Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mourning A Passing

The ATLANTA UNIX USERS GROUP (AUUG), after thirty years of existence, has decided to bow to the obvious, fold its tent, and quietly slip into the realms of fond remembrance!

We have had a remarkable run for a Users Group! Our speakers have brought us an extensive range of "newest technology" and have kept our horizons widened.

Our members have provided each other great assistance over the years, especially during the "Open Forum" sessions. And at the heart of those sessions has been Brent Laminack whose extensive knowledge and hands-on experience with so many tools has been a pleasure to watch.

Another great aspect of AUUG has been its welcoming atmosphere! Whether an attendee was a "newbie" to computers or someone with years of experience, they have always been welcomed and their questions answered with a "positive attitude". Over the years many professional friendships have been created. This is one of the special legacies of our years of existence.

Much has changed since we first met in White Hall on the Emory University campus. In those days, 2400-baud modems were a "high speed" transmissions, most people had only 1200-baud modems, and signed into "bulletin boards". The universities and large firms used a great tool called Netnews to share information. E-mail was text-only with no graphics or attachments. It is amazing to realize how much has happened in the past 30 years!

Another big change has been the "demise"of UNIX! Linux has be- come the world-wide open-source operating system, and "UNIX" has all but disappeared (e.g. Solaris, AIX, etc. are now the commer- cial versions).

Therefore it seems that it is also time for the Atlanta UNIX Users Group to also disappear! There are other Atlanta-area user groups which specialize in the replacement technologies, and AUUG attendance has also dropped off, which is also a significant indication of how information can be more usefully obtained via the Internet rather than at a User Group. Speakers on UNIX-related topics are becoming more difficult to find.

After such a fine run, AUUG has much to look back upon with pride! But it is also incumbent to know when one's usefulness has passed.

However, one final item of business:

Recognition of 30 years of continual, dedicated, and exception- al support of AUUG by Brent Laminack! He was at the organization meeting at Georgia Tech in February 1985 when AUUG was formed by the urging of Gene Spafford (currently Professor and Executive Director at Purdue University), and Brent has attended almost every meeting in the 30-year history of the Group! His warmth, humor, and attitude of helpfulness has set the tone of AUUG and been a delight to all of us who have had the pleasure of his company!

Although the Atlanta UNIX Users Group may be closed, those of us who have been a part of its 30-year history have much to look back upon with pleasant memories, and perhaps on the first Monday of each month we may give a thought to all those fine years.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Wise Ole Bird

See him?

Right there.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Don't Pass Me By

I listen for your footsteps coming up the drive
Listen for your footsteps but they don't arrive
Waiting for your knock, dear, on my old front door
I don't hear it, does it mean you don't love me any more?

I hear the clock a ticking on the mantel shelf
See the hands are moving but I'm by myself
I wonder where you are tonight and why I'm by myself
I don't see you, does it mean you don't love me any more?

Don't pass me by, don't make me cry, don't make me blue
Cause you know darling I love only you
You'll never know it hurt me so, how I hate to see you go
Don't pass me by, don't make me cry

I'm sorry that I doubted you, I was so unfair
You were in a car crash and you lost your hair
You said that you would be late about an hour or two
I said that's alright I'm waiting here, just waiting to hear from you

Don't pass me by, don't make me cry, don't make me blue
Cause you know darling I love only you
You'll never know it hurt me so, how I hate to see you go
Don't pass me by, don't make me cry

As you are probably aware "Google-Claus" ain't coming to our town. Nearby burghs are going to wake up to find some delightful Google Fibre under their trees (and sidewalks and front yards) and we're stuck with our old lower speed lumps of coal. For those amongst us who prefer to attend that 9AM (Shanghai time) meeting via telepresence rather than Delta Google Fibre looks like a godsend. Because it is.

Or, if you believe that cable companies spend more money on Washington lobbyist than they do understanding what subscribers want and need you would be right. And they do this because it works. They will beat down net neutrality in spite of the fact that they already operate in a business and regulatory ecosystem that is indistinguishable from an out of control monopoly. They will use in-their-pocket politicians to ensure that they can continue oversubscribing services whilst avoiding infrastructure improvements necessary to actually deliver the services they sell.

On the other hand there is a surprising (and vocal) crowd suffering from Googlephobia and actually applaud being passed over claiming that we'll dance on the heads of pins whilst these other fools rush in. Perhaps something undisclosed is going on here. Perhaps when Google installs fibre they are forced to pull down all of AT&T's copper and Comcast's coax thereby making Google our sole provider. If so that has been kept a deep dark secret. Or not. Or maybe our taxes will go up--but that's low hanging fruit since the City raised our taxes this year, even without the threat of Google offering next-generation high speed data.

Some say they're mighty afeared that horizontal boring might disturb sidewalks and bike paths and lordy, lordy would that not be a crime against God and humanity? Not to play the "more Dunwoody than you" but if you were round these parts when the Olympics blew thru town you probably DO remember how disruptive horizontal boring was. But that was then and this is now. Heaven forbid anyone suggest that is the ONLY technology that has not improved in the last TWENTY years. Yeppers. Everything technology on this planet, from farming to artificial intelligence has improved dramatically, but not horizontal boring. Nope. Nada.

You may even wonder what's inside those twenty year old conduits. Dark fibre? Nope. Turns out they are empty. AT&T installed extra conduit just in case. Just in case of what? Just in case they needed fibre to the curb for a competitive advantage. But to compete you kinda need competition and if nothing else that is exactly what Google brings to the table. Some think that is a Bad Thing[TM].

Now if this were really a Smart City we would not pave another road, install another foot of sidewalk without an accompanying conduit infrastructure. Would we be built out overnight. Of course not, but over time we could reach a critical mass that would support putting resources behind a full network that could be rented out (think: franchise fees) to any number of HSD providers.

But that's not going to happen because we in daVille make lemonade not progress.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Jane, You Ignorant Slut

That's pretty much what Kasim Reed said to the Meria Carstarphan when speaking after his State of the City lecture. In reaction to Carstarphan's call for the City to sign a quit-claim deed so that APS can sell a school that has been abandoned for close to forty years. Reed is holding the property ransom in hopes of forcing APS to drop their demand that Reed and his administration keep their commitment to pay APS millions of dollars pilfered to fund the Beltline. He trots out some hearsay about the former APS Superintendent somehow linking the deeds to the City's belittling (non) commitment. Surely he sang his own praises during his speech, but his actions describe a city that is a moral and financial derelict.

Reed verbally bitch-slapped Carstarphan with "I thought that one, she's new, she's inexperienced in this city and doesn't know what she's talking about." Superficially true. She ain't from round here, which was one of her key qualities--she had no history with the dysfunction that is the A-T-L. And keep in mind that Hall with the full support of City and business community was a total train wreck. As for inexperienced in this city this is really code word for "not part of the black power structure--in fact, not black at all." And that is probably what it really comes down to. Reed sees himself sitting atop that black power structure to which Carstarphan has not genuflected. Perhaps more importantly she is not black and there again Reed is also correct because if she doesn't understand the importance of being black in Atlanta she really doesn't know what she's talking about.

The Mayor continued with "I'm not the first mayor not to turn over the deeds," and it is now certain he is not going to be the first no matter what the cost to the schoolchildren of Atlanta. Perhaps he sees this as just another opportunity to perpetrate a black-on-black crime that no one will take notice of.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

CC204 : Antenna TV

Olde School though it be, getting your television programming from an antenna can be more costly and potentially more work than getting Over The Top streaming. All is not lost. There are some simple and not so very expensive options and they all share one thing in common--you need an antenna and you need to point it the right direction.

And this is where living in Dunwoody makes most of us winners as all the important TV antennas are clustered in an area round about Stone Mountain just to the southeast and without much in the way of major obstructions. It's not like we're living in a concrete canyon in the middle of a city. A big city that is. There is a bit of ridge running thru the northern Wolds but that affects a relatively small number of us and even that is not crippling. The reason this is important is that most TV broadcasts at the higher frequencies (and almost all HD broadcast are) really likes line-of-sight and being digital when the signal gets weak you don't get a blurry, snowy picture it breaks up or just disappears. So does satellite but that doesn't make it any better.

If you're lucky enough to live in a two-story home with at least one south-southeast exposure you can get started with the digital broadcast version of rabbit ears. With a flat antenna and a recent vintage TV set you are in business.

Antenna To Right Of TV
One way to expand this system is to add an antenna to each set. This is cheap and simple but will not work (or work well) with sets that do not have good exposure. The basement media room is probably a non-starter.

Supporting TVs in these hard to reach locations will require a higher gain antenna, one or more amps, wiring and a few other bits of kit. For the in home wiring you may be able to leverage the cabling already in your home but there may be issues with that wiring. First would be plan impact: this may force an abrupt switch-over from cable to OTA rather than a smooth adjustment over time. Second is the cable itself. If your home has cable wiring more than 15-20 years old it is probably RG-59 whilst newer cabling will be RG-6 with the relevant difference being signal loss which is off less concern for cable than for antenna.

Picking an antenna can be confusing and sometimes vendors use that confusion to get your money. First, there is no such thing as an "HD TV Antenna". It is just an antenna that is tuned to the frequencies used by TV, including HD TV.  That said, there are two TV frequency bands, VHF and UHF, with most HD broadcasts in the UHF or high VHF portions of the spectrum. Most antennas tuned to UHF will provide adequate gain to also receive the high VHF signals, at least those in our general vicinity. There are times where beam width may be as much a consideration as gain. Not only does a wider beam width tolerate sloppy aiming and some weather effects it also handle situation  where transmitters may be twenty degrees apart.

The rig shown above includes a high-gain, wide beam width antenna suitable for attic or outdoor installation, a low noise amp, cable and a J-mount mast. A similar system has been deployed successfully at a suboptimally situated location in Dunwoody. An upcoming attic installation in a nearby city east of the antenna farm will be the subject of a capstone project.

So how do you know where to point the antenna and what can you expect to receive? Again, the web comes to the rescue. Cruise on over to TV Fool, enter your and get a map.

Based on distance and transmitter strength the table indicates which channels you are likely to receive  with an indoor antenna, an attic antenna or a roof mount from top to bottom. You will also see channel adjacency issues that will impair reception. The circle plot show where the antenna has to point to get the channels you want. A good low-noise pre-amp, located on the antenna mast, ensures that the highest quality signal is driven across the longer cable run. Support for multiple TV sets will require something to split the signal. One gazin and multiple gazout. The least expensive way to achieve this is with a passive splitter and if you are re-using existing cable wiring there is probably one already installed. You should keep in mind that each split cuts the signal strength in half--one to two cuts the signal in half, one to four cuts the signal by four. If you need to support more than four sets you will certainly need a distribution amp incorporating a low noise amp and a passive splitter. This may also be necessary to re-use RG-59 when the cable runs are long.

TV Fools will show you what stations you receive (sort of) but what can you really watch. Again, web to the rescue. Rabbit Ears provides detailed information on HD tv by market and by station.

Rabbit Ears lets you drill down showing the main programming (Channel 5.1 above) and secondary channels available (and coming soon) from the same "station." In Atlanta Channel 2 provides MyTV (old programs like Perry Mason and Rockford Files) on a secondary channel and Channel 5 delivers Movies! with classic movies. There are some lesser known (IE: not printed in the paper) delivery QVC, additional movies, news (France24), weather and much, much more.

What's that you say? "Where's my DVR?" Ahhh...glad you asked. To be clear if you have a DVR with your current pay TV provider you are going to lose any programs you've recorded when you fire them. But there are OTA alternatives.

One is the aptly named Simple TV as it is quite simple, though to be fair it doesn't directly connect to your TV. With the addition of your own disk drive you have a OTA PVR that allows you to record up to two channels at one time. To watch this you need a phone, tablet or a Roku box. And, you have your own version of a Sling box as you can access live and recorded programming while away from home.

Another interesting option is very similar to Simple TV is Tablo which comes with an option for a one-time life-time fee for access to the metadata rather than a monthly subscription fee (which is also available). Remote access is largely based on your phone/tablet's web browser (Simple TV has dedicated apps) in-home support has better device coverage. Of course Roku is supported. And if you really love recording, there is a Tablo model capable of recording up to four channels simultaneously. For those in a more urban area (than most of Dunwoody) Tablo has announced the "Metro" which incorporates the antenna and is intended for use within 25 miles of the towers.

Since you bring your own hard drive (check for compatibility before buying) you get to choose just how much programming you can store. There are other options, some with built-in hard drives and some with direct (HDMI) connections to your TV but for a the Cord Cutter these two lead the pack.

PS: delays in the scheduling of the capstone project means we'll take a brief break from Cord Cutting but will return after the install.

Monday, February 9, 2015

CC203 : Going Over The Top

Since Over The Top (OTT) can and should be done in parallel with broadcast options, either cable or OTA let's look at that without regard to these other options. We've already mentioned some of the key services for subscription and Video On Demand content delivered OTT and will not belabour that here but will re-examine some of the options when we examine trends. Here we'll examine some of the hardware options with the only service-related concern being that the hardware you choose supports the services you want.

In support of a phased approach and keeping in mind the money motivations underlying Cord Cutting let's look at low-cost options first. You are sitting in front of a computer now and probably not at the library. That is your first option for OTT which is recommended to get your feet wet but does not provide the multi-viewer 10 ft experience of the TV in the den. For this you will need a TV attached device.

Like laptops there is an immediate fork in the road. Are you an Apple/Mac household? If so you might want to get an Apple TV box. It is well designed, easy to install and use and as part of the Apple ecosystem it supports iTunes and AirPlay. It supports most of the OTT services but being Apple those services provided by vendors Apple considers a competitor may not be available.

If you don't mind having some non-Apple devices in your home (even if you are a Mac aficionado) there are quite a few options. Lowest cost is the Blu-ray player with built-in apps--a highly rated Sony Blu-ray with WiFi and wired network connections can be had for under $80. You'll get all the major apps and if you're in the market for a DVD/BD player anyway you might have difficulty finding a player without apps.

If you're looking for a dedicated streaming player there is a wide selection. Amazon and Google both have boxes that support Voice search usually across multiple services with results showing all your options. This is a nice feature that helps sort free or subscription options from pay per view when you subscribe to multiple services. They have been accused of skewing results to favour their services rather than your observed behaviour. The price point for these devices seems to be around $100 without any options (like game controllers).

Google also have a stick, Chromecast, that is inexpensive (somewhere around $35) works reasonably well even though it is WiFi only. It requires the use of a smartphone or PC/Mac to provide the user interface for searching and selecting programs to watch and the applications (Netflix, Hulu, etc.) must support Chromecast. Most do. If you prefer using a smartphone over a remote control this could be your answer. Since the service subscription is tied to the handheld device there is no registration of the Chromecast with the service and anyone (even visitors) with a service registered to a smartphone can use that device.

Roku is unique in that they build a box but do not provide other services or content and consequently are service agnostic. About the only service that isn't easily available on Roku is iTunes. There are clunky workarounds but they are just that. Clunky. If iTunes is a non-issue you will not find a better experience than that of the Roku 3. Search, though no voice search works well. The overall UI and the remote are well crafted. The remote is wireless, not IR so no line of sight is required and the box can be located nearly anywhere including attached to the back of the TV with velcro. A commonly asked question is "how do I turn my Roku player off." It is just that efficient. Because they maintain Swiss-like neutrality with regards to content there are no competitive reasons not to stand up your service on Roku (except Apple of course). Roku provides extensive support for app development and it shows. It must be easy--there are over half a dozen pet-sitting apps catering to your favorite creature.

Then there are smart TV sets either with a proprietary app ecosystem (e.g., Samsung) or increasingly incorporating one of the dominant player systems. Sony will incorporate Google's AndroidTV in all their 4K/UHD TVs and several manufacturers are lining up behind Roku. It is not worth the money to buy a new set just for the streaming services, but if you're buying a new set anyway you may not have an option. If you do have an option you may find that a "smart" version of a standard set costs more than the dumb TV with a Roku 3. Just watch the pricing.

There is one other item you need to look at: your data network. Wired is best but not always an option  and WiFi has improved. At a cost. A good WiFi Router/Access Point will not be cheap--plan on north of $150. This class of device will not only support the necessary data rates it will also support a greater number of simultaneous WiFi devices than previous generations of devices. Then there is access network bandwidth. You can get by with 3Mbps DSL but you are not going to lookup a moving on IMDB while you'r watching it. You won't get HD either. You should provision about 5Mbps per set that you want to use at the same time. For three sets that also puts you in range of Netflix's recommendation for 4K/UHD content.

We'll end with a bit of bad news: you're probably going to need High Speed Data over cable to get the bandwidth you might want. Unless you can get Google Fiber which we are not slated to see in daVille  (more on that later) then you're stuck Uverse-class service or cable. And some cable providers, notably the one serving most of Dunwoody, are now enforcing bandwidth caps. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

CC 201 : Cord Cutting Plan Of Attack

If you've gotten this far you are either profoundly bored or are seriously considering Cutting the Cord. And this is serious business requiring careful planning and deliberate execution. Disappoint is universally caused by unmet expectations and managing expectations is the best and most effective way to prevent what could be a relationship shattering tsunami of disappointment.

So. You need a plan.

There is no one size fits all plan. You have to take into account your individual circumstances. Are you in an established residence or are you just moving in? Do you have must-watch programming and if so, do you know what it is? Even without that knowledge in hand there is a general framework, a set of recommendations for moving forward. A meta-plan.

Some assumptions must be made even for a meta-plan, e.g., you have a high speed data plan of some sort? If you do not have and are not expecting to get high speed internet access you could skip directly to OTA but you will miss out on a large selection of content. But...there was life before the interweb.

A common practice in any service cutover is to "switch on before switching off." Turn up the post-cord-cutting services before you fire the cable company. Not one of the services and technologies you will be using in the Land Of No Cable is incompatible with that ugly set top and only one is inconvenient. 

A principal stolen from product development is "fail fast, fail cheap." If you THINK you know what the best option is but you're not absolutely certain, try a cheaper way of doing the same thing. Consider this a proof of concept, and if that works and you like the outcome, then consider the grander, more expensive option.

Let's look at how this works in practice starting with OTT. Start with Netfix, who like any good drug dealer gives you the first one free. Take that free month to learn the ropes and do the administrivial things like setting up your profile, searching for programs, build a list, watch some things and rate what you watch. Doesn't cost much as you can watch the programming on a PC, an Xbox, or many a Bluray player and if you find you (and yours) really don't like it, Netflix has a no-contract cancel-at-any-time policy. If you find you like it you may want to move on/up to Hulu or Amazon, keeping in mind that you are still in an exploratory phase. Even if you don't like what you see you didn't sink a lot of money figuring out that watching streamed TV isn't your cup of tea. 

Similarly for OTA. You can buy any number of antennas for well under $100 with Mohu being one of the more highly regarded in the low cost one-antenna-per-TV category. Dunwoody is pretty well situated with a major antenna farm to the South/Southeast such that one of the mudflap antennas is likely to work in a second story bed/bonus room. The amplified version may be required but even that retails for about $70. Significantly less than one month's extended basic cable and probably less than a year's set top rental. It is much more difficult to explain how much programming is now available over the air than it is to hook up an antenna, scan for channels and just look around.

If these prove out the concept then it is time determine where you are going to go with these services and what your ultimate system would look like. And if you find out that you really prefer what you already have then you know that for certain and have not made an expensive mistake.

Monday, February 2, 2015

CC103 : What Freedom Looks Like

Some advocates of Cord Cutting promote the notion that Americans need to go on a severe TV diet--just turn the thing off. Get a life. Read. Garden. Golf, which with current cable prices looks increasingly affordable. These are all good, but they are more about Ditching TV more than Cutting the Cord.

With Cord Cutting there will be some change in WHAT you watch and this may dissuade you from making the move but in many cases the biggest change will be how you access what you like to watch. Oh, and how much you pay. There are two ways* most Cord Cutters get their boob tube fix: Over The Top (OTT) and Over The Air (OTA).

OTT services are delivered over the internet to PCs, boxes and sticks, Smart TVs and other players. Most folks, at least those under forty are familiar with services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon, YouTube (it's not just cat videos), Google Play. Some free, some subscription, some pay per view but all cheaper than cable. More esoteric OTT streamers include NASA, Weather Underground, many public broadcast stations, and some local tv stations (mostly news). More recently major broadcast networks are streaming content at no cost and opening some of that content to anyone regardless of whether or not they also subscribe to cable. The real game-changer is currently in Beta. Sling TV is poised to offer a no-contract, $20/month streaming service with much of the most popular content including ESPN, ESPN2, Disney, ABC Family, TNT, HGTV and the Food Network. For $5/month more you can add addition content popular with children or some of the next most popular offers including Bloomberg, CNN and HLN.

Incumbent pay TV services cannot fathom the business model underpinning these new media companies even to the point of predicting the failure of Netflix when they first started. This goes beyond business model to something more fundamental. Cable is a broadcast medium and broadcasters are accustomed to showing you what they want you to watch, when they want you to watch it.

Netflix (to pick on just one) has built its business around providing you what you want to watch, when and wherever you want to watch it for a fixed subscription fee and without commercials.  Sounds like TV heaven. This has many business benefits but also includes a significant knock-on effect for viewers: Netflix knows what YOU like to watch and they use that to get more programming that you will enjoy. Cable companies use Nielsen ratings to set advertising prices and while that does correlated to what you want to watch, it is "you" in general and you are probably not even a "Nielsen Family," are you? Because Netflix knows what you like, and in some cases how much you like it, Netflix is well armed in content negotiations. They will also tell you about new content they think you will want to watch and most times they are spot on.

Over The Air is olde school. Broadcasters still have powerful transmitting towers (just not in your backyard :) so when you're watch Fox 5 using an antenna you'll see exactly what your neighbor with XFinity sees only you'll see it a bit earlier and have a much better picture. You'll be screaming Gooaaaallll!!! before he sees the kick and when he comes over investigate he is not going to believe that is the same seven year old plasma he was laughing at last week when he was showing of that new UHD OLED. As you are probably aware antenna-TV is now digital (except for a few low power stations in the boondocks) which means a beautiful picture when the signal is strong and some pretty bad macro-blocking when it isn't. Think "satellite TV in a thunderstorm". In daVille we are pretty lucky as we have a clear shot (line of sight is always best) to the antenna farm south and a bit east of here.

So if you like watching what someone else wants you to on their schedule you are one antenna away from about thirty channels of cable quality programming and another thirty or so of crap. And growing. You will also find some of the stars who made Food Network and HGTV popular have gone to or back to Public TV. You never saw Jacques Pepin on Food Fight Network and Mind of a Chef is only on PBS. OTA is a lot more than it was when you ditched that last set of rabbit ears and paid to have that old Curtis Mathis hauled away.

So don't let the fear that cable is the only way to get quality (and crappy) content keep you chained to that high bill. There is a lot of content out there from other sources including quite a few that show up on cable.

* We're not going to cover BitTorrent and other technologies used by folks who are downloading and sharing pirated content. Because it is illegal.