audio/video content

Raspberry Pi TV Time Machine

I just saw this cool little TV Time Machine project for the Raspberry Pi:

“For the innards, Wellington used a cannibalised thrift store Dell monitor, hooking it up to a Raspberry Pi 2 and some second-hand speakers. After the addition of Adafruit’s video looper code to loop free content downloaded from the Internet Archive, plus some 3D-printed channel and volume knobs, the TV Time Machine was complete.”

However, we already have a TV Time Machine that can play anything available on our TiVo Roamio OTA (over-the-air):

Broadcast television today is a retro paradise: MeTV, Antenna TV, GRIT, Comet, Heroes & Icons, GetTV, COZI, etc.

The TiVo also can provide DVR recordings, any show we have on Plex, anything on Netflix or Amazon.

Our TV Time Machine in action:

We run the HDMI output of our TiVo to our big TV in the den.

But a composite output is available as well.

I connected an X10 video sender unit to this output with an RCA cable (red, white, and yellow plugs).

Whatever is playing on TiVo in the den is transmitted via the sender to the video receiver unit in the guest room, which is attached to the 1983 TV set by a standard TV coax cable.

The den TV doesn’t need to be on.

[Above left: video sender unit in den; above right: video receiver unit in the guest room. The little curved rod is an IR extender, not needed here. It can be folded down.]

Control the den TiVo remotely from the guest room with the free TiVo phone app:

I try to keep the sender off when not in use because it jams part of the crowded 2.4 GHz band used by older wifi routers; see previous post Conflict between Wifi, X10 video sender.

The X10 receiver can be on all the time. The old TV is always set on channel 3.

(Video sender/receiver pair in the TTM aStore)

Since these devices are analog, the picture looks especially good on an old analog TV.

Next up: “Police Squad!”… IN COLOR

We have all 6 “Police Squad!” and all 49 “The Outer Limits” episodes on Plex.


The official demo includes a tour of Plex’ “intergalactic headquarters”.
(No, Edward Snowden hasn’t gone to work there.)


The Echo Dot/Alexa, Amazon’s hands-free, voice-controlled device, recently acquired a new skill: Plex.

(Plex is a great, free way to make your own music/video content available on your smart TV, Roku, Amazon Fire, etc.)

I have worked with this skill quite a bit, but it doesn’t seem highly usable for me. Why?

  • You must already have a Plex app up and available for Alexa to control. If I have just used my Logitech Harmony remote to set up our Roku’s Plex channel, then the remote is a more straightforward way to make selections.
  • Even when the Plex channel is up on our Roku 3, Alexa occasionally seems to be blind to its availability. A reboot of the Roku 3 is needed to get Alexa to “see” it. (It may be more a problem with this model of Roku than with Alexa.)
  • If you have more than one Plex Media Server (we do), it’s time-consuming to get Alexa to switch servers. You must listen to a numbered list of available servers before you can respond.
  • Voice control generally works OK for movies. For TV shows, I rarely would remember the specific season and episode number. With a physical remote, you don’t need to recall anything; it’s browsable up there on the screen.
  • Asking Alexa for suggestions, or to shuffle music by an artist, or to play something new works fairly well. But it frequently takes me more than one try to get Alexa to play a specific album. Often, only one song is played from the album (maybe an Alexa bug).

The Alexa Plex skill will likely improve; this is the initial roll-out.

Note: when Alexa is controlling Plex, the music or movie sound issues from the device running the Plex app (e.g., smart TV, Roku), rather than from the Echo Dot. That’s fine if your Echo Dot is located close enough to you.

Alexa plugged into our sound system

But if your Echo Dot is plugged into a sound system playing non-Alexa sound, the Dot may be too close to the speakers for Alexa to understand without you yelling the entire command. (When Alexa herself is playing internet radio, merely the word “Alexa” gets her to mute the sound so she can hear the command.)

Then, you probably would need to use the sound-switching tactic I described in a previous post, Amazon Echo Dot as a stereo component. Or use a long cord to get the Echo Dot away from the speakers and closer to your voice.

Or, get another Echo Dot to sit within arm’s length, and change its wake word to “Echo”, “Amazon”, or “Computer”. They only cost $50.

However, two talking devices in the same room might give you app-o-Plex-y 🙂 .

“A-Plex-a” is cool and fun, though impractical for my everyday use.

If you are a Plex and Alexa user, do go ahead and try it; the price is right: $0.

Alexa Voice Commands for Plex

dragons

Avast, mateys: here be dragons!

Well now, here’s a touchy subject in the world of cord-cutting: piracy.

A while back, an acquaintance posed a question to me, the presumed cord-cutting expert.

He said a “friend of his” was wanting to buy something he called a “DigiXtream Kodi box” that would let him stream TV shows and movies, even if they were still in the theater.

His question was, could this be legal?

I told him that I didn’t know anything about his friend’s prospective purchase, but in no way could I imagine that it would be legal.

Subsequently, I looked into his question.


At that time, the only way I knew for pirated content to be mass-distributed was with BitTorrent software. BT is a way to download files hosted on multiple users’ computers around the world.

When you initiate a file download (from a torrent link), free BitTorrent software on your PC pieces it together segment by segment from other computers around the world with the partial or complete file. Then if someone else wants the same file, your computer (if still running the BT software) may automatically offer to upload segments to that user.

BitTorrent (using peer-to-peer file sharing, or “P2P”) has many legal uses, but downloading pirated movies isn’t one of them.

Back in the early 2000s, I used BT a few times to retrieve episodes of “Survivor” that my wife somehow missed recording. More recently, I downloaded an obscure and unavailable British movie called “Let’s Kill Uncle”, which I wrote about in this post: Let’s kill Uncle first!.

I wouldn’t do that again, due to the way BT shares files. The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) or any content rights holder can easily join a popular torrent themselves and capture a list of users’ internet addresses. They are probably more interested in downloaders of current, popular movies, but in retrospect, I was rolling the dice.

I know of a friend of a friend here in Tulsa who got a warning from Cox in just that way.


Kodi, I did know about. I’ve talked about it here numerous times.

It’s legitimate open-source free media player software. I have a Raspberry Pi I use as a media computer, running on free OSMC software. (OSMC is a minimal, self-updating version of Linux, packaged with a Kodi front-end.)

There are many addons in the official Kodi repository for audio, video, pictures, weather, games, etc. I’ve been using the Pi to stream our own in-house content with Plex, plus internet music and video content, as intended by its creators.


To my surprise, I found that Amazon sells a plethora of cheap computers, preloaded with custom builds of Kodi and third-party unofficial addons whose sole purpose is to pirate video content.

Apparently, selling the boxes is legal, but their purpose is clearly illegal. Isn’t it? People would seem to be taking a big chance, buying one of these boxes and yo-ho-ho-ing merrily away, bottle of rum in hand.

The Kodi developers are striving to keep their trademarked name dissociated from these boxes and addons. Read this lengthy and angry thread on their forum. Here is Kodi’s statement last year: The Piracy Box Sellers and YouTube Promoters Are Killing Kodi.

So I looked at Amazon user comments about the various boxes. They ranged from “perfect for cord-cutters”, to “returned; too hard to use”, to “broke after two months”.

But nowhere did I see comments like “beware, I got busted”, “had to pay a big fine”, or “doing time in Federal ‘PMITA’ prison” (“Office Space” reference).

How could that be?


Turns out there are a lot of websites offering “free” streaming movies via file sharing services called cyberlockers. If you go searching for free versions of any current movie, you will find them.

Clearly, pretty much all the content in these lockers is pirated. The quality is highly variable.

If you watch these “free” movies on your computer via browser, the price you pay is taking a high risk of malware infection and identity theft.

The newer unofficial Kodi third-party addons (some older ones use BitTorrent) dodge this specific malware risk by navigating an ever-changing landscape of direct link addresses to the cyberlockers’ contents without taking you to the potentially infectious websites.

But the custom Kodi builds (created by parties unknown) and third-party addons themselves could compromise your security. There is no accountability or support.

Non-dangerous downsides, particularly for non-techies: locating specific content of adequate quality is often hit-or-miss and time-consuming. These addons are not always user-friendly, and they can break or lose support over time.


The cyberlockers’ business model is multi-level marketing. Read the sordid details here: Cyberlockers: Explaining Piracy’s Profit Pyramid.

As the article notes, to supplement their ad income, many cyberlockers now charge a subscription fee for premium pirated HD content and faster downloads. The addons cannot bypass these fees.


Streaming or downloading via third-party addons involves only three parties: the user, his ISP, and the cyberlocker. That makes it difficult for content owners to trace users.

fbiantipiracy2

Currently, it would be impractical, though not impossible, for the ISP to act on its own.

It would need to be capturing the user’s stream in real time to determine what was being watched, even if they had determined that the source site was a cyberlocker.

But only the copyright owner of that specific content is in a position to initiate legal action, so the ISP would need to notify it.

That is too much expense and trouble for an ISP to undertake without a compelling reason to do so.

But what if the copyright holder offered a bounty to the ISP? (to keep the terminology piratical). Or what if the content owner and the ISP were under the same ownership (e.g., Google)?

Could the MPAA set up a “honeypot” file at their own cyberlocker, and nail any miscreants who show up for the free goodies? I don’t see why not, though that may constitute entrapment.

Might the entire process of detection and documentation be automated?

Speculation.


I have read numerous opinions and have yet to find a clear-cut answer to the legality question. It differs from country to country. For the U.S., the following comment on Reddit perhaps best captures the general understanding, or lack thereof:

“Is watching streaming movies illegal?

“There is currently no definitive answer to this question. Depending on the site and file type, online streaming may create a full-length temporary copy of the movie on your computer. Alternatively, the program may delete the data as you watch.

“Some courts have held that even temporary copies may violate the law. However, the Copyright Office contends there is no violation when ‘a reproduction manifests itself so fleetingly that it cannot be copied, perceived or communicated’.

“Though the law is unclear, it is useful to note that owners, such as the MPAA, rarely go after individuals who watch streaming movies. Illegal or not, it’s much more difficult to track these users down. Unlike BitTorrent downloads, the MPAA can’t just sign into a program and snag IP addresses.”


At best, this is a gray area, ethically and legally. It does pose a risk, though of a kind different from BitTorrent downloading. From a practical standpoint, the third-party addons are likely to let you down as a consistent source for an evening’s entertainment.

Content owners have become increasingly interested in finding ways to offer their movies and TV shows on a subscription basis, since they have found that most people prefer to enjoy quality, worry-free, and user-friendly offerings.

Pay services have arrived in the form of smartphone/smart TV apps or Roku channels, such as Sling TV, WatchESPN, HBO GO, Showtime, CBS All Access, as well as old standbys Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.

Using the legitimate services assures that you won’t be wasting your time, or walking planks of any kind.

Arrr.

Amazon Echo Dot, aka Alexa, “thinking” in our theater room.

The Amazon Echo Dot with Alexa does many fun and useful voice-controlled things, including playing Jeopardy! and Seinfeld trivia, or giving you the local weather. You can place one anywhere you have an AC outlet, and you can have them in different rooms.

But instead of using it as a standalone device, I plugged one into our theater room sound system (with a 3.5mm plug to RCA stereo cable).

Our receiver must be on and set to the proper input to hear Alexa speak or play. I leave it on most of the time so I can call out any Pandora station or Tunein radio station (“Alexa, play Jazz 89.5 on Tunein”), or put on an environmental sound (“Alexa, play thunderstorm/rain/ocean sounds”).

(Most local stations are available via Tunein, including my favorites, KWGS 89.5 HD1-Public Radio/HD2-Jazz.)

You can also tell Alexa to set a sleep timer to turn off your sounds in an hour, or whatever time period you want.

I like this so much, it is now my primary way to listen to radio in our theater room. The data usage is negligible even on our second-from-the-bottom tier of Cox internet service (“Essential”: 1024 GB/month data usage, 15 Mbps max download speed).

I don’t need the receiver to be on to voice-control our home automation, though I prefer to hear her feedback, in case there is a miscommunication.

These features alone have made the Echo Dot well worth the price for me.

One hitch: if we are listening to non-Alexa music or TV sound at a decent volume, we would have to yell to get a command through to Alexa, due to her proximity to the speakers. (When Alexa herself is the sound source, she quiets it down once she hears the word “Alexa” spoken.)

To avoid yelling, mute the receiver (though you wouldn’t hear Alexa’s response), or temporarily switch the receiver to Alexa’s input.

Since I use a Logitech Harmony remote, I built soft buttons into every “Activity” so I can easily switch to Alexa’s sound briefly, then switch back to the sound input we are currently using (e.g., “InputTv” for Activity “Roku”).

Harmony remote “Activities” screen / Roku “Activity” detail: custom receiver sound input buttons

Browser view. I was able to fix the database’s misspelling in Track 3’s title with Mp3tag. (Click to enlarge)

I probably was drawn to listen to the original “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” soundtracks this week due to my last few posts subconsciously reminding me of that 1964 spy show’s gadgetry.

Some time back, I bought the three U.N.C.L.E. soundtrack packages (2 CDs each) from Film Score Monthly. They were compiled by Jon Burlingame, who also wrote the detailed booklets included in each set. The scores by Jerry Goldsmith, Morton Stevens, Walter Scharf, Lalo Schifrin, Gerald Fried, Robert Drasnin and Richard Shores still sound great.

I can hardly stand to put CDs into a player at this point, preferring to rip them once to my Plex server for anytime, anywhere use with Plex apps in Roku, my smartphone, or the Raspberry Pi/OSMC. My mental set has changed, as when TV came in and altered peoples’ relationship to radio.

Plex Chromecast’d from phone app to the big system.

It’s especially difficult to physically handle these sets, as 2-CD jewel boxes seem prone to breakage and droppage. Also, the fat little booklets (important for full enjoyment of the music) do not enjoy being extracted from or replaced in the cases.

I had previously ripped these CDs with Windows Media Player, but the result was a mess. WMP’s tagging of the .mp3 files was inconsistent, possibly due to the sets being limited editions. This made them poorly organized under Plex.

By now, I know about Plex naming conventions, and use a free tool, Mp3tag, to add/change the tags embedded in each .mp3. So I was ready to try again.


The first problem is with Plex seeing each CD of the pair as a separate album. To solve it:

  • Rip the first CD of the set. Then open up Mp3tag and display the folder containing the .mp3 files. Mp3tag shows you a tag called “discnumber”.
  • Select all the tracks, make their discnumber=1 and save.
  • Do the same with the ripped tracks from the second disc, making those tracks discnumber=2.
  • Then you can move all the .mp3s into a single folder, and Plex will see it as a single album with 2 CDs.

In addition, Plex needed a couple of tags to be fixed:

The “Album” and “Album Artist” tags are key.

I had to experiment with the “Album” tag. Windows Media Player had tagged it “The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Vol. 1 [Original Soundtrack Album] Disc 1” (and then Disc 2), which confused Plex, even after removing the “Disc 1/2″ part of the tag.

Ultimately, in Mp3tag, I changed all the tracks to Album=”The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Vol. 1″ and Album Artist=”Various Artists”. The latter is a catchall solution for compilation albums, and soundtrack albums not entirely composed of tracks from a single artist.

Windows Media Player had also filed the album folder under Music/Soundtrack. To correspond with my retagging, I moved all the tracks to a folder I named “The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Vol. 1″ (same as the Album tag) under the already-existing Music/Various Artists folder.

Mp3tag revealed that the music already was tagged Genre=”Soundtrack”, which is good enough for my purposes, so I deleted the now-empty Soundtracks folder.

I repeated the above for Volumes 2 and 3.

Using Mp3tag free software to fix tags for Vol.3. I dragged the key tags into view. (Click to enlarge)

The album art Plex selected for each album was a bit grainy. If you can find (or scan) a higher-resolution version, you can edit the album in Plex and add the new art under “Poster”. I also added a landscape-oriented Background image of the U.N.C.L.E. logo for each album.

(FYI, most CDs rip correctly with no alteration needed. These were exceptions.)


Not yet content, I wanted to keep all the album booklets together for use while listening.

I repurposed a UPS mailer, printing and gluing on an image found via Google.

(I always wondered why Napoleon Solo’s badge was #11, while Illya was #2. No mystery about Mr. Waverly being #1. If Solo ever complained, maybe Illya pointed out in mock solace that “11” in binary is 3 in decimal.)

Back in the dot-matrix printer era (the 1990s), I printed out an excellent online U.N.C.L.E. TV episode guide, written by Bill Koenig. At that time, I went so far as to bind it into a homemade U.N.C.L.E. folder. With the new packet,  I have a dossier.

(This guide is available at SpyCommandFeatures.wordpress.com with additional articles about the show. I added a shortcut to my phone for even easier reference.)

Homemade episode guide and CD booklet folder


Heroes & Icons (Tulsa channel 41.4) has been playing “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” I have recorded all but 4 of the 105 episodes to hard drive with my Raspberry Pi/OSMC/Windows Media Center setup. The remaining 4 should be coming up within the next month.

My next project may be to remove the commercials and convert them to .mp4 format with MCEBuddy.


Previous U.N.C.L.E. research from Tulsa TV Memories:

The T-Town Affair

U.N.C.L.E., SAGE, SABRE, Strangelove & Tulsa: Connections

And, U.N.C.L.E. HQ in the TTM aStore