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Installing CrashPlan on a PogoPlug Pro

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There are critical updates embedded in this post, added on 9/3/2011, all preceded with Update:. You can apply those instructions separately if you’ve already completed the rest of this installation. Updates will be marked with End Update to allow for multi-paragraph updates. I will strike-through the parts that were replaced, so that you can safely ignore them if you’re going through this guide for the first time.

PogoPlug Pro is an amazing device (coupled with an amazing service). CrashPlan is an amazing piece of software (and also provides a fee-based amazing service). I’ve had both for a while and think very highly of them.

To solve a number of my own problems (not caused by either service!), I decided to investigate marrying them (the PogoPlug device, with the CrashPlan software). To be slightly more accurate, I wanted the device to perform an additional function (beyond backups). I wanted it to be my primary DLNA server.

Caution: none of what follows is supported by either company. You will be voiding your PogoPlug warranty and CrashPlan does not support this configuration of their Linux software. Proceed at your own risk!

My primary reason for installing CrashPlan on this device is to compensate for the pathetic upload speed provided by Time Warner, all of 485Kbps, shared with my wife, for normal Internet use, VoIP calls and backups. In other words, not really a useful real-time backup solution. Since we are often at other, very high-speed locations, I still believe that paying for the CrashPlan online backup service is the way to go (and gives me great comfort), but when I’m home, I wanted a local solution (that didn’t involve plugging in a hard drive to my laptop).

Since I was able to do this, successfully, the instructions can be found on the Net. Since it took me way longer to find the various pieces, let alone get them to work, than I felt it should have, I’m writing this (for myself, as well as for others who might give up more easily than I did). None of the credit goes to me, I’m just collecting the wisdom of others in one place, hopefully an easy one to find.

Update: All sections marked Update: that apply to Java and udev were courtesy of Ankit Mohan. Ankit used this guide to get CrashPlan running on his PogoPlug, then dug in a lot more than I did to solve the problems I described. I am indebted to him. End Update.

There are a number of Linux distributions available for the PogoPlug Pro (an ARM-based device). I chose Arch Linux because it was the most prominent one I found and because it has a very good reputation independent of the PogoPlug. The specific ARM implementation has it’s own site, which is where I started my odyssey.

After reading the overview on that page, I clicked on the Installation tab. The instructions there are extremely clear. The first time I followed them, the formatting of my external drive failed. I ended up formatting the drive while it was connected to a laptop running Linux, but all of the other instructions on that page worked. I will repeat them here, so that anyone who doesn’t want to link off of this page can simply follow all the way through.

You have to register your PogoPlug at my.pogoplug.com. This is required, even though we will shortly be disabling the service, since this is the only way to get SSH access to the device. You will be able to reverse the process, returning the device to a full PogoPlug in the future, should you desire that, but it’s not a dual-boot situation where you decide which version you want it to be.

Once you’ve enabled SSH on the device, you can set your own password. The username will be root. The default password for a PogoPlug Pro is ceadmin (as noted, you can change it via the website, or once you log in, with the passwd command. Change it!

One of the steps that they don’t cover is discovering the IP address of your PogoPlug, so that you can SSH to it. In a home environment, this is relatively easy (for the geeks among us). You login to your router, look at the list of attached devices and easily spot it.

I’m installing the software on a second device as I type along. I’m in an office environment and don’t have access to the router. There are hundreds of devices in the office. I had to write down the MAC address of the PogoPlug, go over to a system administrator and ask him to search the DHCP log files for that MAC address. He did and I found out the address that was assigned to it. Whew.

I successfully logged into the device, just to make sure it worked, while it was still an official PogoPlug. That step was optional, but comforting. Since the next step is to power down the device (which you can safely do by just pulling the power cord, especially if you have no hard drives attached yet), since I’m logged in as root, I typed /sbin/halt instead, to be a little safer. Wait 60 seconds (for added safety), then pull the power cord.

We’re going to install Arch Linux on an external drive. The only thing that will be changed on the PogoPlug itself is the boot sector, which will now point to the external drive (that’s what would need to be reversed to restore the PogoPlug functionality).

With the PogoPlug powered down, attach only the drive that you intend to install Arch Linux on. This way there will be no confusion or errors. Later on, if you want multiple drives attached (for backups and/or media files) it will be easy to add them. I am using a 2TB Fantom Drives to do my install.

Once the drive is attached (and turned on), plug the power cord back into the PogoPlug and wait for it to boot. Then SSH back on to it (the root password will be what you set it to, or ceadmin if you didn’t change it). The box is still running the PogoPlug software, with your drive attached to it.

Type: killall hbwd

That will stop the PogoPlug software from running on the box. We don’t want it to interfere with the installation of Arch Linux. You might have to wait a bit for the service to stop. If you want to check, type the following:

ps | grep hb

The only result should your grep process. Then, you can type:

/sbin/fdisk –l

The last line of output should start with /dev/sda1. That means your disk drive was found and has a partition on it (it’s likely formatted already). We are about to erase everything on the disk, so be absolutely sure that you want to continue with this adventure before doing that! If you’re ready, type:

/sbin/fdisk /dev/sda

That will bring up the fdisk program on the entire drive (sda as opposed to sda1 which is the first partition). You will now have a prompt that is directly from the fdisk program. We will type a number of one character commands. Right after you type the character and press enter, fdisk will go off and do what you asked it to.

Type: o

That will clear the partition table so that the disk will become unusable (for the moment). As you can see from the messages, nothing has been committed in stone as yet (very soon). This has modified an in-memory copy of the partition table.

Type: p (to verify the above, that there are now no partitions)

Type: n (press Enter, this will create a new partition)

Type: p (to make it a Primary partition. At this point, I’ll stop saying “Press Enter”, but you still have to!)

Type: 1 (to make this partition #1)

At the next two prompts (First and Last cylinders), just Press Enter to accept the defaults (you are making the entire disk available as the first and only partition).

Now comes the destructive part. This will actually wipe out any data you had on the disk (but still doesn’t modify the PogoPlug in any way!).

Type: w (this writes the partition table back out to the disk)

You are now back at the command line. If you’re a paranoid type (or just careful), you can verify that things worked by repeating the fdisk command and listing out the partition table, all in one shot:

/sbin/fdisk –l

This is the output on my system:

Device Boot      Start         End      Blocks  Id System
/dev/sda1               1      243201  1953512001  83 Linux

2TB, in one partition, marked for use by a Linux system. Now we need to actually create the filesystem, which in our case will be an ext3 one. This will require downloading some commands that will need to be executed. Here are the steps:

Type: sync (to flush any filesystem changes)

Type: cd /tmp (to change to a temporary, writable working directory)

Type: wget http://archlinuxarm.org/os/pogoplug/mke2fs (to retrieve the program mke2fs)

Type: chmod 755 mke2fs (to make it executable)

Type: ./mke2fs -j /dev/sda1 (the leading dot is critical. This will format the partition to an ext3 filesystem)

The above command can take quite a while, depending on the size of your external drive. This is the command that failed for me on my first PogoPlug, so I ended up having to detach the drive, connect it to a Linux laptop, perform the same exact command as above (which was already available, I didn’t need the wget part) and then reattach the drive to the PogoPlug.

Note: it failed for me again. I was able to format it using the built-in /sbin/mkfs.ext2 command (passing in the “-j” flag), but I didn’t trust that it was building a true ext3 filesystem (ext2 + journal). So, I disconnected the drive from the PogoPlug, attached it to a VirtualBox VM on my Win7 laptop, and formatted it there as a real ext3. Took forever, but it worked.

Whether the mke2fs command worked for you or whether you had to format the drive separately, like I had to on two separate installations, you’re now ready to install Arch Linux on the external drive. You should already (still) be in /tmp, but to make sure, feel free to type: cd /tmp

Type: wget http://archlinuxarm.org/os/oxnas/oxnas-install.sh (that retrieves the install script)

Type: chmod 755 oxnas-install.sh (this makes the script executable)

Type: ./oxnas-install.sh (this starts the script, which will send lots of messages to your terminal window. It also downloads the root filesystem image, which is roughly 129MB, so it can take a while if you don’t have a fast network connection.)

When it’s finally done (took between 5-10 minutes on a very high speed connection in the office), the output should look like this if it succeeded (at the very end):

#############################
## Looks good!
# Sync …
# Unmount
# Reboot to enter into Arch Linux ARM

Note the looks good! and then the instructions to reboot. That’s what we’re going to do next.

Type: /sbin/reboot (cross fingers!) Winking smile

This will immediately disconnect you from the terminal window you were in. You need to wait a few minutes for the orderly shutdown of the PogoPlug, followed by the booting up of Arch Linux ARM. You can watch the lights on your external drive to see when there is activity on it, indicating that the booting has begun. When the light settles down, the boot is complete.

We’re ready to log back in (this time to the new operating system), and the password has been changed to a new default one. The user is still root, but now so is the password (root), which you should change right away with the passwd command. It’s quite possible that the IP address of the box has changed during the reboot, so please verify the new (or existing) one, before SSH’ing back on.

If the IP address did not change, then you might have to remove the old key associated with it, or ssh might refuse to connect, thinking it’s a security violation. If you get the same IP address again, you may need to run the following command first (on your local machine, the one you are SSH’ing from):

Type: ssh-keygen -R 192.168.1.123 # (using your device’s IP, which won’t likely be 192.168.1.123)

The following First Steps page on the Arch Linux ARM Wiki explains the above, and gives you a number of other useful tips. I followed them religiously the first time through, but I changed the order a bit this time around and it saved a bit of typing (or I think it did).

Instead of going through the above, this time I updated all of the packages right away. I believe that it installed openntpd and updated the /etc/rc.conf file (one of the first steps that I performed manually the last time). You can do what I did, then check if openntpd is installed and running.

Type: pacman –Scc (clear out old packages. I said YES to the first, and NO to remove unused repositories)

Type: pacman –Syu (this will do a large update, first syncing the repositories, then updating all packages)

Now comes a crazy part. I say crazy because by the time you read this, perhaps the maintainers of Arch Linux ARM will have updated the repositories and this will no longer be necessary. Then people will think I’m an idiot, so be it, I’m putting it in here because it can’t hurt!

Type: pacman –Sy udev-compat (to fix a problem with udev + syslog-ng taking up 100% of your CPU)

The 100% cpu problem might be happening as you read this (if you’ve done the previous steps already). It might be filling up your disk in /var/log as well. We can check that in a minute (here’s the thread that helped me: there’s a typo in that thread, “sleep3” should be “sleep 3”), but first, let’s do a few more things and then reboot.

Update: Type pacman -Sfy udev-oxnas udev-automount (this fixes the udev problem noted above, now struck-through. I added the f option to pacman to force the removal of the bad udev, or udev-compat that you installed if you’ve already completed these instructions. You will have to say Y to the prompt to remove udev, which defaults to N.) End Update.

Let’s create a swapfile:

Type: dd if=/dev/zero of=/swapfile.img bs=1M count=1024 #for a 512MB swapfile, use count=512

Type: mkswap /swapfile.img (to turn the file we just created into a valid swapfile)

Type: swapon /swapfile.img (to see whether you get any errors, you shouldn’t)

Now we’ll edit /etc/rc.local (use your favorite editor, I use “vi”, you might prefer “nano”) to add exactly four one lines after the comments:

swapon /swapfile.img
kill $(pidof udevd)
sleep 3
udevd &

The first line turns the swap on after each reboot. The next three lines kill the bad udev (even after updating the udev-compat the process sometimes misbehaves at boot), then sleeps for three seconds and restarts udev, which makes it seem to behave correctly so far.

OK, time to reboot and see if we have a stable system:

Type: sync (flushes the memory to disk)

Type: reboot (you should lose your ssh connection right away)

Wait until the disk activity settles down a bit, then ssh back in.

Type: top (to see what processes are running. If udev and/or syslog-ng are at the top, something isn’t good)

Type: q (to exit top, whenever you’re done looking around)

You can follow any of the additional instructions for setting up a user, adding sudo, changing TimeZone settings, etc. All are linked from the First Steps above.

Since the reason I did this was to install DLNA, I’ll cover that first (it’s really short), then we’ll move on to the heavier CrashPlan setup. Skip the next few lines if you have no interest in DLNA.

Type: pacman -Sy minidlna jack (this names two packages, but will install something closer to 44, with dependencies)

You should edit the file /etc/minidlna.conf and change any variables (where the files are stored, where to store the DB, what you want to call your DLNA server, etc.). You can read the Wiki page (linked above) to see the more important entries.

Then add the word minidlna at the end of the DAEMONS= line, which should be at the bottom of the /etc/rc.conf file. This will auto-start the DLNA server every time the PogoPlug is booted. To start it right now, type: /etc/rc.d/minidlna start

Update: I discovered two things. 1) Many devices, e.g. Google TV and Sony Bravia TV, don’t show any of the files with a filetype of FLV. It turns out that if you simply rename the filetype to AVI (probably others), the files play fine (assuming they were encoded with H.264). 2) After you populate your media directory, run the following command and wait patiently: minidlna -R to force a build of the database. You probably want to kill all minidlna processes when this is done and start it again (minidlna alone on the command line is good enough). You can tail the minidlna.log file (in your database directory) to know when the database rebuild is done. End Update.

Whew. Finally ready for the very tricky and long installation of CrashPlan. This is not for the faint of heart, nor is it in any way supported by CrashPlan. It works for me (and obviously others), but you’ll have to be the judge as to whether the hassle is worth it for you.

Let’s start with crediting the place that got me unstuck, the CrashPlan support forums! Kudos to CrashPlan for allowing this type of discussion on their forums, even though they don’t support this configuration. Here’s the thread, but all of the interesting bits are in the long comment by Torbjorn. It was really hard for me to find, because I was searching for the word PogoPlug. This solved the problem for Sheeva (the baseline of the Pogo), but it’s not quite identical.

Type: pacman –Sy openjdk6 cpio (we need to get a working Java installed and CrashPlan will require the cpio package separately)

The next step (according to Torbjorn) is to download an ancient (2005) libjtux source package, apply a patch and compile it. He supplies a pointer to the source (amazingly, still available) and the patch file is available as an attachment to his comment. You can grab both from the the thread linked above. If you do, you will likely have to download a bunch of development packages (using pacman), starting with gcc.

Instead, I will attach the completed libjtux.so that I built (following those instructions), to save you time, effort and potential errors. I also just grabbed it from my first build and applied it to my second, for the same reasons.

Now we need to install CrashPlan itself by heading to the download page for Linux. I right-clicked on the download button (currently version 3.0.3, but the software auto-updates after the first install). I copied the link location. Back on the PogoPlug:

Type: wget http://download.crashplan.com/installs/linux/install/CrashPlan/CrashPlan_3.0.3_Linux.tgz (that should work, but starting at the http part, just paste in the link you copied if it’s newer than 3.0.3)

Type: cd /tmp

Type: tar –xzf WHEREVER_YOU_DOWNLOADED_THE_CRASHPLAN_FILE (which could be /tmp to simplify matters)

Type: cd CrashPlan-install

Type: ./install.sh (all of the defaults seem reasonable to me, though I did put my archives in another directory. You will need to page through the license file with the space bar and accept that as well. The init scripts on Arch are in /etc/rc.d, which is the other thing I changed from the default.)

When this is done, it will report that it has successfully started the CrashPlan service. It did not. That’s because we haven’t yet replaced the libjtux.so that comes with CrashPlan. The problem is that it was compiled with an Intel i386 architecture.

Type: cd /usr/local/crashplan

Type: mv libjtux.so libjtux.so-ORIGINAL (no real need to save it, other than to memorialize the changes we’re making)

Type: cp WHERE_YOU_DOWNLOADED/libjtux.so . (this copies my version from wherever you downloaded it, or you can right click my link above, and wget directly from my website to this directory)

Torjborn mentions editing a file to add jna.jar to it. I didn’t need to do that, and the directory he references doesn’t exist. I think it’s from a different installation of Java (for the original Sheeva) and not necessary when using the openjdk6 package.

Update: This next part solves the timing delays, apparently among a number of other issues that I wasn’t even aware of! Once again, thanks to Ankit for figuring this all out.

You will need the nss package installed. Mine was there after the major update above. If you don’t have it installed, type: pacman -Sy nss

The file that’s missing from openjdk, which is causing all of the problems with CrashPlan, is libjnidispatch.so. It’s part of the jna package (Java Native Access). You’ll have to download a Debian package and extract the file.

Select a location near you from this link: http://packages.debian.org/sid/armel/libjna-java/download. In the US, I chose this link directly: http://ftp.us.debian.org/debian/pool/main/libj/libjna-java/libjna-java_3.2.7-4_armel.deb

Assuming you downloaded that file to /tmp, here are the commands to extract the file we’re interested in:

Type: cd /tmp

Type: ar vx libjna-java_3.2.7-4_armel.deb (this will extract three files, one of which contains the file we’re interested in)

Type: tar -xzf data.tar.gz (this will unpack the tar file, creating a series of directories in /tmp/usr)

First we need to create the target directory for this. Since mkdirs (make nested directories) doesn’t exist by default, we’ll execute a number of consecutive mkdir commands. Hint: you can hit up-arrow after each command and just append the next directory name in the series of mkdir commands.

Type: cd /usr/local/crashplan/lib

Type: mkdir com

Type: mkdir com/sun

Type: mkdir com/sun/jna

Type: mkdir com/sun/jna/linux-arm

Type: cp /tmp/usr/lib/jni/libjnidispatch.so com/sun/jna/linux-arm/ (now we have the file in the correct directory)

Type: cp -p jna-3.2.5.jar jna-3.2.5.jar-ORIGINAL (this isn’t strictly necessary. Aside from documenting our change, it allows us to recover from errors more easily)

Type: jar uf jna-3.2.5.jar com/sun/jna/linux-arm/libjnidispatch.so (this is the critical step, inserting the library into the jar file that CrashPlan uses. I’m not sure the com/sun/jna/linux-arm directory creation is necessary, but better safe than sorry)

It seems that in addition to solving the timing issues (long delays in starting up), this actually dispatches (duh) maintenance tasks like pruning, synchronizing, etc. It’s all good, but there is a side-effect (well worth it!) that the Java process now takes up a significant amount of CPU, even when backups aren’t active, since it appears to actively maintain the system. Previously, Java would consume 0% of the cpu when it wasn’t backing up.

End Update.

We’re ready to start CrashPlan (at least to see if it comes up and stays up). We can do it by hand, but I am going to add it to the DAEMONS list at the end of /etc/rc.conf (like we did with minidlna) and reboot the machine to ensure that it comes up on it’s own. The daemon name to add right after minidlna is crashplan (lower case).

Type: /sbin/reboot

If you did everything above correctly, when you log back in, there should be a java process running, with CrashPlan as the application. It can a few minutes to completely initialize. In that case, we’re done, right? Wrong! CrashPlan is indeed sitting there, waiting to go to work, but it needs to be configured to allow your machine(s) to start backing up to it. Under normal circumstances, this would be trivial to do, but since the PogoPlug is a headless server, we have to jump through a few final hoops.

Once again, CrashPlan support to the rescue (again, for a completely unsupported feature). If you want to understand the details, or are enough of a techy to prefer the theory, I urge you to just read the CrashPlan document and skip to the final section of this post. If you want fewer steps (and warnings) to follow, I’ll give you the bare necessary steps here.

They key is that on every machine that has CrashPlan installed, there are two programs: 1) the server that does all the work and 2) the GUI (graphical user interface) that connects to the server when launched, and allows you to configure and monitor the server process. On the PogoPlug, we only have #1. The good news is that the GUI speaks to the server over the network. By default, that network is local to the machine that the server is running on, but with some ssh magic (and a little editing of a configuration file), we can make that a remote connection.

All of the work is going to be done on your desktop or laptop, where you already (presumably) have CrashPlan running. This is likely the machine that you want to backup to the PogoPlug. Let’s just call it laptop so that it’s obvious it isn’t the PogoPlug.

On laptop, make sure that the CrashPlan GUI isn’t running. If it is, exit the application. Find the conf directory associated with CrashPlan on your system. On my Windows 7 x64 machine, it’s this directory: “c:\Program Files\CrashPlan\conf”. In that directory is a file called ui.properties. Edit that file. The following line is in that file: “#serviecPort=4243”. This line is commented (#), because 4243 is the default value. You can leave that line commented and add a line below it:

servicePort=4200

(You could also remove the comment and replace 4243 with 4200, but I recommend adding a new line.)

Save the file to disk. While still on laptop, open a terminal window and execute the following SSH command (if you’re using Putty to do this on Windows, rather than cygwin, I recommend reading the post back on the CrashPlan site).

ssh -L 4200:localhost:4243 user@192.168.5.71

In the above command, substitute your username (or root) where I put in “user” and the IP address of your PogoPlug where I put in the “192.168.5.71”. This command makes port 4200 on laptop magically redirect to port 4243 on the PogoPlug, which is where the CrashPlan server is listening by default already.

Now launch the CrashPlan GUI on laptop by double-clicking the icon (on Windows, it’s probably in your system tray). You should see a request to create a new CrashPlan account (free) or log in to an existing one. Since I already have one (and presumably you do too), just put in your email address and password. It took quite a while for it to log in and download the configuration, but it worked. I think when I first tried it on my first PogoPlug it actually timed out, but worked the second time.

Once that’s done, you can exit the GUI, as all of the defaults are exactly what we want/need. The only exception to that is if you want to let others (that aren’t part of your account) backup to your PogoPlug. Then you will need to write down the CODE to enable that (it’s toward the bottom of the front page on the GUI and also on a Settings tab).

You can now exit from the ssh session that was started above (Type: exit or hit Ctrl-d in that terminal window).

Once the GUI is shut down, edit the ui.properties file again and delete the extra line we added with “servicePort=4200” (or place the comment “#” back in front of it). Save the file.

Launch the GUI again. This time it will connect to the local CrashPlan server on laptop. Now click on Destinations (bottom left entry on the left-hand navigation). Then click on the icon labeled Computers in the center (the PogoPlug is a real computer!). Whatever you called your device should be in your list, no code necessary, since you should have used the same account on both machines. If you didn’t name your device, then Arch Linux ARM defaults your host name to alarm (get it? ArchLinuxARM?).

Now you’re truly done. If you have a large amount to backup, it could take a couple of days to complete the first backup, even though it’s on a LAN. It will also alternate between the various backup locations (including CrashPlan Central), which is one of the reasons it will be somewhat slowed down.

For reasons I can’t explain, it can take a very long time to start the initial backup, even if you pause the other locations. The GUI correctly communicates with the server instantly, since I can see the correct directory created on the PogoPlug, but the destination still shows up as unavailable for some period of time. Eventually, it gets going, and appears to be quite reliable from that point on.

Update: I struck out the previous paragraph since I’m hopeful that with the addition of libjnidispatch.so to the jna jar file, you won’t experience the long startup delay.

cp -p jna-3.2.5.jar jna-3.2.5.jar-ORIGINAL

Tonight Show Tribute Song

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For those who don’t like to read my long posts (or anything longer than a Tweet), here’s the bottom line (don’t forget, you can make the video play full screen!):

You can also share the link with others (right click it and choose copy).

The overwhelming majority of posts on this blog are about music. We attend a lot of live shows and we do more than our fair share to support bands that we believe have something special to share with the world.

As a side-effect of our passion for music, we started a micro business (not really launched yet) called Songs and Jingles, LLC. This post isn’t about that business, though Songs and Jingles produced the tribute that this post is about, and the place to view the resulting video is on the YouTube Songs and Jingles Channel.

I have been watching the Tonight Show enthusiastically since 1968. Johnny Carson was an amazing host for 30 years. Jay Leno continued the tradition as well as anyone could have hoped for. I believe that Conan O’Brien will continue to do the legacy proud.

In an attempt to honor the changing of the guard at the Tonight Show, and help one of our favorite bands get wider promotion, I came up with what I thought was a clever idea: write a custom tribute song for the Tonight Show, and get this band to perform it on the air (Conan closes most shows with five minutes of live music from top bands).

We chose one of the band’s songs for the tribute’s music and I wrote the lyrics. Since we’re friendly with the band, pitching the idea to them was easy. After serious consideration they decided to pass. Fair enough.

I liked my lyrics (humble, I know), but more importantly, I really liked the whole concept of honoring the Tonight Show and promoting talented artists. I decided to turn it into a YouTube project instead, like the successful Birthday Tribute songs we’ve already produced at Songs and Jingles.

Through an online search, I discovered the amazing musical talent, Ben Schwartz, who had YouTube songs of himself performing the Jay Leno theme and the Conan theme.

I contacted Ben, asking what motivated someone so young to record this type of music. He said he’d been a big Tonight Show fan for a long time. Since I started before I was officially a teenager, I understood and knew that I’d found the right collaborator.

Ben asked for my lyrics which I told him I’d willing to rewrite if he couldn’t find the right melody to fit them. I needn’t have worried! Within two days, Ben had a first cut song to match my lyrics. It was incredible but didn’t have the tempo I’d hoped for. Ben agreed, and two days later delivered another version: perfection!

The song is wonderfully complex musically but difficult to sing. My original plan to sing it myself was shaky considering that I was straining to hit the notes on both ends.

Serendipity strikes again! While fully immersed in this project, we met Amy Rivard, with her spectacular voice, as strong as it is beautiful. I’ve written about her a number of times (we’ve seen her perform live twice). I asked if she would be willing to record our Tonight Show Tribute Song. She agreed.

I culled photos from the various incarnations of the Tonight Show, along with a few choice pictures from around the net that complemented the lyrics, and put together a video slideshow to go along with the song.

If you didn’t view the result above, please do it now!

Ben’s music and Amy’s voice are spectacular. With their talent and generous personalities they’ve made this project a joy for me to be a part of. The original goals of honoring my love of the Tonight Show while promoting talented up-and-coming artists has been achieved!

I hope that anyone who comes across this will enjoy it enough to share with their friends so more people will discover the amazing Ben Schwartz and Amy Rivard.

If you also tune in to the Tonight Show more often than you otherwise would have, that will be a nice bonus. 🙂

Thank You ABC

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I find it ironic that on the same night that ABC is about to air a White House exclusive promo, something which I think borders on a wrong-headed move (understandable, predictable, but still wrong-headed), I am about to praise them for something completely different.

The fact that I am about to praise ABC is surprising for another reason, namely that I think we’re down to watching only one show on a regular basis on that network: Lost. I’ll come back to Lost later on, even though I’ve written about it separately in the past.

Last season (shortened by the brilliant Writers Strike) we watched two additional shows religiously on ABC: Eli Stone and Pushing Daisies. We watched both religiously this season as well, until they were both unceremoniously dumped, mid-season (along with Dirty Sexy Money, which we’ve never seen).

We both loved Eli Stone (though it took Lois three episodes to come to that, while I loved it from the first scene). We looked forward to every new episode, and were never disappointed.

I liked Pushing Daisies way more than Lois did, and I’m thankful that she humored me and didn’t make me feel guilty about wasting her time when I eagerly watched it each week. The cartoonish colors were brilliant and lush (solidifying the fantasy feel of the show), and the dialogue had cracker-jack fast quips that always had me in stitches. The writing was in the style of the West Wing and Studio 60 (no wonder Kristin Chenoweth signed up).

I wasn’t surprised that Pushing Daisies was canceled. I was surprised that Eli Stone was. I was shocked that both were canceled without warning, mid-season. Both were serials where important plot-lines unfolded each week (as opposed to episodic shows, like Law and Order).

At best, you’re leaving extremely loyal viewers with a dangling, highly unsatisfying ending. At worst, you’re cutting off a promising show because it didn’t perform quickly enough, which could be short-sighted, given the rough start each show had during the previous Writers Strike shortened season.

I totally get that it’s a business, and they have the right and the experience to do exactly what they did. I also get that none of the three shows that they canceled were topping the charts. I also know that ABC wasn’t promoting the shows all that hard either, and certainly didn’t give them a chance to grow a base. But, again, it’s their decision.

So, after that long-winded (typical) introduction, why I am thanking and praising ABC today?

A few weeks ago, I noticed that Pushing Daisies was set to record an episode on my DVR (from my season pass) on a Saturday! I hadn’t seen a single commercial announcing its comeback, nor seen anything online either, so I assumed that they were running repeats (after all, none of the networks are noted for airing first-run shows on Saturday any longer). Stupidly, I deleted the recording from the queue!

Yesterday, Lois was reading a magazine, and she said to me “Did you know that last week they aired the Series Finale of Pushing Daisies on TV?” Oops! I logged on to ABC and saw that not only was the finale available, it was the third (and last) new episode since the series was canceled.

So, I was sort-of glad I had deleted the recording on the DVR, because I would watched it without knowing that there were two additional episodes leading up to it.

In the unbelievably typical whacky world of TV networks foray into online streaming, only the last two episodes were available on ABC. The first of the trilogy was already gone from their site. I was able to find it instantly on another site, in poorer quality, but with zero commercials.

After watching that episode, we watched the last two on ABC, in 720p HD. The quality was awesome. I’ve mentioned in the past that Lois is rabid about avoiding commercials. Even she didn’t complain about the maximum of one 30-second commercial in each break. ABC is notorious for inserting more commercial breaks into their online programming than the other networks (Hulu, which features both NBC and Fox, shows dramatically fewer commercials per show).

Even so, I was glad to watch the commercials, because ABC was delivering value to me, and this was my desired form of payment. That made it all the more bizarre that they removed the first of the episodes. Given the choice, I would have gladly watched commercials for that one as well, but instead, they drove me to another site where they derived zero revenue from me, instead of the few pennies they otherwise would have earned.

However, here’s the kicker to the story. By getting me to visit ABC at all (in this case through the magazine article), I noticed that they were offering a streaming episode of Eli Stone that was new as well! It turns out that this is the first of the final four episodes of that show. We watched that too, and loved the episode, and can see that they too will wrap up the series to our satisfaction, now that they have the chance to do so.

Hadar, is there a point to all of this ranting? Yes, there is. First, this took nearly zero effort on the part of ABC, as the shows were already shot and in the can (as they say). Putting them online is a matter of decision making, not really a matter of scheduling them for broadcast where ratings and revenue come into play.

But, ABC didn’t really make money off of you Hadar (you say). Perhaps, but not necessarily true! First, for Eli Stone, since there are three episodes left, I have now set my DVR to tape them on TV. 70% of Americans still don’t have a DVR, so there will be plenty of people watching Eli Stone (Saturday night at 10pm!) with ABC hopefully making more money than they do with normal filler programming on that night.

As for Pushing Daisies, both Lois and I found the wrap-up of the series satisfying. Lois turned to me after the finale and said “You should buy the DVD of this season”. I said “You don’t even like the show!”. She said “I really liked the way they ended it, and I wouldn’t mind owning it!”. So, if we decide to, we’ll be buying both seasons (to have all of the episodes). I can guarantee that we would never have purchased either season the way it was previously ended.

I said I would come back to Lost, so here goes. Lois and I never watched Lost when it first came out. We weren’t even tempted. After the second season, David and Wes bought us a gift of the first two seasons DVDs. We got hooked. We bought Season Three on DVD the second it was available. We watched Season Four on TV, but also bought two copies of the DVDs when the season was over, one for us, and one for David. We’ll buy Season Five as well, and Season Six next year.

The point is, fans can be created after the fact with all of the time-shifting, social networking, word-of-mouth, gifting, etc. When shows are cut off prematurely, they’ll never get a chance to participate in that ecosystem.

For the past two years, one of our favorite shows has been Chuck on NBC. It too was practically canceled, until enough fans online saved it at least for part of next season. I’m hoping that decision will pay off for NBC, because we’re definitely looking forward to seeing more episodes. At least Chuck ended with a proper season finale, which was engaging enough to have been satisfying as a series finale as well, if it needed to be.

By the way, even though we watched every episode of Chuck every week, we also bought two copies of each season’s DVDs. So, we fast-forwarded through the commercials, but we still sent in our cash…

Anyway, thanks again to ABC for making the remaining episodes of Pushing Daisies, Eli Stone and Dirty Sexy Money (which had more fans than the first two, not including us) available, both on TV, and online!

Wes and Hadar’s Excellent Adventure

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Many more people participated in one or more of the activities I’m about to list. Only Wes and I enjoyed every single one of them, hence the accurate title. 🙂

Wes flew up on Thursday morning and I picked him up at Newark Airport. We headed straight to the city and met Lois and two friends for lunch at Westville. We met there at 11:30am because the place is tiny and fills up fast. Only one of the five of us had ever eaten there, so it was a new experience for the three four of us. The food was fantastic! I had the Caesar Salad with grilled chicken. Here are pics of three of the dishes, starting with mine:

Caesar Salad

Caesar Salad

Greek Salad

Greek Salad

Hot Dogs

Hot Dogs

After lunch, Lois, Wes and I relaxed and caught up with work/email, etc. Then we headed for our night at the Highline Ballroom to see our favorite group, Girlyman. That evening was covered extensively in this post.

The next morning, after breakfast, we headed up to the house. Wes had never seen it. We logged on there and all did our own thing until lunch. After lunch, Wes and I headed to see the new Star Trek movie. Lois was intending to come as well, but we had a problem with the dampers again, and she called the HVAC people and waited for an emergency technician to arrive. Sorry Lois!

Wes Hadar Living Room

Wes Hadar Living Room

Wes and I both enjoyed the movie. I would be lying if I said it was great in any way (other than the special effects, which were stunning), but it’s action-packed, moves at a very quick pace, is an inventive story, etc. I agree with the comments I had heard about the movie before I saw it, that you don’t need to be a trekkie to appreciate the movie, but that it pays homage to the original in so many ways that it’s extra satisfying to a real trekkie. Kudos to JJ Abrams and the entire creative staff of the movie for pulling off that difficult balancing act!

When we got home, we both logged on again, and  I finally got the blog post about Girlyman published. We then headed for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Tarrytown (that we had never eaten at before). It wasn’t our original destination for dinner, but the two places we wanted to eat at were 30+ minute waits (you know, in this economy, where supposedly no one can afford to eat out any longer…). We were quite disappointed in our meals, so this place won’t be visited again by us. Oh well…

After dinner, we walked 200 feet to our real destination for the evening, Tarrytown Music Hall. We had 10th row seats to see Steven Wright, one of my all-time favorite standup comics. This was my first time seeing him live, but I’ve been a fan ever since he burst on the scene (probably longer ago than many of you are alive). 😉

Steven Wright

Steven Wright

As is typical of most shows at Tarrytown Music Hall, he didn’t come on the stage until 8:25pm (scheduled time, 8pm). It’s annoying, but otherwise, we really love Tarrytown Music Hall. He was fantastic. He did his routine non-stop for 85 minutes.

For those of you don’t know, he’s the king of dead-pan one liners. For the most part, they are based on word play. He never (OK, rarely) smiles, except for specific effect. In other words, his own jokes don’t appear to make him laugh (and that works really well for his type of material). He only told one vulgar joke, and I’d bet that none of the kids that were in the audience had a clue that it was vulgar!

He used the F-word perhaps 10 times, so in general, his act is pretty clean. He speaks softly, so the audience trained themselves (incredibly quickly) to come to a dead silence seconds after laughing hysterically, for fear of missing the next joke!

Here are but two (of hundreds of) examples of the style of humor that no one masters quite like Steven Wright:

I have a friend who has a stained glass eye.

24-Hour Banking. I don’t have that kind of time.

No two jokes are connected. Topics fly all over the place. It’s really funny to hear delayed laughter around you, when you realize that people are trying hard to process a joke, and finally get it, a few seconds too late. 😉

We had a great time there. Afterward, we drove back to the city and watched a bit of Conan O’Brien in his new gig as host of the Tonight Show. I also watched the first two nights on Hulu, and I think Conan is doing a marvelous job in his new time slot. Congrats Conan!

On Saturday, after breakfast and the obligatory emailing, Wes and I met Laura in the lobby and went on one of my patented long walks up the East River. It was the nicest day of 2009 in NYC (so far), and our walk was spectacular in every regard. It took us two hours and 10 minutes, and we loved every second of it (or at least I did!).

After a shower, Wes, Laura, Lois and I grabbed a cab and headed to Five Napkin Burger for lunch. None of us had ever been there before. So, what made me pick it for lunch? I subscribe to Fred Wilson’s blog (one of the top VC’s in NYC) and read every one of his posts religiously. He often writes about his wife, who blogs under the moniker The Gotham Gal. For whatever reason, I had never clicked through to her site.

The other day, Fred blogged that The Gothan Gal had updated the design of her site, and he was very pleased with the result. That’s the first time I clicked through. I liked her writing style and started reading a bunch of her posts. Then I came to this one about Five Napkin Burger! I decided to give it a shot. I’m very glad I did, as all four of us really enjoyed our burgers (all different kinds). Mine was an Italian Turkey Burger. Yum!

From there, the four of us walked back to Times Square, and went to see Angels and Demons. Thoroughly enjoyable. Substantially better movie than The DaVinci Code. We walked back to the apartment after that.

While I caught up on some email, Laura and Wes walked the few blocks to Red Mango and picked up frozen yogurt for a light dinner for the four of us. It was my first taste of it, and I liked it a lot. Chris (Laura’s husband), who was at the dentist while we were lunching and enjoying Angels and Demons, joined us for dinner, which he picked up for himself from the brand new Just Salad a block away from the apartment.

After dinner, the five of us grabbed two cabs and went to see the show Altar Boys at New World Stages. New World Stages is a fantastic space/building, a block off Broadway, that houses seven smaller theaters (Altar Boyz can seat 363 people). All of the shows are quirky (or at least have very quirky and provocative titles and posters). Wes picked this one.

Altar Boyz

Altar Boyz

Wes, Lois and I really loved the show. I caught Laura and Chris chuckling a few times, but I suspect (strongly) that they didn’t like it as much as the rest of us did. It’s very borderline whether any audience member will consider the show one of the following:

  1. Irreverent, but still uplifting and respectful of Christianity
  2. Blasphemous
  3. Some mixture of the two

Personally, I choose #1, with no hesitation, though I have no trouble accepting and understanding that many people could legitimately believe #2 is more accurate. Without a doubt, it’s blasphemous in it’s caricature of Boy Bands. But, in getting you to laugh at that, I believe it still very effectively gets across a message of the best of Christianity’s teachings. It turns out that Laura and her family made the show a birthday present for Lois, and Lois loved and appreciated every second of it!

Thanks M&M’s. 😉

We walked home from the show. When we reached the apartment building, I made the scandalous suggestion that Wes and I go across the street to my favorite Mexican restaurant, El Rio Grande, for a nightcap. Laura and Chris decided to join us as well. Technically, the outside was closed already, but we’re regulars there, and they were kind enough to sneak us in. The inside was still officially open, but it was the most beautiful night, so we were glad to sit outside.

Three of us enjoyed frozen margaritas, and the fourth wisely picked a Banana Pinata for dessert, that the rest of us got to taste (and swoon over!). We then sat on our deck for another 40 minutes, soaking in the remainder of a perfect day.

This morning, we dropped Wes off at Newark Airport and headed down for our usual road trip down I95. Memories of a perfect weekend (uh, I mean, excellent adventure) still linger!

Wes, thanks so much for making the trek up from NC to spend such quality time with us! 🙂

No GLEE Here

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Now that the regular TV season is over, I’m a little more attuned to potential new shows to watch, particularly during the summer.

I really like Jane Lynch a lot, in particular her turns on Two and Half Men (one of my favorite comedies). So, when I saw a commercial for a new show called Glee, and saw that Jane had a prominent role in it, I figured I’d give it a try.

Somehow, I missed the pilot episode. I have bought a TV episode from Amazon Unbox in the past, so I get their weekly newsletters. This past week, they were offering a download of the Pilot episode of Glee, for free. Cool, the universe seemed to be looking out for me.

I downloaded the 847MB file (wow, that has to be some pretty good definition, right?). A few days later, after a little bit of arm-twisting Lois into checking it out, I popped in my HDMI cable to the back of my laptop, fired up the TV, and was set to enjoy this new show.

Even though I could hear the sound, the picture was blank. Sparing you the details, Amazon Unbox was clearly applying some DRM and HDMI cables respect DRM, so I was able to see the picture on my laptop, but not through the HDMI cable on the TV itself. I could have switched to component cables, but I was just annoyed, and I put something else on the TV.

The very next day I saw someone mention that they just installed the new Hulu Desktop application. I don’t watch Hulu all that often, but when I do, it’s quite a pleasant experience, so I decided to download the app, just to check it out.

Imagine my surprise when it started playing Glee by default! I stopped it pretty quickly. Later that night I told Lois we would give it another try, using Hulu instead of Amazon Unbox. Hulu didn’t have any of the DRM problems (which were strange to begin with on a free download). So, the show fired right up, with excellent resolution as well.

Sounds like a happy ending, no? No!

After torturing ourselves for roughly 15 minutes (with no commercials), we simply couldn’t watch another second of this show. It’s possible that they redeem themselves later on. People magazine had a very positive review of the show. We’ll likely never find out. Both of us felt immensely relieved when I killed it.

Since I had Hulu Desktop up, and had the HDMI cable plugged in, I ended up watching the very first episode of It Takes a Thief (from 1968), which was one of my favorite childhood shows. Lois was bored out of her mind, but at least it was pleasant boredom, as opposed to Glee, which was actively painful. I loved the show, if for the nostalgia alone. I’ll be watching more episodes, I’m sure, likely without Lois. 😉

Glee was an experiment. The Pilot debuted now, but the rest of the series will be shown in the Fall. This was a way to build some excitement in advance. Oops…

Gaining Leverage

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This post will cover a few related topics. They’re all about TV shows.

We probably watch too much TV, and I make no apologies for it. We lead reasonably intense lives and watching TV shows works wonderfully to help us escape and unwind. I have more forgiving tastes than Lois (meaning, I would watch a lot more bad shows, especially comedies), but our overlap is quite good, and gives us plenty of choices.

When the new seasons come up, we’re somewhat selective of what to try out. Partially, because we already watch a lot. Partially, because a lot of stuff doesn’t even look remotely interesting from the commercials. That said, there are shows that look interesting to me, that Lois poo-poos from the commercials, and given how much we watch already, I am OK passing on them.

This year, one such show was Leverage on TNT. I like hi-tech spy/theft stuff. Two of the shows that we’re both in love with are Chuck and Burn Notice. Chuck is way more on the comedic end of the scale, though it’s still set in the spy motif. Burn Notice is simply a fantastic show, in every respect. For me in particular, I love how they explain all of the spy stuff, and break it down (like a magician, revealing his tricks).

When I saw the first commercial for Leverage, I knew I would like the show. Lois saw the same commercial, and yawned (who knows why, since she loves Burn Notice and Chuck). So, I never added it to the list of things to DVR this season.

I had a twinge whenever I saw a commercial for it, but I took a deep breath, and let it go…

Yesterday I posted about KCRW’s podcast, The Business. On an episode that I listened to on Saturday, while out walking in Rockwood Park, they interviewed Dean Devlin, Executive Producer of Leverage (this episode is from a few months back). Dean explained that the post production for Leverage happens in an all digital facility, and why they can produce more effects, in less time, for less money, due to that setup.

That got me intrigued (again) in checking out Leverage. Lois was out of the house with a friend for a couple of hours right after I got back from my walk. I found episode one online (more on that in the next related topic part of this post), and watched it alone, on my laptop. I really liked it, a lot.

When Lois got back, I told her that I really wanted her to watch it, in case she enjoyed it as much as I did, and we’d add this to our regularly watched list. Since Lois is legally blind, watching on a laptop is not an option. So, I trotted out a 25′ HDMI cable (it was still in the bag), and connected my laptop to our 42″ HDTV. Describing some of those ins-and-outs will be part three of the related topics in this post. For now, back to the show.

Lois ended up liking it a lot. Over the next two days, we watched the first six episodes (the first season is over, with 13 episodes in total, and the show returns this summer, and we’ll watch it on the real TV). How we watched it is back to topic #2, which I’ll defer for just a few more paragraphs…

A few months back (January to be specific), our good friend Wes strongly recommended that we check out the show The Mentalist on CBS. I asked him whether it needed to be watched in order (from episode one), and he thought not, that each episode could stand on its own. So I started recording it on our DirecTivo, including repeats, to start building up the season. We now have 14 of the 19 episodes on the DVR, but not the first five.

Given our success watching Leverage on our TV (through the laptop), I decided that we would give The Mentalist a shot in order, through the laptop as well. We watched the first two episodes and really like the show. Thanks Wes! I think Wes is correct that they could probably stand alone, but I’m also glad we watched them in order (so far), because the first episode (called “Pilot”) really sets up the scenario for why he does what he does. The second episode flashes to that motivation, but it’s more powerful to already understand what they’re flashing to.

Certain shows have to be watched serially. One of the quintessential examples of that is another of my favorite shows (Lois fluctuates wildly in her appreciation of the show), Lost. If you miss even 10 minutes of a single episode, you might really end up Lost (pun intended).

Burn Notice is somewhat like that. In every episode, there are always two themes:

  1. Working a case for a client (this stands alone, each and every week)
  2. Tracking down why our hero was Burned (this is serialized, but nowhere near to the extent Lost is)

So, you can enjoy Burn Notice out of order, but it makes much more sense in order. Both Leverage and The Mentalist would best be enjoyed if you at least watch episode #1 first, to thoroughly appreciate the premise and setup, but after that, it’s probably OK to watch them out of order, even if you will end up missing a reference to a past show.

On to related topic #2: Watching TV online

If you’ve read this space before, then you know that I am a respecter of IP (Intellectual Property Rights). I buy a ton of music, including multiple copies of the same CD in order to give them as presents. I don’t look for torrents of movies or TV shows, just because they’re easy to find.

That said, while I’ve paid to watch a show I’ve missed (I wrote about purchasing an episode of NCIS from Amazon Unbox), it’s a last resort for me, given that the original show was completely free (including advertising, when you’re watching it on the DVR). So, I work hard to find a streaming version of the show online, before paying for it (on principal, not the money!).

My thought, perhaps a little self-serving, is that if it’s available for streaming, especially for a long while, then it isn’t being shut down by the copyright holder. After all, I’m finding it on a Google search, which the studios could do (and likely are doing) better than I could. To repeat, I realize why they may have more trouble tracking down illegal torrents of the shows, and I avoid those.

So, on tnt.tv, they stream six full episodes. They don’t even stream a single commercial, before, during or after the show! However, those six episodes are not conecutively numbered. They currently offer (as of this writing) episodes 3-4-5, 7-8-9. In other words, episode #6 in not available.

I know that some studios have a rolling number of episodes available. They might have four at a time, and when a new one becomes available, the oldest of the existing four will roll off. Some just make the current (or one before that) available. They each have their reasons, I’m sure, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what they are!

I would guess that on some level, they are trying to force you to watch it on their schedule, meaning, within some reasonable period of time of its original airing. Why? if there is a way to monetize these shows online (and I’m not saying there is!), then more episodes available should equal more monetization. If there isn’t a model (e.g., TNT showing Leverage with zero commercials), then why restrict which episodes are available?

By me being able to watch Leverage online, I have become a fan. When the new season starts this summer, I’ll definitely watch, on TNT itself, rather than online. If none of their episodes was available online, there’s little chance that I would have gotten into this show. The Mentalist is slightly different, as I started taping it before I watched it online, but I will enjoy the show more, now that I’ve gotten the taste from the beginning, and that only happened online.

But, CBS, which used to air full episodes of The Mentalist online, has pulled that show (and others, including Eleventh Hour, which we also really like). Reading some of the fan sites, it might not be a CBS decision, but rather the production company which owns those shows. Either way, a great way to reduce your potential fan base.

Here’s what works for me (I think I wrote about this in one of my Video on Demand posts). Put in no more than five minutes (preferably two) of commercials, that can’t be fast forwarded through, in your online content. Allow the entire stream to be paused and rewound, but even in fast forward, force the stop in a commercial, so if I want to fast forward to a late segment, I have to watch the commercials again. It’s a small price for having ubiquitous content available, on demand, over the Inernet.

Most people will not enjoy that experience as much (not because of the commercials), so it will become another avenue to discover content that can be delivered more effectively (today, not in the future) to their TV.

You’ll notice that I said that CBS no longer streams The Mentalist online, and that episodes #1, #2 and #6 of Leverage aren’t on TNT either. And yet, we watched all of them online, on two different streaming sites. Finding The Mentalist was a bit of a Google challenge, but I ended up being up to the task. Finding Leverage was trivial. 😉

The episodes of Leverage that are available on TNT required extra downloads from TNT in order for their player to work in IE and Firefox. The player doesn’t work in Google Chrome (no prompts for a download), and I haven’t checked, but I suspect that it would fail in Safari too, which is based on Webkit, just like Google Chrome is.

Related topic #3: Technically connecting the laptop to the TV

I have written in the past about connecting my old laptop to the TV, using S-Video and normal RCA audio cables, with decent success. This laptop has an HDMI port, and a VGA port, no S-Video. VGA is a little messy, because it requires a powered converter between the laptop and the TV. I have one, so I can use it when necessary (to connect to an older TV in a hotel room, for example), but at home, I can use HDMI.

This weekend was my first attempt to do so, even though I bought the 25′ HDMI cable long ago, just for this purpose.

Even though on some levels I’m an expert user of computers in general, I (like many people) still fumble when doing something out of the ordinary. Doing this the right way is certainly out of the ordinary. Here, in my opinion, is the right way (in Windows, specifically Vista in my case):

  1. Connect the HDMI cable to the TV and to the laptop
  2. Power on the TV and set the input to that HDMI connection (Input #2 in my case, since #1 is connected to my DVR)
  3. Right-click on the desktop, and bring up the “Settings” panel (in my case, it’s a specific Nvidia Control Panel, and in XP, it’s a generic Desktop Settings panel)
  4. My Nvidia Control Panel makes this next step very easy. It’s a little trickier on a generic XP settings page. I just selected Use Two Displays (with separate content, meaning, not mirrored). This won’t show up unless you have the HDMI in, with the TV on. For a generic XP setup, I believe that you have to click on the smaller screen, labeled 2, and configure it…
  5. Set the resolution of the second display to full HD (1920×1080). I don’t recall whether it was the default or not, but I believe it was, and I believe it was the recommended setting, sensed by the laptop from the TV’s capability
  6. Set the default sound output to be the HDMI device (if you want the sound to come out on your TV!)
  7. Fire up a fresh browser (quit your old one if it was open, then relaunch it). This will ensure that the new default sound device (HDMI) will be where your browser sends its sound!
  8. Optional: Reset your default sound device back to the laptop. I did this, because I got annoyed hearing my IM bings and email sounds coming out on the TV (loudly). Once you do this, only the fresh browser intance launched in step #7 above will have its sound going to the TV!
  9. Navigate to the site that will stream your video while the browser window is still on your laptop display (it’s way easier than navigating once the browser is displayed on your TV)
  10. Get the video all set up, and pause it immediately. Notice which button is set to Full Screen within the video window (very few players don’t have a full screen mode)
  11. Drag the browser window off the laptop screen to the right edge. It should appear on your TV as you are doing this
  12. Hit play on the video, and only after it starts, hit the Full Screen button/control that you noted in step #10

That should do it. You should be watching your video in reasonable quality, in full screen, with sound coming through the TV. Our experience was quite pleasant. Our Internet connection is a very high speed Verizon FiOS one, so that doesn’t hurt. Depending on the player and encoding, I adjusted the aspect control on my TV to get the best fit (The Mentalist looked better with a different setting than Leverage).

Enjoy! 🙂

Commercials Annoy But Often Work

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Most people complain about watching commercials. Of course, they serve a number of purposes, the two obvious ones are:

  1. Keeping the content free (most people seem to like that part)
  2. Making you aware of a product’s existence (many people think they don’t care about this aspect)

I am unaware of anyone who hates commercials more than Lois does. There are probably too many reasons to list here (after all, I am constrained by the number of GB’s available on my hard drive!) 😉 but I will list a few of her top complaints:

  1. Commercials are typically played at an insanely increased volume from the show you have chosen to watch
  2. They are often inane
  3. They often have no correlation to the product or brand name of the advertiser, going purely for an emotional (or humorous) pull, leaving you with no recollection of what was being advertised
  4. The content is often offensive, even if some segment of the population truly needs a particular product genre
  5. Every year, the length of commercial breaks increases (feeling exponential at times)

I could go on, seriously, but that’s not really the point of this post, so I won’t. (You can thank me now, or thank me later…)

#1 above is probably Lois’ biggest complaint. We’re settled in, quietly enjoying a show, and then all of a sudden, bam, you’re being screamed at.

This has been true for a very long time, even when commercials weren’t such a large block of a typical 30 or 60 minute show. I shouldn’t have been surprised when it recently became a very large issue between us.

The advent of the DVR has been a godsend for people who don’t care for commercials. It has to be the rarest individual who actually watches commercials (it doesn’t count if you just let them run, but go do the things you do during live commercials). Given our crazy schedule, when we’re home, we do the vast majority of our TV watching via DVR. On the road though, we choose to watch reruns most of the time, with full-blown commercial watching.

One of the shows we watch on DVR religiously is Lost. I like the show way more than Lois does (that’s another hot topic between us), but she is at least willing to watch it with me every time we get back from a trip. I record it on the DirecTivo DVR.

In addition to DirecTV, we also have Verizon FiOS in the house. They have a reasonable number of broadcast hits available for free via Video on Demand (VOD). Most of those shows are also available for free HD VOD. Lost is one of those shows, though I only recently realized that. My DirecTivo only records in normal, Standard Definition (SD).

So, a few episodes ago, I decided to watch Lost in HD, using the free VOD service on FiOS, instead of watching my recording of it. All of the CBS shows on FiOS VOD contain minimal commercials (typically less than 90 seconds for an entire show!). In addition, they can be fast-forwarded (even in VOD mode), but I choose not to, because I feel it’s an extremely fair price to pay for the value of receiving HD on demand.

So, I thought it would be the same with watching Lost. When I fired up the HD VOD for ABC, I was greeted with a message that ABC does not permit the fast-forwarding of commercials during Lost (I have no idea whether this is true for other shows like Desperate Housewives, etc.). I thought that would be fine, since I’ve gotten in the habit of not forwarding anyway, since there are so few commercials on VOD to begin with.

So, I mentioned to Lois (knowing how much she hates commercials) that I intended to watch Lost in HD, and that we would have to watch the commercials, because ABC doesn’t permit forwarding, even if I wanted to. She reluctantly agreed.

Unfortunately, in addition to not allowing fast-forwarding, ABC also jams significantly more commercials down your throat than CBS does. To add insult to injury, they repeat commercials over and over, and they are often of the inane variety. By the second block of commercials, Lois was so annoyed at me, that she refused to watch to the end of the episode (no, I’m not kidding).

Before we watched the next episode (a day or two later), back on the DVR (so we could avoid all commercials), I forced her to watch the end of the previous episode on the DVR, so that she would be caught up (Lost is not the kind of show you can just jump into in the middle and have any clue whatsoever).

What’s the point of all of this? Check the title again. I said that commercials annoy, but also often work! Could they even work on Lois? Could the effect be instantaneous and obvious as well?

The answer is Yes.

I already mentioned above that when we travel, we watch reruns, and therefore commercials. When we were in Fredericksburg a month ago, we saw a commercial for Pizza Hut that highlighted their new Tuscani Pastas. The very next day Lois ordered them for lunch for the staff of Zope Corporation. They were pretty darn good.

This past weekend, we called in an order to a Pizza Hut up near our house, and picked it up and served it (along with supermarket bought items) to good friends of ours. It was most delicious again.

The point is that we would never have known about the existence of Tuscani Pastas from Pizza Hut were it not for commercials. Could we survive without that knowledge and experience? Of course. Are we (Lois included!) happy to have discovered these tasty and affordable dishes? Absolutely.

The moral of this post is this:

  1. Lower the volume on your commercials, and perhaps some people will actually watch them
  2. Make them entertaining and informative (I should be able to remember what was being advertised after the ad is over!)
  3. Make them relevant to a large percentage of your viewers, not only those with ED 😉
  4. Fewer commercials would be more effective, not only because viewers wouldn’t be desensitized, but they would also not have as much time to do other things

Now if only ABC would get smart like CBS, I could watch Lost in HD VOD and suffer a commercial or two, and perhaps even go out and buy that product! Instead, I watch zero commercials during Lost (in SD), and everyone (except for us) loses in the process…

NCIS is Number 1

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Today, The NY Times had an article about NCIS surging to be the clear number one show on broadcast TV. One of the points of the article is to highlight that this seems to be a big surprise for lots of people.

It’s no surprise to us. NCIS is probably Lois’ favorite TV show. I love it too, but it’s definitely not my favorite.

The reason it’s a great show is pretty simple. The stories are rich, complex, yet not ridiculous, as they often are in other complex shows. In other words, the writers are extremely creative, while remaining grounded in story lines that are at least believable, even if they would be hard to occur in reality.

Our one complaint about the show early on, which nearly got us to stop watching a number of times, is the completely unprofessional banter between the male and female characters (the regulars). It is beyond sexual harrassment, and I find it really hard to believe that it would be tolerated even 10% of what they portray, in a real NCIS office.

That said, they’ve toned it down a bit (I emphasize a bit), and we’re so used to it now, that we wouldn’t stop watching because of it. Still, it could be toned down even more, as it is completely unnecessary. The stories themselves are good enough to carry the show.

Anyway, I’m glad that many other people are catching on to how great this show has been all along. The part in the article that highlights what a winner the repeats are on USA is no surprise to us either. We too watch repeats on USA, even though we haven’t missed a single episode in all six seasons. Yes, it’s that good a show! 🙂

Lost Season 4 on TV/DVR

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Lois and I watched the first three seasons on DVD over a relatively short period of time. On balance, we both really like the show a lot (me more than she, I believe). There were frustrations at times, but it’s a very creative story, with lots of twists and turns to hold your interest.

One of the things that is great about watching it on DVD in concentrated doses is that you can keep the very complex plot twists in the front of your mind pretty easily. In addition, even when they take a wrong (sour) turn, you can wash away that feeling quickly, by powering through and getting hooked again in the next episode (or two).

With that in mind, both of us were a little nervous about watching Lost on TV (actually, DVR) this season. The entire rhythm of the experience had to be different, not necessarily worse, but likely so. That’s exactly how it turned out (worse).

The DVR helped a drop, as we typically got to watch at least two episodes in a row (sometimes three). But, there were very long stretches in between, both because of our travel schedule and because of the writers strike, which caused a long delay between new episodes.

At best, this meant losing threads and missing some nuance.

As far as the show is concerned, they are still extremely clever, and can still regularly give me a jolt (in the good sense) of blowing my mind with their creativity. That’s great!

On the not-so-great side, they switched gears from a technique that worked wonderfully the first three seasons. In those, they used flashbacks to give great depth to each character’s development, especially in explaining why/how they might react in certain ways to different situations. It was one of the more interesting parts of the show.

In the third season cliffhanger, they introduced the concept of flash forwards. Unfortunately, they overused the technique (IMHO) in Season 4. I believe that they think it builds a sense of excitement when you know what’s going to happen, but you can’t conceive of how it can possibly come to be. For a very few story lines, that’s true, and indeed, they did achieve that effect relatively cleverly and seamlessly a few times.

Still, it’s a trick, whereas the flashbacks (to me) weren’t, as they were explanatory. This is meant to tease you as to what might be possible. To repeat, it’s not unclever, but it’s overused and generally unnecessary.

On to the story itself (don’t worry, I have no intention of giving away anything). This season was touted as being more self-contained, meaning that more stories would be wrapped up within each episode, and more would be revealed in general throughout this shorter season (by design, not just because of the writers strike). To that I say: hogwash.

Very few episodes were self-contained. Very few story lines were wrapped up even within a two episode stretch. The big reveals (as they say on HGTV) came mostly in the season cliffhanger. No doubt that there were some brilliant moments during the season. I am definitely still hooked by the general story line and characters, so I’ll definitely be watching next season. But, this season was extremely choppy, made worse for us by the long stretches between episodes.

Why did we watch it on TV/DVR then and not just wait for the DVDs? Mostly, because (unlike Lois) I really don’t want to know anything about the show before I see it. I don’t read fan sites, don’t want to hear what happened in an episode I haven’t seen yet, and I’m not interested in the speculation of what might be going on in the story line. I like to allow the actual creators/writers of the show to unveil the story to me the way they meant it.

So, I was nervous that even commercials (particularly deep into the season) would annoy me. Of course, now that I’ve written about Lost a few times, I was also worried that friends might say something, assuming that I was relatively up to date in my watching. I decided that I would rather watch it semi-regularly, than risk having some of the surprises ruined.

I’m not sorry I did that but it may very well have contributed to the feeling that this season wasn’t as well done as the previous three. Lois certainly was not enamored with this season and probably could have given up watching if I wasn’t still a big fan. In the end, this season’s cliffhanger is also a mind-blower, but it too suffers from the futuritis syndrome (which is all I’ll say about that!).

Amazon Unbox

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I haven’t had an interest in any of the movie download services (until yesterday). First, we don’t watch that many movies. Second, we have so many DVDs that we own, and probably will never watch. Third, since we only have laptops, disk space can become an issue if the download is purchased and is meant to persist forever.

There are a few TV shows that we really like. A number more that we watch regularly but don’t care about as much. One of our favorites is NCIS (Navy Criminal Investigative Service). We liked it from the very first episode, but not without reservations.

The stories are compelling and extremely well written. The twists and turns are clever without being absurd. On the other hand, for too long (at least 3+ seasons) the banter between the unit (specifically, one of the male characters with any female) was so juvenile as to be completely unbelievable, especially in this type of unit in these types of situations.

It was so maddening that we often discussed dropping NCIS from our regular habits (as we’ve done with CSI, CSI: NY, Cold Case and many others, after watching them for years). We didn’t stop, because the stories themselves were probably the best on TV, week in and week out, with very few exceptions!

Thankfully, at least a season ago, they toned down some of the idiocy, without losing each character’s individuality. It could still be less, and be a better show, but it rarely grates on me too badly.

So, being a must watch show for us, I record it on three separate DVRs each week. It records in HD on my Verizon FiOS DVR, and in standard definition on my DirecTivo and in the apartment (where it could also be HD, but I preserve disk space on that DVR more carefully).

We’ve been away for a few weeks, working and enjoying our godchildren’s graduations. When we got to the house, I saw that the FiOS DVR was 99% full. That’s because it’s the only one that I allow HD recording on. It had three episodes of NCIS on it (4/29, 5/6 and 5/13). It also had three or four episodes of House M.D in HD on it. All of those episodes were duplicated on the DirecTivo.

I knew that the stuff that was scheduled to record that night (this past Monday) would wipe out unprotected older stuff, so I chose to proactively delete shows to make room. I couldn’t decide between NCIS and House. In the end, I decided to delete NCIS because some of the scenes in House can be all the more disgusting in HD. 😉

We then ended up coming to the apartment a few days earlier than expected. When we got here, I was reminded that on occasion, the DVR here (supplied by Time Warner Cable) locks up, and even though there is plenty of disk space, nothing gets recorded until I reboot it. That happened the week of 4/21 and I didn’t get to reboot it until 4/30, which meant that I missed NCIS on 4/29 on the apartment DVR.

No biggie (or so I thought) since I have it up at the house on the DirecTivo. But, it also meant that we wouldn’t watch the remaining NCIS that we have here, until we got back to the house. Being the clever guy that I am, I connected my laptop to the DirecTivo via my Sling Box. I also connected my S-Video cable from my laptop to my TV.

I fired up the DirecTivo, found the correct episode of NCIS and hit play. A second later, it prompted me to save or delete the episode. Huh? After doing that a second time, I went into the episode information screen, and saw that the duration was 0:00. Ugh, for whatever reason, it failed to record.

What to do? Well, cleverly, I went to cbs.com to see if they offered up streaming video of the episode. Indeed, NCIS is one of the shows that they offer full episode streaming for (not all, and I have no idea why!). Unfortunately, they only offered the last three episodes, all of which I have on two DVRs.

I can understand (somewhat) why they don’t offer all episodes for streaming, forever. That said, it seems silly to cut it off at three, and to make the current ones available, which supposedly have more of a premium value to them. Then again, I don’t make these decisions for anyone, including CBS.

Searching the net, I came up with NCIS episodes being available for sale on Amazon Unbox. Like I said in the introduction, I’ve never had an interest in this, or any like service. That said, I’ve been delighted with Amazon’s MP3 Download service, so I at least trusted this brand and believed that the experience wouldn’t annoy me.

We decided to spring for the $1.99 to fill in our missing episode. The application downloaded and installed quickly. The 856MB episode file took a little longer to download (roughly 30-40 minutes). That part would have been a lot quicker if we were at the house, with our FiOS service. 🙂

I still had the video cable in my laptop, connected to the TV. So, once the episode downloaded I was able to fire up their player and watch it on the TV instantly.

The quality was quite good. We thoroughly enjoyed the episode, In The Zone, and were glad to spend the $1.99 to not have a gap in our collective memories of this show.

While each episode easily stands alone, even if it makes reference to past events, character development is always a nice touch. This episode focused on a cast member that rarely gets on air time, Nikki Jardine. If she ever plays a more prominent role in the future, this would have been a really bad episode to miss. Of course, she might never be on again, so who knows. 😉

We’re back to normal now, and can catch up with the rest of the shows on the normal DVR. We also watched the episode of House through the Sling Box, that wasn’t recorded in the city either (due to the reboot problem), so we can now watch the rest of those as well.

A very long post, just to tell you that Amazon Unbox works well, as advertised. While I don’t anticipate using it often, it’s very nice to know that it’s there for any future emergencies, or even desires. 🙂