Computers

Audio Video Cable Prices

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In this post, I linked to a great cable that solved my PC -> TV problem. That cable was purchased from svideo.com. The link in that article was to the exact cable I purchased, which cost me $24.95, including free parcel post shipping. It works perfectly. Here is another link on their site to a different model number, which otherwise appears to be identical to me, and it’s $2 cheaper at $22.95 (also includes free shipping).

So, why am I writing again? We’re on another of our trips, and I forgot the cable at home (I know, what a dodo). Now that I know what I need/want, and I’m not taking a risk on whether it will work or not, I figured I’d check out the local electronics stores to see what they carried.

While the cable linked above is perfect (in terms of length, that the audio and video is bonded into one cable, value priced, etc.), I figured I could also buy separate (and if necessary shorter) cables to accomplish the same thing for this trip.

I visited the following stores on the same day, in the following order: Walmart, Circuit City, Best Buy, Radio Shack.

Surprise, surprise, the best prices were at Walmart. I could buy a six foot audio only cable, 3.5mm on one end to two RCA jacks on the other, for $3.94. The same cable at Radio Shack was a not-unreasonable $7.95. The same cable, but in a fancier package, from a known consumer electronics company, with touted higher-quality connectors, was between $14.99 and $21.99 at Circuit City and Best Buy, depending on the brand.

Similar disparity for the S-Video cable (both S-Video -> S-Video and S-Video -> RCA). Here, a six foot cable was close to $12 at Walmart (if I recall correctly), and well over $20 at CC and BB.

In the end, I bought nothing, because I didn’t really have an immediate need. But, it made me search the net again when I got back. I was curious to see if I paid up for expedited shipping, would I still be able to save money while getting longer cables (which are much more convenient for my particular needs).

It turns out that svideo.com’s shipping wasn’t that attractive, given that I didn’t really need the cables. Then I found separate cables at mcmcables.com. I bought a 25 foot (yes, four times longer than the Walmart cable!) audio cable for $4.95! In fact, I bought two, just because. Then I bought two 25 foot S-Video -> RCA cables for $8.99 each!

I could have saved $1 each for S-Video -> S-Video, which would work for 95% of the TVs I might connect to, but the RCA jack is a tad more universal, so I went for that instead. Shipping (not expedited) was an additional $7.99.

So, one set of 25 foot cables cost me $14 (I’m rounding up), plus a few bucks for shipping. That’s cheaper than the cable I previously bought from svideo.com, which I have no complaints about either (pricing or quality).

It boggles the mind the markups that these stores have. I realize that they have to stock it on the shelves, but still, even the disparity between Walmart and CC and BB is ridiculous. They make money on this because most people need the cable that day, and have to pay up or wait longer than they want.

This brings me to another outrageous cable pricing issue, and in fact, more than a pricing issue, a change in design.

I’ve reported before that I have both a new generation iPod Nano, and a new iPod Classic (what a horrible name). I also reported here, that I have some video podcasts loaded on them.

So, I thought I’d see whether hooking them up to the TV in the hotel gave a satisfactory viewing experience. Rob Page (CEO of Zope Corporation) loaned me his cable that connects the headphone jack to three RCA composite jacks for precisely this purpose.

I did a quick search and found this article describing how to do the hookup, and recommending that you don’t pay extra for Apple’s branded cable. Rob had a retractable off-brand cable that he paid $5 for. Apple sells branded cables for $49!

Before I left for the hotel, I found an EBay auction that was selling a bundle: Five foot video cable, car charger for iPod and wall socket charger for iPod, all together, for $0.99 (yes, less than a dollar!). Of course, they make it up on the shipping, which was $6.99! So, for $7.98 delivered, I would get the video cable, the car charger, and an extra wall charger (which I don’t really need). I ordered it.

When I got to the hotel, I couldn’t get the Nano or the Classic to display the video. I was able to get the audio to work.

A search this morning yielded an article on Apple’s site, where they claim that the new Nanos and Classics no longer support video out of the headphone jack. What? This is progress? Of course, they’ll sell you a $49 cable to connect the edge connector to either Composite or Component jacks. They’ll also happily sell you a dock for an additional $49.

A quick EBay search shows that you can pick up a knock-off cable for $0.01 plus $4.95 shipping.

The world is full of rip-offs, and bargains. A little careful shopping, coupled with the patience needed to wait for them to arrive, and you can maintain your sanity a little longer.

I can’t fathom (other than wanting to force upgraders to buy new cables!) why Apple would stop supporting video out of the headphone jack on newer models. Oh well…

Finally, for completeness sake, I’ll add my HDMI cable shopping experience here. I mentioned in the past that it’s amusing (to be kind) that when you buy an HDTV, it’s rare to have any cables included, let alone an HDMI one.

I bought mine (I’m up to four at this point) at MyCableMart.com. My more recent purchase was for two HMDI 1.3 cables, six foot in length. $6.62 each, plus shipping. At Walmart, these cables were in the $25-40 range, and at CC and BB they were in the $49-99 range (though to be fair, I think the $99 ones were HDMI 1.4 spec, which was the first I’d heard of the higher version). Still, the differences are crazy.

Buyer beware, caveat emptor, etc. 🙂

Rethinking Online Poker

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I started playing online poker in September 2004. It instantly became an obsession. For the first 10 months, I believe that I missed only one single day where I didn’t play.

I still play a ton, but it’s definitely well beyond the obsession stage. In the past year, I have gone two weeks in a row without playing a single game, at least a few times. That would have been unthinkable in the first year.

I enjoy it immensely. It’s great entertainment, distraction, escape, etc. I have come to accept the incredibly bad beats that I regularly experience with a clamness that I could never have predicted earlier, which I’m hoping is a sign of maturity with regard to the nature of the game.

It satisfies my inherent nature to gamble, without really being a gamble. First, I consistently make money (albeit a very tiny amount). But, even if I were to lose, that too would be a tiny amount, certainly less than I pay for our more regular entertainment (concerts, new TV’s, restaurants, etc.).

So, why am I rethinking online poker? For the first three years, the only real glitches that I had were connectivity problems, and on rare occasions, server overload problems. They were certainly frustrating, especially when it happened in the midst of a tournament that was otherwise going well, but they were understandable.

When the US passed the idiotic banking laws to try and thwart online gambling, most of the online poker sites that I had an account with turned away all US citizens. That included the site that I played on 95% of the time. I shifted 100% of my play to one site that was my second favorite anyway. For 14 months, I had virtually zero problems with them.

Now, for the past month, it has been one problem after another, all administrative, not table related. I have reported on a few of them. While they have made it right each and every time, I don’t feel like being ever vigilant about my account, and then chasing them down when I spot a problem, and waiting too patiently to hear back and eventually get it fixed.

There is enough mystery about the online experience, that trust has to be a big part of the proposition. This particular site is quickly losing my trust. In the past, reporting a problem typically yielded some sort of response within a few hours. Now, it can take days. Something is wrong.

As I reported recently, I had a credit (called Tournament Dollars or TDs) for an entry into the big Sunday tournament. Last night, I settled in and was ready to use that credit. At roughly 3:20pm, I tried to register for the 5pm start time, using the credit. The menu only allowed a cash entry fee. I double-checked my account, and indeed, the credit was there, just not available during the registration process. This had never happened before.

At 3:30pm, I used their highest level of customer support, a form which reports live play problems (presumably bringing much quicker help). It is now nearly 19 hours later, and I haven’t heard a peep from them.

I had promised myself that I would not pay the $215 entry to the weekly tourney. But, since I was settled in, and geared up to play, and believed that the site would eventually do the right thing (take away my credit, and put back the cash), I decided to pay the full freight entry fee last night for the first time.

1069 entrants, top 110 paid. I’ll spare you the details of the incredibly bad luck I had on my last hand, but I finished 471. I don’t care about the lost money (though the lost credit would have been nicer). I do care about the problems, and the lack of swift service.

So, what are my choices?

  1. Suck it up, ignore the problems (perhaps, even expect them), and continue on with this site.
  2. Move my money from this site to a new one (there are still a number of top sites that welcome US players).
  3. Take a break for a while (leaving the money in my account, so I can take it up again).
  4. Withdraw my money, and not think about online poker for a while.

I honestly have no idea what I’ll end up doing, but I’m seriously considering all of the above, for the first time in three years of nearly non-stop playing. If you have any insightful suggestions, feel free to leave them as comments here.

Magnatune.com Totally Nails Music

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I’ve had a number of music-related posts kicking around my head of a while now, and I’ve even threatened publicly to finally birth my Pandora and Last.fm post. It’s coming, as are a few other music posts in the next week.

However, I just discovered an online music label called Magnatune this past week. The story of how I discovered them is interesting (to me at least) 😉 but I will save that for another post, as Magnatune is special enough to deserve at least one post purely about them.

You can learn more about them from them than you can from me, by reading each of the entries on their information page. I certainly encourage you to do so. That said, I’d like to highlight what’s so special for me.

First, you get to hear 100% of every song that’s available through Magnatune for free, online, an unlimited number of times. That’s right, if you don’t care about listening when you’re offline, you don’t ever need to pay for a single song from Magnatune. Say goodbye to ever purchasing something that disappointed you, because you didn’t get to hear all of it in advance.

Next, pay what you think it’s worth, with a minimum of $5 per album. I thought that the Radiohead experiment, which included the option to pay nothing, was interesting, but also stupid. The fact that they discontinued it, and now sell through normal channels, is also interesting.

Not all music is created equally. You and I may have different tastes. We might both like artist A, but she might be your favorite, and way down on my list. You should happily be willing to pay more for her music than I would be. Furthermore, we can’t all afford to pay the same amount, whether that’s fair or not. But, if there isn’t a bottom line price, it devalues the asset (in my opinion).

Next, download it any number of formats, or purchase it on CD. Holy cow batman, this is just right and cool. Want the CD instantaneously, and have the bandwidth for it? Download the WAV files directly, and burn the CD (or don’t!). 😉 Want high quality MP3 with VBR? Prefer Ogg Vorbis? You get the point. This is absolutely right.

You and I may want to buy the same music, and we may even want to pay the same amount, but we might want it in a different format, for our own convenience. Geeks (myself included!) can certainly always grab the WAV files, and convert to their hearts content. Many more people don’t want to think about the hassle, even if they’re capable of doing so.

Next, (sit down, and get ready for this one) give it away to three of your friends, completely for free, completely legally! Yes, that’s right, they encourage you, not only permit you, to give away copies of what you buy to three different people. You say that’s cool, and obviously it is, but wait, it’s even cooler than that.

Cooler? How could that be? Well, aside from me being allowed to copy and distribute the music (however I want, burn a CD, email the files, etc.), that might be inconvenient for me (emailing 100+ megs might not even be possible for many people). Running to the post office to send off my newly burned CD, etc. So, Magnatune permits me to forward the email that I received with my special login/password combo so that my friend can download from their site!

Wait, not only do they permit me to share the music for free, but they spend their resources delivering it to my friends for free? Awesome! Even more awesome is that now my friends can pick their desired format. If I downloaded WAV files (for example), they could choose FLAC, MP3, etc. I don’t have to guess, or convert for them, etc. Amazing.

Next, they also sell through Amazon.com MP3 downloads. This is smart. Not everyone wants to create new accounts or give their credit card to a new merchant, when they already trust a particular service. They also worked hard to negotiate the pricing on Amazon. I’ll have more to say about that in another post, but for now, let’s just say that Magnatune got this part right too, in that they can’t expect to be the sole distributors of their music.

Finally, and this one is really important to me too (and I’ll elaborate in another post about another label that mostly gets it right, but not as right as Magnatune!), they are 100% transparent about the economics between them and the artists. This affected my behavior (in a positive way toward the artists!), and I bet it will affect other people’s behavior (as the founder of Magnatune explains well). In a coming post I will explain how the other label didn’t get this part as right.

Those are the biggies. To review:

  1. Listen to entire albums for free, as often as you like
  2. Pay what you think it’s worth, with a floor price of $5
  3. Download in any number of formats (or order a real CD)
  4. Share it for free with up to three friends
  5. Distribute as widely as possible (while making your site preferred)
  6. Be 100% transparent about how purchases benefit Artists

There are a number of other things about Magnatune that are cool. You can use their music in your podcasts. You can license their music (in a hassle-free manner!) for use in commercial projects. Check the information page linked above for more cool things.

Basically, they totally get it, 100%.

I’ve already bought three downloads from them. I’m sure there are many more to come. I don’t want to mention the artist in this post, because this isn’t about the music itself, but rather about a label that gets it.

Here is their banner, linked to their site, as requested by them in helping to spread the word!

Magnatune.com

Hotel TV Victory

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In this post, I mentioned that it wouldn’t be until January that I got to try out my new low-tech cable solution for watching our own stuff on the hotel TV.

We just had the longest stretch in six years of not being in a hotel. Our last stay ended on November 20th, and tonight is our first night since (we’ve stayed with friends for five nights during that stretch, so they weren’t all at home).

Tonight I pulled out my low-tech cable and connected it to the TV in the hotel. I then put two AAA batteries in my programmable remote and looked up the code for a Philips TV. After a moment of panic, when I noticed that there wasn’t a button labeled Input on the remote, I finally found (by trial and error) that there was a button labeled A->B which did the same thing.

Sure enough, I was able to change the hotel TV to all of the inputs (S-Video, Front RCA, Rear RCA, something else, etc.).

I then connected to my home DVR (the DirecTV Hughes HDVR2 that I’ve recently resuscitated) through my SlingBox, and we watched a two hour show that I had recorded months ago. It worked flawlessly!

I enabled a second monitor and extended my desktop to it. I then ran the Sling window in that second monitor and maximized it (800×600) which was the perfect size for the TV. I was able to play Poker on the main laptop screen, without interfering with the show on the TV (also very cool!).

But, there was one last problem. I like having the sound on for the Poker tourneys, so that if I look away from the screen, and it’s my turn, I hear the beep. But, to get the sound on the TV to work, I really have to crank the sound to the headphone jack on the laptop. That would make the Poker beeps way too loud on the TV.

My solution is almost Rube Goldberg, but it worked! 😉

I have a tiny USB sound adapter (I can never get the Microphone input to work, and the volume on the output is deafeningly loud, but, it works). So, I first connect the Sling when the normal headphone jack is enabled. Then I insert the USB sound device, and set that to be the new default sound device. Poker (and most other apps) immediately switch to the new default device, but the Sling keeps playing through the device that was the default when it was launched.

So, I listened for the Poker beep through earbuds that were connected to the USB sound device, and the low-tech cable was connected to the S-Video port and the headphone jack.

Total Victory! Sweet! 🙂

VMWare Player

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My laptop is now ancient by date standards (I bought it 3.5 years ago), but it’s still reasonably peppy, and has some features that are difficult to find nowadays (like a 16″ non-widescreen LCD!). It was a real beast at the time I bought it (3.4Ghz desktop Pentium 4, dual 60GB hard drives at 7200 RPM each, 2GB ram, 1600×1200 screen, S-Video out, DVD +/- RW, etc.)

Every few months, I humor myself and configure up a new beast, and then convince myself that this one satisfies me in most ways (which it does), and I defer for a few more months.

When I first bought the laptop, I intended to run Linux on it full time. I kept getting errors on it, and it would die mysteriously. At first, I suspected that the Linux kernels just couldn’t quite deduce my beast’s configuration, but after breaking down and putting Windows on it, and getting similar errors, I shipped the machine back. Indeed, they found some kind of problem, and repaired it.

When I got the machine back, I reinstalled Linux and was reasonably happy for a week. Then I started to miss a few programs that I got very used to in Windows land. I then installed Win4Lin and Windows 98SE. That kept me reasonably happy, except that one or two programs would only work when I was hard-wired into the network, as they couldn’t control the adapter to their desired level if I was using WiFi (a limitation of Win4Lin at the time, probably now long resolved).

After six weeks of loving Linux 95% of the day, but requiring Windows 5% of the day (and not being happy with the above limitations), I finally, and regretfully, reverted back to Windows XP, full time.

Shortly thereafter, VMWare released VMWare Player for free. I thought that it would be interesting to reverse my previous usage, and be able to run Linux in a VM when I wanted (I had been using Cygwin forever, and still do, and like it a lot, but hey, there are other advantages to using a VM).

Unfortunately, while VMWare Player worked for the most part, occasionally it would crash on me (this was something like version 1.28). I attributed it to my non-standard config and lived with it. Until, after one crash, the VMWare image would no longer open. All of my hard work and configuration of that particular Linux install gone. I was completely locked out of it.

I uninstalled VMWare Player, and have lived with Cygwin ever since (again, reasonably happily). I can boot Linux off of a CD, or, with a floppy to a USB stick (because my BIOS can’t boot directly off of a USB device). I was also able to run the embedded distribution of DSL (Damn Small Linux).

The other day, I was browsing for something, and came across a mention of VMWare Player 2.02. Glutton for punishment that I am, I downloaded and installed it. One nice feature (which may very well have been in v1.x, in fact, it’s quite likely, but I never tried it) is that you can create a tiny configuration file (.vmx) and that file can point to any ISO file for the Player to boot.

This means that all Live Linux ISO images can be booted directly by the Player, without having to create a hard disk image for them. This is made even cooler, because by default, when you close down the Player, it suspends the VM rather than killing it. It saves the ram image to it’s own disk file, and the next time you launch the player and select the same vmx file, it opens Linux (or whatever image you were running) right where it was.

So, a Live CD image can be run over multiple sessions, with data remembered in betwen, etc. Of course, this can be a risky way of storing your data, so you shouldn’t expect it to be highly reliable. Of course, you can “back up” your data in any number of ways, including some distribution specific ones (like My DSL, etc.).

I have not used it heavily yet, but I have successfully booted DSL 4.2 a number of times (including coming out of a suspended session successfully), and Sidux 2007-4. The whole idea is cool to me and preferable for those rare occasions when I want an X-Server running on my laptop rather than using the X-Server that is available in Cygwin (that works too, but can be flaky and/or annoying at times).

It also makes for much safer browsing, especially if you are visiting a site that you have reason to be suspicious of. Fire up a Live CD version of Linux (DSL is small, and boots really quickly), browse, and don’t suspend if you suspect anything bad happened.

P.S. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with setting up a real permanent disk file, and installing Linux into that virtual filesystem, rather than running a Live CD over and over. Even so, I’d back up the data in that file separately, until I find out whether version 2.02 of VMWare Player is more trustworthy (at least on my machine) than 1.28 was.

Roundabout Discovery of Scorpions

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Technically, this entire post should really be a comment on someone else’s blog (you’ll find out which blog and post in a minute). Given how wordy I always am (this will be no exception), I couldn’t bring myself to even find out if I would be allowed to post such a big comment…

For sure, it wouldn’t be fair to his readers, who want to interact with him, to be taken in an entirely different direction by me.

Buried in this post about watching video podcasts on my iPod Nano was a mention of my dinner at Grand Central Station. Dinner that night was with Jamie Thingelstad (there, I’ve outed you Jamie). Jamie was the CTO of the first company I ever invested in (BigCharts), sold to Marketwatch, which was sold to Dow Jones, which was last week sold to News Corp.

Jamie still works there (though he left for a bit in between). Jamie brought along Jim Bernard who is the general manager for Marketwatch (now under News Corp’s control). Jim joined BigCharts more than a year after I invested, and I had not met him before that dinner, because we sold it to Marketwatch 14 months after my investment.

At dinner, we discussed a very wide range of topics. Among them was blogging (all three of us blog at least semi-regularly). While I’m a VC by profession (coming up on my 10 year anniversary of my first investment in two months!), I only blog about personal stuff.

Jamie mentioned that I should check out Fred Wilson’s blog (at the moment, the site loads very slowly on my very fast Verizon FiOS link, so have some patience, it’s definitely worth it!). This morning, as a follow-up, Jamie sent me an email with the link to Fred’s blog (obviously, he wanted to make sure that I read it) 😉 and to Jim’s as well (linked above).

Trusting Jamie on nearly all matters (the one notable exception is his failed attempt to convert me to a Mac user) 😉 I happily clicked over to Fred’s blog to take a peek. I have known of Fred for a very long time (from his Flatiron Ventures days), being a fellow New York based VC, but have never run into him directly.

The top post on Fred’s blog today (it might not be by the time you read this) is about giving in order to receive. It’s a wonderful thought, and there are some thoughtful comments on it as well, that are worth reading. That said, while I completely agree with the sentiment, and I practice it in all things every single day, in my personal experience, it doesn’t apply as well to the world of VCs as it appears to have worked for Fred.

For a quick disclaimer, you can read the testimonials on my site (they are ancient, as I haven’t bothered to update them in years), to know that I am not a vulture capitalist, and I truly care about and try to work very closely with my portfolio companies. I put in more personal sweat and blood than most people I know, as does my wife and partner, Lois.

My experience is that many (perhaps even the majority) of entrepreneurs aren’t all that interested in advice. That’s too harsh. They are interested in hearing it, so that they can have the appearance of a rounded view, but they became entrepreneurs because they knew best, and by golly, until they fail, they are going to do it their way. This doesn’t make them bad people, just stubborn, and sometimes, assuming ill-motives to advice givers, even when obviously undeserved.

Even that’s not the real reason for this long comment on Fred’s post. 😉

As you can tell from my tag cloud, the two things I post about most often are Poker (I don’t write anything interesting, so if you’re a poker fan, don’t bother looking for advice, I just summarize my personal results to keep myself honest) and Music. Music (in particular live shows) have become a passion (bordering on obsession) for Lois and me over the past few years.

So, while reading through the giving to receive post and the associated comments, I see that John Maloney posted a link to the following YouTube video of the Scorpions. Given my penchant for Music, I clicked on it before reading the remaining comments (which I came back to later). I immediately liked what I saw/heard. I then watched another dozen videos by them and liked every one of them.

Then the big surprise. I see a video called Rock Me Like A Hurricane (performed by the Scorpions). I am plenty old enough to know that song really well. Obviously, not well enough to know it was by the Scorpions. 🙁 In fact, I would have (foolishly) guessed that it was someone like Van Halen.

So I am now officially a Scorpions fan, and definitely want to see them live. I just checked their site for tour dates, and they just finished up a swing in India. Missed them by that much

I am also now officially a fan of Fred Wilson’s blog (the rest of the posts are interesting as well!), and I have now subscribed to it as well.

Thanks to Jamie for (unwittingly) introducing me to the Scorpions (and, oh yes, to Fred’s blog as well). 😉

Of course, this brings Fred’s original post topic into clear view. I gave money to Jamie’s company, BigCharts, and through Jamie, I received the link to Fred’s blog, which led to the discovery of the Scorpions. Cool! 🙂

Low Tech Often Beats High Tech

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In this post, I discussed traditional video senders, that wirelessly extend a video source to a remote receiver (TV, VCR, DVR, etc.). The 5.8Ghz model that I bought from Amazon.com is still working perfectly.

In addition to that need at home, we travel a lot for business and therefore spend a lot of time in hotels. While we’re not terribly picky about what’s on TV when we’re tired after a long day’s work, sometimes the pickings are pretty slim, and with the current writers strike dragging on, they will likely get slimmer.

I decided that I wanted to find an effective way to display things from my laptop on the hotel TV. This would allow watching DVDs, Internet videos, and my home DVR via the SlingBox.

I mentioned in the past that once I purchased one thing from X10, I got bombarded daily by a giant email newsletter from them. Just at the time that I was considering the above need, their daily newsletter had a special to purchase a wireless VGA to RCA Video extender. I ordered the following package that day (and I paid a lot less than the current price shown on that page).

The device works, for some definition of works, but I am not happy with it. I don’t know if it’s interference from WiFi devices (of which the hotels have many, and so does our house), or if there is some other problem, but, while I an get the video to show up (so it’s not broken), it’s not a satisfactory experience.

Now a diversion. A few weeks back, we were visiting friends in Richmond, VA. Another friend came over with a DVD of photos from their trip to South Africa. After trying a few ways to display the photos on the TV, I looked at the back of my laptop and noticed (for the first time) that I had an S-Video port. Our host happened to have an S-Video cable, and I was able to connect my S-Video out to his S-Video in, and display the photos.

When I got home, I did a search and found the following site (they ask for links, claiming that they don’t advertise!), and specifically, this low tech cable. I got to use the cable for the first time last night (in the apartment), and it worked pretty well. Extremely low tech, but extremely effective.

That said, my problem isn’t quite solved. It turns out that the hotel that we stay at all the time doesn’t include the ability to select alternate input sources (even though the TV has both RCA inputs and S-Video in). The remote control doesn’t have an input button, and the menu doesn’t contain one either.

A little further search on the Internet suggests bringing your own programmable remote to the room, and searching for their TV model, and hopefully being able to control the TV with your remote, including changing the input source. I’ll give that a try in January, when we are next in the hotel. Even if it doesn’t work, this new cable will find occasional use at home, when I want to watch an Internet video on the TV. A lot cheaper than buying something like Apple TV, etc. 😉

My iPod Nano Teaches Me New Tricks

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Mostly, I listen to music on my iPod. On occasion, I have listened to an audio book or two, while exercising. One thing I have never done is watch a video. My old iPod 30GB probably could do it as well (it certainly could display photos), but I never even tried (not even a photo).

Up until very recently, I never subscribed to a podcast either. I have listened to a dozen podcasts directly from their authors’ websites, mostly poker podcasts, but never on the iPod, or through iTunes.

Two months ago, Lois sent me a link to a podcast from KCRW’s The Business, where they interviewed the producer of the show Wicked, Marc Platt. She didn’t listen to it, but asked me to check it out. I found it extremely informative, and I ended up subscribing to The Business podcast through iTunes.

I still hadn’t listened to any of the additional six episodes that automatically downloaded to my iTunes and then sync’ed to my iPod, but I knew that one day I would.

For 10 years, Lois and I commuted daily on the Metro-North railroad to NYC. I can’t recall the last time I’ve been on that train, but it has been years, for sure. Last night, a good friend was in town from Minnesota. We agreed to have dinner in Grand Central and I took the train in and back.

At first, I thought I’d bring along my Grado SR80’s and really enjoy some music on the train. Then I realized that the rumble of the train would cut into my enjoyment, since the Grado’s are not noise canceling, and my Sony and Bose NC’s were both in the city.

So, I realized that this would be a perfect opportunity to listen to a podcast or two. I already had episodes of The Business loaded up, but it occurred to me that this was a unique and ideal opportunity to see if there were some interesting video podcasts available. Clearly, I can’t watch video when I’m driving in the car (or can I?). 😉

So, I used iTunes to search for some video podcasts, specifically concentrating on comedy first. I read reviews of the Comedy Central stand-up excerpts, and most people were really disappointed with them. Then I read glowing reviews of a podcast by scantily clad women doing the news. People swore it was hysterical, and pleasing on the eyes as well.

How could I resist? So, I downloaded a dozen episodes (they average roughly three minutes each). I then downloaded 10 episodes of the Onion video podcast (I have read a few of their mock news articles online, and usually enjoyed them thoroughly!).

On to the train, turned on the Nano, and started watching the ladies doing the news. They are indeed easy on the eyes, even on a tiny Nano screen. That said, 95% of their material is mind-numbingly boring. You can see where they are aiming (on occasion), but it’s really tedious. Hard to imagine something three minutes long can get tedious, but they achieve it brilliantly!

So, while they beg (on every episode) for bloggers to link to them, I just can’t bring myself to throw them a link. I’m unsubscribing from them.

Of course, since they are so short, I watched them all…

Then I moved on to the Onion. Way more professional (meaning, superb fakes of real shows, like their spoof of the Today Show). The comedy though is very up and down. All of the ideas are clever, but some of the execution is not only tedious, but feels like watching a train wreck. Others though, are delightful and brilliant. So, I’m not unsubscribing the Onion just yet.

The real point is that the experiment worked. I could use my crappy ear buds, on a raucous train ride, since high fidelity was not necessary. The video made the focus of attention easy, and the ride in both directions quick. That said, I finished the ride with another audio-only episode of The Business. Even though I had no video to keep me entertained, the content was way more interesting, and therefore kept me much more engaged. I am most definitely going to continue listening to future podcasts from them. They average close to 30 minutes in length, so it’s a commitment.

No Longer a Digital Download Virgin

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In this post, which I just published a few minutes ago, I mention that I just purchased Acoustic Sketches by Phil Keaggy. In that post I said that I would write separately about how/where I purchased that “CD”. This is that tale…

I have purposely avoided the seduction of purchasing music for downloading online, even though I buy most things online (including the vast majority of the CD’s that I buy), and even though 99% of the time, I listen to ripped MP3’s of the CD’s that I buy!

Why? By far the biggest reason has been DRM (Digital Rights Management). I am 100% against illegal trading of copyrighted material, in any form. I want to see artists/authors compensated fairly for every user of their works. That said, as a consumer of a legitimate purchase, I want to be able use that work for my own benefit, in any manner that pleases me (short of making it available illegally to others!).

DRM sounds harmless enough. After all, I can certainly listen to the music that I purchased, as many times as I want, right? Sure, to begin with. But, if I buy a DRM-protected song on iTunes, I can play it on my laptop, and only on an iPod (and a specific iPod at that!). Today, I love my iPods, so it sounds like there is no problem. However, in the future (could be soon), I could easily fall in love with a new device (say, the next generation Zune), and the song I’ve already purchased will not run on that device, simply because I chose to buy it from Apple.

Ugh. Further, the CD provides a perfect backup device on two fronts. First, I don’t travel with it, so it sits with all of my other CD’s, patiently waiting to be re-ripped should the need arise. Second, it’s at the highest possible quality, so if in the future I want to rip into a new format (not MP3), or a higher bit rate, I can easily do that. But, since for now, I am happy listening to 96kbps MP3’s, I save space on my laptop and iPod while still owning the master copy on the CD.

If I download a song, even a DRM free one, I have to actively think about a backup strategy for it. Not rocket science, but an extra step at a minimum, plus, it’s not likely to be CD quality (not that I can hear the difference), so I can’t (necessarily) take advantage of future encoders.

The only thing that ever made me feel badly about not downloading was the immediacy and convenience of the process. The impulse nature didn’t hit me as much. Under most circumstances, I’m happy to wait a week to get my delivery from Amazon.com in the mail.

A month or so ago, I looked into the new Amazon.com MP3 download service. Here is the page for Acoustic Sketches. The more I looked into the Amazon service, the more I liked it. DRM free. 256kbps encoding (like I’ve said too many times, I can’t hear the difference, but others can, so the sale should give a reasonably high quality file). I decided that sometime in the next few weeks, I’d take the plunge.

Acoustic Sketches turned out to be the perfect guinea pig, because the price of the downloaded album is $9.49, and the price of the CD is $14.99 (though I can swear that when I looked yesterday, it was $16.98, but perhaps I am just crazy…). That’s a big enough difference to make the plunge obvious. Also, since this was still a bit of a gamble for me, if I hated the result (for any reason), I wouldn’t necessarily feel the need to run out and buy the real CD, which I would if I were buying something from Girlyman (for example).

So, earlier today, I hit the “One Click Purchase” button, and a few minutes later (probably more like one minute on my FiOS connection) 😉 I had the entire CD downloaded. Yes, I used iTunes to “convert” to 96kpbs. I intend to archive the 256kbps version for posterity, but I still prefer the smaller files on my laptop and iPod.

If you read the post before this, you know that I am extremely happy with the album itself, so obviously, the resultant download worked as well as expected (from a sound quality point of view). That said, there are a number of things that I am truly unhappy with (perhaps frustrated with is a better term). None of them will stop me from purchasing more music from Amazon.com, because I definitely will, but nonetheless, the experience is far from what I’d like to see (given my personal preferences!).

So, what’s the problem?

Purchasing the music couldn’t be simpler. On Windows (and I think Mac), there is a small helper application that you can install if you want to purchase entire albums. You don’t need to install anything to download individual songs, though the helper app makes even purchasing a single song easier.

The app can be configured to automatically import (add) the song/album to iTunes or Windows Media Player (WMP). I found it a tad strange that you can’t check off both, but it’s not a big deal to me. After all, I could have a Zune and an iPod, and want each to be sync’ed from their own library, etc.

First, the songs have the most important ID3 tag information already encoded. That’s a good thing. Except, the name of the song also has the name of the album in it, in parens. This is silly, since the album tag is filled in correctly! What’s worse, the filename is taken from the name tag, so the filenames on the system have the parens and the album name in them as well. Ugh.

That might be the only real complaint, since I think the rest has more to do with my personal preference. From that perspective, I recognize that few other people will be annoyed by these nits, since they won’t go through the process that I did, but here it goes just in case anyone cares.

If you say that you want the files automatically imported into iTunes, then you get a copy of the file in iTunes (meaning, a duplicate on the filesystem, not just a pointer to the file in the directory where you download the files). Not a huge deal, but still, something to potentially have to clean up. For me, this becomes necessary (though annoying), because iTunes will only convert files that are already in iTunes. In other words, I can’t pick a file in a directory unknown to iTunes, and tell it to convert that file to MP3 in iTunes (that would be ideal for me for this application). Perhaps there is a way to do it in iTunes, but it’s definitely not obvious.

Next, when I use iTunes to convert the file, there is no option to replace the existing file. So, I end up with two files in the iTunes application. I know, this is an iTunes problem, not an Amazon one, but it still affects the entire pipeline of deciding to purchase music online. One file is the original 256kbps file, and the other is the new 96kbps converted file.

Next, because both files are in the same directory, iTunes had to create the new one (the one I want), with an extra “1” hanging in the filename, since the original has the correct name. So, after I delete the original file (in iTunes, not my canonical Amazon download directory, which I will archive permanently as the original file), I need to change the name of the file on the filesystem. Of course, that means telling iTunes (file by file!) that there is a new location for the file.

Finally, I need to edit each song individually to remove the album name and the parens from the ID3 tags.

When all is said and done, I still end up with the album on my computer a week earlier than waiting for the CD to arrive, and the sound (to me) is identical. But, I had to work a lot harder than I should have, even though I got it sooner, and paid less. When I rip the CD, it goes directly into iTunes, with the correct filenames and the correct bit rates in one motion, and I already have my permanent archive in master format. Oh well…

One last nit. If you looked specifically at the Acoustic Sketches page on Amazon.com MP3 Downloads, you will note that in addition to being able to purchase the entire CD for $9.49, you could purchase individual songs. Note that #7, Looking Back, is only 40 seconds long. It still costs the full freight of $.99. Fair enough. Oh oh, wait a second, now look at #12 “50th, The”, which is 7 minutes and 2 seconds long. It’s $1.94.

What? They want more money for long songs, but no discount for teeny tiny songs? Just seems wrong. If a song is $.99, I can live with that, but then long songs should also be just $.99…

So, am I likely to purchase more CD’s for download? Definitely. But, if it’s a favorite artist, and the price differential is close, I will likely still buy the CD instead. A specific example is the new Little Big Town album A Place To Land. It’s $8.99 to download (cool!), but only $9.99 to purchase the CD. We are nuts about Little Big Town, the difference in price is small, so I will likely purchase the CD.

Phil Keaggy Acoustic Sketches “CD”

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If you read this post, then you know that I intended to purchase Acoustic Sketches by Phil Keaggy. Today, I did just that. How/where will be the subject of my next post.

I listened to the entire album today, I like it a lot. Just Phil, no complications with other instruments or musicians. While I will listen to selected cuts on The Master & The Musician many times, I will listen to this entire album even more.

I will almost definitely purchase Freehand – Acoustic Sketches II as well (I listened to the 30 second previews, and I like them as well).

Finally, someone else (besides Eric) whom I respect enormously just pointed me to Phil Keaggy’s “Beyond Nature” CD, which I will definitely get based solely on his recommendation. Unfortunately, it isn’t available at Amazon, and while Buy.com lists it, they are “temporarily out of stock”. So, I will search a little wider…

Thanks again Eric, both for introducing me to Phil, and for pointing me to Acoustic Sketches.