A Century Of Sense: Translating Techies


This is the 100th episode of this column. For sticking with it for that long, you’ve officially earned the right to take a break this week, and wander with me through the last four years.

Along the way, we’ll update a few “translations,” and look ahead to the next 100.

A few words on the “Translation Please” column itself: Its intent, from the very beginning (September 2000), was to make the sometimes-strange world of cable technology a bit more approachable, conversationally and mentally. It’s written for the person who knows the industry, but has less of a natural interest in the technology segment than, say, an engineer.

(An editor friend jokes that people read “Translation Please” so they can be smarter at industry cocktail parties. In response: If you’re feeling smarter, it’s working. Remember to pace yourself, though. Best not to go three martinis deep on something like modulation, unless you’ve done supplementary reading.)


People often ask how the “translatables” are selected. Some (usually PR-types) imagine a plump list of topics, planned weeks in advance, like an editorial calendar.

Ah, to be that organized, and that flush with good ideas! Usually, translatables pop up in the normal course of current events. Bill Gates talks emphatically about the need for cable to go “all IP,” to a roomful (National Show 2003) of faces so quizzical, a translation seems necessary (June 16, 2003).

Or, more often, a technology guru throws a term into a conversation. The term feels unsettingly unfamiliar. The head bells ring: What did he just say? What is that? (Am I stupid not to know that?)

Other times, ideas brew for months before they’re ready. These are usually the more interpretive translations, on amorphous subjects — like how various cable providers are approaching middleware (June 28, 2004 edition), or why, really why, code-writers inside program networks need OCAP (March 22, 2004.)

A few times a year, the translatables twist up from the dark, complicated regions of cable engineering: Abstraction layers (October 14, 2002). QoS versus DQoS (November 11, 2002).

Kent Gibbons, the editor of this magazine, calls these “spinach.” Eat them, be smarter. Technology tough love.

Rarely do translatables come directly from readers, lamentably. But when they do, they’re enormously fun to untangle — like when “Telco Tim” wrote me a harrumphing e-mail, stating that “there is no such thing as MPEG transport.” That became instant fodder for a translation on the subject (July 24, 2003).

Marianne Paskowski, the editor in chief of this magazine (and the person responsible for instigating this column, four years ago), would call that “candy.”

For me, “candy” is running into a complete stranger who looks at me with great relief while recounting a tale of discomforting professional confusion. Usually these people are pretty high up on the food chain — like the wonderfully candid division president of a cable provider, who recounted struggling through a VOD meeting with much talk of QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation.) He returned, foggily, to his office, to find a fresh translation on the topic (January 8, 2001).

Of course, if ever you get stuck in a situation where the gibberish is seven feet tall and you’re out of translation range, there’s always the Fred Flintstone dodge triplet. It’s from the episode where Fred happens to look exactly like the (missing) chairman of the quarry, and is pressed into running a board meeting.

To emulate Fred, respond to anything tossed your way with “What’s your angle?,” or “whose baby is that?,” or “I’ll buy that!” I’ve tried it, many times. It works.


But seriously. If I had to pick three columns, in the last 100, as the best portents for the next four years of technology direction, I’d have to go with software integration (October 30, 2001), provisioning (December 17, 2001), and SIP (Feb. 23, 2004).

Integration, because it will never go away, and it will only get harder. One CTO recently estimated over 1,000 different permutations of software, each needing regular updates — just to feed today’s digital set-top boxes.

Another cable technologist once pointed to a definition of “addressable” analog boxes, scowled, and let out this glorious quip: “That’s when our lives went to hell.” Analog addressable boxes were the first to accommodate software downloads for code revisions. Say no more.

And this is before the emergence of digital, two-way devices (think consumer electronics) that work on cable, or interactive applications that ride along with a TV program. Sloppy integration means outages. Good integration means cool new stuff that people trust enough to use regularly.

Provisioning is perennial, because it’s increasingly critical to the activation of both services and devices. To provisioning, though, I’d add a prefix: Flow-through.

Flow-through provisioning means building software paths through all of the (many, many) databases that make or break the “seamless” in new service/device activation. It means having “transparency” into those databases, so that if something kicks back as “unserviceable,” you have a clue as to why, and how to correct it.

SIP, or Session Initiation Protocol, is a sustainable translation because it will be a technology foundation for an increasing number of services that ride, detected or not, on cable bandwidth. Right now, it’s mostly VoIP. Video is not far behind. Friend or foe, SIP isn’t going away.

In closing, I can’t commemorate 100 translations without thanking the many kind souls in my unofficial “technology support group” — you know who you are — for indulging my regular queries and for giving expert feedback, usually on a very tight turnaround. Thank you.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Technologists are, as a group, funny people, with enormous common sense. Translating their work is almost too much fun to be called work.


Stumped by gibberish? Visit www.translation-please.com.