November 21, 2006

TV Japan

Acting on solid empirical data, I finally signed up for TV Japan on Dish Network. I had observed in my own longitudinal study of myself (the empirical data part) that a steady diet of Japanese anime (the only means of consuming Japanese in significant amounts on DVD), combined with a somewhat obsessive study of vocabulary, really did improve my aural comprehension significantly over a span of several years.

However, even on the Netflix four-out plan (averaging four DVDs a week), I was imbibing maybe six hours of Japanese a week. Not exactly immersion numbers.

This was supplemented by Internet broadcasts of NHK news, but the Internet version is spare in its subject matter and is repetitive. The best part, Furusato News--or "News from the countryside" (meaning everywhere but Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka)--is apparently recorded only a few times a week and then repeated over and over every hour. And is only 20 minutes long at best.

So I decided to kick things up a notch, cut back on my Netflix diet, and get TV Japan. (I realize that getting satellite TV is hardly news these days, but despite my fascination with science and technology, I tend to be a late adopter.)

Plus, geek that I am, the whole process intrigued me. I find it fascinating that such incredible high tech can be utilized for such prosaic purposes. But let's hear it for the nexus of science and modern capitalism! TV Japan, unfortunately, is not at the top of Dish Network's sales list, so it took some effort to figure how to subscribe to the service in the first place.

Radio Shack is a Dish Network retailer, but after chatting with a clerk for five minutes, it was clear he didn't know anything and was saying things I knew were wrong (yes, you can subscribe to TV Japan alone; no, you don't need two dishes). So I went online. All the website provided me with was the price: $25/month + $6/month as an a la carte service (I waste enough time watching my local terrestrial stations, so I don't need any more domestic programming).

I went to the help section and tried the online chat, and was told at once I had to call the 1-888 number. Well, high tech goes back to the future. Even the guy who answered my call had to put me on hold for five minutes. He eventually figured everything out. The kicker of the deal was that when you subscribe to an international package only, you have to buy the equipment. (Ah, that explains those orphaned satellite dishes I see about.)

Dish Network gives you back the investment with a $5/month rebate over 30 months (though you may have to hold out for that particular offer). A decent-enough deal in any case, and now I own a satellite dish and receiver, for what that's worth.

The Dish guys came out in their van the next day. Oddly enough, the lead tech guy was Australian. He mounted the dish on the roof, set the elevation, attached a voltmeter-sized device that made a beep-beep-beep sound, and then turned it until a solid tone emerged. He quipped that this was usually the hard part--tuning into the right satellite (I guess it's getting crowded up there in geosynchronous orbit).

It wasn't difficult in my case because the satellite NHK uses for North America west of Colorado is at 148 degree west longitude, about halfway to Hawaii. (My dish is the only one pointing out towards Area 51 somewhere). Domestic Dish programming in these parts comes from the 110 and 119 degree west longitude satellites, which are almost due south from Salt Lake City (111 degrees).

Regular domestic receiver dishes are designed with two slightly offset transponders to pick up the 110 and 119 degree satellites simultaneously (there's an interesting trig problem for you).

After that, it was simply a matter of stringing cable down from the roof and drilling a hole and feeding the cable into my apartment. If the aging four-plex I live in lasts another quarter century, there'll be so much orphaned coax wrapped around it you won't be able to see the brick. (The downlink from the dish uses heftier RG-6, biased to power the transponder electronics, rather than the more generic RG-59 used by the cable company.)

To active the receiver, the tech pulled a set of numbers off the box the receiver came in: the "smart card" ID, which I took to be the equivalent of the a network MAC address. Then using my phone (using caller ID to identify the customer), he entered the numbers, and a minute later, my television sprang to life.

So a burst of data went from the phone bank, to the mainframe, to the satellite uplink (23,000 miles or so), down from the satellite to my transponder (another 23,000 miles or so), and then my receiver snatched out the few bytes identified by its MAC address, flashed the ROM with the relevant data, and configured itself to the service I had subscribed to.

Like I said, very cool that it all works right out of the box. (Joe says the Dish Network DVRs can be flaky at times, but I didn't opt for one.) Maybe someday when we all have gigabit fiber to the home, all of our electronic devices will work the same way.

The first thing you notice is that there is ZERO static in the signal coming out of the receiver. Pure digital. No noise. (And when I switch back to the terrestrial signal, noise all over the place.) The image is softer than a good terrestrial signal, but I figure that's due to the MPEG decoding and smoothing. If there's a lot of action on screen (say, watching Sumo), you can spot the MPEG artifacting, so the signal is probably fairly substantially compressed.

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