Friday 22 January 2010

And now for something completely different... a bit of science fiction

This month I have started attending a creative writing course at Thomas More Institute.

The second week's assignment was a 500 word dramatic monologue based on the character we'd developed the week before - in my case, 44-year-old Jack Duffy, who makes a living as a taxi pilot in 2258.

I did post it here but Blogger is playing silly buggers with the formatting, so you can read it on Scribd here. It's also on my posterous. Feedback is always welcome.


Saturday 16 January 2010

One year without TV - Part One

In just a couple of weeks time, it will have been a year since my wife and I last received any kind of TV broadcast into our home. We don't even own a TV since we moved to Canada.

That's not to say we don't watch TV shows, news and movies, it's just that we've been using different technologies to do it. In this first post I will explore why we did it,  how we made the transition away from broadcast TV, and what technologies we found to be useful. In part two I'll look back at our experiences and assess the pros and cons of not having a TV, and discuss where this might lead, for us and for society as a whole. If you'd prefer a shorter version of this post, you can head on over to my posterous blog.

Watching TV at a time that you choose

So, why did we make the switch? One of the biggest reasons was time pressure. It's an inescapable truth that we are all much busier than we were 20 years ago, in the days when there were fewer TV channels than fingers on your hand. We have gone through a lifestyle revolution where an almost infinite numbers of online and offline activities are available to fill up our time.

When it comes to TV, it's no longer practical to watch a show at the time when it's on, at least not if you want to catch every episode. And who has time to mess around with videotapes? (or these days, DVD recorders)

The solution that presented itself was PVRs (Personal Video Recorders), which allow you to automatically record all episodes of a series by the push of a button, and watch them back in your own time. You can also pause, rewind and fast forward through ads. Being in the UK, Tivo was not an option, but we were still able to get on the PVR bandwagon. We had Sky+ for a couple of years, and then V+, which worked quite well for us. And once you've had a PVR, you'll never want to go back to normal TV (sounds like a line from a commercial, but it's true).

The burdens of PVRs

But we found that having Sky+/V+ presented new problems. This was the first time we'd had digital TV or cable/satellite TV too, and it meant an increase from 5 channels to around 300 channels. This was not a good thing. More channels meant more shows that looked interesting, and more choices about what to watch. More choice is not a good thing. We found that we were accumulating shows we wanted to watch faster than we could watch them, and were having to spend time deciding which shows to delete, or copying recordings off to DVD. What was supposed to bring us more entertainment was becoming a chore.

What's more, at that time it was more or less impossible to have PVR technology without paying an expensively monthly contract (usually higher than a standard non-PVR subscription). Now, you can get PVR boxes that work with Freeview or Freesat - meaning no monthly fee. This would be a slightly better option - but I would anticipate an excess of content still being a problem.

Airdates and TV downloading

The other thing that was happening around the same time was that we were getting into more and more American shows - such as Lost, Heroes, Jericho, 24 and Enterprise. Typically these shows air weeks to months earlier in the USA than in the UK. And in the case of Lost, we found ourselves unable to watch it legally without switching provider when Sky One and Virgin Media fell out over licensing (see right). And there was no legal way to obtain any of these shows when they first came out. So we began to download shows as .avi files from the Internet - typically using torrent sites such as isohunt and the Pirate Bay. This meant we could get the shows we wanted as soon as they came out, while everyone else is still talking about them, and best of all, with no adverts.

Now of course these files are natively viewed on a computer, not a television, which was ok on my widescreen monitor, but not ideal. Computers typically aren't set up with a nearby couch or armchair for viewing. So we started to look at media players - put simply, a box that sits under your TV and lets you watch computer media files from its own hard drive or from your home network.

Media Players

Our first media player was a modded XBox games console (modding is a legal process which involves adding a chip to the console so it can run any software, and installing a new software interface). We used the very impressive XBMC (XBox Media Centre) software, which lets you run XBox games from hard disk, run emulators, stream internet radio, watch movie trailers, and play any music or video files from an internal hard drive or your network. XBMC remains one of the best interfaces out there, with beautifully designed screens, easy to use and highly functional. It pulls in movie & TV thumbnails and info from the internet automatically.

We found it was a very powerful way to watch downloaded episodes on our TV - by simply sharing the torrent download directory over the network, browsing the directory on the XBox, and clicking the file. We now had all the PVR like features (pause, rewind/fast-forward, watch when you like) for our media files.

NAS (Network Attached Storage) and Digital Downsizing

We continued using this system in parallel with our PVR, and accumulated more and more media files of TV shows and movies. We realised we needed to have a single machine to store all our files, accessible over the network, so we began to construct an Ubuntu Linux computer into which we could put lots of hard drives to store our media. This had some limited success, but I don't get on with Linux configuration, and it just became too much work.

Fortunately, I discovered FreeNAS, a Linux-like operating system pre-configured for exactly this purpose, sharing files over a network (known as network attached storage). There are more expensive options available, but FreeNAS can run from a USB key stuck into any old PC you have lying around - and can be easily configured with no command-line stuff from a powerful web interface. It was just the job, and worked beautifully. Soon we were buying 750Gb and 1Tb hard drives (surprisingly cheaply) to store our media files.

By now it was early 2009, and we were making plans to emigrate to Canada. We realised that taking our huge collection of both bought and recorded DVDs and CDs was not an option, and that we could digitize all our music and movies onto the NAS hard drives - and take those hard drives with us to Canada. Mrs Alex did all the hard work, and we soon had eight hard drives full of media to take to Canada.

Soon after getting to Canada, we acquired an old PC cheaply, and installed FreeNAS again, to make a new NAS server, which I affectionately call Tardis, giving us access to all our old files.

A 21st century living room

As we set up home in Canada, we thought hard about how to lay out our living room. We realised that we spend a lot of our time on our laptops, and that having a TV in lounge makes the room very TV centric. My monitor was able to function as a "TV screen" for media playback from the NAS, swivelled round to face the sofa when needed as a TV, and swivelled back to the desk when needed by my Mac. And so we were able to layout our living room without a TV. Looking back, I guess this was the moment we decided not to have broadcast TV any more.

I can't describe how much nicer it is to not have a TV in your lounge. By default, you sit down and do other things - whereas in most lounges when you have a big TV screen in front of you, the room almost invites you to turn it on.

The Popcorn Hour, HD, and Video Projectors

And so we enjoyed this set up for the first six months of our "year without TV"... downloading new shows and watching films from our collection via the NAS and my computer monitor. But by now, some of the shows we watched were also available in high definition, which couldn't really be played back on my 1680x1050 monitor. And I was aware that audio-wise, our system was not ideal (we were just using my computer speakers). We started to wonder about the possibility of setting up a home cinema.

I'd been thinking for some time about getting a better media player. We'd left the XBox in the UK, being too heavy to transport, and using my computer to play shows was a little annoying. The media player market is still in its infancy, but there are many many choices available. There's MythTV (too much Linux configuration for my liking), Windows Media Center (not so great at playing back some video formats, plus, it's by Microsoft), Apple TV (but you can only play shows and movies bought from Apple), and many more. Ultimately the device we settled on is a Popcorn Hour (also known as a Networked Media Tank).

The Popcorn Hour is a tiny box (not much bigger than a hard drive) that plugs into a TV or projector to stream media from your network. It has some of the best support for different video formats - including our digitized VOB files (DVDs) and FLAC files (Audio CDs). What's more it is capable of HD output and optical audio out. I also like it because you're not running a noisy PC, it's quiet and very low power consumption. From a technical point of view it's hard to beat. My lovely wife bought me one for my birthday.

It does have some disadvantages, it's interface is much more primitive than the likes of XBMC, and not very usable for music files. You can install better interfaces, but this involves a lot of work labelling your files in special ways and generating custom menus. Unfortunately the device is not as powerful as a PC, and it shows. But I can live with that, for what it does. Functionality is more important than ease-of-use (much though it pains me as a user-centric designer to say that!)

In August, we moved to a bigger place with 2 living rooms, and setting up a Popcorn Hour-powered became a real possibility. Our friend Eric very kindly lent us an HD-capable projector, and we put up a shelf and drilled a hole through the wall so that we could have our NAS server in the spare room but the Popcorn Hour and projector in our lounge. We painted the walls white to give us a better surface to project onto, and before long it was all systems go. We were even able to hook up our Wii to the projector as well.

This is a great set up, we're now able to watch our movies projected onto the wall, and when you watch HD films you can see every detail. We've been enjoying this set up for the last 6 months - downloading new shows like Dollhouse, Doctor Who and ReGenesis as well as our old favourites like Lost and Heroes.

Watching TV online, proxies and protected content

Beyond downloading, there's another way to watch TV online, that we've dabbled in but not fully explored, and that's watching TV streamed over the Internet. Probably the best example in the world is the BBC's iPlayer, which allows you to watch BBC shows soon after broadcast, streamed over the Internet. Unfortunately, because the BBC is funded by UK licence payers, the service checks what country you are accessing the site from and blocks you if you are not in the UK (as do the UK's other online TV services - 4od, demandfive, ITV Player, MSN Video Player, and Zattoo.)

Similar geo-IP technology is used in the USA to restrict access to Hulu and ABC, and is also used for audio services such as Pandora (US) and Spotify (UK).

As a UK citizen living abroad this is very frustrating. I would be happy to continue to pay my license fee while abroad in exchange for officially supported access to BBC content. Unfortunately the legal and technical systems in place do not allow this.

But fortunately there is a workaround - to use a proxy server. A proxy server is a computer in the country you want to pretend to be in, that relays your connections, fooling sites like iPlayer into believing you are in that country. We've started to use a service called Flote, which for 9.99GBP a month, gives access to US, UK, Canadian and Dutch proxies, enabling access to almost all of the services listed above. Proxies are legal, but something of a loophole at the moment. If you'd like to learn more about proxies, there's a good description in this episode of the excellent CBC Spark podcast.

The proxy service means I can watch UK shows like Doctor Who even while out of the country, but in practice I mostly download the torrent files unless I am away from home. This may be partly because I haven't found a good solution to get Internet streams onto the projector (One option might be a Slingbox, but they're not cheap).

Life without a TV

So this brings me up to the present - you can see how we got here, and hopefully you learnt a thing or two along the way about what options might be available to you. If you're thinking of breaking free of broadcast TV you may also want to take a look at Jeff MacArthur's

In the next post I will tell you about what the experience has been like for us, the pros and cons, and where this might all lead.

Thanks for reading!


Travel Bite #2: Lake Champlain and a taste of New England

Back in May last year we picked up a Communauto car and did a day trip down into New England. We went down the western side of the massive Lake Champlain through New York State and back up the eastern side through Vermont.

We headed south over the border on Interstate 97 and stopped at a tourist information centre soon after where were able to pick up some useful maps and leaflets. We drove further south and were treated to impressive views of the Adirondack mountains towering overhead, which we plan to visit someday as well as the nearby Lake Placid. We had planned to stop first in Plattsburgh (which incidentally is supposed to be a good location for cheap flights across the USA, as many of the budget airlines don't fly to Canada).

Unfortunately not long after we got over the border the heavens opened, so rather than stop we continued south along the 9 and more minor roads by the edge of the lake (which is technically a very large river).

We saw some beautiful houses on the waterfront. As we have seen in most places in North America, waterfront access is often difficult as it tends to be private land - unlike the UK where rights of way and footpaths exist by most lakes and rivers. One house had a beautiful little summer house on stilts on the water with a hammock looking out onto the lake - it made you wish you lived there!

By now the rain had stopped and we spent some time walking down the streets and to the water's edge in a beautiful little village called Essex, where there seemed to be a very sleepy pace of life and fog engulfed the end of the pier.

Outside of the village we stopped at our first US "historic site", a tiny limestone school house from 1816 (photo on Flickr - see below).

We continued south down long and winding (but nonetheless attractive) roads until soon after Port Henry, were we began to head Northeast, and took the Champlain Bridge across into Vermont.

By now the rain had stopped and the sun came out, treating us to some beautiful views over green fields and of attractive wooden farmhouses with pill shaped grain silos.

We stopped at an interesting art gallery/antiquities store and then continued further north until we reached the city of Burlington, which was surprisingly attractive and felt quite British with ice-cream kiosks, clothes stores and pedestrianised streets. We wandered through a shopping centre and stopped for tea and cake at the excellent Dobra Tea where you can sample teas from every country in the world accompanied by delicious salads, snacks and pastries.

We then began to head home, taking the scenic route across the islands through the agricultural settlements of South Hero, North Hero and Alburgh.

The light was amazing as the afternoon drew to a close, making some wonderful reflections on the water and making the trees and grass seem a lush yellowy green.

We crossed back into Canada on a minor road near Rouses Point, which was pretty much one guy in a booth - a much more pleasant experience than our crossing south on the Interstate (and no queue).

The whole trip was about 4.5 hours driving. It was great to get a taster of the areas around Lake Champlain and we left feeling that there's plenty more for us to explore next time. All in all, a great day out, despite the rain. You can see our route here:

You can see higher resolution photos in the full set on Flickr here.

You can find more information about the area via the following links:


Sunday 10 January 2010

Travel Bite #1: A winter drive through the Eastern Sierra, USA

Welcome to the first of my "travel bites" - short travelogues focussing on a particular place I've been.
In mid-December Mrs. Alex and I took a road trip through a large chunk of southwestern USA. For me the highlight was the spectacular scenery we encountered as we drove down US 395 through the Eastern Sierra, from Lake Tahoe past Mono Lake and onwards south into the Owens Valley and then east towards Death Valley.

Lake Tahoe
We arrived in Lake Tahoe just before sunset, having taken route 50 east from Sacramento.

We found a waterfront park, closed for the season but accessible on foot. We trudged across the snow covered sand to the water's edge and watched the sun go down.

Carson City & Lake Topaz
After dark we drove to Carson City, a sort of Blackpool version of Las Vegas, where we spent the night in a motel that seemed to have been left unchanged since the 80s. The next morning we set out early and headed south, dipping in and out of fog-filled valleys. Snow capped peaks were all around us as we descended below the cloud layer at Lake Topaz.

The lake was half covered in thick ice with ice crystals sparkling in the bright morning sun.

The ice was so thick we even ventured out onto the lake, and felt like we could have walked further still!

Mono Lake & Lee Vining
We continued south, stopping regularly for photos as each corner revealed ever more impressive snow-covered landscapes. The roads were clear and empty despite guidebook warnings of impassable roads. Soon we approached an even vaster misty valley, that of Mono Lake.

Here the overnight fog had allowed ice crystals to gather on every tree branch and flora, creating an incredible winter wonderland.

We wandered around the cemetery, and imagined ourselves in Narnia.

After a brunch stop at the excellent Nicely's diner in Lee Vining, we drove round to the south side of the lake to see the Tufa. The road down to the water's edge was inaccessible, but we got close enough to see the tufa (salty stalagmite-like deposits rising from the lake), and even heard two coyotes howling in the distance. We could just make them out.

Inyo Forest, Mammoth and Owens Valley
Continuing through the Inyo Forest region we neared the Mammoth ski area. This side road and a couple of other scenic loops were inaccessible without snow chains.

But we didn't care as we were seeing plenty of amazing scenery.

We passed through the town of Bishop and were amazed by the view as the landscape opened out into the vast Owens Valley. This was one of those views impressive in its vastness to which a camera just cannot do justice. We had started to lose altitude now, and it was warm enough in the sunshine to build a mini-snowman and have a little snowball fight.

We drove further on as the snows began to disappear and be replaced by grasslands and then desert as we headed east on the 190 towards Death Valley... but that's a story for another travel bite!

All in all we spent probably 5 to 6 hours driving, plus lots of stops, and it was a drive I would recommend to anyone, particularly in this quiet winter period.

Photos, Links, and Map
As well as the photos above, you can view more images with high resolution versions on Flickr:
You can see our route on this map (you'll need to zoom out a bit):

I plan to make these travel bites a regular feature, so let me know what you think!