Sunday, January 31, 2010

Rethought

Regular readers of this blog and certainly people who know me well have been aware of my plans to ultimately get out of the city and into a more rural environment. Over the past several years I have been positioning myself financially to start to act on those plans, with the goal of being there by retirement. Sounds like a good plan, right?

Like most ideas, this is one where you need to read the "fine print." The cliched mantra of, "Be careful what you wish for - you may just get it," is a thought that is now going through my mind.

In my search for property and in talking to others I have started to discover some disturbing issues:
  1. Even though real estate prices have allegedly dropped in this depressed economy, it seems that the price for unimproved property here in Texas is still between $5,000 to $10,000 an acre. That means for 30 acres it is typical to see prices of $150,000 to $200,000 and up (quickly approaching what I paid for an entire house with land).
  2. There are too many variables to account for when looking at property. Water? Utilities? Access? These are a few of the many questions that need answers before purchasing.
  3. When I think I have an idea for a location that may be good (usually by driving around), I later discover several "deal breaking" issues that suddenly become obvious after a few minutes with the aerial photographs on Google Maps, or the price is way out of my league.
  4. Even if I find that perfect parcel of land, I now need to find someone who is willing to build on it.
My eyes were further opened when I read a piece about buying rural property (see http://www.govbiz.com/buyingtips.htm). This piece of literature is a wealth of excellent information about what to expect when moving to the country (ignore the spelling and grammatical errors). When I finished reading, I started re-thinking whether I would ever be able to enjoy the benefits I hoped to gain. So I'm now starting to work my way back to "square one."

Getting back to basics means examining what my goals are:
  1. Quiet - I need a quiet place to relax. I hear things that most people apparently don't hear, such as barking dogs, bass from people's stereo systems, leaf blowers, loud motorcycle or car engines, etc. In general, I want enough space between me and my neighbors so we're not likely to bug each other.
  2. Less crowded - I like to be near people, but not as many as I there are where I am living now. I don't like the fact that getting in and out of my neighborhood at certain times of the day is challenging. Getting around Austin has become more and more of a burden every year as the population has increased. I don't like the smells, noise, and stress resulting from the population density where I am now.
  3. Less crime - Maybe it is because I have been the victim of a home burglary twice since I moved to Texas, but it seems like the chance of being burglarized again is much higher here than it should be.
  4. Nice view - I'd like to wake up in the morning, look out the window, and see something peaceful. I look out the windows in the morning now and see a bunch of suburban tract homes.
  5. Low-maintenance, energy-efficient home - As I am less able to perform the kind of physical work I did when I was younger, I would like a home that requires little exterior maintenance and is not as likely to sustain damage during severe weather events. Energy efficiency will allow me to ride through increases in the cost of energy when I retire and am on a fixed income.
  6. Lower taxes - I think this one is obvious... Again, on a fixed income, it is very difficult to deal with surprise tax increases that accompany an area that suddenly becomes popular.
While it is true that country living does provide an avenue toward achieving these goals, it also presents a bunch of new challenges that (in many ways) offset the benefits.

I am now considering whether I need to be looking more at something in-between rural and suburban, with a substantial piece of property and a custom-built home that addresses many of the concerns I have. For example, there is a subdivision not terribly far from Austin that is separated into 5 acre tracts. It has many city services, such as a water and sewer system (eliminating the need for a well and septic system). While this may not be a perfect fit, and will even perhaps be a bit on the expensive side, there may be a way to make it a workable solution. The expense part, in particular, may well be equal once all the expenses are considered. An example of a good compromise on the home: While I would like an earth-bermed home to address energy efficiency issues, noise, upkeep, and weather-related disasters, I could retrofit a regular wood-frame home with better windows (to keep the noise down and improve energy efficiency), add more insulation, and add a metal roof (for hail protection). Depending on the location, I may still be able to get an earth-bermed home built on a home-site that doesn't yet have a house built on it (provided deed restrictions allow it).

The good news is that nothing needs to be done right away. This is the time to examine possibilities. Making a bad mistake with hundreds of thousands of dollars involved is one from which recovering may not be possible. A little due diligence now will go a long way toward being content later...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Story Of Ann Tenna

(with sincere apologies to children's book writers everywhere...)

Once upon a time there was a little TV signal flying through the air.

The little TV signal was trying to find a nice TV tuner to demodulate and decode it. But...like the little TV signal, the TV tuner was little as well. So, just like the host of this blog trying to find his perfect match, the chances of the TV signal and the TV tuner getting together were pretty slim.

A nice guy gave the TV tuner a small home-made antenna named UHF DiPole made from PVC pipe and some copper wire. Mr. DiPole allowed the TV tuner to see some of the TV signals, but the little TV signal the tuner was looking for had a lot of trouble being seen.

One day, a new friend came along: Ann Tenna - an Antennacraft C290 from the planet Radio Shack - who came to live in the attic of the home where the TV tuner lived. Ann Tenna was much bigger and had a wider frequency response than UHF DiPole, so she could capture smaller TV signals, and ones that were in both the VHF or UHF frequency bands. In fact, Ann could even see FM radio signals (I was going to say "pick-up FM radio signals," but then you'd think that Ann Tenna was kind of slutty, and she really isn't...think of her more as a matchmaker!!).

The only problem was that with Ann's rather wide (110")...girth...she had a big problem finding a good place to live in the attic. While there was a great place near the roof's peak that would have been ideal for receiving signals, some poorly-placed support beams and a large skylight column didn't allow Ann to fit there. With a great deal of effort, some stuff from Lowe's, a DTV receiver, and an old green-screen monitor, Ann finally found a resting place in a not-so-ideal location just at the roofline, and probably a bit too close to some foil-backed house insulating styrofoam. However, she seemed to consistently pull-in all the interesting TV signals - including the troublesome little one - pretty well.

The TV tuner seemed to be happy now, seeing the VHF signal strength (according to Mr. TiVo) at between 92-95%, and all other local signals (that happen to be UHF) at close-to or at 100%. Some more distant signals are being received at between 50-60%, but even at this smaller strength, the tuner is able to see enough of these tiny TV signals to produce a consistently good digital picture. Ann is thinking of partnering with a nice 4-output drop amplifier to prevent signal loss when using a splitter (the splitter will allow the signals to go to multiple TV sets (including the TiVo), and eventually the FM receiver).

Everyone lived happily ever after.
(end of story)

Well, kind of happily. For a few days this week, FOX7 had problems where their video and sound would freeze for a couple of seconds about once every 5-10 minutes or so. I thought that I was about to have to post what an idiot I was and say a million apologies to Time Warner Cable, since this looked similar to the pixelation problem I had with cable. To confirm it really wasn't my TiVo (it wasn't), I saw the same thing (at the same exact times) on my DTV converter box connected to a different TV. I also grabbed a whip antenna from my laptop USB TV adapter and hooked that to the DTV converter, and had the exact same results. A couple of days ago I reported the problem to the engineering staff at FOX7 via e-mail, and the problem seems to have gone away as of last night. Thank goodness. I was beginning to think that I was experiencing a neurological problem where everything would seemingly.................couple of seconds every 5-10 minutes or so and I would start missing pieces of sentences people said in real life. I guess FOX7 had some minor issues they managed to resolve. Maybe they could teach Time Warner Cable a thing or two about how to fix digital TV transmission issues. Sigh. (PS: If it weren't for the fact that FOX and Time Warner recently had a falling-out over carriage price negotiations, I almost thought that FOX may have been using Time Warner Cable to transport their programming from the studio to the transmission tower.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Kicking The Cable TV Addiction

The Problem (and rant)

After a little over a year of having Time Warner Cable on my TiVo HD, tonight the two have parted company. My TiVo is now no longer connected to cable TV, and the equipment used for cable will be going back from where it came. I think I've been more than patient with TWC and their signal problems. I, my neighbors, my friends, and lots of people on the Internet who I don't even know, have devoted numerous hours trying to assist TWC in resolving the reception and tuning problems we have experienced. Over three weeks ago I spent an hour and a half on the phone with TWC technical support who agreed there was a problem, forwarded a detailed report of my experiences (and everyone else I knew who had the same ones) to the group responsible for infrastructure, and I received a call a few days ago from the same tech support guy asking if anything had improved, that he had not heard anything back. This is clearly not going to get fixed anytime soon.

For those who I haven't already told in person: The problem is basically that on many channels, the video tends to pixelate and the sound cuts in-and-out at various times. Tuning to any of the switched digital video (SDV) channels is hit-or-miss (mostly hit, but why should I have to guess whether or not I will be able to tune into a channel I pay to receive?). When a DVR can't tune to a specific channel, it cannot record programming on that channel. It is likely that all of these problems are related to TWC's deployment of SDV, but I have no real evidence to support that theory. Regardless of the problem, I just want to turn on my TV and/or DVR and watch it -- I don't want to spend hours explaining the same problem over and over to people who won't fix the problem.

This is not a problem for channels I receive over-the-air on the exact same TiVo...and people who have the Scientific Atlanta (Cisco) DVR and cable boxes from TWC are having the same issues. Some people don't mind paying $55+/month for this kind of service. I am not one of those people. I have been patient and have given TWC ample opportunity to fix this problem. I can think of much better ways to spend $55/month than on a service that's no better (sometimes even worse) than watching stuff on the Internet.

What now?

As I ran the TiVo through "guided set-up" and watched hundreds of channels disappear before my eyes, I got that sick feeling in my stomach along the lines of, "Good god man, what are you doing?!" I realized how addicted I had become to having cable TV. No more hours of watching reruns of game shows on GSN. No more "channel surfing" through The Science Channel discovering shows that filled my brain with lots of neat information. No more voyeuristic examination of people about to have an intervention about their drug or alcohol addiction or hoarding being addressed on A&E. No more Dirty Jobs, Mythbusters, and other semi-educational programming on Discovery. No more South Park (sob...). No more stand-up on Comedy Central.

No more blood pressure problems and hair extraction when the video starts pixelating and sound blips out at just the thing I wanted to see/hear.

Mary, Holly, and I started talking about this, and we all realized that life is more than spending hours in front of the TV, even if the programming is mind-stimulating. I almost felt like I was on an episode of Intervention trying to kick the cable TV addiction. I decided the only way to deal with this was not with a twelve-step program, but with a one-step program: Unplug the cable wire from my TiVo and just say, "No more." It hurts as I type this...but I think it has to be done.

Surviving Without Cable TV

As a public service to everyone out there who's frustration level has led them to the same place I am now, here are some ways to help get along once you've "cut the cable."
  1. Over-the-air TV - Since the transition to digital TV (DTV) picture quality using an antenna has been dramatically improved (as good or better than cable or satellite). You will need an antenna, of course, to pick-up the signal, and depending on whether or not you're in a metropolitan area, the means of doing that may be easy or hard. Here in Austin, Texas, I was able to craft an antenna from some copper wire and PVC pipe and put it in my attic. It works okay, seeing a signal strength of over 90% on most channels. You will likely need something a little better, and putting an antenna on the roof may be the best solution. The web site www.antennaweb.org goes through some of the gory details of selecting and positioning an antenna. Really, it isn't all that hard.

    If you're using a cable box and your TV can't pick-up the new DTV signals, you'll need a converter box. Search this using Google. You'll find more information than you ever wanted to know. New TV sets can receive DTV signals using their built-in tuner. If you have a DVR from the cable company, then you will need to either buy a TiVo DVR, install something like Windows Media Center on your computer (and a TV receiver card), or build your own DVR from open source software projects.

    The best part of over-the-air TV with DTV is that many TV stations now broadcast multiple programs at the same time (you'll see channel numbers like 18-1, 18-2, and 18-3 instead of just 18). PBS affiliates typically have their normal programming plus some additional syndicated public TV programming. Here in Austin, a couple of our network channels simulcast Spanish language programming on one of their sub-channels, and one even has a 24-hour weather radar channel. The PBS affiliate in Temple, Texas carries The Pentagon Network on their sub-channel, and while that may seem boring, there's actually some cool programming on it ("Fit For Duty" is a pretty neat exercise series, if that's your thing). Sports programming in HD on DTV is stunning.

    Using a DVR, you can record game shows that air during the daytime for viewing at night, instead of watching the reruns on GSN. I'm gonna miss GSN...
  2. Netflix - The Netflix video rental service includes unlimited online viewing of select videos, in addition to the normal DVD-by-mail subscription service. Lots of popular series programming is available on DVD at the end of a season, and Netflix carries many of these. You can watch Netflix online using a TiVo, a computer (that is Flash-capable, yuck), or using an Internet video appliance like the Roku box.

    Likewise, video rental services like Blockbuster now have online video viewing, and even Amazon.com has joined-in and has a pay-per-view like service.

    You'll find that your $55/month can go a long way with these services (even further if you were spending extra for premium movie channels on cable).
  3. Downloading programming - There are both legal and illegal ways of downloading video programming online. The downside is that most of the legal methods require Flash, and I don't support services that require Flash. The illegal methods are generally bittorrent-based download services where the video is compressed and can be played with your computer's media player. The quality is amazingly good, and these "video pirates" typically edit-out commercials before uploading them.

    (Disclaimer: I am not saying to go do something illegal, I'm just saying what you'll find if you decide to do it. Don't try this at home. Do not eat. Keep away from fire and flame. You know the drill...)
  4. YouTube - If you have a TiVo or Wii (probably other game consoles too) you can view YouTube videos on your TV (again, if you want to do it on your computer, you need friggin' Flash). While YouTube videos are generally amateurish compared to what comes out of the TV studios and Hollywood, some of the programming is (at the very least) amusing, and some is really good. I've mentioned some of what I've found in this blog, even! Searching YouTube is like most other Internet activities: You can find yourself lost in a maze for hours looking at some of the most ridiculous stuff.
  5. Do Something - Why not take-up a hobby or finish that project that has been eating at you for a while? TV viewing is such a passive activity. We've gotten so accustomed to someone else providing us with entertainment that we've lost the ability to make our own. I've been thinking for years about learning to play a musical instrument. Maybe this is the time to do that. I have friends that have started reading, although that is a passive activity too.
I'm not saying that this will always be easy, and I won't pretend that I'm never going to have days where I miss the positive things about the cable programming I received. I've beaten the dead horse about this lament earlier in this article... I can't imagine I'll die without cable TV. The frustration I've gained for my $55/month though translates to stress, and stress is something that may eventually kill me. Let's give the no-cable-TV idea a try.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tweet This

Around midnight I lost my over-the-air (antenna) signal from FOX 7 in Austin. It wasn't my TV.

So I checked in at their web site. Nothing.
I checked their Twitter feed. Totally nothing.

So I thought to myself, "Wouldn't being off-the-air qualify as something you'd want to send to your viewers on Twitter? Y'know, what's wrong and when will they expect to be back again?"

This is why I don't bother with Twitter and "following" business' Twitter and Facebook feeds. Important things just don't seem to find their way there. Just the same old junk you'd get if you allowed them to spam the heck out of you.

No, thanks.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Google Chrome First Impressions

I just tried out Google Chrome this morning, since Google keeps poking me about it in these little reminders from time-to-time. The following are my first (and right now only) impressions of it...

  1. As promised, it is fast. However..
  2. My initial experience is that it suffers from the "Max Power" syndrome:

    Homer: There's the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way!
    Bart: Isn't that the same as the wrong way?
    Homer: Yes, but it's faster!

    (you gotta love The Simpsons when it comes to philosophy)
  3. First big problem: Issues with font anti-aliasing. For those non-techies out there, this is a method that graphics-based systems use to smooth out fonts on the screen, so they have a softer, and less choppy appearance. Some people like it. Some people don't. I'm one in the "don't" category. It makes the fonts look like they're being rendered on an old CRT monitor with poor resolution. It hurts my eyes. Typing about it hurts my brain. The only saving grace (being generous) is that searching on Google for the answer told me that this was an issue for a number of people, and not even close to being fixed.
  4. Second HUGE problem: URLbar (or, as called in Chrome, the Omnibar) autocompletion and drop-down autocompletion. Being able to turn this off was a hidden feature of the Seamonkey (old Mozilla) browser, and I loved it. When I have a bunch of friends (or my parents) over, I don't want to type the letters "na" in the URLbar and have:

    www.nakedladies.com "Get a look at all those naked ladies"
    (calm down folks, this is just an example...)

    either pop-down in a selection menu OR appear as a suggestion in the URLbar (or Omnibar) automatically. NEVER, EVER! Now, I do want my browsing history stored, because what I like to be able to do is to call that up by pressing the little down arrow on the right-hand side of the bar. This is letting ME indicate when I want to recall my history.

    I had this same issue with Firefox until I wrote a little plug-in called no_urlbar_autocomplete and have been kind of living happily ever after. (I'll explain the "kind of" comment at a later date)
  5. I'm not a big fan of tabbed browsers. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I never use tabs. I do, sometimes. But in general I will open a new browser window for new web sites. It's just the way I operate. Anything I don't use that sits on the screen wastes precious display space, and when keeping it around is avoidable, it becomes annoying. Don't tell me to get a newer laptop with a larger screen (or one with higher resolution where the fonts are so small even I can't read them).
In a strictly technical way, I am very impressed with Chrome. I read through the comic book description of how they got where they are today, and the Google development staff truly addressed many of the problems that make browsers into unsafe, unstable, resource hogs. I also feel that if any organization is going to be able to figure out how to render web pages correctly overall, it would definitely be Google.

That being said, though, philosophically I like software that I can customize to fit my own user experience. For me, the web browser is another application and I want its look-and-feel to coincide with how I like to do things. I like it to be customizable (but not by rewriting the code or developing software plugins). What Google Chrome does, in my opinion, is take some of the worst user interface (UI) features from Firefox, and then go the next step and make it even less customizable. I just felt like Google was telling me how my web experience should be, instead of letting me decide that for myself. Similarly, while I agree with them that Javascript and other embedded language ideas are becoming the norm, sometimes they are used without discretion and I like the ability to just shut it off. If that function was around, I couldn't find it.

I suspect that Chrome's UI issues will ultimately be resolved once people who are a lot more vocal with a lot more programming experience than I do go ahead and start resolving these problems. It is immediately apparent that others feel as I do about this.

What I didn't test, and should have, is whether or not I could actually browse Flash-based websites without needing a hunk of proprietary, buggy, security-vulnerability-laden, software from Adobe (that doesn't work on all operating systems and in all environments). That was one of my hopes for Chrome. I was also hoping that they would integrate a simple, uniform media player so that (unless I chose to define it to something else) I would have good audio/video functionality in the browser no matter what OS I chose to use. It may be there, but I just didn't take any additional time to test it. For me, the issues I outlined above were deal breakers. While I am not in love with Firefox, and it does have performance and (sometimes) stability issues, the overall experience is mine. Yeah, people will make fun of my "old school" desktop and browser configuration, but I don't care. I like it, and it (usually) works for me.

I will probably re-visit Chrome at some later date, but for now, I'm sticking with what I have (Firefox and Seamonkey).