FiOS

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…

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. 🙂

Internet Connectivity Insurance

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In the house, we have Verizon FiOS service (triple play, Phone, Internet, TV). In the apartment, we have Time Warner Cable (Internet and TV). Both services are very reliable (in terms of availability). Beyond that, Verizon FiOS is so dramatically better, I keep praying for when they’ll figure out how to deploy it to large apartment buildings in NYC.

The biggest difference in the service is the speed. On the FiOS link, I have 30Mbps downstream, and theoretically, 5Mpbs upstream (though no site seems to accept data at that rate, so it’s somewhat meaningless). On the TWC link, it’s between 4-5Mbps downstream, but a poky 364Kbps (yes, K, not M) upstream. Most of the time, that’s OK, but when sending large attachments, or updating a large blog posting 😉 it can be reasonably painful.

The other difference (for me, not between the services) is that at the house (on FiOS), I’m wired the entire way. At the apartment, I use WiFi. Lois uses WiFi at both places, and it’s rock solid at the house.

At the apartment, the WiFi is often flaky, even though we’re not all that far from the access point (it’s in another room, and there’s one wall between us, but it’s not more than 20 feet away). At some times, it’s rock solid, at others, it can drop out completely.

It’s possible that the router itself (a Linksys WRT54G) is flaking out. On the other hand, sometimes, it can go for days on end without a problem. Slightly more likely is the fact that we live in a heavily populated area, and there is likely a crazy amount of interference of all types on the 2.4ghz band.

So, this past Wednesday we drove in from the house to the apartment because we had tickets to see Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood at MSG that night. (Completely unrelated to that post, here is my review of that concert…)

We got to the apartment mid-morning and immediately logged on. The weather was horrible outside, and it’s possible (though I can’t imagine how) that it affected the WiFi signal as well. Within minutes of being logged on, we were experiencing tons of dropouts on the WiFi. The TV signal was fine, and I was able to make VoIP calls (which bypass the WiFi) without a problem, so the basic Internet service was definitely up as well.

After about an hour of complete frustration on our part, I decided to put the backup plan into action. As the name of the post implies, I have insurance for just such situations. For a few years now, I pay for an unlimited data plan with Sprint to use each of our Treos (I have a 755p, and Lois has a 700p). It’s not cheap, and I would probably save a ton of money if I paid only when I used it (because it is, after all, just for emergencies), but I really hate metering, and getting smacked with out-sized bills, even if overall, it would be cheaper.

Years ago, when few hotels had free WiFi, it was a very good deal, as we often both used our phones as modems for hours on end. Now, it’s actually rare that we stay at a place that doesn’t have free WiFi. Therefore, it’s also rare that we use the Treos to connect our laptops to the Internet.

On Wednesday, I pulled out both phones, connected them with USB cables, and connected via Sprint. We both stayed connected for at least six hours, never had a single drop of the connection, and neither of us felt that it was sluggish in the least. I didn’t measure the speed that day, but in the past, in the apartment, it has averaged roughly 400Kbps downstream and 100Kbps upstream.

I would hate to see what that one day bill would have been, which is I pay the set amount each month. Ironically, this is the second time this month that we’ve used the service. When we were visiting my folks on February 6th, Lois needed to do a ton of work (thankfully, I didn’t). She was using the WiFi in their apartment, and it was working fine for everything, except sending mail. Obviously, it was critical that she be able to send emails.

I realized fairly quickly that Bellsouth (excuse me, AT&T) was likely blocking outgoing SMTP that wasn’t going through their servers, but I wanted to visit with my folks, and I didn’t want to dork around with her machine, or my server. So, I just plugged her in to the Treo, and connected to Sprint, and she was fine for hours.

The next day, I just changed her settings to send through Bellsouth and that worked fine too.

So, while I’m definitely overpaying, I’m very happy to report that at least on the rare occasions when I need it, it not only works, but it works flawlessly, and provides a very satisfactory experience in terms of speed as well. That’s exactly how all insurance should work. 🙂

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.

NBC Got It Right

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I’m a complete sucker for sitcoms. Even stupid ones make me laugh. Yes, I can distinguish between a good one and a horrible one, but like I said, even most horrible ones make me laugh.

Unfortunately, the same isn’t true for Lois. She really loves to laugh, and there are some sitcoms that can really set her off (in the positive sense), but she can’t tolerate stupidity, even if the aim of that is just to get you to laugh.

That puts us at odds. There are a number of shows that I enjoy, that she can’t stand, that I totally understand why. Enter the DVR. I can record those shows, and watch them at some point when Lois isn’t interested in watching TV.

I try fewer new shows than I might otherwise, just because I know I’ll be watching them alone. This year, I decided to try Chuck (on NBC) and Bing Bang Theory (on CBS). I set the DVR to tape both, and we left for our normal trip to Zope.

When we got back, I saw three episodes of Bing Bang Theory, but only two of Chuck. I realized that since I was now taping (how quaint, I meant recording) most shows in HD, even though I have a 320GB disk, I filled it up. The first episode of Chuck got erased automatically.

Some shows (Pushing Daisies for example) go down much smoother if you see the pilot episode, where they set the entire premise. Chuck seemed like that would be the case.

A quick search on Google found the above link to the show instantly. Sure enough, they offered full episodes online, for free. There are certain things that I don’t do, even though I can afford them. For example, there’s simply no way that I would have paid $1.99 to download the episode from iTunes (if that were the only place it was available).

Watching the episode on NBC was quite pleasant, their player is pretty good. I also had to spend 30 seconds a few times during the show to have an opportunity to view Sprint ads. While I didn’t select any of the ads, I was certainly well aware that my viewing pleasure was being sponsored by Sprint, and I had no problem with that at all. Of course, I happen to be a very happy Sprint customer, but that’s besides the point. 😉

I enjoyed the episode. Actually, I enjoyed the premise more than the actual episode. There were a number of weak moments in the episode, but I’m interested enough to watch the two I’ve recorded already, and if those are good too, I’ll watch the rest of the season. So, NBC got a viewer for the show by making past episodes available online, for free. Even if you assume that I will fast forward through every commercial that sits on my DVR, I sat through the Sprint sponsorship online (better than nothing for them!), and while Nielsen doesn’t count me, if they collect anonymous stats from FiOS, they’ll know that I record Chuck, which will count toward their viewership.

I still haven’t watched any of the Bing Bang Theory episodes, so I don’t know if I’ll like them.

For an example of a show that I’ll watch, that Lois won’t, you can check out Kelsey Grammer and Patricia Heaton’s new show, Back to You (on Fox). We were both interested in watching this new show, as we loved Frasier (Lois, especially). I liked Everybody Loves Raymond. Lois didn’t, but she appreciates Patricia Heaton (we also saw her live on Broadway with Tony Shaloub).

Anyway, Back to You qualifies as an incredibly stupid show, that is filled with cheap laughs. The key word (for me) is laughs, cheap or otherwise. I definitely laugh out loud at a number of the lines and situations, but everything about the show is just downright stupid.

So, kudos to NBC (perhaps others, but that’s the only one I’ve needed and tried so far).

TV Experience Just Got Better

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In this post, I mentioned that I ordered a video sender from X10. The device was priced well, arrived quickly, is nicely packaged, and probably works as well as they describe it to. So, I have no complaints about X10 as a company, or this specific product. Well, the one semi-complaint about them is that I agreed to sign up for their email newsletter, and they send one every day, and it’s a giant file, with lots of image links, etc. I haven’t unsubscribed yet, but I’m close…

On to the device itself. Like I said, it likely performs exactly as described. Unfortunately, my setup was not conducive to the limitations of space and intervening walls, floors and stuff. In addition, given that the device is 2.4Ghz, it also could have been suffering from interference from my WiFi setup, but I did try all four independent channels on the X10.

My new TV is in the bedroom, and the DirecTivo (which is what I wanted to broadcast from) is downstairs, diagonally opposite the bedroom. So, the signal needed to travel the length of my house (diagonally), and through one floor and at least two walls, possibly a closed door as well, etc.

With a lot of jiggling, positioning, running around, etc., on rare occasions, I could get an acceptable picture. There was a hint of snow, but not that bad. The audio was passable, and had annoying hisses. If Lois moved her leg in the bed (no, I’m not exaggerating!), then the snow worsened, and the hissing got really bad. She had to immediately reposition, in order to get the picture back. Clearly, this was not going to work long term.

If either of us walked in the path of the beam, the picture went bananas…

Just before we left for Zope this past trip, I ordered the following device from Amazon.com. I had it shipped directly to Zope, so that I would have it ready when we got back last night. I was nervous, because the device costs more than twice what the X10 did. Obviously, I can afford it, but I hate buying things that just don’t work.

Anyway, even though my cordless phone system (a Uniden) is 5.8Ghz, this new RF-Link device works flawlessly. The picture and sound are as good as I’d like. We can break the beam with our bodies and the picture and sound are still good (if slightly affected), and the IR extender is working perfectly as well. Whew!

Ironically, I have a good use for the X10 device, so it won’t go to waste, but it won’t get the yeoman’s duty that I was expecting it to.

FiOS TV Leads to HDTV

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As much of a technophile as I am, including being a gadget freak, I am also a reasonably late adopter for many technology breakthroughs. This included being very late to the Compact Disc party, among others.

HDTV was no exception. I have friends who have had HDTV for a few years now, so I know how awesome the picture is compared to regular TV, but still, I wasn’t motivated to get one.

Usually, it’s pure laziness that causes me to adopt late. In fact, many of my most favorite gadgets were gifts. In that regard, I’m easy to get gifts for (albeit very expensive ones!), because I usually don’t rush out to buy the latest thing. I am thankful that my first Blackberry, first Treo, first GPS, etc., were all gifts, or I might never have gotten them, and I love(d) them all. 🙂

In the case of HDTV, it was more of a logistic/tactical reason, rather than pure laziness. In our family room (downstairs), we have a 60″ rear projection Mitsubishi TV that we bought when we first moved in to the house, over 18 years ago. After weeks of nightmarish repair calls 11 months after we bought it (one of the few devices that I ever bought an extended warranty for!), they finally agreed (reluctantly) to replace the motherboard with the newer model (Diamond Vision II). Since then (17+ years), the TV has been flawless. The picture is hardly state-of-the-art (not even close), but it’s big, clear (enough), and has tons of stuff sitting on top of the massive cabinet that it is housed in (in other words, it’s a useful piece of furniture as well as being a functional TV).

It’s (obviously) not HD capable. When we first bought it, we had sliding glass doors to the backyard patio right next to where the TV currently is. Getting this monster in the house wasn’t all that painful. A few years later, we sealed off those doors and they are now just a giant (un-openable) window. The thought of ever replacing that TV is daunting. I have no idea how we’ll get it out, other than completely breaking it up. That would be a shame, as it would make for a fine TV to donate, to the local VFW for example.

In addition to that, I have DirecTV (non-HD version!), and had Cablevision without a cable box, and therefore without HD service either. I could get a new HD capable dish for DirecTV, but then my current DirecTiVo (with 250GB disk in it) would become useless. Painful upgrades, including installing the new dish outside, but still, I’d have to deal with the TV itself. In other words, status quo was the perfect solution. 😉

Upstairs in the bedroom, where we actually watch TV 99% of the time anyway (the downstairs mostly gets watched on Football weekends, by me alone), we had a 27″ regular TV. This TV also showed a nice picture, but it’s as pedestrian a TV as you can find. Only two inputs, coax and red-white-yellow audio/video input (which is called Game mode, for Nintendo-like consoles). The size of the TV was determined by the available shelf space in our wall-to-wall built-in. Given how deep the TV was, and the size of the only opening made for a TV, this was as big as it could get.

Enter FiOS TV a few weeks back. Previous to this, all of our equipment was downstairs. There was a single coax connecting the downstairs to the upstairs TV. Using a remote control extender, I could turn on various devices downstairs, and watch the DirecTV upstairs, etc. If all downstairs devices were off, then the basic cable was automatically passed to the upstairs TV.

With FiOS TV, we had our first cable box in the bedroom, including our first DVR in the bedroom. Of course, it is also an HD box (both DVR and live). After thinking about it for a whopping two weeks, I decided to break down. Yesterday, Lois and I went over to Sam’s Club to buy an HDTV. I don’t know all that much about them, so I spent about 30 minutes doing very light research (difference between Plasma and LCD, etc.).

Given that these sets are flat panels, I knew that I could go bigger than the current 27″, since the TV could be wider than the opening that the current one is in. I figured that I could go as high as 46″, but 42″ was likely optimal. Sam’s carries lots of HDTV’s, in all sizes and capabilities. After browsing for a long time, I narrowed it to a JVC 42″, a Sharp Aquos 42″, and a Magnavox 37″ (that I knew would be much more pleasing to Lois, aesthetically). All were full HDTV, 1080p, 1920×1080 resolution. I was leaning toward the Sharp. The JVC only had a 1200:1 contrast ratio (I have no idea whether that’s good or bad, but some other sets there were 15000:1, yes 15 thousand), so the JVC sounded puny next to that. I think the Sharp was 6000:1.

Well, it turned out that on the shelves under the demo TV’s, there was no Sharp, but there was one JVC, and one Magnavox (the 37″). I grabbed the JVC and ran. 🙂

Amazingly, the TV comes with zero cables, other than the power cord. Clearly, they assume that whatever source you are connecting to the TV, had to come with cables, or you prefer (yeah right) to buy your own. This, on a TV that can accept 5 simultaneous inputs of varying types! (actually more, but who’s counting)

Having not had any experience with HDTV, or even component cabling, and having hooked it all up before bothering to read either the JVC manual (which I eventually read cover-to-cover) or the STB (Set-Top-Box) manual, the only way I was able to get a picture was to use the lower-end red-white-yellow audio/video connection. That doesn’t carry full HD on it. So, while the TV looked very good (very good indeed!), it still wasn’t awesome. So, I got online and ordered an HDMI cable, which will arrive in a week.

After reading both manuals, I realized what I had done wrong, and I was able to use the component video plus separate audio cables, and I now have full HD working on the TV. Wow, cool! The HDMI cable should be simpler from a cabling point of view, but I doubt the picture will be materially better (if better at all).

Of course I was right about the aesthetics, as Lois wished (after the fact) that we had gone for the 37″ model. I (of course) am delighted that we went with the 42″ one. 😉

Lois also wished that it came in either white or grey, rather than the stark black (our built-in is cream colored), but there really was no choice at all, especially given that there was exactly one 42″ 1080p in stock. That said, none of the other demo models were really anything other than black or charcoal gray either…

At the moment, we can’t (without a lot of pain) watch the DirecTV upstairs. While I have a pair of video extenders somewhere in the house, an exhaustive search didn’t locate them (it’s been over 10 years since they were used). I ordered a new pair from X10 on Friday, and they too should get here by the end of the week, when the HDMI cable shows up. That should easily let me switch between FiOS and DirecTV. I still won’t have HD from the DirecTV dish, but it should still look awesome on the new JVC.

While it’s still likely off in the distance, we can both already feel more HDTV’s in our future. At some point, I’ll break down and replace the ancient TV downstairs, especially now that the FiOS stuff will immediately work on it. We had also already discussed getting one for the apartment living room. We never watch TV there alone, but it’s a gathering place when we have company in the city, which is reasonably often, so we might break down and do that in the near future. We’ll let this one sink in first though… 😉

Verizon FIOS TV

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So, I’ve been using Verizon FIOS for my Internet connection in the house for quite a while now, and I absolutely love it! When they first installed it, the tech said that they would be introducing TV over the same fiber connection, likely within 6 months.

Well, it’s been much longer than 6 months, but it finally became available.

Lois and I have relatively pedestrian TV watching habits, including not owning an HDTV (even though I think they are awesome). I had both a cable connection (just basic, no boxes) and a DirecTV satellite with a large-drive DVR connected to the satellite. Don’t ask why I didn’t get rid of the cable when I got the satellite over 12 years ago…

I also have a pretty screwy (but very reliable) wiring setup to allow the cable or the satellite to be displayed on either of our two TVs (one upstairs, one downstairs). That was (by far) my biggest hesitation in ordering FIOS TV.

I got the announcement of availability in my neighborhood in the mail, and then researched it online. As intrigued as I was, I actually decided to wait a while, just because of the pain. Then a few days later, while at Zope, I got a marketing/sales call from Verizon (almost definitely outsourced), pitching me on taking the FIOS TV package. What convinced me in the end was that they too (like the cable companies) are now offering “Triple Play” (phone, Internet and TV). Well, I already have phone and Internet from them, and adding TV will actually lower my combined bill (Verizon and Cable) by a reasonable amount, while giving me more channels plus a DVR for the FIOS stuff as well.

Sold!

So, they installed it yesterday. The tech was great, and I only had to explain my screwy wiring once, and he got it right. Cool. But, in order to get the cooler services, they also had to swap the free WiFi Router that they had previously installed for FIOS Internet service with a better one that handled OnDemand TV as well. The old router was a Dlink 624. When first installed, I was apprehensive, because I didn’t think all that highly of Dlink stuff. It has been flawless for over a year, and I customized it to handle all of my special needs (notably VoIP and Slingbox).

The tech replaced it with a gigantic Verizon-branded router. Turns out that it’s an ActionTec model, clearly made for Verizon.

He told me that I really shouldn’t change the defaults. Yeah, right. 😉

Well, by default, it worked correctly (and well) for the Internet, but it didn’t work for my Sling and VoIP, because they were set up to do things in a special way.

The router has a very powerful menu system, which was not intuitive, nor easily discoverable. I struggled to find the right bits to make my changes. When I finally found the right bits, any change I made was “accepted”, but then the router simply stopped working. It would not hand out any DHCP addresses that weren’t the original default. It had no way (that I could find) to marry a MAC address to a DHCP address to “lock” a machine to a particular address.

Oh well, after doing a “Factory Reset” a few times, I gave up, and decided to live with their defaults.

It was extremely painful to make the changes to my Asterisk machine (Red Hat 9), because I can’t easily log in to it, and I couldn’t ssh to it because it was on a different network. 🙁

I had to boot a Rescue CD, enable ssh, ssh in, mount the internal drive, edit the networking startup scripts, and then reboot. Finally, I got all the right bits working, and the machine (and VoIP service) was working again. The Sling was slightly easier, but painful as well.

Anyway, Lois asked if it was worth it to have upgraded, and the answer yesterday was clearly “No”. Now that’s it’s done, I’m feeling less negative, and we’ll see wither the FIOS TV stuff makes up for the hassle…