Optical fiber is a brilliant invention: it is a thread of spun glass. By the magic of total internal reflection, the refraction index of the material, and the wavelength(s) of the light fired down the pipe; by the engineering of dense wavelength multiplexing, and quantum-tunneling solid-state laser boosters set into the fiber every few kilometers; and, sometimes, by the hard work of cable-laying ship captains who stubbornly brave the high seas to thread this spun glass across the ocean floor, billions of bits flow from point to point across the world. Against all odds, not to mention the second law of thermodynamics, the world has managed to hew from the static of random potential the most powerful communications tool our civilization has ever seen.
Now. I don't like TV.
This Christmas I was given a generous gift: a Hauppauge HVR-950 USB TV tuner. I really, really wanted one of these. The widget is about the size of one of those slim Zippo lighters. I plug one end in to my USB hub and the other end to a coaxial cable that runs to a telescoping antenna of the same sort you'd find on a plastic radio. With the help of twelve kilobytes of closed-source firmware dynamically loaded into its onboard processor, I can tune into a whole set of channels streaming right out of the CN tower, not to mention what comes across the water from Buffalo. The CBC broadcasts an MPEG-2 stream with 1920 by 1080 lines of interlaced resolution; mplayer gives me a variety of options to upsample the spatial resolution with the help of the extra temporal resolution added by the interlacing of the fields.
The video stream is completely independent of the transmission technique, and my bargain-priced, extremely powerful quad-core processor makes short work of the digital signal; but the HVR-950 itself does some fascinating, insightful and difficult work to condense the vapour of that feeble radio transmission into something from which the video signal can be recovered.
The little widget gets warm when it's in use. The signal varies depending on what lies between the antenna and the window.
We have covered the planet with a web of spun glass and the dreams of a world light the fiber day and night; but that pride is completely different from the flare of inspiration sparked by the faintest of radio signals, coming through thin air from the other end of the world.
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