Thursday, July 22, 2010

Be the One.

Be the One. Sign the petition. Restore the Gulf.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

How I ditched DirecTV and their $100/month bill

It's official. I cut the proverbial cord. I canceled my DirecTV service in favor of internet TV.

Before I proceed, I want to make clear that I really have no problems with DirecTV. I was a loyal customer for a decade. I'm not a fan of some of their subcontracted technicians, but overall, I rarely needed to invoke customer service, and when I did, it was generally a good experience. What I did not like about DirecTV (or any paid television option currently available) was that I was paying $100/month but only watching a handful of channels - mostly locals, which I could technically get for free over-the-air.

I would absolutely love if a la carte TV came to be, where I could build my own bundle of channels and just pay for those. I'd gladly pay! But since that's not an option, I'm forced to go the other extreme, and basically pay nothing instead. It seems like the cable and satellite companies are missing out on a niche audience that, according to CNN, is growing - people that are ditching their cable and satellite bills altogether. 1 in 8 people in 2010, they predict.

There was a certain sense of "Yeah! Fight The Man!" rebellion that came to me when I hung up the phone for the last time with DirecTV, as well as a bit of fear. Trepidation, if you will. Like, this afternoon, when I was driving home from the gym and heard a radio commercial for one of my favorite TV shows, Rescue Me. The new season starts tonight. I will not be able to watch it "live." For a moment, I wanted to grab my blankie and run back to mama.

Still, I think I'm going to be OK, and after a week or so of tinkering and trial and error, I've got my home theater PC up and running, and all is well.

There are 2 parts to my setup, one of which requires a preface. I'm not completely relying on the internet for TV. I could if I wanted to - the TV tuner I bought for my PC does support the reception of free over-the-air HD local channels. However, my current situation will make my choice clear.

You see, for a decade or so, I have paid two bills: a DirecTV bill for my satellite TV, and a cable bill for my internet access. I originally had to go with satellite TV because they were the only option to receive the NHL Center Ice package, which allowed me to watch out-of-market hockey games (which was very important to me at the time). I had to go with cable internet because, well, it was the fastest option out there (and still is - I love my Comcast cable internet, in spite of the fact that I fear Comcast is the next coming of Satan).

When I signed up for Comcast, there were two pricing tiers: one for current (TV) customers, and one for non-TV customers. It was $30/month cheaper for internet service if you were a TV customer, but the limited basic cable TV package only cost $20/month. So, if I signed up for limited basic cable, I'd be saving $10/month over not signing up - even if I never used the cable TV. So I went that route. (This was, of course, 10 years ago - I'm sure things have changed since).

So that's the first part of my setup - I'm taking advantage of the limited basic cable that I was already paying for. That gets me my local channels over cable (in HD even!). It's kind of like the olden days when TV channels only went up to 60-something, and skipped a bunch of numbers in between.

The second part of my setup is the internet TV, which I am viewing through Boxee. My first attempt at using Boxee was to install it on my Apple TV. While it worked, I had some major complaints. First, the wifi in the Apple TV is extremely flaky, and it would drop out all the time. To add to that frustration, once you're logged into Boxee, if the internet connection drops, Boxee doesn't throw an error message. It just returns zero results for whatever you were searching for, or dumps back to the home screen when you try to watch a video.

The other problem I had with using the Apple TV for Boxee was that the Apple TV just isn't powerful enough to push video out smoothly at 1080. It was OK at 720, but at 1080 resolution, video got choppy - particularly Flash video. (Maybe the flaky wifi contributed to this, as it does rely on internet streaming - I'm not sure). And speaking of Flash, the current version of Boxee at the time of this writing did not include Flash 10.1, which most of the major streaming video sources were requiring - so I had to go through a process of SSH'ing into my Apple TV over the network and downloading and installing the Flash update via the command line - something my mom would definitely not be comfortable doing.

So, the Apple TV running Boxee was not going to be my path to TV-bill freedom.

Then, I had a thought: what if I took the PC that I built a few months back to play Ultima Online, and ran Boxee on that? I looked up Boxee's recommended system specs for Windows:

  • a dual-core x86 system at 2.66GHz or faster (check!)
  • 2GB of RAM (check!)
  • a video card that supports OpenGL 1.4 or higher (check!)
  • DirectX 9 (check!)
Hmm. Seems like a no-brainer! So I downloaded and installed Boxee on my PC, and moved it into the living room. It had a wifi card in it, so I connected to the internet that way, then hooked it up to my TV via a DVI-to-HDMI cable, and voila. Smooth streaming video over the internet to my TV.

The next step was a bit of an experiment, because I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to just simply split my cable and run it to the PC. I only have one Comcast cable drop coming into my house, and that runs straight into my cable modem (despite the fact that I also pay for limited basic TV cable).

I picked up a 2.4GHz 2-way splitter and a roll of RG6 coax cable and held my breath. I disconnected my cable modem, added the splitter, then reconnected the cable modem to that. And... whoa! My internet was still working! With that hurdle crossed, it was time to try running it to my TV. I wasn't sure if I was going to need some sort of cable box from Comcast in order to access the cable TV service I was paying for.

It turns out, all I needed was a TV tuner for my PC that supported the QAM digital cable standard. So I ran over to CompUSA (aka TigerDirect) and got this USB TV tuner (that also supports over-the-air HD, which was my backup plan if the cable didn't work) - the PCTV HD mini Stick, model 80e.

(I had to go with USB because I had no PCI slots left in my machine - it's just a cheap $400 PC that I put together to play PC games, as of course I'm a Mac user otherwise).

I had some problems getting the TV Tuner working initially. The problems weren't with the cable - it detected my channels the first time through, and that went perfectly well. The problem was that the software it came with kept crashing. After a lot of Googling, I realized that the drivers it shipped with were Vista drivers, and did not specify if they were 32 or 64 bit drivers. I'm running Windows 7 64 bit.

After further digging, I found that the tuner card, formerly made by Pinnacle, was taken over by a company (or sub-company of Pinnacle?) called PCTV. So, the drivers on Pinnacle's web site were not the latest. I had to get updated Windows 7 "beta" drivers from the PCTV web site, and the updated TVCenter software. These together worked perfectly.

The TVCenter software was kind of clunky, though. I kept seeing people mention the Windows Media Center, but I assumed I didn't have it because I just had the "professional" edition of Windows 7, and back in Vista-land, "professional" meant that it did not include any of the fun stuff. I decided to check my Start menu anyway, and lo and behold - there it was!

Long story short - Windows Media Center is much more slick and user-friendly for watching live TV than the software that came bundled with my TV tuner card. I had to re-do the channel scanning, but other than that, it worked right out of the box.

The only thing missing was a remote control! (It got a bit tedious having to get off the couch to go to the computer every time I wanted to change the channel). So I picked up a USB Media Center remote that also works with Boxee - the Pinnacle (also now PCTV) Remote Kit for Media Center. It only mentions Vista compatibility, but it worked fine for me with Windows 7, no drivers necessary. It got good reviews, but I feel like it's kind of a crappy remote - maybe a 3/5 rating. It's not very substantial - feels cheap - and I often have to press and hold buttons repeatedly to get them to pick up, even though I'm less than 10 feet away from the infrared receiver and have a clear view to it. It's annoying, but it doesn't seem like there are many options out there for good home theater PC remotes. I need to do more research on the topic.

So, my current setup involves limited basic cable provided by Comcast, running into a USB TV tuner card, and Boxee, streaming internet video content over my cable internet connection (also provided by Comcast). You could achieve this exact same setup without the basic cable TV package, by attaching an HD antenna to the TV tuner instead and getting your live local channels that way (over-the-air for free).

The only glitchy thing is that I can't seem to get Boxee or Windows Media Center to default to my "second" monitor, which is my HDTV. They both insist on starting up on my computer monitor, which is set as primary. I haven't tried making the HDTV primary, because really, I want the computer monitor to be primary (it's hard to see the TV from where the computer sits). I'm sure there's a solution - I just haven't found it yet. So, when I start up Boxee or Media Center, I quickly press Windows-Shift-left-arrow to swap screens. It's not a big deal. I can live with it.

But can I live with waiting until tonight's Rescue Me season premiere is available for viewing off of the FX web site? It'll be tough over the summer, while I'm off work and free to watch TV whenever I want, but come fall when I'm back at work, I rarely watch TV shows until a week or two after they air anyway.

I've only come across a few regular cable-channel shows that I can't yet view through Boxee. TNT has 2 shows that I watch - The Closer, and Men of a Certain Age. GSN runs High Stakes Poker. Discovery runs Storm Chasers. While these shows can be viewed via their respective web sites, they aren't being picked up yet in Boxee. All of my other shows are on the major local networks, or are available through Boxee - and I wouldn't be surprised if these others end up on Boxee eventually too.

So, I could either watch these straggler shows on the computer, or buy them from the iTunes store or Amazon Video on Demand. Buying a few TV shows is still cheaper than the $1,200 a year I was paying to DirecTV.

I will be fine. And I am saving $100/month.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Missing Textures folder in Photoshop CS4 Presets

If you're working on a Photoshop tutorial in CS4 that was written for Adobe Photoshop CS3 or earlier, and it requires you to load a texture into the Texturizer filter from your Presets/Textures folder, you'll quickly discover that the Textures folder does not exist.

While I didn't have much luck finding the textures available for download on the web (I was seeking the Puzzle.psd texture), I was able to grab the textures off of an old Photoshop CS3 DVD that I had laying around.

Just open up the DVD, and open the Goodies folder. You'll see another folder called "Textures for Lighting Effects." That's the one! Copy that folder into your CS4 Presets folder on your hard drive, and you're good to go.

Crisis averted.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Walk MS 2010

Donate online via my Walk MS 2010 page!

In 3 weeks, I will be walking in the Walk MS 2010 event for Team Kathy. We're walking for my cousin's wife's mom, who has battled multiple sclerosis for years, and it greatly affects her everyday life. MS interrupts the flow of information between the brain and the body and eventually stops people from moving.

Every hour another person is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. For 20,000 people in Illinois and some 400,000 nationwide, that hour has already arrived.

It's not easy to pinpoint the cause of multiple sclerosis and so far, the cure rests on continued research. This is why I am writing to you: I need your help, generosity and support! Donate to our team, or come walk with us!

As a participant in the Chicago South Suburbs Walk MS taking place on Sunday, May 2, 2010, I am raising money so the Greater Illinois Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society can continue to provide programs and services for Illinois families impacted by multiple sclerosis while funding vital research into the cause and cure of multiple sclerosis.

The Greater Illinois Chapter utilizes approximately 88% of every dollar raised to fund programs that actively help people with multiple sclerosis and their families, public and professional education and research. A portion of your donation will help fund more than 350 multiple sclerosis research projects.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation on my behalf to help me reach my fundraising goal. No amount is too small!! Online donations can be made simply by clicking on the link at the bottom of this message. You can also send a donation made payable to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to me, or print a donation form and mail it to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Every dollar makes a difference in leading the movement against multiple sclerosis.

Check out my personal page to learn why I'm walking in this great event on Sunday, May 2. You can even check on my fundraising progress, and if you've made a donation, look for your name scrolling in the fundraising honor roll. Your support is so important to me and to Kathy and to all those living with multiple sclerosis.

I truly appreciate your support and will keep you posted on my progress!

Thank you!

Donate online via my Walk MS 2010 page!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Windows Update Error 8024402F

So, for about a month now, on my Windows 7 Pro box, I've been getting an error when I run Windows Update. The update fails. It's an "unspecified" error, with a lengthy Knowledge Base article about temporary connection-based errors when using Windows Update. Error #8024402F.

On and off, I've gone through the plethora of solutions suggested in that KB article. I've disabled Windows Firewall and my anti-virus. I've added the Windows Update URL's to the trusted sites in Internet Explorer. I turned off all QoS and internet prioritization on my router. I checked my HOSTS file (no related entries), and cleared my DNS cache. I could get on the web, check email, run instant messaging - just couldn't run Windows Update.

Long story short, my router was blocking ActiveX. Once I un-toggled that block, Windows Update ran like a charm.

(If you're having a similar problem, I had also read that if your router is set to block compressed files, un-block that).

I suppose I won't need whatever canned response Microsoft is about to send me "within 1 business day."

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Comcast, DOCSIS 3.0, and Extreme 50Mb

I upgraded to Comcast's "Extreme 50Mb" service over this holiday break. It's been a bit of a learning experience.

Scenario: I previously had Comcast's 16Mb cable internet service, running on a circa-2005 Linksys BEFCMU10 ver. 3 modem. I had a wireless-G Linksys WRT54GS ver. 4 router running Tomato firmware instead of the Linksys firmware. I was happy with this setup; I consistently achieved 24Mb download bursts with PowerBoost, and my connection was rock solid. However, it was admittedly an outdated setup, as all of my wireless devices were capable of supporting the 802.11n standard.

When Comcast rolled out its speed upgrades in the Chicago area mid-2009, somehow I missed the bus. Had I heard about the DOCSIS 3.o rollout and the higher speed tiers available, you know I would have jumped - me and my speed-obsessed self. (In my own self defense, I do quite a bit of work from home that requires a solid and fast internet connection in order for me to work most efficiently).

I stumbled across the news of this DOCSIS 3.0 rollout a bit late, when my guild leader in Ultima Online mentioned it in the guild's daily update. I poked around the intarwebs a bit, and sure enough - the new Extreme 50Mb connection was available in my area.

I called Comcast and verified that I could upgrade to the service. The woman advised me to replace my old modem with a DOCSIS 3.0 compliant one, and let me know that Comcast employees were available in most Best Buy stores to handle account modifications on-site. Well, alrighty then! Sounds like a nice business partnership for Comcast...

Best Buy carried one model of DOCSIS 3.0 compliant modems: the Motorola SURFBoard Extreme SB6120. It was listed on the Comcast Approved Modem list, and marked by Comcast as a DOCSIS 3.0 modem. It cost me $99. (Of course now, a week later, it's on sale for $85 - pshaw).

It took ages to get a Best Buy employee to acknowledge me, but after half an hour or so (they really need to have people take numbers, because the idiot children working at the store I was at were absolutely awful at addressing customers in the order they arrived), I finally got a rep. I asked him about upgrading my Comcast account. He said that the Comcast guy was on his lunch break. (Well, I'd already been waiting a half hour - he couldn't be gone much longer, right?) So, I asked if my existing router would be capable of these 50Mb speeds. I told him the model number, and he said, "Oh, sure, it'll be fine." I waited a while for the Comcast guy to return, and when he did, he brought me over to his Comcast lair and upgraded my account, badabing, badaboom, just like that.

I went home and set up the new modem. Surprisingly, my internet connection was still working. (I guess I was expecting the Comcast guy at Best Buy to screw up my account). I got on the online chat with Comcast to give them the MAC address of the new modem so they could provision my router and hook me up to the new speeds. 10 minutes later, I was ready to rock.

Time to run a speed test! I ran the test and....

Waa waaaaaaa. 30Mb or so. Well hell. That wasn't much faster than I'd had before! Suddenly, I became suspect of the advice I received from the Best Buy kiddie. I unplugged my computer from the router and plugged the cable modem directly into the computer.

BAZINGA! 67Mb down (affected by the PowerBoost, or whatever Comcast calls it, of course).

Well, hell again. Looked like my router was impeding my speeds. A little more googling and I discovered that at least for the wireless portion of things, the 802.11g routers topped out around 24Mb throughput. I would need a new router to take advantage of the 50Mb speeds.

I ran back to Best Buy, but they were closed (at 8:13pm on a Friday!! Well, it was New Year's Day, but still!) So I sucked up my pride and hit the local Walmart (and was quite surprised that they stocked routers from all of the major brand players. Maybe I shouldn't be so fast to dismiss ol' Wally World).

The Linksys WRT320N came home with me that night. It claims up to 300Mb/sec throughput, which should future-proof me for a little while, as my modem only goes up to 150Mb/sec and, well, Comcast is only at 50Mb (though the Comcast guy at Best Buy did say that they're working on 100Mb service and he wouldn't be surprised to see it available by the end of 2010 - though he told me not to quote him).

After some more cable-jostling, the new router was installed, and once again: Bazinga! No more speed impediment.

I was a happy camper.

The only thing I'm noticing is that the router seems to need to be power cycled occasionally to maintain the full speeds. After a couple days, I drop down to 30Mb. I was ready to call Comcast in a fit and revert back to my old service, but I tried once again connecting the modem to the computer, and full speeds were in place. Power cycling the router does the trick, but it's kind of a nuisance (and I'm really not so happy if I have to keep testing my speeds every couple days). We'll see how it goes.