I’m a transplanted New Englander, a carpetbagger, now living in Virginia by way of Colorado. Born in Massachusetts, the son of an Italian-American teacher/educator and print media specialist and all around good guy father, and a French-Canadian accountant/singer and all around amazing mom. The middle child. Trouble. Extroverted introvert. Not terribly brilliant, but I had a real spark of interest in certain areas that has carried me through the difficulty of a lack of brilliance by counter-balancing that with a real thirst for answers.
My early interests were in guitar, radio and television. I was attracted to playing guitar, and I told my parents about it. My parents bought me two albums. One was Andres Segovia, The Intimate Guitar, and the other was Carlos Montoya Flamenco Guitar! Talk about a high bar! To this day, I am a guitar owner, but I will never live up to that bar.
I was young, and I was smart. I was convinced that television broadcasting was amazing. I knew, at that age, how electrical transmission occurred via wires, but I had no idea how audio and video could be sent wirelessly. I needed to know how it happened.
Some called it the “Ether”. The void in space where signals could be sent, but not seen. How did this all happen? I
I needed to know.
When I was in 5th grade, I created a simple electrical circuit board where there was a battery connected through a switch, through a light bulb, and then a piece of aluminum foil from around a stick of gum and then back to the battery, that showed that if you cut the foil, the light bulb would go out. Wires made sense to me. Doing the same thing through the thin air was magic to me.
We do it all the time now. I have spent much of my life focusing on how this is done, and then how we can improve lives by doing good things for people this way.
In 1968 my parents bought a brand-new Sylvania television set. It was our first color TV. I remember feigning sickness so that I could stay home the day that it was delivered. My mother allowed me to do that. Once the Black and White TV was replaced, I went about taking it apart to see what it was made of. It had some various weird looking components, and some glass tubes that seemed to be important to the functioning of the set. Indeed they were, but every other component was equally important.
My brother, Brian, was quite a bit brighter than I am. In fact, he still is. Back then, he started playing with electronics, and I watched what he was doing with radios and electronics. Pretty soon I was helping him rig up various radio antennas made from Slinkys, or electrical cords, and trying to improve reception of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater programs. We loved listening to that program
I spent a fair bit of my early childhood watching TV shows that were broadcast live in the New England area, like “Captain Kangaroo” and the “Hap Richards Show“. I was fascinated with television and was amazed that images from around the world could be brought, instantly, into my own home via this technology. I became obsessed with remote connections and transmission of ideas and information.
My parents decided to enroll Brian and me to participate on another of the many daytime kid shows, this one out of Hartford, Connecticut, WTIC, Channel 3, called “The Ranger Andy Show“. That day changed my life.
The show involved “Ranger Andy” coming out and entertaining an audience of local area children. Ranger Andy played guitar, sang, told stories, talking with various guest stars, and interacting with the children who were in the audience that day.
On that day, when I was in the audience of probably 20 children who were guests on the program, I paid little attention to Ranger Andy himself. I was awestruck by the television studio, the cameras and cameramen (back then), the Floor Manager, the overhead boom microphones, the lighting, the technology, the environment. I have no idea what Ranger Andy talked about that day, or what he sang. When the show was over, and the children lined up to get his autograph, I walked over to the Floor Manager and asked him about what he was doing.
Years later, when I was about 24 I already had started a career in television. I interviewed for a position at WTIC. The person I interviewed with told me that he floor managed the Ranger Andy Show, and that it was likely him that I had been talking to that day, some 16 or 17 years before.
There is more to that story, but that show was the seed to my drive to get involved in television. From that day forward, I never questioned what I wanted to do for my career. I knew. I was going to work in television. And I did. And then I didn’t.
Electrons vs People
Electrons are so cool. What I really like about them is that they always do exactly what you tell them to do. If they aren’t doing it, you told them wrong. It’s up to you. Over my career, I was asked to do less with electrons and more with humans. I was great with electrons, and I was excited to tell people what they did, how to make them do what you want, and how to harness their power. Some folks, who I will always adore, decided to harness my excitement about electrons and convert that to managing people.
People are different from electrons.
People don’t always do exactly what you tell them to do. Humans are much harder to manage that electrons. However, my career has been focused much more on managing humans than it has been on managing electrons. In fact, my doctoral dissertation focused on managing humans, rather than focusing on my work with electrons.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
I became obsessed at an early age as to how electrons functioned, and how television worked. The entire idea of analog transmission of televisions signals and how that was accomplished is really absolutely astonishing. The brilliance behind the engineers at RCA, Philco, DuMont and other organizations can’t be overstated. In fact, the way that engineering teams decided to add color information to a signal that already fed black and while televisions sets is among the most astonishing things that I have ever understood.
The engineers accomplished this by sending the color information as phase modulation on top of the existing amplitude modulated audio and the frequency modulated video. They found a tiny sliver of frequency space to use that would not interfere with existing information, but could add the additional information needed at exactly 3.579545 Mhz.
They found they could insert the color information at that exact frequency into this complex waveform without damaging or interrupting other critical video luminance information being sent around the same frequency range. And to make sure that the tiny little phase modulation encoding was received intact by the color television decoders in your TV set, they included a reference color subcarrier signal onto the “back porch” of every line of NTSC video being broadcast via the television station. The back porch is there to take up the modest amount of time that it takes for the electron beam in your television to finish writing a line of luminance information and then jumping back to start the next line of information. Amazing – they just “added” color to a signal already consumed with sending you complete black and white television and audio information already.
Analog distribution of controls signals and information is ridiculously complex and fascinating. I am now a complete expert on the subject of a system of processes, engineering and environments that are entirely obsolete and will never be of use again, except as an artifact of history. But the engineering behind it all is absolutely amazing.
I want to write an entire book on the subject above, and I do hope to. But my current career has had to release the focus on analog television and refocus on how to use technology to help people think and learn. That’s what my focus has been for the past 20 years. To understand and exploit how people think and learn, and to help them do just that.