In The Air (and Through The Wire)

TV Clipart
As mentioned in this blog post, we got rid of cable TV in our house about 5 months ago. I figured this was a good time to give a status report.

What have we missed? Not much. We’re not inclined to watch shows like “Jersey Shore,” and most of our former favorite channels– Food Network, A&E, Discovery– seemed to have become home to mean-spirited, cheaply produced “reality” shows. From what I’ve seen and heard since dropping cable, this trend hasn’t changed.

During the holidays we missed some movie marathons from TCM and the like, but that just made us look for alternatives at Netflix or on the local Chicago over-the-air channels.

As I mentioned, we started plowing through our Netflix queue, and we’ve caught up on a bunch of movies we’ve been meaning to watch. I’ve also discovered some TV shows that I missed the first time around (thanks mostly to MeToo), and I can now eloquently spout 20-year-old pop culture phrases like “Resistance is Futile” and know what they mean. I can now both annoy and astonish my co-workers with my “new” TV discoveries: yes, I will admit publicly that until a couple months ago I never saw a single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

From a technical standpoint, the video and audio on our TVs is near-perfect. We have a later-model analog/CRT TV, and the signal that comes out of our converter box is great. Despite my tendency to collect gadgets, I still don’t see a need to upgrade to an HDTV yet.

All that said, we’re not completely “off the wire.” While we don’t have cable TV in the house, we now have access to Internet video thanks to the Sony BDP-S370 Blu-Ray player I bought a couple weeks ago. This unit has built-in internet video streaming, including Netflix, Amazon, and a whole bunch of other services. This means that you connect the player to your home network, and anything that shows up as “Watch Instantly” in your Netflix queue can be streamed through the player right to the TV at no additional charge past your monthly Netflix subscription. You can also “rent” movies (and recent TV episodes) through Amazon and have them delivered directly to your player at that moment. I’ll post a detailed review of the Sony player and the available services in an upcoming blog post.

So far, we’ve saved about $400 overall by not having cable TV, and we don’t miss it. And frankly, I feel a little more smug about not supporting programs where the hosts encourage people to drop 80-lb wedding cakes or show Just How Much Better Off You Are Than These Losers Who Can’t Seem to Run a Household.

Of course, we still have network TV for that.



In these economic times… okay, I admit that was a cheap way to start off this piece. I only did it because for the past year it’s become the hackneyed phrase of choice. I’ll start again.

Like many people, we have a certain amount of money allocated for what can broadly be called “entertainment.” We decided to take a look at all the areas where this money is going, and the focus landed on our monthly cable bill.

We paid about $160 per month for TV, internet, and telephone service. This was an introductory price for bundled services from WideOpenWest, our provider since mid-2008. Our TV package included the digital basic package and a bunch of Starz channels. (We don’t have an HDTV.)

When we looked at our viewing habits, we realized that nearly everything we watch is either on broadcast TV and/or readily available on the internet or through Netflix. And since we have an antenna on the roof and digital converter boxes in the house, we figured we’d take the step and drop cable television service, ratcheting back to just the 8 Mbit Internet and home telephone services.

This brought our monthly cable bill down by over $70, and so far we haven’t missed the programming offered by cable TV. We can still see The Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, the local and national news, and all the old shows offered on Chicago’s MeTV. We’re also starting to catch up on our Netflix queue.

There was a time when I wouldn’t have even thought about canceling cable TV. When my kids were younger, we spent many nights watching The Powerpuff Girls on Cartoon Network and they were glued to the set for Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel. They’ve since graduated to MTV and beyond, and now get most of their entertainment on their computers and iPods.

It just seemed to make sense to invest in the pipeline that brings the material to our house, as opposed to paying a chunk of money for 100-some-odd channels chosen by the cable company.

I have absolutely no complaint about WOW: having slogged through experiences with (in reverse order) Comcast, AT&T Broadband, MediaOne, and TCI I can say without any hesitation that WOW’s services have been rock-solid and their customer service is consistently top-notch. I highly recommend them to anyone.

This isn’t entirely about the money, although saving almost $1000 a year is significant. It is a powerful statement on our changing entertainment habits. With a few exceptions like The Daily Show and Turner Classic Movies, I don’t expect we’ll miss cable TV.

At least we can watch the Starz Bunnies on the internet.

iPhone 3.0 Software: A Semi-Cautionary Tale

My advice to those planning on upgrading to iPhone software version 3.0: don’t do it.
At least not yet.
I don’t mean to sound dire about this, but for me iPhone 3.0 software on my first-generation iPod Touch has caused a lot of unnecessary annoyance, and I wish I’d waited until 3.1 was released. (We hear it’s coming soon.)
I upgraded to the new software a few days after it was released; I heard that most people didn’t have issues with it, so I figured I’d go for it. The upgrade itself went fine– I paid $10 through the iTunes store and my Touch was running the new software in a matter of minutes. Most of my apps seemed to work right away, so I didn’t think anything was heading in the wrong direction.
Now fast-forward a day.
I have a registered Starbucks card which gives me free wifi at Starbucks stores using the AT&T WiFi network.
When I had the version 2.x software on my iPod Touch, I used Easy WiFi to log on to the AT&T network at Starbucks– it automatically held my login credentials and I did not have to go through the login/password/”I accept the terms” entries on the AT&T splash page that showed up once I connected to the network at Starbucks. I would walk in, turn on the iPod touch, and within 10 seconds I was on the network ready to browse and check email.
With iPhone software 3.0, there’s a new login splash page that comes up when I go to connect with my Touch– it looks exactly like the Safari page that used to come up before I had Easy Wi-Fi. I enter my credentials just as I had to do before I had Easy Wi-Fi, and I’m on the network. In other words, Easy Wi-Fi no longer handled this portion for me.
When I returned to Starbucks at any time in the future, I had to go through the same drill all over again.
Supposedly the iPhone 3.0 software saves the login credentials somewhere, but that’s not true– I had to go through the login/password/”I accept the terms” page every single time I log in at Starbucks.
What iPhone 3.0 does do for you is remember entries in Safari forms– but not the popup login screens.
I tried forgetting the network, turning off and on WiFi… nothing worked. I went so far as to completely wipe my iPod and start with the vanilla 3.0 software and the exact thing happened every time. The iPod did not remember my login credentials on the AT&T wireless hotspots at Starbucks.
After scouring the help forums on several sites, including Apple’s Discussion Forums (which I’ve found over the years to be of dubious value), an answer was finally posted on Devicescape’s (Easy WiFi’s developer) web site.
I loaded the Boingo Wireless app on my Touch, which disables the auto-login process on iPhone 3.0 software.
Now when I visit S’bux I just fire up the Boingo client (no account or password needed– just bring up the app) and then bring up Easy WiFi. No more squinting and inputting passwords.
It still means I have to go though an extra step, but at least I don’t have to waste time entering my login credentials every single time I want to check my email. The fact that Apple broke a great app like Easy WiFi is simply a shame.
Secondly, there have been tons of postings in forums on the internet about the lousy post-3.0-upgrade performance of the iPod Touch’s wireless capabilities. Lots of users are complaining that their WiFi connections at home and on the road have simply turned lousy.
Here’s a quick anecdote– you can interpret the data however you wish.
I bought 1st Gen iPod Touches for my daughter Becca and myself around the same time. They both ran flawlessly, and both upgraded to 2.x without an issue. They connected to our home network and hotspots perfectly.
I upgraded my Touch to 3.0, and started to see some strangeness, as described above. Becca did not upgrade hers and it continued to work normally.
A couple weeks ago, we were at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, where they have free wifi. Becca turned on her Touch and it connected immediately to the network. I turned mine on, waited two or three minutes, and it never found the airport’s wifi network– and the iPods were literally inches apart.
The likely root cause of this situation is clear to me.
I’m posting this here because it was pretty difficult for me to find any straight answers on the internet. I hope some of you find this useful.

Are You Receiving Me?

Like many homeowners, I’ll usually have a radio nearby while working on a project like painting or (intentionally) knocking a hole in a wall. I use a cheapie RCA radio-cassette boombox that’s been dropped, kicked, splattered with paint, and otherwise abused, yet it still keeps on ticking in its low-fi way.
There are times when I’m doing these projects and I truly can’t find anything worth listening to on the radio dial. And short of digging out my cassette tapes (or recording new ones) or keeping my laptop nearby (and in harm’s way of flying paint or drywall), there haven’t been too many options.
Then I discovered the C Crane Digital FM Transmitter. This is a unit that plugs into the headphone-out jack of any device and retransmits the audio through any nearby radio that’s tuned to the matching FM frequency. I’ve seen devices like these for use in the car, but this was one of the first standalone transmitters I’ve found that would be suitable for use around the house.
The transmitter is simple to use: just put in two AA batteries (or use the included AC adapter), plug the attached coiled cable into your iPod or computer, select a frequency, adjust the audio level, and tune the radio to hear your broadcast. I had the unit operating within minutes of taking it out of the package.
Audio quality is pretty good. I’ve used the unit while it’s plugged into my iPod and the computer, and it does a nice job. When listening on my “project” boombox the sound is more than acceptable, and it’s even respectable when I tune in through one of my Tivoli radios or the old Grundig 1099. The unit broadcasts in stereo when connected to a stereo audio source.
The range of the transmitter is somewhat lacking; I had to do a lot of re-orienting of the base and antenna unit to get a good signal in certain areas of the house, which was a pain. That said, there are instructions on the internet that describe how to modify the unit to increase its transmission range. I don’t advocate this as it will void your warranty, but there are some impressive success stories posted out there.
Now I can listen to Kermode and Mayo anywhere in the house. Some might find that annoying, I think it’s pretty entertaining.
I bought the transmitter at Amazon for around $70. Not a bad price for the convenience it brings!
(This article also appears on my radio site,

When Worlds Collide

Managing your identity on the internet is a tricky thing.
In the old days, I picked a nickname and used it on various bulletin boards and forums. I used the same one for years on AIM, Yahoo Messenger, etc. The idea was that a certain level of anonymity was desirable as you’re talking about the latest XTC reissue CD or how much memory you could put on that Asus motherboard you just bought.
As social networking became more popular and– dare I say it– useful, it became okay to be out there with more of your “real” identity. Sites like LinkedIn and Plaxo allow you to create a professional profile with your resume, etc., which could potentially help in networking.
Then you have Facebook and MySpace, which are more for goofing around. My wife and kids are on Facebook, so I decided I’d take the plunge and create an account. I decided that this would be my “personal” social media site, while LinkedIn would be my “professional” place, and I’ve been very careful not to mix the two.
Well, that lasted for only so long. Soon, coworkers began to mention their Facebook pages and I started to connect with them in limited numbers. And for the first few months, everything was pretty cool: the updates I saw from my coworkers consisted of the standard mundane stuff about going to the zoo with the kids or hanging out watching a movie at home. Occasionally there would be a note about “working until 5 today on an upgrade, but then it’s off to the casino.” All normal stuff.
The other day, a line was crossed. This past Sunday, a coworker who’s a bit of a workaholic posted the fact that he was having a problem with a database server at the office, and gave the name of the server. The problem here is that this particular system is under my team’s direction– so in other words, I learned of a problem at my office through Facebook.
I checked my work email and sure enough, there was a problem. I got my team engaged and resolved the issue. I’m sure this individual wasn’t trying to reach out to me in a backhanded way, but I felt that my personal space had somehow been violated.
So for the very first time, I “un-friended” someone on Facebook. I’m not sure if he even noticed.
As the lines between the personal and professional lives become increasingly blurred, I feel it’s critically important to maintain that balance, especially online. I don’t have any of my personal stuff on LinkedIn, and I never talk about my work on Facebook (or, until now, in this blog).
I may end up dropping the Facebook thing altogether, but then my online friends won’t be able to see what I’m making for breakfast on Saturday mornings.
Then again, they could just follow me on Twitter.

A Clearer Picture

With the advent of the Digital Television Age, I decided to take the government up on its TV Converter Box Coupon Program. This is the program where each household gets up to two $40 coupons towards the purchase of a digital TV converter box: you wire the box between your antenna and the TV, and voila— digital TV.
Now, I’ll admit to being a geek, which led to my installing a new TV antenna on my roof when we moved into our new house last year. Okay, it wasn’t all geekiness– I also wanted to be able to give the cable company the boot in case I got tired of their rate hikes and (potential) lousy service (we do have cable TV, but I use the antenna for my PC TV recording, as discussed here.). Since we live about 20 miles from downtown Chicago, where all the TV transmitters are, we get a pretty good signal on the ol’ analog Toshiba (which, by the way, is about 5 years old).
Digital TV, however, is a vast improvement over analog. When I installed the Insignia NS-DXA1 converter I picked up at Best Buy this weekend, my eyes and ears were treated to– dare I say it– a whole new viewing experience. The picture is incredibly sharp, and some of our local stations, like the main PBS channel, have multiple sub-channels with different programming that aren’t made available to regular cable subscribers.
Setup was very easy: plug the antenna cable into the box, plug the audio/video jacks into the TV (some models, like this one, have a regular “Antenna Out” jack that you would connect to your TV’s antenna jack, just like the old days of VCRs), plug in the power, and fire the box up. It automatically tuned in all the available digital channels in under 5 minutes, and I was up and running. The box is very simple to operate, and the remote is very straightforward.
One of the most frustrating things about Digital TV (or DTV) is that until recently it’s been very difficult to get straight answers about what all this terminology means. People tend to mix DTV up with HDTV, which is incorrect. Hopefully, this will help anyone who’s looking for answers.
DTV (Digital TV): the method by which nearly all over-the-air TV stations will be broadcasting come February of next year. Digital broadcasting gives TV stations the ability to broadcast multiple channels at once, usually defined as channels 26-1, 26-2, etc. DTV is not to be confused with HDTV.
ATSC: the type of tuner in a TV set which is capable of receiving DTV.
HDTV: a special type of high-definition service which brings better video and audio to the viewer. HDTV is a special kind of high-resolution service that you can get when you get DTV, but not all DTV is HDTV. You need a special HDTV receiver and display to get the full HDTV experience.
Do the digital converter boxes pick up HDTV signals? Yes, but they don’t output high-definition content. If I tune in an NCAA game on our local CBS station, they’re sending out an HD signal, but my converter box is reworking that signal so I can watch it on my analog Toshiba. The picture is very good– better than the analog signal I can still pick up– but since I don’t have a true HDTV setup I won’t get the highest resolution. And that’s fine with me– frankly, we don’t watch all that much TV anyway.
So, if you still receive your TV signal through an antenna and you have an analog (pre-2004, mostly) TV, you’ll want to take advantage of the free/$40 coupon program. My coupons– they’re actually more like gift cards– arrived about a month after I ordered them, and were accompanied by a list of stores near me that carry coupon-eligible converter boxes, including Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and Radio Shack. All of these places carry converter boxes in the $40-$60 range.
For more info on the program and the switchover to DTV, go to In the meantime, I’ll be watching a program about Ireland on WTTWD-11.1.
Update 3/22/08: The previous owners of our home left a TV antenna in the attic, so I ran a cable to the TV in our bedroom and picked up this Magnavox converter box from Wal-Mart for $49.87. It’s 10 bucks cheaper than the Insignia model from Best Buy, but it does pretty much the same job. The main difference is that it seems to want to “sync” with the signal every time you change the channel. Also, I can’t seem to get the CBS station (WBBM-TV channel 2) because of a weak signal. I’ll have to climb back into the attic to see if I can remedy that.

Twitter Haiku

I’ve made a change in the way I post updates at Twitter.
Twitter is another one of those web sites that I file under the category called “Dig Me.” It’s basically a public blogging site/bulletin board where you answer the question “What am I doing right now?” in 140 characters or less. It’s sort of like a blog, only with shorter messages and you don’t have to visit multiple sites to see the entries of the people you’re following.
While it’s strangely addictive, I’ve struggled with finding a real value to Twitter. About 20% of the time I can share information on something useful (like one of my Twitter friends’ asking questions about buying a Mac), but the other 80% is pretty much noise, with varying levels of relevance to, well, anything.
Some people incorrectly use Twitter as a personal communication device to all their Twitter friends– I’ll log in some mornings to see an entire page (about 20 entries) by one author to several different people, and many of those messages will be along the lines of “I hear ya, man.” I usually wind up “un-following” those people.
Others seem to think the 140 character limit is optional, so they post two or three Twitter messages to get their point across. Imagine someone telling you that they’re at McDonald’s and they ordered a 6-piece Chicken Selects with Barbecue Sauce, Fries, and… only they tell you this across several 140-character messages. Almost like Water Torture, isn’t it? Many of those people get dropped from my “follow” list as well.
It was this latter group, though that brought a challenge to mind.
Last week, I considered dropping Twitter completely, but then I realized I could make it more of a creative outlet for myself. There’s already a 140-character limit, so why not challenge myself further and only post in haiku? Not only will this force me to limit the size of my postings, but it will cause me to think even more creatively about what gets communicated and how.
(This also reminded me of something said in a play I saw a few years ago— one of the characters referred to limits, like those in haiku, as being very freeing.)
Some examples of my recent postings are on the next page.
All that said, my postings on Twitter will remain in haiku, at least until I get tired of the whole thing. 🙂

Continue reading “Twitter Haiku”

TV on a Computer Near You

TV Clipart
Last year, I picked up an Elgato eyetv Hybrid for my MacBook. This is a great little unit that picks up not only analog TV signals, but the digital and HD channels as well. The eyetv software that comes with the Elgato is very easy to use and has helpful features such as importing your recordings to iTunes automatically.
When I connect the unit to my Mac, it’s attached to an antenna on the roof of the house. I’m about 20 miles from downtown Chicago, so I can pick up all of the local digital (and HD) content easily.
The challenge for me is the fact that the MacBook comes with me pretty much everywhere, so it’s rarely connected to the antenna.
I learned that the eyetv Hybrid is that same device as the Hauppauge HVR-980, a newer version of the HVR-950. This unit is marketed to Windows users with the appropriate Windows software. I downloaded the Windows drivers for the unit and all the related software, and voila— I now have an HD tuner card in my PC.
I used Hauppauge’s WinTV application but found it clunky. Then I used the built-in capabilities of Windows Media Center, which was much slicker and easier to use. The problem with Media Center is that I had to manually add the “secondary” channels (e.g. channel 26-2) and the media guide never updated with the correct program material. I have to say, though, that the timed-recording feature that’s built into Media Center worked very nicely.
Right now, I’m doing a trial of SnapStream’s BeyondTV and so far things are going well. The software found all the channels and updated the guide as it was supposed to. (One test is to see if I can record a program on the PC, have BeyondTV encode it for my iPod, and then transfer it over successfully.) If the coming weeks prove the software to be useful, I may spring for a license.
We’ve come a long way from VHS tapes…

The True Godfather of Tech Talk

On a Saturday morning a little over 15 years ago, I discovered the radio show by which every technology radio show and podcast I’ve heard since has been measured.
The show was Computing Success! hosted by Thom Foulks.
I found it completely by accident: I was trying to tune in (what was then) WLUP-AM and instead came across WNVR, which ran syndicated programming by The Business Radio Network. I would have tuned away from the station, but I was intrigued when I heard the host talking about Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 3.1.
After a few minutes, he took a call from a listener who had a question about Usenet and UNIX systems. I may have been new to PCs, but I was already an established Usenet user and UNIX Systems Administrator so this was my chance to “tech out” the host. He passed quite impressively.
What made the show special was the fact that Thom actually listened to his callers’ questions and was genuinely interested in getting them the answers they needed. If he didn’t know an answer, he’d recommend a book or other resource. Thom never faked his way through an answer, and his easygoing style made the listener, whether experienced or not, enjoy his show.
Thom also reported on the latest technology news, carrying reports from the staff of InfoWorld, PC Computing, and other computer publications of the day. John C Dvorak was an occasional contributor to Computing Success!
I had just obtained my first MS-DOS-based PC (a monochrome Sharp notebook, courtesy of my employer), so I was interested in learning as much as possible about what it could do. Thom’s show was a huge help– he spoke in plain English and kept the jargon to a minimum. While his style was low-key, yet you could tell he was thrilled about the subject matter. Thom wasn’t interested in showing off what he knew about computers– he was interested in sharing what he knew and showed he was always willing to learn more.
Sadly, Computing Success! went off the air about a year after I discovered it. It was replaced with another computer show hosted by a guy who loved to repeat his own name and referred to himself as “your computer answer man” despite the fact that the show seemed bereft of “answers” that did not involve a sponsor’s product.
When I listen to today’s tech shows that try to accomplish the same thing, I realize how much today’s shows are lacking, when taken in the context of Thom’s show . Leo LaPorte’s The Tech Guy seems to come close, but it’s not quite the same because Leo likes to “ham it up” a bit more than Thom did.
Thom Foulks passed away in March of 2004. He was active in the computer arts right up to the end, and if you Google his name you’ll find all sorts of projects he worked on, including an extensive geneology project. And here’s a link to his Wikipedia page.
I wish I’d taped some episodes of Computing Success! — it would be nice to hear them right about now.

Samsung ML-1430 Printer Drivers

I bought this small laser printer at Sam’s Club a number of years ago (for almost nothing) and it was a real workhorse until it finally died in January of 2007.
I recently heard from a brand-new Mac user who has this printer and he told me Samsung no longer has the drivers for this printer online.
If you have this printer and you want the drivers for the Mac, click here and the .dmg file will download to your Mac.
Just doing my part to help.
Update: A reader just informed me that he had success using these drivers with MacOS 10.5.1 (Leopard). Great news!