video

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. 🙂

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. 🙂

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! 🙂

Acoustic Guitar Update

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This is another long post, so bail now, while you can, or grab a cup of coffee (to keep you awake). 😉 Actually, the post itself isn’t insanely long, but if you watch each of the videos that I’ve linked it, the entire trip will take a while…

I’ve gone on and on in a number of posts about my long-time love for acoustic guitar music, and my recent discovery of some masters of the genre. I could link to those posts, but if you have an interest, it’s simple enough to type the word “acoustic” in the search box and see the titles and decide for yourself.

This post has been rattling around in my head for over a week, begging to be set free. I was waiting for one of two things to happen before writing it. Neither has happened, but a third (unexpected) event occurred last night, finally pushing me over the edge to get this on paper. 😉

This new adventure was officially kicked off when I saw Bill Cooley live accompanying Kathy Mattea. I wrote that he might be the best acoustic guitarist I’d ever heard. Eric Sink commented that those were fighting words (not really!) 😉 and pointed me to Phil Keaggy. When I reviewed The Master and The Musician by Phil Keaggy, Eric commented that I should check out Michael Hedges and possibly (only if I dare!) Kaki King.

Like I’ve said before, anyone who doesn’t pay attention when Eric Sink speaks is likely a dummy. I try hard not to be a dummy (not always successful), so I checked both of them out. What, exactly, does that mean?

When I was growing up, one discovered music mostly on the radio. Word of mouth was probably second, but then the circle of mouths was relatively small. Third was TV, with shows like Ed Sullivan showcasing some musical group every week. All of that is different today. I’ve had a specific post about Pandora and Last.fm rattling around in my head for months now, and I’ll birth that sometime in the next few weeks (and therefore ignore it for now).

Today, with the Internet (you’ve heard of it, right?), one can purposely or accidentally discover music to the extent that one cares, with extremely little effort and time invested, with little risk of purchasing music that will eventually disappoint. There are probably hundreds, if not thousands of sites to listen to music on, but for me, the two juiciest targets are MySpace and YouTube.

An incredible number of bands have MySpace pages, with the vast majority of those offering at least four songs for immediate streaming. If someone mentions a band to you, see if they are on MySpace, and check out whether you like their music or not. For my personal quintessential example (no surprise to anyone who has visited here before), I learned in 30 seconds that I would love Girlyman from their MySpace page.

All that said, lately, I am much more hooked on YouTube. It has boggled my mind how many clips (many of them of reasonabe quality) are available for an amazing number of artists. Since I love live music, YouTube gives much more of a feel of the performance in addition to just the music. With some of the incredible styles that today’s acoustic guitarists have, the video is much more powerful (to me) than just listening to the music.

So, after watching quite a number of YouTube videos (I’ll link at least one to each artist’s name in the coming paragraphs), I have purchased a bunch of new albums, mostly downloaded on Amazon’s MP3 service, with the rest on real CDs.

Following Eric’s advice, I ordered two Michael Hedges CDs. He’s not available for download on Amazon 🙁 so I have to wait for them to show up. Since his CDs haven’t shown up yet, he was one of the reasons that I was waiting on this post.

Also following Eric’s advice, I checked out Kaki King. He was correct, as some of her stuff is out there. Still, even that stuff, when seen, is amazing. The rest of her music is gorgeous. I downloaded both of her albums that were available on Amazon. I can’t tell you how hard it was to boil her down to two videos for this paragraph. The selection is very broad, and most of them are truly entertaining. Check her out!

Bill Cooley himself (yes, he’s kind enough to respond when I email him!) suggested that I check out Phil Keaggy’s Beyond Nature CD. It wasn’t available for download at Amazon (though many others are, including Acoustic Sketches, which I’ve downloaded and really enjoy). I had intended to purchase Free Hand – Acoustic Sketches II from Amazon, but on PhilKeaggy.com they had a special bundle.

Three CD’s, Beyond Nature, Acoustic Sketches, and Free Hand – Acoustic Sketches II, for a very good price. Unfortunately, I already bought Acoustic Sketches. I bought the bundle anyway, since Beyond Nature was only available on that site, and the price was great, and I’ll give Acoustic Sketches as a gift to some lucky person! 🙂 They haven’t arrived yet, so I can’t review Beyond Nature. That was reason number two for holding off on this post…

On Phil’s site, they mentioned that Beyond Nature was ranked #3 on the DigitalDreamDoor list of the 100 Greatest Acoustic Guitar Albums. In addition, Acoustic Sketches and Freehand are both in the top 100 as well (hence, their idea for the bundle!).

On that list, in number one is Aerial Boundaries by Michael Hedges. Cool, it’s one of the two of his that I ordered. Number two is 6 & 12 String Guitar by Leo Kottke. I remembered at that moment that I had a CD of his that I hadn’t listened to in 20 years, and hadn’t ripped on to my iPod. I ran downstairs and found it immediately (my CDs are filed alphabetically), it’s called Guitar Music from 1981, and it’s fantastic. I also downloaded 6 & 12 String Guitar from Amazon. Also fantastic!

So, while I owned Leo Kottke already, without the list at DigitalDreamDoor, I wouldn’t have looked for it. I then noticed that the guy in number five, Adrian Legg, had three other top 100 albums listed. I bought two of his albums on Amazon Downloads as well.

What prompted me to finally write this post when I’m still waiting for the Michael Hedges and Phil Keaggy CDs? Yesterday evening, Rob Page (CEO of Zope Corporation, the portfolio company that I spend the majority of my time with/on) IM’ed me this video of Andy Mckee. It’s the first time he’s recommended any music to me, so, to humor him, I bought all three of Andy Mckee’s albums that were available on Amazon Downloads. 😉

I wasn’t a very careful consumer though. While I think Andy is wonderful, there are four songs that are on both his Art Of Motion and Dreamcatcher albums, so I now own two copies of each of those…

Whew, I think that’s most of what’s been screaming in my head on this topic. One last thing though. I need to contact Bill Cooley one last time in 2007, and ask him (or beg him) to put his music up for sale at Amazon.com, and iTunes as well. It’s very hard to promote him to others when it’s difficult to buy his stuff online. At the very least, his new album (coming sometime in 2008) better be available for download! Now, if I could twist his arm to put up a YouTube video or two… 😉

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.