Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Best Movies We Watched During 2011


Once again, time for our best movie list from the past year. These are movies we watched last year, not necessarily movies that came out last year. Do you really care?

Once eight choices this year. I only put those films that really rocked our world and there just weren't ten of them like in previous years.

We watch movies on Netflix and Hulu Plus. Most of the choices below are movies we saw on Netflix, but not streaming. Of course, Netflix continues to expand its streaming collection, so check to see if the one you want to see is there or not. I'd love to stop doing the DVD-by-mail thing and just stream everything. I know that's where Netflix is going, I can't wait until the movie studios catch up to their thinking.


August Rush


An extremely emotional film. August Rush tells the story of a young boy who does not know his mother and father, but feels that they speak to him through the music that he hears. Even though he has no musical training, he finds that he is able to play guitar and other instruments just by tapping on the wood and plucking the strings. A street musician (Robin Williams) finds him and helps him improve. The boy continues to think of ways he might get to meet his parents, whom he is sure are both musicians themselves (they are). The back story shows how his parents met and the decision they had to make about giving the boy up. A lovely story, great acting (especially by Keri Russell as the mother) and wonderful music throughout.

Hot Fuzz


An ambitious London police officer gets transferred, against his will, to a small English village. Just as he is mourning the lack of action, he notices some strange events occurring that can't be coincidental. This film is a combination of raucous police action and very funny characters and scenes in the village.

Young@Heart


Another musically-oriented movie, and another heartwarmer. Elderly people get together to sing an interesting mix of rock and roll hits, including songs from the Clash, Chuck Berry and The Ramones (imagine a bunch of old codgers singing "I Wanna be Sedated"). It's a documentary of a real group that has been touring for several years. Well done, and you'll really get to like the old folks making people laugh and enjoy the music.


Conviction


Asking the question of all of us "What lengths would you go to for your sibling?" this movie is based on the real-life situation of a sister who puts herself through law school for the sole purpose of freeing her (she believes) innocent brother from jail. Hilary Swank is in top form (when isn't she?) and Sam Rockwell has always been one of our favorites. Puts you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.


Country Strong


I guess this was the year for musical movies for us. Country Strong features a country singer (Gwyneth Paltrow) who has been in-and-out of rehab and is trying to put her career back together. Along comes a young, beautiful, talented songstress (Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl) and trouble starts brewing. Both women are amazing performers and the movie rocks (or twangs) from the first song to the last. Neither my wife nor I are big country music fans, but we can recommend this film to anyone who enjoys American music.


Invictus


Set in South Africa at the time when Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman, of course) is released from prison and subsequently becomes president of the country. He is looking for ways to unite the whites and blacks and seizes on the Rugby World Cup coming up. Black people are surprised at this since the team is entirely white, and the team is just as surprised to find out they will be a political tool in this way. Matt Damon plays the captain of the rugby team. The film helps us think about ways we can all pull together as one team, one country, one people. Very, very worthwhile movie --- you will enjoy it deeply.


Never Let Me Go


A movie based on one of those science fiction novels that gives us a picture of what could happen in the future if governments and corporations go whacko (not entirely fictional). Several young people appear to be students in a strict, parochial school. But they are actually part of a grand experiment, cruel, disgusting and inhumane. The students find out and try to find a way out. Keira Knightley stars. It's beautifully done and very touching.


Breast Picture


I'll have to ask all my female blog readers and friends to forgive me, but this movie was really, really good. My wife liked it too. It's about a porn director who almost accidentally writes a great non-porn script. He has no intention of making the movie, but is convinced by several co-workers to give it a try. He sneakily fits scenes of the non-porn into the filming of his latest porn, and chaos ensues. The acting and writing is quite good, the premise is silly and the characters are lovable. I'm trying to remember if there is an actual nudity in the movie --- I think there isn't. It's a gas.


Google Chromebook Review


My motivation for trying the Chromebook was that I realized that I live in Google's world. I use Google search, maps, Android, Gmail, Docs, Calendar, Google Apps at work, YouTube - everything Google. I even switched from iTunes to Google Music recently. Realizing this caused me to think about using the Chrome OS and the idea of a nice, light ultrabook with no data on it was also very appealing.


Hardware

Let's look at the laptop first. This Samsung Chromebook (white), first of all, is gorgeous. Well, the outside shell is. The keyboard and screen bezel are very utilitarian once you open it up, but the outer shell is amazingly beautiful. This is true for the white version, I think the black versions are not as nice. (Update: last I checked the white Samsung is no longer being sold.)

Screen clarity and brightness is very readable. Brightness is adjustable to any room lighting. The keyboard is very comfortable. People talk about how large the trackpad is, which is true, but the extra wrist-rest is very convenient. The trackpad is not stellar. I find it a bit laggy, but it is useful enough. Much more important is that the trackpad supports multitouch gestures. This is a MUST for me being a former MacBook Pro user.

The laptop is 3.3 lbs, which seems featherweight to me, but then again I use a giant black HP laptop at work, so anything would feel light after using that.

Battery life is absolutely stellar. I've been using the computer for hours today unplugged and I am down to 64% remaining, which is about 4.5 more hours. I've never used a laptop with battery life this good. It must be because of the solid-state hard drive. Anyway, Samsung, nice job on the battery life. I am totally impressed (and this is a do-or-die feature for me on laptops).

Graphics quality is excellent. I played 720p videos in YouTube, Netflix and Hulu and none showed the slightest lag or jerkiness. Once I tried 1080p video, it started to get jerky.


Chrome OS

But what about the operating system, Chrome OS?? I like it. It reminds me of Jolicloud, which was an operating system that was meant to operate "in the cloud" several years ago. It never got popular, but I tried it for a while. It was too buggy to be useful, but I liked the idea of it.

Well, Chrome OS is Jolicloud done right. You can "install" apps from the Chrome store, but they are really just "links" on the splash page of the Chrome browser. The closest you get to actual apps is some of them get installed as Chrome browser extensions. What did you expect? The browser is the OS. Stuff like Settings is just another browser tab. It is genius. Simplifies things greatly. I probably spend 85% of my time inside a browser, why not make it 100%?

As for the advertising and hype, I am here to tell you that Chrome OS on the Chromebook really does boot up in 8 seconds. I timed it. Friggin' unbelievable. That changes everything. Turn off your computer whenever you are not using it, because it takes no time at all to bring it back up. This isn't some "sleep mode" like on Windows PCs, this is really "OFF." So it is 8 seconds until you see your user login, then another 2-3 seconds after logging in and you see the browser. Super fast.

I am blown away by the variety of apps in the Chrome Store. I was expecting I would have to live without the functionality of my MacBook Pro in certain areas, but that turned out not to be true. Astoundingly, I found a GIMP-like app in the store called Pixlr. It does layers, filters, the whole bit. I haven't dug into it yet, but I use GIMP a lot (GIMP is an open source alternative to Photoshop) and I'm so happy to still have at least some of that functionality. Also, Netflix and Hulu work GREAT, thank you very much. No problems at all. No goofy plug-ins to load, they just work. And Hulu sees the Chromebook as a computer, not a mobile device, so you have a much wider variety of programming. The Chrome Store even has Angry Birds! (sorry I mentioned it). It makes you realize that "apps in the cloud" are going to be so much cooler than the crap we load onto our local hard drives. Sky's the limit.

My employer uses Google Apps corporately, so I use two Chrome logins, one for my personal Google ID and one for work. What I used to do on my MacBook Pro was to have the Chrome browser and Firefox open at the same time and be logged in to one Google ID on one and one on the other browser. This was very fast and easy, just flip between spaces on the Apple desktop. With Chrome OS, it is not as easy. You have to log out of one Google account and log in to the other. (You can actually have two IDs in a single browser but it doesn't seem to work well for me.) I'm being picky here, because it is probably a 10 second process total, but still a lot slower than what I'm used to. A good side-effect is that that extra hassle actually keeps me focused on work when I need to be focused on work, and also focused on my personal stuff instead of constantly checking work e-mail and notifications. I'm sure I'll get used to it.

You can actually have multiple windows open on Chrome within one login. Two is the maximum, I think. I guess this would be useful if you have too many tabs open at a time, so you can spread them across two windows. There's also a nice extension called "Too Many Tabs" that lets you take browser tabs offscreen and then you can bring them back anytime. Another possibility for multiple windows is if you want one window as normal and the other as "incognito," which is Chrome's word for no tracking, no history.

The idea of the "desktop' is really gone now. Well, sorta. The landing page when you start the machine (or open a new tab) is your "desktop." It shows icons for all your apps and you can easily click on the one you want.

Now, after owning a Chromebook for three months, I am really loving it. Obviously, I cannot use Word or Excel documents very well. Google Docs is great for unformatted stuff, but if I need to create a proposal for a client, I have to be using MS-Office on Windows or Mac. But for the rest of my work, this Chrome cloud-world is just fine. Preferable, even. And the freedom of not loading anything locally feels so good. My MacBook Pro crashed, so even though I had everything backed up with Carbonite, I still keenly felt the vulnerability of having data locally. I guess I'm a cloud guy now. And dangerously close to being an annoying Google fanboy.

I mean, Chromebook? Seriously??

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review of Google Music

I was one of those people who jumped on the Google Music bandwagon as soon as it came out in beta. Now that I've been using it for a few months I thought I would post a review of it for others who may be interested.

Google Music is amazing. I love it so far. I have completely switched away from Apple iTunes and have no regrets. My switch was forced upon me, though, because my MacBook Pro died on me and so I had to think about whether to buy a new Apple product or to switch to a Chromebook. I made the choice to flip over to Chromebook (which I will review separately) and then decided to go whole-hog into the world of Google. I was already using many other Google services, so iTunes was a sore thumb sticking out from a mess of Google stuff.

Here is what is great and beautiful about Google Music:

  • Excellent integration with my Android phone (Motorola Droid Bionic). The user interface is so easy to use, so intuitive. It takes the old iPod interface up a level. If you have an Android phone, I strongly suggest you get rid of iTunes and switch to either Google Music or Amazon Music.
  • Very easy to buy music on the Website (no desktop app needed)
  • Being cloud-centric. I am so happy that Google Music sits in the cloud. It is so cool to buy a song but not have to download it anywhere. Certainly my Chromebook would not know what to do with an mp3 file, but, amazingly, downloads to my phone are also unnecessary. Songs stream instantly to my phone, thanks to 4G networking. Also, I can mark a certain playlist as "available offline" and Google takes care of the rest behind the scenes. Cloud support as an add-on or a clumsy syncing activity like iCloud is so retro compared to this.


  • Here are some things I don't like about the beta:

  • The store is still missing a lot of music. Universal Music Group hasn't signed on yet, plus many of the independent artists have not uploaded their songs here yet, they are assuming that iTunes is all they need.
  • The search is actually kinda sucky. C'mon Google, search is your thing! Certainly, if you put in an artist name or song name it will come up, but it seems treat the clutter the same as the real thing. For instance, you'll see a bunch of karaoke and K-tel-type remakes of your song and then the actual original song will be somewhere among the mess. And, of course, since Google doesn't have every popular artist, lots of searches end up with nothing but karaoke and K-tel.
  • Shopping for music on Android is terrible. When you click "Shop for this artist" you'd think you would go to Google Music, right? You don't. You go to Google Shopping, which gives you the 24 online sites that have music by that artist. Whaaa?
  • There is no choice of where to store your "available offline" songs. You should be able to put them on an SD card, but I'm only able to store them in my limited phone memory. Apparently, some Android users have the opposite problem, only able to store songs on SD but can't switch to internal memory.
  • Since Google's music store doesn't have all the music I want, I often go to Amazon's amazing music store and pick it out there. Transferring the music from Amazon's cloud to Google's cloud is a true pain in the ass. Google's music uploader does not work on Chromebook (Ugh!!) so I have to use my wife's Mac Pro to get the whole job done.
  • Now, people like Leo Laporte are saying Google Music is too little, too late. Why would someone want to "own" music when they could use streaming services like Pandora or Spotify? he asks.

    Sorry, Leo, but I ain't buying it. If you are a person who puts on music just to have noise going, then I'm sure streaming services are fine. But I am a more serious listener. I don't like to hear the same song twice in one week. I like independent artists, which are not well-represented on streaming services. I love mashups, which are totally missing from all streaming. I'm just very fussy about my music. I am a paying customer of Pandora and do listen occasionally, but it could not be my primary source of music. I like to have music that I own, I just don't want it to be on my machines (still smarting from my MacBook Pro crash...yes, it was backed up...to Google Music and Amazon Music coincidentally).

    As a sidenote, I've found a wonderful music discovery streaming service called EarBits. They have a lot of independent artists and they randomly stream them on various genre channels. Most wonderfully, they have some curated channels like "Scott's Chick Singer Channel" which are excellent. The whole service is free (for now, I guess) with no ads whatsoever. I don't know how they make money.

    The biggest thing I like about Google Music is that I feel like I'm using the next generation of music playback. Never worrying about downloads, syncing, duplicate copies of songs (iTunes was horrendous for this), and hard drive crashes.

    My prediction is that consumers flock away from iTunes in the coming years and half of them move to streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, while the other half move to music systems like Amazon Music and Google Music (which are almost identical, by the way). "Managing your music" can and should be something we don't have to worry about anymore. These new services make it possible, friendly and even fun to listen to your music again.


    Saturday, November 26, 2011

    Should "Occupy Wall Street" Become "Dismantle Wall Street?"




    I've been paying close attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement in America and other parts of the world. Could we be experiencing an "Arab Spring" right here in our own backyard?

    Well, maybe. But it's hard to figure out what these American kids are really asking for? Mainly because, they won't say. They produce a wide-ranging list of social cures, many which seem to lead towards socialism and away from free market capitalism to the casual observer. For me, that's a non-starter. I love capitalism and, being from Canada originally, am no fan of anything that smells like Trudeau-style socialism.

    But what if we refocused on the initially defined villian for a minute - Wall Street. The true extent of the global damage that these clowns inflicted on the world was not apparent to me until I read the book "Boomerang" by Michael Lewis. Wall Street "geniuses" intentionally wound up a giant time bomb of free-flowing money that not only wreaked havoc in the U.S. but in many other countries as well. Iceland tried to remake itself as a investment bank, using the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) from Wall Street, bankrupting itself in the process. Ireland caught the real estate bubble fever and, using free money from the U.S. investment banks, created enormous debt for its banks, and, subsequently, the Irish taxpayers. And, most damningly, the Wall Street firms cynically played the German banks for suckers right up until the entire debt crisis came crashing down.

    So what should we do with these assholes? I, personally, am not a fan of political witch hunts. I have no interest in tracking down "the guy" who is responsible for it all and throwing him in jail for twenty years. There is no "one guy." It's the whole Wall Street system.

    I propose that we immediately begin engineering a "Dismantle Wall Street" policy in the U.S.. Here's what we should do:
    • Execute a one-time fine against all the Wall Street firms, the maximum amount that will still allow them to continue operations but that will help bail our federal government out of the mess it is in (at least a drop in the bucket).

    • Break up all Wall Street firms into tiny little shops maybe 1/50th the size they are now. Dismantle the fucking place. Wall Street dudes are so well known for their highly competitive nature, well, let's see it! Compete against one another as 600 or 700 itty bitty firms and let's see you tear each other apart. No investment bank needs to be $45B. If ever an anti-trust break was required in our history, this is it.

    • Increase transparency of derivatives. I know some of this is already in progress, but the 2008 answer of "I didn't know what was in the thing" has got to be fixed. Derivatives must be transparent, understandable, taxed at a high rate and regulated like hell. Derivatives do not add to the benefit of the country, they are just card tricks to try to make some money. That's fine, fiddle away, but we're going to tax your ass and watch your ass, so keep it clean (pun intended).


    I think these three steps would really help to change how things work on Wall Street. Thomas Friedman says in his new book "That Used to be Us" that the U.S. needs some "shock therapy" like we've been so eager to administer to other countries that get into financial trouble of their own making. Let's take our medicine. Let's start with Wall Street and make some big fixes. See what happens and incrementally keep fixing our institutions.

    Wall Street fat cats will howl. Newt Gingrich will have to cry. But who cares? All Americans want to see something get fixed after the 2008 financial crisis. This is at least a step towards that.

    Sunday, August 28, 2011

    Why I Use an Android Phone



    I work in a technology company so we talk a lot about new tech and gadgets. There is no shortage of discussion about mobile. Starting a flame war in our Socialcast forums (like an internal Twitter) is as easy as postulating that one phone is better than another in some way.

    But trends have emerged. In general, our company leans heavily towards the Apple side of the argument. With Apple and Google's Android becoming the de facto leaders in the mobile space, the camps are digging in and the vitriolic is ramping up.

    I've never considered myself a fanboy of either camp. The gadgets don't make me swoon. I don't know why. Or, I didn't know why until now.

    Although I tend not to be a fanboy of gadgets, I am definitely a fanboy of companies. Apple is a company that has revived us from decades of sameness and has vaulted the entire computer industry into a place that's exciting and awe-inspiring. When the iPad was announced, I was more interested in how Apple had come up with such innovation than actually using the gadget itself. I, personally, could not think of a use for the iPad. I already had a Kindle for reading eBooks and a phone that could do everything the iPad could do. I ended up buying one for my wife once I realized that the iPad was the perfect portable television for her as she moved from room to room in our house. She enjoys it a lot. (I know Apple fans will assume I'm using her iPad constantly but I really don't.)

    Google occupies a similar status in my mind to Apple. The Google search engine is a thing of beauty. Many of Google's follow-on products -- Docs, Blogger (which I'm using now), Maps, Earth -- you name it -- have been so tremendously useful for me in my life. I'm just listening to an audiobook called "In the Plex" that delves into Google's short life as a company and it is just making me appreciate how much I depend on their technology day-to-day.

    Which brings me to my point (finally). I own an Android phone. I don't think the features of my ancient Motorola Droid are so much more fantastic than the features of a comparable iPhone. As far as I can tell, they're about the same. I have to agree with Steve Jobs initial assessment of the Android operating system - they really did copy a lot of stuff from Apple. They are so similar.

    And yet, as it is now time to upgrade (I'm a faithful Verizon user), I have the choice to wait for the next iPhone model or the next Droid (which is the Bionic, pictured above). Part of the decision is made easy. The Droid Bionic will definitely be an LTE phone, the next iPhone most likely will not.

    But that's not my biggest reason for choosing to stick with Android. My biggest reason is because I live in the Google universe. I use Google's services from end-to-end. I live in them, I work in them, I want to use all of them on my mobile phone.

    I made a list of the Google and Apple services I use. In each case, I tried to find a comparable service from both.


    ServiceGoogleApple
    Search Google Search use Google on iOS but contemplating switching to Bing
    Maps Google Maps use Google Maps on iOS
    Documents Google Docs Pages, Numbers, Keynote
    Browser Chrome Safari
    Music Google Music Beta iTunes
    Social Network Google+ Ping
    News Reading Google Reader a feature of Safari
    Payment System Google Checkout a feature of iTunes
    Voice Calls Google Voice N/A
    E-mail Gmail MobileMe
    Video Viewing YouTube Quicktime
    Book Reading Google Books iBooks
    Calendar Google Calendar iCal
    Chat Google Chat iChat
    Home Page iGoogle MobileMe
    Photos Picasa iPhoto


    Here's what I've realized. In sixteen categories (not meant to be all-inclusive) I use Google services in twelve cases. I use Apple services in two cases (iPhoto and iTunes). In two cases I use some service provided by another company (Amazon Kindle for book reading, Facebook/LinkedIn for social networking).

    (The music situation is complicated. I only buy music on the Amazon MP3 store, but I play it on iTunes and my iPod Classic.)

    I sure look like a Google fanboy. I don't know how this happened. I think a big factor was that my employer decided to start using Google Apps as our primary collaboration toolset a few years ago, including Gmail, Google Docs, Sites, etc. I've been really happy with the switch (we were using Exchange and some wiki product). A few months prior I had switched my personal e-mail account to Gmail. Everything seemed to culminate after that.

    Apple fans will point out, of course, that you can use Gmail, YouTube and other Google services on the iPhone. This is true. However, Apple's clear message to its user base is "You will use what we tell you to use." Note the discussions last year of Apple possibly switching to Bing as the iPhone search engine. Bing? Blecch, that would disorient me terribly. All my search history and preferences is with Google. Not to mention that Google is still a better search engine. I could easily see Apple switching to non-Google defaults or, worse, banning certain Google apps for arbitrary reasons, as they did with Google Voice for several months.

    So that's why I use Android. Not for the features of the phones, but for the services that come integrated so nicely. A friend with an iPhone was fretting that he had lost all his contacts saved to his phone. My contacts are in Gmail. It's that integration that I love.

    And truthfully, I'm looking to get off of iPhoto and iTunes as well. I think the Droid Bionic has lots of memory so maybe I'll get DoubleTwist and ditch my iPod Classic. Or maybe use Songbird? And I've got to get a cloud repository for my photos. Most likely, it ain't gonna be iCloud.

    I think Apple is better at making innovative gadgets than anyone else, including Google/Motorola/HTC/Samsung. Apple will always be first in coming out with cool new hardware. But I want to use the hardware that is easiest to connect to the services I use. And the services I use are at Google.

    Sunday, January 09, 2011

    GE's Connected Home Unveiled at CES This Week



    Looks like GE is really moving along with their smart grid / smart home strategy. Seems like it might be time to buy GE stock?

    Saturday, January 01, 2011

    How to Cut Your Cable TV



    We cut our cable TV two and a half years ago. We've never been happier with our TV choices after doing it. Here is our story.

    I posted a "how to" blog post back in 2009 a few months after we cut the cable. It wasn't actually "cable TV" that we cut, we were using DirecTV at the time. And we didn't cut it by choice, it was mainly because our neighbor's trees had grown too high and were blocking our view of the satellite.

    That said, let's move on. Our current configuration is much different than it was back in 2009. Also, you need to pay close attention to the type of content we watch, because if your preferences are a lot different, this might not work for you.

    What We Watch





    To be clear, we have specific TV viewing habits. My wife, Tamara, and I watch movies and TV shows but not sports. We don't watch soap operas, daytime talk shows or kid's programming. If you are like us, read on. If not, let's give you some quick advice here. Some sports are available over the Internet. Major league baseball has programming on the Roku unit, as does NHL hockey. But football is not available (as far as I know), nor is soccer. There are some international channels on Roku that claim to have cricket and football/soccer coverage, who knows how good it is.

    For soap operas and daytime talk shows, check to see if Hulu offers access. Otherwise, you might be out of luck.

    Okay, back to "what we watch."

    We love to watch movies. We aren't the type of people who rush to see the latest releases. Basically, we are too cheap to pay for movie tickets, plus the experience of the movie theater (cell phones, sticky floors, etc.) is not inviting to us at all. We are very happy to wait 6 to 18 months until those movies come to DVD.

    But movies are more of a weekend thing for us. During the week, we will usually try to catch one or two TV shows each night. Our favorites are:

    King of Dirt
    It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
    The Philanthropist
    Sons of Anarchy
    Running Wilde
    Biography
    American Dad
    Family Guy
    South Park
    Brothers and Sisters
    No Ordinary Family
    Glee
    Lie to Me
    Mad Men
    True Blood
    United States of Tara
    Desperate Housewives
    Weeds
    Six Feet Under
    Rome
    Boston Legal
    The Wire
    Entourage
    The L Word
    Dr. Katz


    You'll notice several things about our list. There are network TV shows here (Desperate Housewives, Lie to Me) but also cable favorites (King of Dirt, Biography, etc.). Many of these are available on Hulu. You'll also notice lots of TV series that are long dead (Six Feet Under, Rome, etc.). We are recycling these fantastic shows and loving them just as much the second (or third) time around. Again, we are not the types who need to be up-to-date on the latest TV shows or movies. If you are, make sure your choices are on Hulu, which keeps up-to-date very well. Netflix TV shows are also 6 to 12 months after the shows have been on HBO or Fox or whatever.

    What We Pay



    I made kind of a big deal in my first post about how little we were paying. Well, it has gone up a LOT since then. Originally, we were paying about $110/month for our DirecTV subscription. That's about average when you have all the movie channels and a DVR/TiVO service.

    We dropped down to only $17 a month for our Netflix service back in 2008, which includes 2 DVDs at a time plus full access to streaming. Netflix has raised prices a lot since then, and we have also increased our DVD limit to 4-at-a-time, so now our Netflix costs us $32.99 (including Blu-ray access).

    Also, we've added a paid Hulu Plus subscription, which costs an additional $8.99 a month. In total, we are paying $41.98 a month for our entertainment. This still isn't equal to HALF of what we paid for DirecTV, but it is higher than what we started with.

    Here is how our current plan is still an improvement over DirecTV (or cable):

    • Most entertainment has no commercials. Netflix has zero commercials and Hulu has commercials in everything. However, even with Hulu, the commercial breaks are usually 30-60 seconds, not the maddening 3-4 minutes you have to deal with on cable. It is quite tolerable. Plus, it is only ever national commercials (Nissan, Crest, e-Trade, etc.) These are so much easier to handle than the locally-produced garbage coming from car dealerships, carpet stores, etc. This makes a big difference in my mind.

    • Everything is on-demand. There is no need to wait for a certain show to come on. Even with DVRs, you are still waiting for a certain show so it can get recorded and you can wait it later. On Hulu and Netflix, everything is at your fingertips. Hulu can be a bit frustrating, because they will often put certain shows on "expiry" for no apparent reason. For instance, Archer, an animated sitcom about a spy agency, has produced two seasons so far. But Hulu only has three episodes of the first season. These quirks are not Hulu's fault. The TV networks are absolutely wacky about this stuff, and so Hulu has to pull down and put up particular episodes of TV shows depending on the whims of the network executives. It is okay as long as you don't mind "taking what you can get" rather than desperately seeking one particular episode of one particular TV show.

    • The user interface is dead simple. It is a big clumsy to navigate between Netflix and Hulu, trying to figure out which show is where and why. But the Roku interface is easy to use and does not get in the way. Plus, we've even found ways to include YouTube and TED Talks onto our Roku boxes as separate channels. Very fun!


    Then there are certain very popular shows that aren't available at all on Hulu. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report are two great examples. They were previously available on Hulu but suddenly Viacom, who owns Comedy Central, took them down. The shows are available on the Comedy Central Website, but of course the technology on the Comedy Central site is much harder to use, less reliable and not available on devices like the Roku. Plus, the commercial breaks are 300% longer. Ugh. As a result, we just don't watch them anymore, even though we were once daily viewers of those shows. Too much trouble!

    Another example is South Park. This is a great animated series about potty-mouthed school children in Colorado. It isn't available directly on Hulu either, and certainly not on Roku devices (except older seasons on Netflix). You can go directly to the South Park Studios site for access to (almost) immediate fresh content, but this doesn't help us much.

    Equipment





    Here is the equipment we use in our house:

    4 normal TVs (some are 10+ years old)
    3 Roku boxes
    1 RF modulator
    1 Wii
    1 iPad
    1 home wireless network



    Here is our thinking. We have an HDTV projector. That is where we watch our Blu-ray disks that come from Netflix in the mail. We can also easily hook up a Roku box to it and project HD content from Netflix or Hulu. Then we have a 55" SDTV where we watch most TV shows. We have another two TVs in other rooms and each TV needs its own Roku box. Roku recently dropped their prices to $55 for the regular box, but it is worthwhile to get the $99 super HD box (we got ourselves two at Christmas last week). This means that each person can watch their own selections simultaneously in different rooms, although you need to be careful of bandwidth overloading. Generally, we find that if we are both watching different televisions downloading streaming content, we run into a lot of wait times. Our connection to the Internet is just standard 3Mbps DSL, so if you have a faster cable or fiber connection, you will probably have no problem downloading onto two TVs at the same time.

    We briefly looked into the Boxee Box. It has the potential to aggregate content from all over the Web: Netflix, Hulu, Comedy Central, South Part Studios, YouTube, etc. I say "potential," because, currently, Boxee is having problems getting licensed content from the two biggies: Netflix and Hulu. Neither one works on the Boxee Box at this moment, so that's why we didn't purchase one. Once they have that worked out, we may buy a Box just to see how it is different. And to get yet-one-more TV connected to our wonderful world of Internet entertainment...

    The RF modulator is necessary if you want to connect a Roku device to an older television. We have one TV that is so old the only input it has is an ancient coaxial cable connector. That's when you need an RF modulator (about $30 at Radio Shack).



    Why the iPad? Well, actually, this is our "TV on the go." If my wife wants to watch a show in bed, or at the kitchen table, or on the deck, she can easily do so with the iPad and the Netflix and Hulu apps. These are the "killer apps" for the iPad, if you ask me. I couldn't think of a single use case for an iPad until the TV idea hit me. We bought the Wi-Fi iPad because we can easily use a MiFi device whenever we want to connect to the Internet via cellular. Has anyone bought a 3G iPad??? Doesn't seem to make much sense to me.

    The Wii is a very nice Netflix streaming device. We use that in one of our rooms, it works great. No extra cost for the Netflix app on the Wii.

    I think that covers it. I hope this is a worthy sequel to my original post. Please make a comment if you have a question or clarification. Let's get all of you cutting your cable, paying less and enjoying more!!

    Wednesday, December 29, 2010

    The Best Movies We Watched During 2010




    Once again, I'll give you my movie recommendations from what my wife and I watched this past year. We primarily see movies on Netflix or Hulu, not in theaters, so my list is always out-of-date. However, we tend to get into some pretty esoteric and oddball choices, so you may benefit by finding some hidden gems among this list.

    Here we go!

    The Ramen Girl





    This is a beautiful, sweet, quiet movie that we loved. I'm sure it was made more emotional by the fact that the leading actress, Brittany Murphy, died last year. She was known for several forgettable movies that she had done (Clueless, Riding in Cars with Boys), but this was one seriously talented actress we lost. Her performance in this movie (Ramen Girl) is heartstopping. The story is that a slacker American girl comes to Japan where her life is turned upside down. She takes comfort in visiting a little soup kitchen across the street. She decides she will start working with the soup chef, much to his chagrin. The soup chef (played by Toshiyuki Nishida) is a crusty old bastard, very cruel to the young girl but a great soupmaker. He's so good that people sometimes laugh or even cry when they taste it. The movie is about the long road to learning how to cook ramen, which in Japan is apparently a big deal (don't think of American ramen noodle packages I guess). The journey of learning for her is excruciating, but eventually...well, let's just say she perseveres. This was a top movie for us in 2010. Lovely film, excellent performances, you'll never forget it.

    As It Is In Heaven





    This Swedish movie was nominated for an Oscar back in 2004. It is the story of an orchestra conductor who migrates back to his tiny home village after a health crisis. He tries to decide what to do and eventually connects with the church choir. The musical number near the end of the movie is very moving. I guess it is a typical story of someone looking for a second chance in life, but the desolation of this little village really gives it a strange, beautiful flavor.

    Whip It





    Compared to my first two selections, this is a better known film, but still amazingly good. Ellen Page, of Juno fame, stars as a young misfit girl whose mother wants her to do pageants but she knows it just isn't where she belongs. She falls in with a crowd of rowdy girls who participate in a semi-illegal roller derby league. The young girl learns how to skate and becomes a pretty good roller derby player. The team and player nicknames are hilarious (prompting us to try to come up with 5 or 6 more after the movie). If you want a happy-go-lucky sports movie with a bunch of crazy women, this is your movie for sure.

    Inglourious Basterds





    We like blockbuster movies just as much as the indie films. Quentin Tarantino's latest movie is absolutely incredible. Brad Pitt stars as the leader of a particularly brutal brigade of soldiers in World War II. As you would expect with Tarantino, the violence is graphic and gratuitous. The movie is so interesting and the various plotlines so intricate that we were completely absorbed. If you're one of the five people who haven't seen Inglourious Basterds, you ought to do yourself the favor and rent it. Get it on Blu-ray if you can.


    Pirate Radio





    Philip Seymour Hoffman, who we always like, stars in this movie about a pirate radio station off the coast of England during the 1960s. Apparently, these stations moored in international waters were where many of the newest artists' music appeared during that turbulent decade. Of course, the government did everything they could to shut them down, but the pirates carried on until the new music started making it on the traditional radio stations. The cast is hilarious and the story is fun. This film is 10 out of 10 in every way.

    The Reader





    Another movie focused on World War II. Kate Winslet is consistently good, but her work in this movie is outstanding. She plays a young woman who has an affair with a very young boy. Along the way, they become friends as well as lovers, but suddenly she is gone. The boy discovers that she has been accused of some heinous war crimes and he tries to find a way to get her off the hook. It is an emotional rollercoaster, especially because Winslet's character is a strange combination of sexy, gruff, cold and vulnerable.

    Precious





    Another well-known pick here. What can I say that hasn't been said? Gabourey Sidibe, who plays the young girl, is a wonderful actress. She embodies the resolve of someone who is going to make it through life no matter who stands in her way. But the real star is Mo'Nique. Her character, the mother, is a monster. Somehow she completely becomes that monster, probably because she (the actress) was abused as a child and that rage and hurt must be still simmering. Every time you think the young girl is going to catch a break, she gets knocked down again (usually by her own mother). Life in poverty is very rough. Although this is a fictional plot, I'm sure it is representative of life in America, and I was glad to be able to see it and begin to appreciate my own life just a little bit more because of it. The scene at the end of the movie, in the welfare office with Mariah Carey (yes, that Mariah Carey) is probably one of the most emotional scenes I've ever witnessed.

    The Blind Side





    Sandra Bullock received a much-deserved Oscar for her role in this movie. It is another tear-jerker, to be sure. Sandra's character is a mother who adopted a young African-American boy. He becomes an excellent football player and his white parents are with him every step of the way. I don't want to ruin the plot twists, but suffice it to say that the family runs into a lot of trouble with the boy's football career, to the point where he might not be allowed to play at all. Another great sports movie, teaching us lessons about kindness and about family. Bullock's character is that steely, persistent Southern woman who has a heart the size of Texas.

    Swimming Pool





    Speaking of plot twists, holy cow! Okay, so this is a story of a famous British mystery writer who decides she needs a break from it all. She visits her publisher's villa in the south of France, a beautiful place with a nice pool in the back. While she's there, the publisher's daughter also drops in and then things start to get complicated. But the left turn that the movie takes in the last five minutes is so subtle, so jarring that you might not even get it until the credits are finished (like it was for us). It took us five or ten minutes after the movie was done before we figured out what we had just been subjected to. The movie is nice enough, but the reason it is on this list is that wacko plot twist at the end.

    Absurdistan





    A very delightful German movie about a small town where the men are so lazy they let the infrastructure of the town get dilapidated to the point where their water wells stop working. This pushes the women of the town to the point of madness. The women make a pact that no woman will have sex with her husband until they fix the water situation. In the face of all of this, a young couple are hoping to have their first sexual encounter. The timing of their tryst coincides with the no-sex protest, of course. You'll really enjoy this film. Do what you can to get your hands on this DVD or get it on Netflix streaming. What a delight!

    Friday, December 24, 2010

    Smart Grid Trends for 2011



    Pike Research (free registration required for download of report), the energy consulting firm in Colorado, has issued a report with their view on smart grid trends for 2011. Includes:

    • An increased focus on smart grid security

    • "The Bakersfield Effect," which is the name for the luddite backlash against smart grids, will continue and amplify as smart grids are rolled out and become more visible

    • Standards (like USNAP) will begin to catch up with deployment

    • A "data tsunami" will be created from all the data coming from smart grid systems, requiring massive investment in data management and analysis




    As a software consultant, the last point is very interesting. I hope my employer is able to jump into this field as opportunities accelerate.

    Friday, December 17, 2010

    Smart Grid - The Next Platform for Software Development

    Smart meter


    Apple has led us into the world of platforms and app stores. Seven years ago, who would have thought of a cellular phone as a software development platform? And yet, we know now that these new platforms are absolutely the future of consumer-oriented and enterprise software (as we've discussed on this blog). No vendor can introduce a new electronic device without all of us asking "Do you have an SDK (software development kit)?" You'd better. Amazon introduced the Kindle e-book reader a few years ago and developers complained until Amazon created a platform for custom apps on the Kindle. Ford and Microsoft build a complete driver-support system for Ford vehicles called Ford Sync. "Can I build an app for that?" Turns out you can.

    It is exciting enough to envision everything we'll be able to create on these platforms that already exist. That's what my last blog post was about. But what are the platforms yet to arrive??? The biggest one on my horizon is the smart grid. The smart grid is an electricity grid that is soaked in information technology. Instead of today's grid, which simply transmits electrical current one-way with no information, the smart grid contains nodes that can talk with one another. Each power meter becomes a smart meter. Each appliance in your house (fridge, stove, television) becomes a smart appliance.

    And guess what??? Each meter and appliance becomes a platform. Where you can run apps!

    I'm just sitting here imagining a future conversation between two home owners.

    "I just downloaded an app for my fridge. I've only been using it for 3 days but it has already been saving me $5 a day in energy costs!"

    "Oh yeah? Was the app created by the fridge company?"

    "Heck no. Probably done by two guys in a garage somewhere."


    Everything that's happening on our phones today will start happening in our cars and our houses. Why not? We couldn't sit around waiting for AT&T or Blackberry/RIM to innovate? Let somebody else move technology ahead.

    Smart meters are a reality in more and more places. Westerville, the city where I live, has been implementing them. Astoundingly, the effort has been stalled (for now) by technology luddites questioning the value of them. The luddite issue will be a tough one all across the U.S. until people are sufficiently educated on the technology.

    Predictably, Google is already at the forefront of this not-yet-an-industry. They've built Google Power Meter, an open source information hub that talks to smart meters. Open standards will be important, and companies are getting behind an open standard protocol called Open Smart Grid Protocol that will allow devices/nodes to speak to each other. They've said that Google employees who've started using it have noticed a 17% decrease in personal energy costs just by virtue of knowing what power they're consuming and when. Imagine what they could do with app stores full of power-saving apps!!

    (Photo courtesy first-utility.com)

    Thursday, December 31, 2009

    The Best Movies We Watched During 2009




    My wife and I only watch movies through Netflix, so this list won't represent any new releases.

    Our favorite movies that we watched in 2009 (although not necessarily made in 2009):

    Amelie (French): A young girl finds a boy's box of toys in an old apartment and tries to return it. This movie is the sweetest, most touching comedy I've ever seen.

    The Darwin Awards (American): Winona Ryder and Joseph Fiennes in a funny movie about people who are culling themselves from the herd, so to speak. This is a must-see.

    Danny Deckchair (Australian): A loser ties a bunch of helium balloons to his deckchair and floats away, establishing a new life for himself in a new town. Laugh-out-loud funny.

    Children of Heaven (Iranian): a brother and sister in a poor family share a pair of tennis shoes. The interaction between these two kids is amazing.

    Iron Man (American): big budget action flick with Robert Downey Jr. Flawless action, special effects, Downey's acting is superb as always.

    The Wrestler (American): Indie-style film with Mickey Rourke. Past-his-prime fourth-tier wrestler tries to make a living getting punched and drop-kicked.

    Mongol (Mongolian-ish): About Genghis Khan's early life. A movie made by a Russian director about a Mongolian emperor featuring a Japanese lead actor and Chinese extras. Epic story, great acting, authentic feel.

    Tsotsi (South African): A gangster shoots a woman and steals her car only to find a newborn baby in the back seat. The acting is outstanding, the climax in the last 10 minutes is heart-rending.

    The Dark Knight (American): Batman movie. Heath Ledger rocks (rocked).

    Forgetting Sarah Marshall (American): Kristen Bell and Jason Segel is a rom-com that is mostly ad-lib dialogue. The stuff that comes out of these actors' mouths is so funny...

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009

    Why I'm Waiting for Android

    My friend on LinkedIn just asked me why I was so excited about Google's Android smart phone operating system coming to Verizon Wireless soon.

    I wonder if he's sorry he asked? Here's what I said:

    Geoffrey,

    Android is an open source smart phone operating system from Google. A bunch of phone manufacturers are using it for their upcoming phones, including Motorola, Samsung, LG, HTC --- you name it.

    Android is a game changer for these reasons. a) It will be a common operating system on multiple handsets. b) It has an application store where third parties can sell (or give away) applications. c) It is open source so it doesn't add to the cost of the phone and also as handset makers innovate with the platform, their contributions go back into the stack for everyone else's usage. d) It is tightly integrated with Google's applications (search, maps, documents, Gmail - which are all my preferred apps).

    This may sound similar to Apple iPhone, and it is. The differences are 1) It exists on many handsets from many manufacturers. 2) Innovation is coming from every handset maker to every handset maker. 3) The Android app store is loosely controlled, whereas Apple's app store is tightly controlled. 4) It's available on multiple carriers (Sprint, T-Mobile, soon Verizon) not just one. 5) The open source nature of Android will help it adapt quickly to problems (viruses, malware, security holes) and opportunities (new hardware, new types of networks, new apps, corporate uses, etc.).

    I can't help seeing the Apple Macintosh vs IBM PC war replaying itself. Apple has the innovative but closed platform, then another competitor comes along that is more open (the IBM PC was open to multiple vendor hardware components, sound cards, memory boards, even full clones from Compaq/Dell, etc.). The more-open competitor trounces the closed competitor.

    You can see I'm excited about it. I don't know if you wanted to hear all this.

    Hope this helps.

    Daryl

    Sunday, August 09, 2009

    Hey, Cell Phone Driver --- H.U.!!!


    We've all seen them. People who are constantly driving while talking (or texting) on their cell phones. This shit has got to stop.

    Talking on the cell phone while driving is equivalent to driving over the legal alcohol limit, while texting and driving increases your chances of an accident by twenty-three fold.

    I have an idea. Maybe we can start a trend. Whenever I see a person talking on their cell phone, I'm going to beep my horn as follows:

    **** **-

    That is four short beeps, then a second, then two shorts, and one long. It is Morse Code for H-U --- Hang Up!!

    Whaddya think? I think if everybody starts doing this, first of all, it is annoying for the cell phone driver, cuz people are beeping at them. Second, the person on the other end of the line hears it, so they know the person is cell phone driving.

    I don't know. Could work.

    If you do it, put a comment below to say how it worked.

    Friday, May 01, 2009

    How to Switch from Cable/Satellite TV to 100% Internet TV (with pictures)



    Summary: When it came time to abandon our much loved satellite TV service (DirecTV) we made the big decision to go completely IPTV – all our television entertainment from Internet sources. It took some research and some fiddling with gadgets and TVs, but it was worth it. Now, almost a year later, we couldn't be happier. We went from paying $110/month with DirecTV down to only $17/month. Read to find out how you can do the same with just a normal broadband Internet connection. FAQ at the end of the article.



    We Like TV

    We were pretty happy. We had a good TV life. My wife, who is a seamstress, really likes to have the TV on while she does her cutting and sewing. Background noise, but also giving her the ability to look up and see the show whenever she wants.

    I like to watch a movie almost every night, plus I love watching Jon Stewart's Daily Show. On the weekends, we usually watch one or two movies on Saturday night and something on Sunday night as well.

    So we are not TV-o-phobes. We like our TV.

    We have three main places where we watch TV in the house: my wife's cutting room (used to be a dining room), her sewing room (kind of a den) and the loft (living room).



    The Trees, The Trees



    What happened was our neighbor's trees grew too high and blocked our satellite reception. It also happened last year. At that time, we asked our neighbors if they would mind if we trimmed the tops of their trees, they said it was no problem. But this time, we realized it was going to keep happening every year, and we'd have to ask them to chop the trees down, which they wouldn't agree to. So we needed another solution.


    From Satellite to Cable?

    Should we go to cable? My wife and I had both used cable services before moving in together, and we hated them. Bad quality reception, bad customer service. No thanks. But what was the alternative?

    Finally we decided to make the move to 100% Internet television. But this was going to take some research.

    Our questions were:

    • Could we get television in all the rooms we needed (cutting room, sewing room, loft)?
    • Did the Internet have the particular TV shows that we liked?
    • Was the bandwidth of our connection fast enough to provide full screen video?
    • Was the equipment to get us set up going to cost too much for the savings per month?

    The answers were Yes, Yes, Yes and No.



    The Equipment

    After looking on the Web for articles (one like this one would have been good!) on people's experiences (not vendor success stories), I decided to get the following equipment:




    Eee PC (Linux)





    Roku Player





    A GigaWare PC-to-TV Converter (Radio Shack)


    and a DVD player (no photo)




    The Eee PC cost about $400 (then, now it's below $300). The Roku Player was $99. The DVD player was about $50. The GigaWare converter was around $100 once you got all the cables with it. It seems like GigaWare doesn't sell that box anymore, so maybe this would work instead.



    $650 Invested in Equipment

    Total investment = $650. Equal to about 6 months of DirecTV.


    The purpose of the Eee PC is to act as a television for my wife's cutting room. It is super-portable, so she can carry it around if she wants to watch TV elsewhere, like our screened-in porch. She does that a lot after she finishes her work.





    The Roku Player we set up in our loft / living room. It connects easily to a television with composite video connectors (there are a bunch of options). We have a 55” rear-projection TV (about 12 years old) and this combination works great.

    By the way, we have wireless Internet all through our house. This is a NECESSITY for this plan. Roku depends on it, as does the Eee PC.

    The reason for the GigaWare PC-to-TV converter is to be able to connect one of our laptops to a TV. To explain that a little more, we will have to get into the next topic: Content.



    Can We Still Get the Movies, TV Series and Specials We Want (Need?)


    We knew that we had a diverse set of content that we really wanted to get with our new setup. Here was a sampling of our regular watching (just to get this list took some analysis!):

    • Movies, movies, movies – from the latest releases on DVD to foreign films to back catalog
    • The Riches
    • The Daily Show
    • The Colbert Report
    • South Park
    • The Simpsons
    • King of the Hill
    • Nip/Tuck
    • Weeds
    • Sledge Hammer
    • Married with Children
    • Desperate Housewives
    • Dancing with the Stars
    • Family Guy
    • American Dad

    Neither of us watch a lick of sports, nor do we pay attention to the local or national newscasts. No soap operas, daytime talk shows or kids' programming (unless you count South Park).

    This was our target list. As it turned out, we were able to use Hulu.com to get most of the TV shows (Riches, Daily Show, Colbert, Simpsons, King of the Hill, Nip/Tuck, Married). For others, we were able to use ABC.com (Desperate, Dancing). South Park actually has its own Website, where their content is available a few weeks after it airs on Comedy Central (SouthParkStudios.com). Cost so far? Nothing.

    Now for movies. Hulu definitely has some movies, but not much. Especially when we were doing this experiment (early 2008). We needed a bigger variety. So we decided to get started with NetFlix. We knew that NetFlix had a dual service, where you could get DVDs in the mail and also have simultaneous access to another set of movies through an Internet download service. This sounded like the ticket. The price was nice: $17/month for three DVDs at a time. (Now it's gone up a bit - $17/month for only 2 at a time, including access to Blu-Ray).

    And NetFlix had another advantage. Now we had access to the HBO and Showtime series we were missing on Hulu and elsewhere. We have always liked watching the pay-TV series throughout the years, like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Weeds, Huff – you name it. Now, through NetFlix, we had access to these series either through instant download or as a mailed DVD.

    Now we had it! For $17/month, we had as much content available to us as before, but most of it was on-demand - even better!! We could pick from a few hundred movies on Hulu.com or over 10,000 on NetFlix download. On mailed DVD, we had over 120,000 to choose from. And for TV series and specials, it was all there.



    Frequently Asked Questions

    In this section, I'll try to ask some of the questions I've heard from friends as I've described our set-up (my friends are bored hearing about this already).

    Q. Isn't the picture jerky on movie downloads?

    A. Depends. Hulu had lots of problems with jerky pictures early on, but they seem to have fixed this. All you have to do is bring up the show initially, let it cache for a minute or two, and you can proceed with no jerkiness. NetFlix download through Roku is never, NEVER, I mean NEVER jerky. I don't know how they do it.



    Q. How is the picture quality?

    A. On Hulu, the picture quality is excellent. They even have some of the shows available in HD. On NetFlix download, the picture is okay to good, depending on the day. No complaints, unless you are a very picky TV watcher.



    Q. Do you have to have Windows for this all to work?

    A. We do not allow the Windows operating system in our house. Everything runs either Mac OSX or Linux. Hulu runs everywhere, even Linux on the Eee PC. It just requires Flash or an open-source Flash player equivalent. The NetFlix player works on the Roku, but you can also watch any download on your computer. The NetFlix player is very picky. It works on Windows, of course, as well as Mac OSX (Intel only). It does not work on Linux nor on the older Mac PowerPC boxes (we have a Mac Mini like that). Has something to do with DRM (digital rights management).



    Q. Why didn't you go with Apple TV or Cinema Now?

    A. I've heard the Apple TV is very nice. Easy to use, fast to set up, lots of content choices. The reason we didn't go that route is that my wife is a penny pincher. If we sign up for a monthly “all you can watch” system, she will watch shows freely. But if we had a per-download cost (like on Apple TV or Cinema Now) she would penny pinch and end up postponing watching her TV show for days and days to save money. So, to save us both that headache, we stuck with everything being all-you-can-watch.



    Q. Why still use the NetFlix mailed DVDs if you have so much online?

    A. I can't give a logical answer to that logical question. The only logical reason could be that there is a much larger library on DVD than from NetFlix download. The real reason is an emotional thing. We like the excitement of getting a DVD in the mail. Even though I know what it's going to be. I can't explain it.



    Q. What about other basic cable channels like Discovery, SciFi, Food Network, HGTV, PBS, etc.?

    A. At the time last year, most of these networks were not online yet. But now they are. You can find at least some content for all these networks these days. Just check their “full episode” line up to make sure they have your favorites online.



    Q. Don't these Websites force you to identify yourself as a cable or satellite subscriber? How can they give this away for free?

    A. None of this content is truly free. On Hulu.com, ABC.com and SouthParkStudios.com, all shows are supported by commercials. And you cannot really skip the commercials (without some additional effort and hacking). The good thing, though, is that the commercial breaks are very short. Usually only one 30 second ad per break – that's it. I'm sure that will change. With NetFlix, the downloads are part of your paid service, so no commercials there. As a result, we tend to watch NetFlix downloads a lot more than Hulu (except when it's my wife by herself, then Hulu is usually her choice). We are certainly concerned that the cable companies will see all this revenue escaping from them and put demands on services like Hulu to make sure that every Hulu viewer is also a subscriber of a cable TV service. But so far, that has not happened. (Please, please, don't let it happen!)



    Q. What about sports?

    A. Sorry, I don't have a clue. Do some research on ESPN, etc. maybe they have some options. I think the NHL has an online viewing package for all the local games.



    Q. How long do you have to wait before a show begins on download?

    A. On NetFlix, it is usually about one minute. Then it starts, and never skips, jerks or has to reload. Hardly ever. With Hulu, you put it on pause at the beginning, wait for about two minutes to let it load, and away you go.



    Q. Does this work on slow DSL connections?

    A. Yep. That's what we have. We probably have the slowest broadband you can get. (If you still have dial-up, stop reading now.) However, if you have the slowest cable connection, you might have trouble. I think most cable Internet providers have higher bandwidth choices, so definitely factor that additional cost into your calculations before switching.



    Q. Do you watch other content besides the professionally produced TV content?

    A. Oh yes. We watch video podcasts and other TV series that are only available on the Web, like the excellent “Something To Be Desired” (now in its sixth season). Most YouTube videos we watch are on our computers, not through the TVs. It's funny to find old, dead networks like The WB on the Web as well. This was their opportunity to recycle all that old content, some of it is pretty good. You can also use directories BlinkX.com to find new independent video.



    Q. What do you do about high-definition (HD) content?


    A. It costs $3/month extra at NetFlix to get Blu-Ray DVDs, which we gladly pay. We have an HD projector and a Blu-Ray DVD player, so we use these on special occasions (most weekends) to play some big epic movie or whatever. It projects out to about a 6 ft by 5 ft image – really impressive. It's so nice to have a big white wall. NetFlix has HD downloads on some movies (very few) and the Roku can easily connect to our HD projector. Hulu also has HD content, for that we connect our Eee PC or other laptop to the HD projector. I would say we watch less than 10% of our content on HD. Even the HD movies seem to download in a reasonable amount of time and do not have jerkiness thereafter. Amazing - I don't know how that's possible with just a normal DSL connection.




    Q. Is the Eee PC powerful enough to watch full-screen video?

    A. We've never had a problem. The only problem is with the bandwidth coming in, and that is solved by pausing the show for a minute or two to let the content cache, then it's fine.



    Q. What about when you travel?

    A. I'm a computer consultant, so I travel a lot. No problem. My NetFlix downloads and Hulu come with me on my laptop. Hotel Internet connections are always too slow, however, so I always use my wireless modem from Verizon Wireless.



    Q. How does this work for people outside the U.S.?

    A. Not worth a crap. Sorry.



    Q. Do you use Boxee, Square Connect or another service as an content directory?

    A. We don't. I just set up a Web page for my wife and we left it at that. These services are very intriguing, and once they have Hulu and the NetFlix content all integrated into one service, we will probably switch.



    Q. Are you happy with Internet TV?

    A. Yes, extremely. It's been almost a year post-satellite and we don't miss it one bit. It is scary to think if our Internet connection would ever go down, we'd have no e-mail, Web surfing or TV. But, luckily, that hasn't happened yet.

    Thursday, April 30, 2009

    Systems Thinking on the Credit Crisis




    This diagram is from a white paper written on the current financial crisis. The R's mean reinforcing feedback, the B's are balancing feedback, the S's (same) are where more of one thing lead to more of another, and the O's (opposite) are where more of one thing lead to less of another.

    The most interesting effects occur when you have a delay in a loop, where you initially don't know if the link does anything or not, you have to wait.

    Sunday, April 19, 2009

    The Dreamer - A Graphic Novel about the American Revolutionary War




    I visited the S.P.A.C.E. graphic novel and comic book convention in Columbus, Ohio today. What a treat!

    One of the most unique finds there was "The Dreamer" series of graphic novels, done by a young woman named Lora Innes. The artwork is exquisite and the story is very fun. Lora remarked that she has accumulated a very well-informed fan base which includes "Thomas Jefferson fan-girls, Alexander Hamilton fan-girls the fights between them!" Lora started out with a short graphic novel including some vague historical references, but the further she got into it, the more she found she had to improve her own knowledge of America's history. Soon, she (and her fans) were delving into the battles, lives and loves of many of the heroes and heroines of 1776 and the surrounding era.

    I was truly impressed with Lora's work. You can view her The Dreamer series online here. If you like her work, donate here.