (and variations thereupon). These days, ATSC has to do it on its own. The goal is one world standard.

So far, ATSC has sewn up the United States. Methinks Canada, South Korea, Taiwan and Argentina have also given some sort of nod to ATSC DTV, though there have been grumblings in at least three of those, and I don't think any country outside of the U.S. is broadcasting any ATSC DTV yet.

On the surface, it sure doesn't seem to be for lack of trying. If the folks from Pitcairn Island contact ATSC about adopting their DTV standard, I'm pretty danged sure they'll be wined and dined at the very least.

Heck, there's even A/63! A/53 is the ATSC digital television standard Americans all know and love – well, it's the standard that's known. A/63 is a video-coding version for 50 Hz countries. Smart.

By the way, you know those 704 pixels I'm often ranting about? The ones that A/53 Annex A Table 3 is restricted to for Rec. 601-like SDTV? The ones that make A/53 abominably unique in a world where 720 active samples per line is the norm? Well, guess what! A/63's equivalent table has the more normal 720.

A SMIDGEN OF SMARTS

So that's cool. Argentina's a 50 Hz country. Methinks they were maybe planning on 60 Hz HD, but what do I know? A/63 shows that the ATSC had at least a wee smidgen of smarts when it came to considering the great big world out there.

Ayup, they had a smidgen of smarts when it came to considering the great big world out there. Why do you suppose a 50 Hz-video country like Argentina might be interested in ATSC? Gee, aside from the wining and dining, it could have something to do with the fact that they're System N: 625/25 in a 6 MHz channel.

Argentina is the world's largest PAL-N country. Next comes Uruguay, methinks, followed by Paraguay. After that comes ... . Ummm ... . Uhhh ... . As Porky might say, th-th-th-that's all folks! There are approximately three countries in the world to which A/63 applies.

"C'mon, Mario! There are a heck of a lot more 50 Hz video countries in the world!"

True enough, but A/63 ain't a digital-television standard like A/53. It's just a video-coding standard. Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay could, if they wanted to, use A/63 for video coding and the rest of A/53 for 6 MHz DTV transmission.

Other 50 Hz video countries have broader channels, but, unless I've been really remiss in poring over the ATSC Web site, ATSC has exactly one channel width: 6 MHz. And merrily they roll along, "competing" in various countries for the right to be the DTV standard, while offering only 6 MHz channels.

HONG KONG PHOOEY

What? Oh, okay. Nellie says it's time to talk about DTV in Hong Kong. After pretty extensive testing in that region of China, ATSC came out looking surprisingly good when the reports were recently released. According to the test results, Hong Kong successfully achieved both outdoor and indoor reception of ATSC signals, even in multipath-ridden areas where PAL couldn't be received.

The Hong Kong folks weren't thrilled that ATSC wasn't designed for single-frequency networks, but methinks the on-channel repeater work that ATTC did could have gone a long way toward calming fears in that regard. They noted that ATSC also wasn't designed for mobile reception, but DVB and ISDB didn't do too well in that area either in some sections of Hong Kong, and, anyhow, the final report recommends not requiring mobile reception.

The report recommends selecting DVB over ATSC. How come? There were a bunch of reasons, including the fact that Hong Kong (and the rest of China) has 8 MHz channels, and ATSC has only 6 MHz.

Duh! Hello? Anyone home?

They drive on the left in Japan, and they use 8 MHz channels in Hong Kong and China. And Russia. And other countries. And, in lots of sizable places where they don't use 8 MHz channels, they use 7 MHz – places like India, Indonesia and Australia.

The only countries with 6 MHz TV channels (not counting military bases and oil-crew enclaves) are NTSC countries and Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. If ATSC wants to concentrate on just those countries, fine. But then they shouldn't even bother to compete elsewhere. At the very least, they'd save some airfare. Unless, that is, what they're really competing for is a Darwin Award.