Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Our Binary World

In primary school, we are taught to count to ten, then in multiples of ten, the basic decimal system. When we look at our extremities, we see ten fingers on our hands and ten toes on our feet

Taking a closer look at the math in life, however, one is soon aware that it also comes in pairs. In the sports arena, there is a winner and there is a loser; in commerce, a buyer and a seller; in charity, a donor and donee. Humans have organs that come in pairs ─ eyes, hands, feet, testicles, brain lobes, lungs, kidneys and liver. It takes two to make a quarrel or to tango, and in wildlife, the predator must have its prey and the herbivore its herbs. In morality, there are double standards or double books of accounting. All of these are embraced in the binary system that counts in twos.

The marvelous machine that brought on the information age, the computer, does its thing with a simple yes or no, a binary system using two digits, 1 and 0 (one and zero), in an on-off system of electronic switches called diodes in a complex matrix of integrated circuits.

Binaries are present even in political systems, the pros and cons of debates; the proposal to amend the Constitution splits people into two camps, those who favor and those who oppose. Moreover, within the ranks of those who favor, the method of making the change is divided into two groups— those that advocate a Constituent Assembly against those who prefer a Constitutional Convention, in short the elected versus the selected. The former opposes a Convention due to its high expense and the quality of the selection process ( if we consider that this President is stigmatized with having 6 cabinet secretaries that abandoned the ship of state in the short span of 2 ½ years), and the latter opposes an Assembly due to fear of self-aggrandizement.

A few binaries have suffered degradation. Once upon a time, only two sexes were recognized: either an individual was male or female, but today society has accepted the existence of gays and lesbians. Husband and wife duo has now been joined by gay partnerships that are even solemnized in some religious sects. A further degradation is predicted by scientists to occur in 125,000 years when the male of the species will be irrelevant and superfluous. Presumably, so would the transvestites.


When a baby cries, it is communicating its distress, pain or hunger, and the anxious parent responds, a classic illustration of basic human communication -- viva voce (oral) but not quite language, a system the baby has yet to learn. Fundamental communications use the binary system: a source and a terminal, the baby as source and the parent as terminal in the illustration. We know that people and animals communicate with its own kind, and perhaps plants and the lower life forms do too. Humans have progressed from oral means advancing from the primitive grunts and growls to the contemporary shriek and howl songs, and developed sophisticated methods of transmission beyond line of sight voice, body and sign language, semaphore and flashing light to long distance telegraphy

Telephones started the trend of long distance communications that can reach beyond shouting range. The electrical device carried conversation via a copper wire hung on poles. But after a few kilometers the internal resistance of the wire sapped signal strength (attenuated) making the sound faint or inaudible. To solve the attenuation problem, amplifiers were inserted at strategic points. The phone served intranational talk well enough and even with neighbor nations, but costly cables laid on the ocean floor were needed for intercontinental conversation.

The next leap came when radiotelegraphy and Morse code was invented. Radio waves (which travel in a straight line) was bounced back to earth by the ionosphere layer. This inexpensive technology had one drawback: sunspot activity sends out rays dispersing the ionosphere layer. Without its reflector, radio signals go straight out to space. The same effect also silences short wave voice radio. Even today, those nasty sunspots zap satellite TV transmission.

Satellite sovereignty

The prediction of futurists that our rapidly advancing information and communications technology will create a global village is becoming a reality, but the ancient differences among nations linger. It was not washed away by the new wave of information and understanding.

The initial forays of satellite broadcasting had two components, one for transmitting television broadcasts to TV or cable stations on the ground, and another directly transmitting the TV program to homes. A test program of direct-to-home transmission from satellite was conducted in India, a brainchild in part of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke who originated the idea of placing communications satellites 22,300 miles above the equator in the geostationary orbit now called the Clarke orbit.

The satellite has made it easier for nations to talk, but it also raised new suspicions. Direct broadcast to homes has weakened control of governments (especially the authoritarian type) on ideology and propaganda dominion over its citizens. More than sovereignty is at stake. There are also economic concerns, strongly voiced by the Group of 77 (composed of 120 third world nations) demanding equitable sharing of the world’s natural resources. One of these natural resources is the geostationary orbit. Only a limited number of satellites can be placed along the 100,000-mile ribbon in the sky.

Most communications satellites, which transmit at lower frequencies and create wider beams than direct broadcast satellites are spaced about four degrees apart in the Clarke orbit. But, direct broadcast satellites operate by international agreement at the high frequency of 12 gigahertz (12 billion hertz). With the narrower beam, they can be placed closer together without mutual interference. Satellites placed every two degrees around the Earth (approximately 900 miles apart) can accommodate 180 slots.

To control the situation, in a 1977 meeting of the World Administrative Radio Conference, a ruling was approved stating that every nation, regardless of size, be awarded at least one slot in the Clarke orbit with five transmitting channels per satellite (essentially applicable to Europe, Asia and Africa, the Eastern hemisphere). The Western hemisphere allocation for North and South America in an International Telecommunications Conference, gave the U.S. 8 slots, Canada 6, Mexico 4, Brazil 5, Argentina 2, Carribean consortium 1, and South American consortium 1. Thirty-two channels for each orbital slot was agreed on by the delegates.

The rulings make certain that nations cannot beam signals that overlap and interfere with each other, producing bedlam on the ground. Politically, the rulings insure that each nation can exert a controlling power over transmissions beamed from direct broadcast satellites to citizens.

Any self-respecting economic tiger should have its own satellite. Being a tenant on someone’s skyflyer is flaunting one’s poverty. So, moved by this irresistible force, a Pinoy satellite was launched to a geo-stationary orbit above our airspace. Agila II owned by the Mabuhay Philippines Satellite Corporation went skyward from a Chinese launch center on board a Chinese rocket in mid-1997.This status symbol does not come cheap, and the risk of launch failure significant. But the lure of profit overpowered timidity and the Pinoy skyflyer joined the rest of man-made objects crowding earth’s sky.

Space above earth’s stratosphere is crisscrossed by orbiting objects sent up by the superpowers that created the ICBM (InterContinental Ballistic Missile) technology, the rocket delivery system for nuclear warheads designed to wipe out humankind from the planet. Fortunately for Homo sapiens, saner minds prevailed over mindless trigger fingers and averted what could have resulted in what was expressed as “mutually assured destruction” (acronym MAD). Much later, the regional conflicts of other powers fueled a race to acquire ballistic technology which led to satellite launching technology. France, Pakistan, North Korea, and lately, China, have joined the original launchers U.S. and Russia.

Some of the first orbiters have fallen back to earth unscheduled and uncontrolled, raising untold anxiety in the countries along the probable swath of the crash landing. The MIR space station launched by the Soviets in the mid-80’s plummeted to earth like the entry of a meteor.

Satellites have made profound changes in the manner and speed of communications and broadcast entertainment. Other advances are in mapping, weather, spying, navigation and fishery, and many more technologies are being developed at a dizzy pace. It does have drawbacks. One of these is the hazard of falling debris from defunct machines. Another is the cacophony of microwaves (although beyond hearing of the human ear) that are reflected or initiated by the satellites. A coming hazard would be the quarrels and conflicts over atmospheric domain that would be analogous to the territorial disagreements on the surface.

Mapping satellites may help in resolving conflicting territorial claims and disputes, particularly in potential oil bearing areas. Weather is routinely forecast from data such as ocean surface temperatures and wind activity obtained from a meteorological network scattered over the globe and transmitted via satellite. For purposes of plotting a ship’s position, mariners have mothballed their sextants and archived star tables, and now use the more convenient GPS (Global Positioning System) from a group of satellites to navigate the oceans.

National Broadband Network

The Electronic Commerce Act of 2000 mandated government to install an electronic network to facilitate transactions between government agencies from the national down to the local level. The objective of the network is to reduce government's expenses on information and communications technologies. A confusing and hazy hierarchy involving the Commission on Information and Communications Technology (CICT), a policy-making body directed to establish and administer comprehensive and integrated programs in information and communications technology, and the Department of Transportation and Communication (DoTC) brainstormed and came up with the National Broadband Network (NBN) project. This ambitious project aims to create an intranet or an "internal" network for government institutions, to include connectivity to remote barangays. The law mandates the establishment of a web-based government portal, and a domestic Internet exchange system to help communications and electronic transactions between government agencies, and eventually to the public.

The project ran afoul of obstacles and criticism ranging from lack of transparency to absence of feasibility study and cost estimate, suspicions of overprices and bribes, even technical infrastructure, and duplication of an existing network, the Department of Science and Technology's Preginet (Philippine Research, Education and Government Information Network). Critics cannot comprehend the need for computers in a remote barangay which has no electricity. The most telling argument against the project was the failed Telepono sa barangay fiasco.

The broadband technology and its participation in the electromagnetic spectrum inferred in the project is another matter for another story.

If two friends ask you to judge a dispute, don't accept, for you will lose a friend. If two strangers ask you to judge a dispute, accept, for you will gain a friend. — Source Unknown

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