Happy start to your summer! If you’re like us, you’re likely venturing out on the road these next few months, you may be looking for ways to pass the time in the car. If you’re a podcast listener (and if you’re not, you really need to be!), I wanted to some standalone episodes that absolutely blew my mind and made me reconsider that subject, spawning some great conversations afterward.
99% Invisible – #346 – Palaces for the People
Those who know me (or read some of my previous posts) know that I feel strongly about libraries, so much so that I sometimes wonder whether I’m on an island of obscurity. Imagine my joy when one of my favorite podcasts did an entire episode on the importance of libraries, in the broader context of communities now needing to invest in social infrastructure, the same way we invest in municipal infrastructure. “Palaces for the People” does a great job articulating the evolving needs and services of our libraries, giving people access to resources they otherwise may not have.
Bonus 99% Invisible Episode: #318 Fire and Rain. Now that we’re unfortunately entering into fire season, this episode does a great job explaining the lessons many haven’t learned when designing and rebuilding their communities.
Switched on Pop – #112 – Country at the Crossroads
Switched On Pop is a relatively new discovery for me, and you don’t have to be a musician to appreciate the way they deep-dive into the facets of the music and the song-writing process. This episode dives into the controversy surrounding Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and its removal from the Billboard Country Chart. They breakdown the basic aspects of modern country music and whether the song fits into those traits. It’s a really fascinating listen, especially if you’re a modern country music fan. If anything, it’ll give you a deeper appreciation for this more recent hit.
Warning: Listening to this episode will forever ruin movie trailers for you. The “Booj” refers to the sub-woofer bass pitch change that you hear during modern movie trailers. This podcast covers the evolution of the movie trailer, especially into this decade, and the way they all use the same formula (especially in the sound design) to entice you to see the movie.They walk through the construction of a mock movie trailer using that formula. After listening to this podcast, I challenge you not to actively listen for the “booj” in the next trailer you see.
Whether or not you dig rap music, listening to this podcast will further your appreciation of rap. You don’t have to like Kanye to appreciate the intricacies of his music, and the decisions he made in the composition of the song. “Power” was already one of my favorite Kanye songs, as it’s perfect for running. This hour-long podcast examines everything from the sampling and the production elements to the backstory of all of the references made, line by line within the song. It should be noted that the song itself uses explicit language, and the podcast includes explicit references as well (so don’t listen to this one while you have kids in the car).
This episode is a few years old, but has only become more relevant in the wake of the recent College Admissions scandal. “Food Fight” references the contrast between dining halls in Bowdoin College in Maine and Vassar College in upstate New York, illustrating how colleges are building extravagant amenities to entice students to attend, but decreasing the affordability of college to many. This really launched me into a lot of contemplation about college affordability and the place of higher education in our society.
These are but five standalone episodes, but I would be happy to provide more suggestions of a few ongoing series or seasons – just drop me a line! I’m also on the lookout for any other mind-blowing podcasts, please drop a comment if you have one!
Over the last 15 years, my affinity for social networks have come and gone, but Twitter has remained largely constant and for the most part, beneficial. That said, Twitter has some serious wounds that they have yet to address after all of this time. Twitter does have a tendency to get toxic in its discourse and does seem to often devolve to trolling and harassment. While Twitter has paid lip service on fixing the issue, boasting about their improved capabilities in reporting and responding to abuse, it doesn’t seem like Twitter has the wherewithal to take the issue head-on.
Twitter’s problem: the blue checkmark
I remember when Twitter started to gain traction beyond the tech community, and you would start to see actual bonafide celebrities gain a massive amount of Twitter followers. Given the skepticism of the platform and its stage of growth, it made perfect sense for Twitter to institute a “verified” certification to help followers distinguish between a real person from a fake or parody account. However, that blue checkmark has morphed into a validity tracker, a sign of whether someone has “made it” in the zeitgeist of popular culture.
By being secretive about how and which Twitter users get verified, Twitter has enabled the checkmark to become a status symbol, and a clear way of distinguishing who Twitter deems an influencer on their platform. This has resulted in the public developing a belief that verification is a defacto Twitter endorsement of that user on their platform. You see this play out when a celebrity or influencer causes controversy, which is met with an outcry that their verification status should be taken away.
Twitter needs to get back to the basics and impose the original intention of its blue check mark – that the Twitter user is in fact who they claim to be. This is the root of how to fix Twitter.
Step 1: Enable any user to get a blue checkmark
Rather than reserve it for the elite amongst our population, verification should be accessible by anyone. In fact, Twitter should enable users to request verification by collecting a modest fee – say $10-15 – to cover the costs of validating a users identity. As a user who is vested in the platform, I would gladly pay that amount to prove the legitimacy of my accounts identity to the world. In many ways this could enable another revenue stream for the company.
Step 2: Change the platform to ignore mentions and replies by unverified users
Twitter could then alter their interface to toggle between showing mentions/replies/interactions from unverified users. They say that on the Internet, anonymity is a hell of a drug – then enable Twitter users, from celebs to muggles, to choose whether they want to remove anonymity from their engagement. People could even take it a step further and allow their Tweets only to be seen by verified users. There are benefits in Twitter providing access to anonymity (e.g. whistle-blowing, speaking out against an oppressive government), but those that are concerned about trolling and harassment can easily disengage from those that aren’t brave enough to attach their identity to their comments.
Step 3: Ban the disruptive users
I know, they already ban the trolls, especially when they cross the line. Many will turn around and create another account, but this time when they do it, they will permanently lose their access to verification. They will now be relegated to the cesspool of anonymity that can easily be turned off with a toggle of the switch.
I realize this won’t fix all of Twitter’s problems, but I do think it would go a long way of re-establishing credibility within the platform, promote civility among their users, but yet continue to enable the ability to converse, discuss and debate on this public platform.
The fact that they’re looking to fix Android’s messaging mess and not everyone’s messaging mess is why this will probably fail yet again.
Real-time messaging (be it SMS or real-time chat) is an absolute cluster, not for lack of innovation, for an inability to reconcile the needs of the users over each company’s own goals, resulting in some very draconian restrictions.
I’ve been using GChat/Hangouts for well over a decade, in daily conversations with my wife and family. We have a basic set of needs:
Enabled for real-time chat
Ability to receive and respond to notifications across both desktop and mobile phone
Group chat capability
Ability to share pictures and other media
Have a large user base and a lower barrier to entry for new users
Hangouts has been solid but also is neglected by Google. Now their latest focus is to shift Hangouts for Enterprise use and deprecate it for consumers. Supposedly they were steering everyone to using Allo, and I remember being very excited its pending release – and then it came and underwhelmed. What made Allo fail out the gate was the fact that it was tied to your phone number and only one device, so you couldn’t use it from a tablet, let alone a desktop. Over a year later Google came up with this jenky workaround to have your phone forward chat notifications to a desktop, but worked unreliably and required you to have the app open on your phone. Given they hampered a key feature of Hangouts, it all but wrote it’s failed destiny and is why it hasn’t been adopted.
I don’t see much difference with Chat. From the article, it seems to be driven by whether carriers will pick up the protocol. That’s well and good to get Android the same features that iMessage enjoys on iPhones, but does little for anyone else on the desktop or using an iOS device. By limiting their goals, Google will once again doom themselves to failure.
I’ve looked a lot of other messaging tools, but each one has its own set of problems. iMessage is designed to promote the sale of Apple devices, which is why you won’t ever see a Windows or Android client (removing #2 and #5). Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp are all great apps with a lot of functionality but don’t have a big userbase and it’s hard to compel people to switch (with the caveat that WhatsApp is big for my international friends). Facebook Messanger comes closest in terms of offering all the features, but feels really slimy and intrusive to use – and yes, I know that Google reaps the same benefits from inputting my personal information, but you’ve seen a lot more callous coming from Facebook lately. Skype has been pivoting more into the messaging space, but they’ve had a bad spam problem and I’m not convinced people’s Skype contacts reflects all of their everyday chat contacts. The only time I go to Skype is to make a video call.
If Hangouts vanished overnight, I think I’d reluctantly migrate most of my activity to FB Messager. It’s frustrating that Google is one few companies that has the clout and wherewithol to tackle this problem, but they’re hampered by their own blinders. Until then we’re just confined to the ticking clock of neglected consumer Hangouts.
After two years of iPhone ownership, I’ve awaited the September iPhone event with much anticipation, eager to see what Apple is going to deliver. I’ve been fortunate enough to get day-of-launch devices through my participation in the iPhone Upgrade program, satisfying my geeky indulgence of having the cutting-edge phone as soon as possible. However this year, with the launch of the iPhone X alongside the iPhone 8, a huge wrench got thrown into my plans. After watching too many “first reaction” videos and finally having the Reality Distortion Field effects ware off, I’ve decided to forgo the iPhone X and opted for the iPhone 8 Plus. There are a few factors that weighed into my decision, while much ado has been made about the cost, it wasn’t really a factor in my decision.
I’m not sold on FaceID
Take away the Zapruder-Film-Level scrutiny that’s going on with the “Demo Fail”, I’m just not convinced that FaceID is going to deliver the benefit over the drawbacks for not having TouchID. When phones started introducing fingerprint sensors, they were replacing PIN-unlocking – or for many users: nothing. Even if/when TouchID doesn’t work, it defaults back to the previous level of authentication. As other phones have tried face scanning, it seems that many still provide a fingerprint sensor, but Apple has gone all in with the face detection.
Let’s assume FaceID works at least as well as TouchID (and I’m not convinced that night-time phone unlocking is going to be reliable or pleasant), unlocking a phone with FaceID is going to require more attention and friction than TouchID. Gone will be any opportunity to inconspicuously unlock your phone and triage a notification, you’re going to need to intentionally look at your bright screen to unlock your phone. It’s also not clear to me how to differentiate between an intentional unlock request and an accidental unlock. Take Apple Pay, for instance: there have been a few times where I didn’t mean to get to the Apple Pay prompt and was glad I didn’t have my finger on the home screen. How long will it be before we see stories about people making accidental in-app or Apple Pay purchases?
Don’t get me wrong, FaceID looks cool – but it seems like a solution in search of a problem, and the fact that you don’t get a choice between TouchID and FaceID in the same phone is problematic.
iPhone 8 Plus still seems like a great phone
From what I can tell, aside from the OLED display, the biggest differentiator between the iPhone 8 Plus and the X are all the sensors associated with FaceID. Given that I’m not interested in FaceID, that leaves me missing out on the Animoji- which I likely wouldn’t use much due to the fact that I’M A GROWN-ASS MAN! Maybe there will eventually be a compelling app that will utilize all of those sensors effectively and give me FOMO next spring, but I’m willing to take that risk.
The iPhone 8 and X share the same processor, and the 8 Plus has the same dual cameras (although I’ve read that the X’s has slightly better low-light performance). It’s not clear if there’s a RAM differentiation, but I’m willing to bet it won’t be significant. Of course, the Plus has the larger form-factor, but I’m not necessarily clamoring for a smaller phone. Apple did toss iPhone 8 users a bone and did offer wireless charging so there’s that.
No-Bezel OLED sounds great, but I don’t know what I’m missing
That screen sounds (and looks) great, but given the way I consume content on my phone (mostly through Podcasts, Social Media, Email and slight gaming), it doesn’t really feel like I’ll be missing out all that much. It’d be one thing if I were watching a lot of 4k content on my phone, but that doesn’t appeal to me. I agree that Apple’s bezels make the phone look dated, but I’m not sure if the “notch” at the top and the absence of the home button was the right way to solve that problem. I think both app-makers and users alike will be going through growing pains through the next year to figure out the new interface.
I’m not willing to wait until November (or even longer)
Make one thing clear: if Apple could have released the phone at some semblance of scale in September, they would. There have been rumors for months that OLED production has delayed the iPhone X. Apple, who is not willing to set delivery expectations, to begin with (just ask AirPod fans), will likely not be able to meet up the pent-up demand for the iPhone X. When the X goes on PreSale on October 27, the question will be whether it’ll be a matter of seconds – not minutes – before it sells out. At that point, only a few lucky few X fans will actually get their phones on Nov 3. I’m willing to bet that there will be folks who intended to buy on the X on October 27 will be waiting into 2018 before they can get their coveted device.
This brings me back to the Apple Upgrade Plan. Apple Upgrade enables users to trade in their phone if they’ve made 12 of the 24 payments on their current device. They can elect to trade it in early but will be required to pay whatever amounts gets them to the equivalent of 12 payments. I’m willing to bet that when the iPhone XI comes out in 2018, it’s not going to be November, but all the people who value having the latest in greatest will be paying at least 2 months worth of payments early as a luxury tax. I don’t fault people who are willing and can afford that, but to me, it’s just not worth it, especially in light of all of the doubts I have about FaceID.
There was a time where I cared deeply about having the latest and greatest, where I loved being an early adopter and a beta tester. Maybe it’s part of me getting older and having kids, but that priority is now subject to elevated scrutiny. Given the level of unknowns here, I’m not willing to pay the extra $200 just to be an early-adopter of technology that I’m not very enthusiastic, to begin with. If you get very excited about the iPhone X, more power to you, but I just wanted to point out that there are valid reasons (besides cost), to stick with the 8 and watch the bugs shake out until next September.
Like many folks out there, I have become fed up with my rising Cable/Satellite bill and my falling TV consumption. We recently re-assessed all of our bills and despite a reduction in our equipment fees, we were still paying upwards of $115 per month to DirecTV for Satellite. Since having kids, our TV consumption has both dropped and changed significantly. Our serialized show consumption has dropped significantly (really only watching a handful per year), but we remain casual news consumers (we record NBC nightly news and watch local news each morning and evening), as well as avid sports consumers (we have normal NFL consumption – no Sunday ticket, as well as NBA and NHL playoffs). It was getting harder to justify the $115 per month for how little we were consuming.
Last Spring I began to seriously research cutting the cord and what it would entail. We still wanted to consume broadcast TV with local sports, as well as subscribe to some basic cable channels that would enable us to watch ESPN and TNT/TBS (for sports). Ideally, we’d like a way to DVR the news and other content that wasn’t available on-demand. It turns out that while cord-cutting is popular, a number of variables make it difficult to follow a standard solution. Here are the steps I took to enable our cord cutting.
1. Researched Solutions
Over-The-Air HD Coverage. This is the largest variable and possibly most significant aspect of cord-cutting. Given how big of sports fans we are, we could not forgo live broadcasts of Broncos games and other major events. The easiest and (possibly) cheapest solution is over-the-air HD. The biggest factors in your quality of signal are your distance and elevation from the broadcast points. I found the closest broadcast points going to TVFool.com. With this, you can now expect which stations to receive and determine how powerful of equipment you need. For Northern Colorado, the strongest signals come from Lookout Mountain just west of Denver, which is about 60 miles away from our house. I ended up getting a pretty powerful indoor/outdoor antenna (more on that later) with an 80-mile range.
Cable-Replacement Streaming Services. Over the last two years, the bundled streaming services area has become quite competitive. During my course of research, I looked at the following:
DirecTV NOW – Seemed promising, but didn’t give it much consideration since we have given enough money to DirecTV and AT&T. I’m extremely skeptical that the prices will not rise down the road.
YouTube TV – The most compelling solution, but unfortunately isn’t fully baked for my (or many) locations with local TV coverage. I did not try this.
Sling TV – Used the free trial and enjoyed using the service. This one was the easiest to use and had a lot of great channels, but didn’t have the combination of the channels that we wanted at the time we tried it. It does appear that Sling has recently adjusted their offering and pricing, and have given me a reason to try it again.
Playstation Vue – The solution we ultimately chose. It’s important to note that you do not need a PlayStation 4 to use PlayStation Vue. Currently, I am utilizing Chromecast through my iOS devices, as well as Roku. They offered the best channel combination and content possibilities for $30 per month.
Depending on your needs, each solution does have its benefits. The best part about these services is that you’re not locked in, and can switch at any time. Since the billing is month-to-month, I’m actually going to suspend our subscription for the rest of the summer and will re-evaluate my subscription once football starts.
2. Buy Proper Equipment
Depending on what you determine from TVFool, your equipment may vary. Some people are able to get away with an on-the-wall indoor antenna. In my case, being 55 miles away from the transmitters, I opted for a pretty high-grade indoor/outdoor antenna. You may also need to buy a digital receiver, depending on your TV. The basic rule of thumb is that if the TV has an input for a coaxial cable, the receiver should be built in. My Plasma from 2006 was not.
I returned this. It turns out I was getting a good enough signal without it. I’m not sure if my antenna is considered amplified. If you’re like me, I would buy this to have on-hand, but only open it if the antenna signal looks like it needs to be amplified. If not, return it.
Mediasonic Homeworx HW180STB 3 / 4 Channel HDTV Digital Converter Box with Recording and Media Player ($28.30 on Amazon)
I only needed one of these for the Plasma TV. Our other three TV’s already had tuners built in. The one complaint I have about this unit is that it doesn’t seem to be as sensitive to signals as the other TV’s that have their tuners built-in, so I’m missing out on a few channels. This one also had a DVR-expansion capability when you plug in an external hard drive through USB, but I quickly replaced it with the next product below.
It’s important to note that you don’t need this device to cut the cord, but if you’re looking for a DVR option, the HDHomeRun can be combined with Plex to replace your DVR functionality. The HDHomeRun is a pretty simple device, a tuner that outputs the signal your network cable. You configure it using another computer, with an option to use that computer (or network-attached storage) to store DVR files. In addition to that, they have a Windows Store App that lets you stream the TV onto your computer in that same network.
Enter: Plex, my favorite Media Center distribution. Plex utilizes that HDHomeRun’s tuner and wraps DVR capability into it. Not only that, but they have a beta feature that allows you to stream the live video directly from the Plex app.
You do need to be a little more technical to utilize these features. Plex is really smart in that it helps you connect all the parts to build your own over-air-to-streaming solution, but I don’t think they can legally offer the service out of the box. Still, I didn’t have much trouble setting it up.
[UPDATE: 13-July] Some people seemed pretty excited to hear about the DVR possibilities, so I wanted to offer some additional clarification:
You need to be a Plex Pass Insider to use the DVR portion, it’s $5 per month, but I gladly pay the fee because it allows me to access my Plex server from outside my house and download off-line content to our tablets. Yes, it is another bill. The HDHomerun does have some basic DVR functionality that’s not tied to any subscription that simply records the video to your hard drive, but Plex makes it a pretty good experience.
The DVR’d show is only accessible after recording is finished, you can’t start a currently-airing show on time-delay. During football season we would pause football games during bedtime and then speed-watch to catch up, I won’t be able to do this with the current solution.
Devices to Receive Streaming Services
There are a ton of options here, and it really depends on your needs. It really comes down to evaluating your budget, streaming services you receive, as well as how you want to interact with the device. At a glance here are the primary ones I considered:
AppleTV – One of the more expensive options. Works great if a majority of your content is in the Apple ecosystem. It has most major services, but as of July 2017, doesn’t have Amazon streaming (it’s only been announced).
ChromeCast – One of the cheapest solutions, but also one of the clunkiest. You interface by starting the media on your phone, mobile device, or browser, then “cast” that media to the ChromeCast. In many cases, the Chromecast is being told to go get the media from another stream on the internet, but sometimes the media may be streamed/mirrored from the controlling device. The drawback here is that you have to navigate it using your phone, which makes it a chore to select a movie with multiple people. It has access to a majority of services (although as of this writing you cannot “Cast” Amazon Streaming video from your phone, only your browser.
Kindle Fire Sticks – I don’t have any experience with this device, but based on my research there is one major benefit and one major drawback: the benefit is that the device is affordable, the drawback is that it’s likely subsidized by Amazon services and will likely give preference to those services when using content. I think it has most major services on it, but admittingly I have not researched this fully.
Roku – My recommedation. I’m a big fan of Roku largely because it’s not tied to any major platform or ecosystem. It’s the “Switzerland” of streaming devices, being that most major streaming services work with it. As of this writing, it’s the only device that I’ve found that has access to the major streaming services that I use (Netflix, Plex, Amazon, Hulu, Playstation Vue, SlingTV, etc). I would recommend spending a little more to buy the at least the Roku 3 over the Roku Streaming Stick, for the sole reason that the Roku 3 has a USB port that can stream movies, photos and other content – off-line. The Roku 3 is about the size of a hockey puck, which makes it a great travel companion. We’ve streamed ripped movies in many hotel rooms, remote cabins and other areas where fast internet isn’t prevalent. It looks like there are two version of the Roku 4. Unless you really want to futureproof your streaming needs, I would suggest avoiding the 4k model as most streaming content isn’t available in 4k.
3. Setting Everything Up
After receiving all of the pieces, it was now a matter of putting everything together. Assembling the antenna wasn’t too painful. Luckily of the one I bought, it was mostly assembled when it came out of the box, although other antennas may require more assembly. I then mounted it to the pole and set out to mount the pole onto the house. One benefit of replacing my satellite is that I essentially had all the hardware and connections. With DirecTV mounting the satellite and connecting all the wiring, it was simply a matter of removing the satellite from the roof mounting pole and replacing it with the antenna pole. I unplugged the coax hookup from the satellite and right into the antenna. It’s important to note that you have to be a little careful down in your wiring hub, as the splitter DirecTV used had a port to send power to the satellite, so I made sure to unplug that before I hooked everything up.
The benefit of this is that I didn’t have to run any additional cable. If I were replacing Cable and did not have a roof mount, I would have considered mounting the antenna in my attic and figuring out a way to send that cable all the way to the splitter in the basement. This isn’t the most elegant solution, but I’m happy I didn’t have to deal with installing a roof rack, playing in the attic, or fishing cable through walls.
Next was plugging in all of the Coax Cable directly into the TV’s (I had packed away all of the DirecTV receivers and equipment). It turns out that I did not need to use the amplifier that I purchased (and in fact, I think it was interfering with my signals), so I was able to return it. As previously mentioned, I was able to leverage all of the cables that I used and didn’t have to mess with identifying connectors. If for some reason you don’t have access to a Coax Cable Splitter, you’ll need to consider purchasing one.
Now came the tedious part: calibrating everything correctly. With the report I got from TVFool, I determined that the antenna had to be facing at 200° to get the best transmitter. I climbed back on the ladder and used a compass (which was available on my iPhone) to get me to 200 and pointed it there. I then tightened everything and secured the pole (albeit with methods that could be more effective).
I then fired up each TV, set the tuner to “Air” and auto-scanned to discover my channels.
This is where things got tedious. If you’re not getting any signal, you’ll need to troubleshoot all of your connections. I would suggest having a long coax cable on hand and running it directly from the antenna connector into your nearest TV, eliminating all of the possible points of failure. If you find that you are able to receive channels, make sure you’re getting all of the channels that you’re expecting. In my case, where my location is borderline, this meant a lot of trial-and-error in moving the antenna. While I tried to keep it at 200°, I played with 195, then 205 and tried to pinpoint the exact location where the scanner is picking up the most channels, and the channels you care most about are the clearest. This means going up and down the ladder, scanning, then reviewing channels for any interference. Once your reception was acceptable, I unplugged the long cable from the antenna and plugged it into the cable that led to the splitter.
Once your reception was acceptable, I unplugged the long cable from the antenna and plugged it into the cable that led to the splitter. Then on each TV I re-ran the channel scans and did the tweaking. At this point, it became apparent that not all TV-tuners are alike, and you may need to do some tweaking to see if you can get the channel you want. This is where I discovered that the external tuner I got for the Plasma is not as sensitive as the built-in tuners on the more modern TV’s.
Now that I was getting over-the-air TV, it was a matter of configuring all of the streaming services to work on your device. Most of these were already in place, but I did install and configure the cable-replacement streaming service (Playstation Vue), and now was off to the races.
4. Living with a cut cord
I’m not two months into it and am mostly satisfied. The first few weeks, I did have to deal with the wind blowing my antenna out of alignment, but I’ve come up with some ways to secure the antenna’s position. Ideally, this would be solved by replacing the roof mount (which has a bigger opening than the pole), or drilling a hole through the pole and secure it with a screw. However, the antenna position has been pretty secure for over 6 weeks. About two weeks ago, I thought the weather moved it as I was missing my NBC channels (9News/KUSA and it’s Channel 20 affiliate), only to find out that something happened to their transmitter and those channels are not being broadcast correctly (they’re working on repairs now).
I haven’t missed the cable programming at all. We don’t consume a lot of channels to begin with, and the summer is typically the slower period for shows, so we’ll see how things kick up when fall premieres hit. I did watch many NBA playoff games through Playstation Vue and was very happy with the result. Most of all, I don’t miss my cable bill at all. Two months in, our equipment has already paid for itself.
I’ll check back in on this when football season rolls around, but if you do have any questions about cord-cutting, don’t hesitate to ask! I’m far from an expert, and there are a lot of complexities, but I’m happy to share what I learned. Good luck!