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All posts for the month August, 2015

Google Chromecast with HDMI extender cable, microUSB to USB cable, USB power supply.

We didn’t need the Chromecast device since we already have several Rokus to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, YouTube, Crackle, Plex, etc. (Chromecast can handle all these except Amazon; Google doesn’t like to accommodate their competition.)

We still don’t really need it, except for one purpose (so far).

After cutting the cable TV cord, I was still able to watch msnbc’s “Morning Joe” program on the Roku’s Plex channel. (The video podcast, found on a special Plex msnbc “subchannel”, typically became available in the afternoon, or the next day.)

But ten days after cutting the cord, up popped a message from NBC that the video podcast would be discontinued ten days hence. What a kick in the head.

There was and still is an audio podcast of the show, and it can be listened to on Roku’s “iTunes Podcasts” channel. But it’s not quite the same.

I then discovered a European website that streams msnbc International 24/7 in an embedded Flash player. It has the same content as the cable channel, which is very good. But it has no commercials, which is very bad. Say what?! Yes, commercials are preferable to the repetitive, horn-tooting show promos which appear instead of commercial breaks.

Still, the entire “Joe” show can be watched in real time on a web page.

I considered buying a Mohu Channels device as a way to get the page onto a bigger screen, but was put off by the cost, and the need for a special remote to move the cursor around. I didn’t need its other features, having settled on the TiVo Roamio OTA for my wife in the den. and Windows Media Center/Raspberry Pi/Roku for me/us in the theater room. I was also unsure it would work well enough for this purpose.

For awhile, I watched the show in a browser window on the side of my laptop’s screen. Not ideal, but better than an audio podcast.

Next, after my wife moved up to an iPhone and iPad, I inherited her Android phone and tablet. Both devices did a good enough job going full screen on the Flash player, and the tablet’s case doubled as a stand. So I could now watch the show on a separate device. But the promos still drove me crazy, since muting is inconvenient with a small device.

It finally dawned on me that the Google Chromecast might be the simplest and cheapest way to get a web page up to the big screen. Since we had gone with Roku quite awhile back, I had forgotten that the Chromecast is capable of casting a tab from the Chrome browser to the TV. I checked, and Chromecast could handle Flash.

The mailman soon brought one.

The little dongle plugs directly into an HDMI slot on your TV (or if you have as many devices as I do, into an HDMI switch.)

The Chromecast is powered by AC adapter, or by USB if you have a USB port handy on your TV or other device (I plugged into the powered USB hub I use with the Raspberry Pi, which is both powered by the hub and connected to other devices by it.)

Download the free Google Chrome browser on your PC. Once you have it, install the free “Google Cast” extension (see Chrome’s Settings/Extensions/Get More Extensions).

Then go to the page you want to cast, and click the little “cast” icon on the upper right to send the page up on the big screen.

To view an embedded video (Flash player, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.) on the page, click the fullscreen icon on the video. You will now see the video fullscreen on your TV.

On my first try, the video was very choppy. I suspected this was due to the fact that it had to be transmitted from the laptop to the wifi router, then again by wifi from the router to the Chromecast device. (We have an old 802.11g router.)

So I tried casting from the office computer, which is Ethernet-attached to the router. With only one wireless hop to the Chromecast, it worked much better. The video only occasionally was not perfectly smooth, though I have seen a freeze or two.

The video quality is about that of the Cox analog channels, which only this month disappeared for good. Very decent quality for a talking-heads news show.

Sometimes, the audio is not in perfect sync, though acceptable to me. This happens on the PC even when not casting. Further Googling leads me to believe that Flash player sync has been a problem for years, and mainly has to do with settings on the server side. So, nothing more I can do about it.

I figured that if the Chromecast were connected to the router by Ethernet (or by Powerline as we have it set up), the occasional stutter might be cured. There is a $15 Ethernet adapter for Chromecast, so I ordered one. Just got it today. So far, no stuttering.

One final hurdle: who wants to get out of the Laz-E-Boy and go into the office to change channels? (CNN and CNBC are available online, too, though not as is Fox News.)

My solution: Download and activate the free TightVNC server software on the office computer. (I already had given the PC a fixed IP address, which is needed to run the software.) On phone and tablet, I downloaded the free Remote Ripple app, which is TightVNC’s client software.

Smartphone screenshot: office PC remote-controlled from smartphone. Hmm, stock market tanked. Time to buy!

After I set it all up, I took over the office PC’s desktop with the smartphone. Using Remote Ripple’s virtual mouse, I brought up the PC’s Chrome browser and clicked my bookmark to the webpage. Then I clicked the tiny little cast button on the browser to get it onto the TV.

Finally, I clicked the fullscreen icon on the Flash player. Voila! The show is on the big TV.

So I now need a smartphone in the theater room to control the office PC, but I typically have one close by, anyway.

My other remote (Logitech Harmony 890) makes it easy to mute Joe’s many mind-numbing, promo-laden breaks.

There are more conventional ways to use Chromecast, to be detailed in a future post.

(PS, another way to use the new setup is get Alan Lambert’s new radio show, “Big Band American Songbook”, onto the big sound system. Listen Saturdays at 8 pm on The Grid, TCC Student Radio online.)

(PPS, yet another use: after I finish a workout accompanied by a smartphone plugged into a boombox, I can go to the theater room and cast whatever music program I was listening to onto the big sound system, from exactly where I left off.)

My den coffee table

My den coffee table

Here is my small coffee table in the den. (I bought a couple of these probably twenty years ago from a furniture warehouse that used to be a bowling alley, Harvard Lanes.)

Harvard Lanes souvenir

Harvard Lanes souvenir

I can do quite a lot with those two devices.

First, the X10 Universal 5-in-1 Learning Remote ($15):

It has 5 main buttons: TV, VCR, CBL, SAT, and X10. If you push TV, then the rest of the buttons will control your TV. If you push VCR, you have the VCR controls, etc.

I wouldn’t inflict the following system on my wife or anyone else, but here is how I set it up for myself:

5-in-1 X10 learning remote

TV button: Selects controls for our 36″ flat tube TV. But there were enough buttons left over to teach them the Roku box’ controls as well:

REW/FF/PAUSE/PLAY do what you would expect.
A/B/C/D became Up/Right/Left/Down buttons for the Roku screen (tricky, since the built-in directional buttons are for the TV).
ENT became the Roku Select button.
REC was repurposed as the Roku Home button.

VCR and SAT buttons: Allows control of the VCR/DVD combo player (rarely used now). The VCR and DVD functions are effectively two separate devices, so the VCR button selects the VCR controls, and the SAT button selects the DVD controls.

Again, repurposing two unused buttons under SAT, I added control of a remote A|B switch for the indoor and outdoor antennas. (During bad weather, the indoor one sometimes performs better).

The CBL button now selects the controls for the TiVo Roamio OTA. The TiVo’s own remote is mostly used by my wife, and is RF (radio frequency) based. But the TiVo can also recognize IR (infrared), so that’s how the 5-in-1 is able to control it.

The X10 button lets you control X10 home automation modules around the house. The 5-in-1 remote uses radio frequency (RF) for X10. The other four main buttons of the 5-in-1 are infrared (IR) only. None of the X10 buttons can be taught different functions, probably due to being tied to the RF mode.

Since I squeezed in control of 7 different devices, it’s now a 7-in-1 remote!

Sure, I have to remember a lot of stuff, but I did document it all in the 5-in-1’s manual. I use it often enough that I rarely refer to my notes anymore. Now that’s a kludge! (Clumsy and inelegant, but effective.)

Now the phone, a rooted, wifi-only Motorola Electrify smartphone ($0):

Of the top row of apps, the first three are diagnostics for the Raspberry Pi media computer in the theater room.

The fourth one, Remote Ripple, is the app version of TightVNC. With TightVNC software running on the Windows computers, I can use the app to take over their desktops and update software, move files around, etc. Very useful!

Home theater apps on smartphone

Home theater apps on smartphone

The X10 Commander app allows me to control devices around the house over wifi on the home network. I have an X10 ActiveHome Pro Computer Interface Module USB-attached to the office computer and plugged into the AC wall socket. The computer runs the X10 Commander software, which interprets wifi signals from the app and converts them in to the control pulses sent over house wiring to X10 modules for the lights, fans and coffee maker.

The TiVo app can serve as a remote control for the TiVo. More importantly, it shows you a program guide and lets you set up recordings.

(The My Media Center app does the same function for Windows Media Center, but that is for the theater room, not the den. Yatse is a remote control for the Raspberry Pi, also in the theater room.)

The Roku app is a second remote for any of the three Roku boxes in the house.

Puffin is a browser that will play Flash-based video. This was a great discovery for me.

One thing I missed after cutting the cable TV cord was the “Morning Joe” show on msnbc (also the Saturday/Sunday morning “Up with Steve Kornacki”). Free 24/7 feeds of both CNN International and msnbc International are available on the web, but both are Flash-based. With Puffin, I can play either on the smartphone, and better yet, the Nexus 7 tablet.

(Drop me an email for the URLs if you can’t find them. I know of no equivalent web feed for Fox News. Rupert Murdoch is tight-fisted with his cable content.)

I have the TV Listings app set up to show shows a program guide for cable in Tulsa. I only use it for CNN/msnbc, and not much for them, but if you are still on cable or satellite, it could be more useful to you.

There is a Roku Highlights document link on the smartphone. This is my own Google Doc created to remind me and my wife some of all the specific shows we like that are available through various Roku channels.

These channels include Plex (all movies and TV shows on computers in our house), Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Sky News International in HD, Crackle, Shout Factory, iTunes Podcasts, Nowhere TV. I note the shows that either of us might want to watch, but that slip our mind when trying to think of something good to watch.

I am able to update this doc on the smartphone or on the computer. We don’t use this as much as I thought we would, but I still like to have it available as a comprehensive memory jog.

Under the table is a clipboard with a printout of the Roku highlights list. I add items as I think of them for future updates. Low tech is sometimes the appropriate tech.

Anyway, these two devices do it all for me in the den.

You may be looking into a “Black Mirror” at this very moment.

You are probably looking into a “Black Mirror” at this very moment.

(The Cord-Cutting Blog was one year old two days ago.)

This blog’s mission statement:

“Cord-cutting: the final frontier. Our continuing mission: to explore strange new shows, to seek out new tech and new implementations, to boldly kludge where no one has kludged before. And save $$.”

The cord was cut on 2/7/2015. New (as well as old) tech has been spotlighted. A fair amount of bold kludging has been done. Plenty of $$ have been saved.

But one part of the mission has been neglected lately: the exploration of strange new shows. I’ve got a very good one for you.

“Black Mirror” is a UK import available on streaming Netflix. The title refers to all the TV screens, monitors, phones and tablets that hold so much of our attention today.

The show is near-future speculative and science fiction, satire, and a bit of psychological horror.

We have seen 3 episodes so far, all different, “Black Mirror” being an anthology show. They have in common that they feel immediate and are brilliant.

The first episode is not for the squeamish, but it isn’t about blood and guts. It concerns an outrageous ransom demand made of the British Prime Minister. Whatever happens, you can be sure it will be covered by 24-hour news networks and social media.

My favorite so far is the third episode, “The Entire History of You”. It suggests that photographic memory may not be a survival trait. It definitely wouldn’t win you as many arguments as you might suppose, even if you could rewind and cast it up on a screen for others to see. In light of the Snowden and Assange revelations, how would you feel about making your personal record available to whichever three-letter agency (TLA) decides they need to see it?

No point in going on, there are plenty of reviews out there. Just wanted to give you a heads-up.

Try it, this could be your weirdest Sci-fi Saturday in quite a spell.

Commander Albert serving as officer of the watch.

The heroic Commander Albert serving as officer of the watch on our starship bridge.

We do “Sci-Fi Saturday” with MeTV, but while I was a big Wonder Woman fan in college, the shows today offer only intermittent entertainment, mainly when WW is running around in costume (come to think of it, not much has changed).

We have also seen the original Star Trek way too many times in recent years. So we feel free to substitute other content, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and other sci-fi from Amazon Prime, Netflix, or our own sci-fi content (e.g., The Outer Limits) on Plex.

Comm panel with X10 ceiling fan, overhead lights switch

Enterprise com panel over X10 remote control ceiling fan & ceiling lights switches

Oops, the tribbles got into our quadrotriticale again.

Tribbles got into our quadrotriticale again. The remote also controls X10 devices.

It’s interesting that the original Enterprise’s bridge viewscreen is almost exactly the same aspect ratio (shape) as the 65″ plasma TV in our theater room. So on Saturday, we think of the room as our bridge, complete with command chairs (Laz-E-Boys). Armed with a phaser and communicator app, we’re ready for the Gorn or any other foe. A com panel/door swoosh device on our wall annunciates entries as well as exits for galley and head runs.

I found out our subwoofer was dead (Jim) while playing around with a starfield simulation for the room. One final casualty of the lightning strike. Video Revolution wants almost as much to fix it as the original 2002 cost, so I think it’s time for a new one. For now, we get surprisingly good bass out of my old AR-12 speakers (purchased at SEVCO in 1977).

Anyway, I found a high-def video on Alien Couch Potato’s YouTube channel, created with Space Engine: “a free space simulation program that lets you explore the universe in three dimensions, from planet Earth to the most distant galaxies. Areas of the known universe are represented using actual astronomical data, while regions uncharted by astronomy are generated procedurally. Millions of galaxies, trillions of stars, countless planets…”

As detailed in my previous post, Saving YouTubes, viewing with Plex, I saved an .mp4 file of the simulation to one of our computers. It is now playable in the theater room with Plex or Emby on Roku, Chromecast, or my Raspberry Pi computer. (Enterprise D ambient bridge sound is included to complete the experience.) Playing the file on our home network saves internet bandwidth.

Our starship bridge. Mr. Sulu, arm the karaoke machine!

Mr. Sulu, arm the karaoke machine!

This video can give you a visceral understanding of the vastness of space, even in our immediate “neighborhood”.

To give you some perspective:

The Robinson family of “Lost in Space” was trying to get to Alpha Centauri, 4+ light years from Earth. (This is one of the closest stars to us, as Dr. Sheldon Cooper instructs.)

Even if they were able to travel near light speed the entire distance (not even feasible, according to Einstein), they would be looking at around 5 years to arrive, though they wouldn’t have aged much due to the relativistic effect of time dilation. They would need some really good brakes, or they wouldn’t be stopping to look around.

At the impossible speed depicted in this video, that super-fast 5-year mission would take 1/3 of a second. The video lasts an hour and 18 minutes.  You go 70,000 light-years, about 7/10 of the way across our Milky Way galaxy. The galaxy background scene changes almost imperceptibly at this speed.

The galaxy closest to us, Andromeda, is 2,500,000 light-years distant. That means that the light from it hitting our retinas today started its journey 2.5M years ago. A video showing this trip at the same speed (15 light-years/sec) would run almost two days.

Our galaxy is one of 100 billion in our universe.

That’s big.

The only way you could ever experience the incredibly faster-than-light speeds depicted in these videos is if someone invents a warp drive. (Zefram Cochrane, where are you?)

In actuality, the best speed a craft with a feasible propulsion system could attain is a small fraction of the speed of light.

There was a “conceptual interstellar spacecraft design”, Project Longshot (Wikipedia). by NASA in 1988 to reach Alpha Centauri orbit with an unmanned, nuclear-powered probe.

Wikipedia: “The journey to Alpha Centauri B orbit would take about 100 years, at an average velocity of approximately 4.5% the speed of light, and another 4.39 years would be necessary for the data to reach Earth.”

All this, Commander Albert probably ponders from from his Laz-E-Boy, er, command chair.

TiVo Mini and new 24″ LG TV in the kitchen

From my wife’s point of view, the sweetest fruit from cord-cutting so far is the hugely upgraded setup in the kitchen with a new LG 24″ TV and a TiVo Mini. All the upgrades were financed by our savings so far from cutting the cord.

A couple of months ago, we were both hanging out with a friend in his swimming pool, and the conversation turned to cord-cutting (yes, he is actually interested in the topic).

He was playfully evangelizing to completely get out of the analog tube TV business, having recently recycled his own stock of CRT monitors, old computers, etc. I had resisted his anti-tube pitch in the past.

Nine years ago, I had set up an X10 sender/receiver pair to transmit from the den to the kitchen’s 13″ tube TV so that Gaye could watch and control her recorded “General Hospital” shows  in the kitchen while she cooked.

Since X10 is old analog technology, it looks best on a standard 4:3 aspect ratio tube TV rather than a new flatscreen. (This is due to the the fact that new digital TVs have differently-shaped pixels.)

But now, Gaye has her TiVo Roamio OTA in the den, and it’s going to stay. I reminded myself that by getting a TiVo Mini in the kitchen, we could replace the 13″ tube with a larger flatscreen.

(The 13″ had really started sucking; you had to whack it sometimes to get the sound to work and the picture had faded. Plus, the X10 fritzed out when the microwave was used, so the sound had to be muted for the duration.)

The TiVo Mini connects directly with the Roamio by Ethernet wire. Another option would have been to use MoCA (Media over Coax) adapters, but our kitchen is close enough to the den for us to use a long Ethernet cable.

Labelled with Brother P-Touch

Our labelled TiVo remotes

The Mini can play any of the DVR recordings stored on the Roamio, or show you live TV by borrowing one of the Roamio’s four tuners and sharing its antenna. Like its larger sibling, it can play Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu Plus if you are subscribed.

New features on TiVo this year: Pandora, iHeart Radio, and great for us, Plex.

The remotes pair with their respective TiVo devices. I used our Brother P-touch label maker to keep them from getting mixed up.

By operating on radio frequency (RF), you don’t need to point them or even be in the same room as their respective TiVos. They can also control with infrared (IR) pulses like most remotes, so I am able to teach my IR-emitting X10 Universal 5-in-1 Learning Remote.

We still have the X10 setup in our workout room with a 1983 tube TV that still looks as good as it did in the 80s.

Or even the 70s

Early 80s “8’s The Place” promo on an early 80s TV.

We also recycled the 1989 tube TV in our bedroom that had gotten zapped by the lightning strike two months ago. It was replaced by a new 32″ LG TV hooked to the Winegard FlatWave amplified flat indoor antenna we already had in there.

All these improvements fell on and around our wedding anniversary.

13th wedding anniversary gifts are supposed to be lace, textiles, or furs.

Instead, I suggest a new tradition of saying it with TV. 😉