BORSCHT in POTS
It is now one week since Hurricane Sandy made landfall, and the area it affected is by no means back to normal. This post will discuss new and old media in the aftermath of the storm. It will not use images, for reasons that might be apparent later.
I was, fortunately, in an area relatively unaffected. The elevators in my apartment building were shut down as a precaution, which was somewhat of a nuisance when a neighbor on the top floor called for assistance with a window being blown in; I had to climb the stairs to help secure it. Oh, well. I’m sure many wish that were their worst problem.
Otherwise, I experienced only momentary flickers of power–enough to require me to re-boot our cable boxes but nothing else (and maybe even those reboots were caused by the cable-company’s power problems, not mine). With power, Internet, phone service (both wired and cellular), cable-TV, and radio, we became a hub for refugees from less fortunate areas. One morning, my wife surveyed all the people typing away at their computers at our dining room table and declared, “It’s an office!”
As the storm approached and the morning after, I was in an edit suite at All Mobile Video’s Chelsea Post, several miles from my home. The line of power loss began one block farther south. Those who could get there did. That included the editor, who lost power at his home and was happy to be in a lit, warm edit suite with access to hot coffee.
Let me take a moment to discuss the edit project; I think it’s relevant and might explain why I was at a post-production facility instead of editing in someone’s apartment. The show was a broadcast documentary. It had been shot using a large variety of cameras in different parts of the world, as is common in this era of “democratized” image acquisition. And, as is also common in this era, it was edited from files in a computer. But there was a problem.
Some of the material had been shot at a 29.97 frames-per-second rate, some at 25, some at 23.976, and some at 59.94. In the old days of videotape-based editing, all of the video would have been converted to a single frame rate for editing. There are some more-recent high-end file-based editing systems that can store segments in their native formats and convert them as necessary. This show had not been edited using either of those methods.
Instead, as is common, it was cut using relatively inexpensive editing software, which, for some reason best known to its developers, accepted the files in any frame rate without converting them. A file matching the master timeline’s frame rate appeared normally. Files not matching that frame rate were butchered as necessary to force them into the rate, dropping or repeating frames to do so. The result was nauseating.
The reason I was at the edit suite was to assist with repair, and the reason it was an edit suite, instead of an apartment, was to take advantage of the best hardware-based, motion-compensating frame-rate converters. Although they use the latest technology, they are, in effect, throwbacks to an earlier era of editing, the kind with machine rooms.
To get to the edit suite, I would normally have taken a subway. New York City’s subways were shut down in advance of the storm on the first edit day, which was a good thing, because most of their tunnels flooded due to the storm surge. I was prepared to walk but was able to get a taxi in each direction in just a few seconds and almost flew through the then-empty streets.
I knew the subways weren’t working because that information had been announced on the radio and also appeared in my morning newspaper, The New York Times, delivered to my door. Two AM radio stations to which I sometimes listen had to be shut down when their transmitters flooded, but on FM there were no problems, and WNYC-FM provided all the news I could use. One young refugee recognized the broadcast voices as he entered our apartment. “So that’s radio,” he exclaimed. He said he normally listened to the show as a podcast and didn’t know it could be heard live.
The only problem I had with the radio information was when they announced an evacuation of New York City’s Zone A and directed listeners to the station’s web site for a map. It was impossible for me to get to that web page. There were other web pages I couldn’t access, some on government web sites.
The news I heard on radio or read in the newspaper was accurate. Those eager for news on Twitter weren’t necessarily as lucky. And, as is common in this age, inaccurate information sometimes went viral, so many sites soon erroneously reported that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was trapped by rising waters or that the New York Stock Exchange had been flooded. Images of the Statue of Liberty being inundated were actually lifted from an old movie.
Some sites didn’t report the misinformation because they couldn’t report anything. The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Gawker (with Gizmodo and Deadspin), and Mediaite were among those that went down even to those of us with power and Internet access.
Many storm victims, of course, lacked both of those commonly expected utility services. The batteries in their smartphones and computers couldn’t be charged without power, and Internet service fed via fiber optics was also useless without power for modems and routers. Smartphones (and even dumb mobile phones) also had problems as cell sites failed due to flooding, lack of power, or tower damage; texting was the most reliable of two-way mobile communications, but it, too, required at least some connectivity and battery power. Besides newspapers and radio (portable-radio batteries outlast those in computers and smartphones, and some receivers have crank generators), two other old-media institutions–both often said to be useless in the wireless digital age–helped out.
One was the wired telephone network, sometimes referred to as POTS (plain old telephone service). A POT (plain old telephone) connected to the network receives BORSCHT. While I’m sure that many would have been happy to get a nourishing soup in the storm’s aftermath, BORSCHT, in this case, is an acronym for the functions provided by a POTS central office to a phone line: battery power, overvoltage protection, ringing current, supervision of the subscriber terminal (e.g., knowing when the phone is picked up), codec (coding and decoding associated with transmission in the digital age; before that it was BORSHT), hybrid (conversion between two-wire and four-wire communication), and testing. That first, battery power, was how we were able to receive calls from some who had no other form of two-way communication.
Storm victims who had given up wired phone service sometimes needed to join the queue at one of the few remaining public telephones, powered from the battery room at the telephone company central office. The New York Times reported that a French tourist, checking in with home at a public telephone, was able to let the crowd waiting for the phone know when power was expected to be restored to that location.
The other old-media institution that was extremely helpful (and housed some of those last remaining public telephones) was the library system. By November 1, the New York Public Library (which serves three of New York’s five boroughs, including hard-hit Staten Island) got 55 branches open, using neighborhood librarians who could walk to local sites. By November 5, all but four were open, providing light, warmth, a dry place to sit, power for chargers, Internet access (and even computers to use it), books (and newspapers and magazines) to read, and increased event programming to entertain students whose schools were still closed.
In the aftermath of the storm, many decisions will be made. Storm-surge barriers and inflatable tunnel plugs are already being discussed.
In this era of seeming unending technological obsolescence, it might be worth noting the key roles played by newspapers, radio, wired telephones, and, yes, even physical libraries in providing services in the aftermath of the great storm. And, as for me, I’m also happy there was a large post-production facility with a well-equipped machine room.