chromecast

The Chromecast arrived today. There’s not much to it, which is why this post will be short. It is pretty much as advertised, and it was only $35.

The good: it is extremely easy to setup.  You plug it into an HDMI port on your TV, attach it to a power supply (USB or regular plug), load the software onto your device (I stuck it on my Galaxy S3 and Nexus 7), take a few seconds for it to find your wi-fi, and you’re done. The video is 1080p, at least for Netflix and YouTube. That is better than either my cable box or my Roku box can deliver. As for the applications, they, too, are easy as can be. You load YouTube or Netflix or Google Play Music onto your device (say, your Android phone), start playing the media, and press a little icon that sends stuff through the Chromecast to the TV.

The not-so-good: There aren’t many apps. I’ve already listed Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play Music. Add Google Play TV & Movies and you’ve listed everything you can run via the Chromecast. OK, that’s not quite right … you can also send tabs from your Chrome browser to your TV.

But there is, as of now, no Amazon Prime, no Hulu, no Pandora, no HBO Go … considering Roku has a gazillion choices, this is pretty important.

Also, there is, as of now, no way to send the audio through your receiver, so you are left with the speakers in your TV. (There may be some complicated way to make it work, but I haven’t seen anything practical.)

So, I’ve got a new $35 toy that doesn’t do anything my Roku box can’t do (other than Google Play material), with better video but worse audio.

Of course I love it.


google+: the beginning

Another quick one while I’m away.

Two years ago today, I offered up my first blog post on Google+. What has changed in two years?

So, what is Google+ and why should you want it? It’s a suite of applications that runs in your browser … the specifics of my descriptions might not be exact, hey, I’m not a techie writer and I’ve only been playing with + for a day. The key feature is Circles. You can create as many circles as you want … for instance, I have three family-related circles, one for the immediate family, one that adds my siblings and their families to the mix, and a third that adds my extended family. I also have circles for friends, really good friends, people from school … you get the idea. Why bother with circles? Because circles allow you to target the audience for your contributions. When you update your status on Facebook, or post a video, or write a note, every one of your “friends” can see it. You can create groups to manage this problem, but it’s clunky to do so. With circles, you just drag and drop. I don’t suppose it took me half an hour to sort all of my contacts into groups. Then, when I want to post something relevant only to my family, I’ll only give access to the Family circle. If it involves close friends, give them access. If it’s something appropriate for everyone, make it public. This kind of targeted posting seems like a v.good idea to me.

You get a Stream which is like your Facebook news feed. There is something called Sparks which needs work … it’s basically a search engine for a specific subject, so you can call one “Bruce Springsteen” and whenever you check it, you’ll get recent net posts about him.

The killer app, the one that inspired more than one person to say Google+ isn’t a Facebook Killer, but a Skype Killer, is Hangouts. Hangouts allows up to ten people to participate in a video chat. You can open up a Hangout and wait for friends to stop by, you can invite specific people, or you can join someone else’s Hangout. You can watch YouTube videos together. I’m sure this will have some kinks … so far, I’ve only tried a one-on-one chat … but it’s like Chatroulette, only selective instead of random.

There is an Android app that allows for group texting, so if four of you are going to lunch, you can use “Huddle” and save time. You can do some but not all of the web-based stuff on your Android phone (iOS to follow).

Google+ is enough fun, and is easy enough to use from the start, that I imagine most people will like it once they start using it. The question is whether it will retain value over the long term. Social networking requires people (duh). Facebook has the people; new attempts to conquer the social arena have to deal with that fact. Until Google+ gets enough users, it will remain a cult item. Still, despite the numbers, I feel like a lot of the Facebook users I know are always complaining about the thing. Maybe they’re ready for something new.

Google is also up against their recent past. Simply put, they have failed big time in their previous attempts at social networking. Google Wave was potent but inscrutable; Google Buzz debuted by making one of the biggest privacy-invasion blunders in web history. Both products had their fans, but there weren’t nearly enough of them to build a large network. In the last couple of days, I’ve seen and heard a lot of “experts” who have fallen instantly in love with Google+, but are wary of admitting it because they fear another Wave/Buzz.

Anything can happen when a product is only a couple of days old. Problems will arise that haven’t been anticipated. But my first take on Google+ is that it is delightful. To become more than just a fun toy, though, it needs people. So anyone reading this who is intrigued, get Google+ as soon as you can.

A subset of my friends and family use Google+ as often as most people use Facebook. The product itself keeps improving, and it is much more integrated into the Google experience. It is not the flop some people predicted (some people still think it’s a wasteland, but they have no clue). If I want to reach the largest audience, I still need to go to Facebook or Twitter. But I feel like I’m goofier on G+, or “gah-PLUS”, as Sara and Ray call it. An example: one day I posted a video of Air Supply, with a note that read “Confession: I once saw these guys open for Rod Stewart.” I got 8 +1s and a couple of comments from Air Supply fans. I was being ironic when I posted this … I am not an Air Supply fan … to bolster my rock cred, the next day I posted a video of Led Zeppelin with the caption, “Confession: I saw these guys in 1977.” Since then, I’ve posted a couple of dozen more videos of people I saw in concert, and the series is far from over. Gives me an excuse to post music videos while keeping an ongoing theme.

Here’s the Led Zeppelin video:


gmail

A quick one while I’m away.

On this date, 9 years ago, I got Gmail. Here is my entire post from that date:

OK, I have a Gmail account now. I think I'll hold off on posting the exact address here ... suffice to say that if you've ever sent me email to sonic.net, or socrates.berkeley.edu, or comcast.net ... anyone of those ... well, take the same username and attach it to gmail.com and you've got my new address. It isn't yet my primary address ... that'll take awhile, I imagine ... but here goes nothing, anyway.

I think I still have a Comcast email account. Sonic still exists, and I’m always happy to recommend them, but in Berkeley I don’t get the speed from Sonic that I do from Comcast.


the new google music needs a new name

I mean, Google Play Music All Access doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? (Not to mention the “Listen Now” angle.)

Longtime readers know that I lust after streaming music services, and am willing to pay if they do what I want. I don’t mean Pandora, although that has its uses. I mean services that give you access to enormous catalogs, while also allowing you to integrate your own music into the mix. (This is still the only way to get the Beatles or Led Zeppelin whenever you want them.) I want to be able to pick a song and here it, right now. I want to make playlists that mix the online catalog with my tunes.

I’ve gone with Rhapsody more than once, and in terms of total time being subscribed, they are probably still #1. But their desktop software always sucked, and (perhaps correctly) they gradually lost interest, moving to improving their web version. I tried Microsoft’s Zune for awhile … it wasn’t bad. I loved MOG, still do, but the absence of integration with my own music files is a dealbreaker. Like many people, I’m now on Spotify. I pay the extra to avoid ads, and so I can take advantage of all mobile functions.

And now, here comes Google. The new Google Music (I’ll call it that until they come up with something better) has a large catalog good for streaming. It allows you to put your own files in the mix. It has playlist-creation capabilities, and the kind of “smart radio” stuff that’s pretty standard now. The main difference, at the moment (and I’ve only been messing with it for a few hours), is that there is no desktop software. You access the music via a web browser. OK, it’s 2013, I can handle that. But it means something particular for the part where they integrate your music with theirs. Spotify just plays tracks off of my hard drive. Google Music uploads my music to their servers, and plays it from there. They seem to have a matching service (if they have the track in question, they won’t upload yours but just play theirs), but whatever … it’s a long process to get thousands of MP3s to the cloud.

I can’t tell yet if I like the interface, and it’s too soon for me to say how solid their catalog is. So this is a very preliminary post. Some of the other Google changes today have made a more instant impact on my regular computing … Google+ looks entirely different, now, for instance. If nothing else, Google Music will hopefully goose their competitors to do better, as well. Meanwhile, the price for all the good stuff is $9.99/month, like most of the services, but if you get in now, it’ll be $7.99.


adventures in customer service

To cut to the chase: sometimes you really do just have to update the drivers.

I’ve had my Dell XPS One 27 Touch for about six months now, and in general, I’ve been happy with it. Windows 8 is having growing pains, at least for desktops (yes, I’m showing my age, I still use desktop computers), but the machine itself is very nice, with the most stunning graphics I’ve ever had. Still, not long after I got it, I started having an occasional sound glitch. It’s a bit hard to describe … kind of like when your speaker wires aren’t connected properly. It happened often enough to bug me, not often enough to convince me to fix it. But I knew that sometime before the one-year warranty ran out, I’d have to deal with it.

In the last month or so, though, the entire machine has become sluggish. Things take forever to load, to process, to, well, anything. It got to the point where I was getting crashes (which haven’t been a regular part of Windows in years). On one of those crashes, the computer did an “Automatic Repair”. On another, it restored an earlier version of Windows. It was time to get it fixed. So I went to the Dell support site, and, being a good customer, I did whatever do-it-yourself stuff they had before I started bugging someone.

I ran a bunch of tests, and passed all … all but one. That was the SMART short self test, which failed. So I began a lengthy session in chat with customer support.

I got someone named Samarjeet, who was very helpful and very patient. OK, I was patient, too … this took awhile … but it was clear early on that Samarjeet knew what they were doing, which sadly isn’t always the case. I explained about the failed SMART test and the sluggish performance, Samarjeet asked a few questions, and then said I’d have to replace the hard drive, which I expected. They were going to send someone out to do this (part of the one-year warranty service). In my mind, these weren’t connected, but for some reason I decided to bring something up:

Steven: "there is one other problem, not as serious, that may even be connected to the hard drive problems ... should I wait and talk to the technician about that when he comes, or do you need to write it down for him to know in advance"

Agent: "Please let me know all the problems you are facing with the system."

Steven: "occasionally, there is a sound glitch ... a slight pause in the music or whatever, accompanied by a bit of a buzz (sorry, I know this isn't much of a description!) ... doesn't seem to be attached to any particular piece of software, can happen with Spotify or YouTube in a browser or whatever”

Agent: "Thank you for confirming that."

Samarjeet then informed me that the problems might be connected, and that they would have to solve the sound problem before they dealt with the hard drive. I loaded one of those “let the other person control your computer” programs, they fiddled around, downloaded some drivers, then gave me links to four other drivers that needed to be installed. Finally, I got an appointment for a phone checkup on Wednesday to discuss the changes we’d make, and to make the appointment to fix the hard drive.

You know where this is heading. The computer has run just fine all day long. No sound glitches, no sluggish performance, no crashes. I ran the SMART self test again, and this time the computer passed. I’m wary of saying it’s all fixed, but I suspect that’s the case.

I get frustrated when a problem arises and “experts” say “check your drivers”. It’s such an easy answer, and it assumes we’re dunces who don’t know anything. I always set my computers up so I am notified when updates are available (Windows, drivers, software, etc.), although I don’t use automatic updates … I like to know what’s being “updated” before it happens. I don’t know why my computer had some outdated drivers, and it seems to me I should have gotten notification at some point.

But that’s not really what matters in this case. What matters is that it may well have been a simple case of updating drivers, which is why that’s often the first thing you are asked about. I know just enough about computers to get myself into trouble. I think I know more than I do. Samarjeet had me update the BIOS … was that especially important? I have no idea. I just know that at this moment, the computer is working.


what i didn’t really watch last week

Perhaps it’s time to question the ability of AI recommendation systems to tell me what I’ll like.

I got the movie Samsara from Netflix. I knew nothing about it, but MovieLens predicted I’d give it 8/10, so onto my queue it went, and into my house it came. When I took it out of the package to watch it, I peeked at the description, and I knew right away it was not the movie for me. I tried … got through just over an hour, although much of that time was spent sleeping. Then I gave up, put it back in its package, and placed the mailer in the mailbox to be taken away forever.

Samsara is the sequel to director Ron Fricke’s last movie, Baraka, which, it should be noted, came out nineteen years ago. Fricke takes his time getting his movies just right. There is an audience for Fricke’s films … Samsara won the Best Documentary Award at the 2012 Dublin Film Critics Award, for instance, and the reason I saw Baraka many years ago is because one of my students told me it was the movie that changed his life or something like that, so I felt I had to see it. I gave it 5/10 … in deference to the fact that I slept through what little I “saw” of Samsara, I’ll give it an “Incomplete”. Both of those movies are stunning, gorgeous, pick-an-adjective. There’s another movie, Fricke’s first as a director, Chronos, that I might have seen (although since I’m not sure, perhaps it didn’t impress me much). I saw that one in a theater … I feel like it was the first IMAX movie I ever saw. My memory is I liked it, but then, it was only 43 minutes long.

Samsara looks stunning, gorgeous, pick-an-adjective on the Blu-ray … if you can’t see it in a theater, Blu-ray is a necessity. Fricke’s movies are documentaries with beautiful cinematography shot all around the globe, with a nice interplay between picture and music, and no narration or apparent plot. In short, they are moving picture versions of coffee-table books. If that sounds good to you, check it out … if you liked Koyaanisqatsi, check it out (Fricke worked on that picture, as well).

The point of this post, though, is that I am not the audience for Samsara, which I’d think was obvious given the 5/10 rating I gave Baraka. So why did MovieLens think I’d give Samsara 8/10?

First, it’s a documentary. Of the 19 genres MovieLens lists, documentaries get the third-highest ratings from me (7.6/10) behind “Film-Noir” and “War”. Next, only 42 MovieLens users have rated Samsara, which doesn’t leave much for comparison, and their average rating is 8.4/10. I’ll see this happen a lot when a movie is first released. The first people to see a movie and rate it tend to be fans of the film, so the average rating is high. The rating drops over time. Samsara hasn’t had a chance to drop, yet.

Netflix, where I got the movie, predicted I’d go with 6/10, which is a lot closer to reality. Netflix has a good AI system, but I think my ratings are affected by the stuff Robin watches, so I’m not sure their ratings are “pure”. Criticker, though, agreed with MovieLens, predicting 8.4/10.

Obviously, the real question is why I let AI systems pick my movies for me. At the least, I should have an override button when something turns up that is clearly outside my interests. But I hesitate to do that, because relying on AI means I regularly watch movies I wouldn’t have chosen on my own, and most of them are good movies. Maybe I can just call it progress that I gave up on Samsara, instead of keeping it around the house for weeks while I decided whether to watch it.


my xmas story

Last night (Xmas Eve), I was settling down to bed at my daughter’s house, where we were spending the night. I got out my Nexus 7 to look for something to listen to … I’ve had noise going while I slept since I was a kid, nowadays I use a “pillow speaker” (a small foam earphone) so Robin isn’t bothered by the sound. I found the app for the Internet radio I have at home. It’s a Squeezebox Radio, but Logitech has discontinued the line in favor of … well, I’m not sure, but they gave me the opportunity to upgrade the software on my Squeezebox to match the new thingie, which I did, about a week ago. I haven’t figured it all out, but I have an Android app for it on the Nexus and on my phone. I thought I’d use that app to access something to listen to, but when I started it up, I couldn’t hear anything.

When I was a kid, we’d take trips to Santa Cruz, a couple of hours from our house, and I never understood why we couldn’t hear the little AM station near our home … it always came in loud and clear, and I didn’t understand about how radio worked, I just assumed that particular channel came in wherever you were. I had a similar thought about the Internet radio, and laughed to myself. Of course I couldn’t hear anything … I was in Sacramento, trying to access the router in my attic in Berkeley.

So I switched to something that worked better, and forgot all about it.

We got home to Berkeley around 11:30 on Xmas morning. When we opened the door, we could hear voices talking very loud. It gave us a bit of a fright, but I quickly identified the noise as coming from … the Internet radio.

Turns out the app on my Nexus is actually a remote control for the radio. I was indeed able to get to the router in my attic. When I booted the app on my Nexus, and no sound came out, I cranked up the volume as high as it would go. Meanwhile, back in Berkeley, my actions had turned the radio on full blast, where it stayed for half a day, entertaining the cats, until we came home and shut it off.

Just more adventures in modern technology.


a week or so with windows 8

I suppose it’s time for an update. Early last week, our new computer arrived, a Dell XPS One 27 Touch. It’s our first all-in-one, runs Windows 8, and has a 27” touch-screen monitor.

To get the hardware out of the way, it’s pretty impressive in that way new things are when compared to what they replaced. Our old screen was a perfectly acceptable 21” 1680x1050 model. The new one, besides being a touch screen, is 27” and 2560x1440, meaning it has a higher resolution than our big-screen TV. It’s not perfect … the glare is pretty significant … but pictures look beautiful on it, and while I worried that it would be too big, I’m already used to the larger size. The audio is actually a bit of a drop from what we had previously, since it has 2.1 sound while the old computer was 5.1. The vast majority of what is played on the computer is plain stereo, though, so the extra 3 speakers aren’t really missed.

Windows 8? Despite what you have heard, it is very easy to get used to, if you accept that some things have changed. The idea of running two different UIs at the same time is disconcerting when you hear about it, but the truth is, I got accustomed to it quite quickly. Legacy programs run in desktop mode, which Windows users will recognize … Windows 8 in desktop mode is like Windows 7, only improved. Other software is matched with Windows 8’s “metro” mode (they call it something else now, but I’m sticking with Metro). This is what you’ve seen in the advertisements. It looks like a giant tablet or smart phone screen, which is purposeful, since Microsoft’s idea is to create an OS that runs on computers and mobile hardware. It’s fun to use the touch screen, although I have a feeling there’ll be a new version of carpal tunnel syndrome down the road, when enough people get sore forearms from reaching out to the screen.

What needs to be emphasized, though, is how easily you can control even the Metro apps using just a keyboard and mouse. It’s seems counterintuitive to say this, since what makes Windows 8 so new is the use of touch, but if you are a keyboard-mouse person, you’ll be fine right from the start. In other words, when I write this blog post, I’m not touching my screen, I’m using my keyboard within Windows Live Writer, just as I’ve done in the past with other OS.

So there is the essential paradox: Windows 8 is the most different Windows ever, yet users of previous versions of Windows will be able to get along just fine.

I’d mention one other thing Windows 8 offers that is terrific. I had a problem with the touch screen not swiping properly, and I couldn’t find any help online. So I did a “refresh”, which basically re-installed Windows while leaving my files and programs intact. It’s not perfect … the only programs it keeps around are the “Metro” apps. But a helpful html file shows up on the desktop, explaining what software didn’t get re-installed, in many cases including a link to the download site for the program. And it took maybe 20 minutes, tops.

What’s the verdict? Too soon to tell. But it’s fun, and I’m already up to speed on productivity and gaming and video chatting and everything else a computer is good for. When you are ready for a new Windows machine, don’t believe the anti-hype. Windows 8 is OK. If that seems like damning with faint praise, well, a lot of what I’ve read makes it sound like Windows 8 is a disaster. You need to know that is simply not true.