Diary of a Network Geek

The trials and tribulations of a Certified Novell Engineer who's been stranded in Houston, Texas.


Amazon Price Tool

Filed under: Better Living Through Technology,Fun — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is terribly early in the morning or 6:00 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waning Gibbous

Our streaming-only television plans may have failed, but I’ve been enjoying the Amazon Prime membership we got for it.

There’s a part of me that’s a little terrified of Amazon, because that much power in the hands of one commercial organization is scary, but there’s another part of me that really likes the incredible variety of products they sell at amazing prices. So, while I do shop there, taking as much advantage of our Prime subscription as possible, I still think I’m right to be a little suspicious of them and vigilant. For instance, I think it’s better if I can comparison shop and make sure that Amazon really does have the best price. That’s not always easy to do. But, a new-ish set of tools on a website called CamelCamelCamel.com can help. Among other things, they have trackers that help you find the best price and watch for price drops, not to mention tools that show you the price history of a particular item. And, they have a browser add-in called The Camelizer that help you do all that right from your favorite browser. If you sign up for a free account, you can set up notifications for price changes or even set a target price notification so you can snag what your heart desires at the best price possible.
And, if you have the problem my wife and I always seem to have, and need to fill in just a couple dollars worth of something to get the free shipping, there’s the handy website FillerItem. All you need to do is hit the site, put in your minimum dollar amount and FillerItem will serve up a list of things from Amazon that will tip you over the limit. It’s pretty clever.

So, there you go, some tools to help your conspicuous consumption this weekend.

This post originally appeared at Use Your Words.


Makin’ Bacon

Filed under: By Bread Alone,Fun,Life Goals,Life, the Universe, and Everything,The Network Geek at Home — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is terribly early in the morning or 6:00 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waning Gibbous

No, seriously, I’m talking about actual bacon not some silly double entendre.

Also?  If you don’t like bacon enough to read this, why do you even read my blog?  I mean, seriously, do you even get me?
I actually had a talk with one of my doctors about bacon and how if I had to die of something, I was okay if it was bacon.  She suggested that it would be healthier for me to pass it up occasionally.  I responded…
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“Hey Siri!”

Filed under: Apple,Better Living Through Technology,Fun,Ooo, shiny... — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Horse which is around lunchtime or 12:00 pm for you boring, normal people.
The moon is a New Moon

Who’s afraid of artificial intelligence?

So, the week before Christmas, my wife and I finally upgraded our sad, old iPhone 4 and 4s to shiny, new iPhone 6s.  (That’s an iPhone 6 for her and me, not a single iPhone 6s, just to be clear!)  Ever since, we’ve been walking around shouting “Hey Siri!” at our respective phones.  It’s actually kind of funny.  And, I’m glad that I found Siri after I married my blushing bride, or I’m afraid I’d end…
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Starting Your New Year

Filed under: Advice from your Uncle Jim,Better Living Through Technology,Fun,Fun Work,Red Herrings — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Sheep which is in the early afternoon or 2:00 pm for you boring, normal people.
The moon is a Third Quarter Moon

So, here we are, the first day of a brand, new year!

Honestly, it’s a pretty arbitrary demarcation of time.  I mean, it doesn’t even really sync up with any significant natural phenomena, like a solstice or anything.  So, really, the whole idea of a “new year’s resolution” is pretty random.  What’s so special about the “new year” and why make resolutions about it?  Still, you know most of us do it, to some degree or another, even me.  This year, I’m…
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Advice from your Uncle Jim:
"A day hemmed in prayer is less likely to unravel."


Christmas Music for Free

Filed under: Better Living Through Technology,Fun,News and Current Events,Red Herrings — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Horse which is around lunchtime or 12:00 pm for you boring, normal people.
The moon is a Full Moon

Yes, free Christmas music.

Normally, I share this sort of thing well in advance of Christmas, but, well, time got away from me.  Still, I love Christmas music of almost any kind and everyone loves things that are free.  So, combining the two is my way of spreading some holiday cheer!
For a number of years, Stereogum would gather free MP3s from various indie bands that had a Christmas theme.  They stopped doing that in 2011, but the music is still up,…
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It’s My Birthday

Filed under: Advice from your Uncle Jim,Criticism, Marginalia, and Notes,Life Goals,News and Current Events,Personal,The Network Geek at Home — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Snake which is just before lunchtime or 11:25 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waxing Crescent

Yeah, it’s my birthday again.

I’ve survived another lap around the Sun, mostly in spite of myself and due to the grace of God.  I almost didn’t bother with a birthday post, because I mostly think of my birthday as just another day, but, it’s sort of gotten to be a tradition with me to make this post every year, so, here I am.  Honestly, it seems kind of impossible to me that I’ve survived this long, but, according to the…
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Advice from your Uncle Jim:
"You see things and you say 'Why?'. I dream things that never were and say 'Why not?'"
   --George Bernard Shaw


Cutting The Cable – Roku

Filed under: Better Living Through Technology,Cutting Cable,Fun,Review — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Snake which is just before lunchtime or 11:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is a New Moon

This is probably old news to long-time streaming fans, but I love the Roku!

Since starting to stream most of our television viewing, my wife and I have run into one significant problem; how to stream.
As I’ve already mentioned, I started out streaming on my Sony home theater system and my wife had an older Blu-Ray player that streamed, too.  But, her Blu-Ray was limited because it was old enough, for instance, that she couldn’t stream Amazon Prime video.  Mostly, it wasn’t an issue, because we’ve mostly been watching TV together on the bigger screen.  But, she can only take so much of my anime and Stargate Atlantis, and I can only take so much of her Regency dramas and Lark Rise to Candleford, so we often will watch different things in different rooms.  So, I started looking into different players.  The one that seemed to get consistently good reviews is the Roku family of devices.

Being cautious, and cheap, I went to eBay and found a gently used Roku 1 for about $30, including shipping.
The day it came, I got it hooked up to the second TV and connected to our wifi in less than 5 minutes.  Then, because I didn’t already have an account, I signed up at roku.com and got the device registered.  That literally took about another 15 minutes because I was doing it all on my iPhone and the tiny screen didn’t lend itself to fast typing.
Next I started the process of adding our credentials to the Netflix channel, the Hulu channel and the Amazon Prime channel.  By the time I got to the third one, I had pretty well mastered the Roku remote and virtual keyboard.  It wasn’t an incredibly fast process, but, still, in less than 30 minutes, I had all our current streaming systems setup on the Roku.  Then, my wife and I started exploring channels, first on the Roku itself and then on the website.  I was stunned at how many free channels there were!  And, yes, a “channel” on the Roku is roughly equivalent to a “channel” on cable.  Except, of course, for the fact that these are streaming channels and not live.

There are, as I already wrote, an amazing assortment of streaming channels available via the Roku.
Not only are there hundreds of free channels, but there are also quite a few that you can get a-la-carte for a low monthly charge.  Even better, though, are all the options now to get HBO and Showtime in streaming-only versions, completely cutting out the cable companies and their over-priced bundling!  We are actually not going to avail ourselves of that option, but what we have is fantastic.
Also, one feature that’s very nice is that the Roku makes binge-watching even easier as it will automatically advance your viewing queue, which our Sony home theater does not when it streams.  It’s honestly not something I realized I was missing until I had it back.  It makes the experience much more like watching regular TV.
Oh, also, if you’re a sports fan, which neither my wife nor I are, you can choose from a wide array of sports channels here, too.

I cannot tell you how impressed I am with this device!
For one thing, the setup was super easy.  This is the older version of this device, superseded by three versions now that the 4k version has been announced, and it’s still spectacular.  The complaint I see the most is about the “primitive” interface, but I see it as being simple and easy-to-use.  Honestly, this thing is so easy to setup, I’d recommend one to my 80+ year-old parents.  I make my living with technology so it’s often hard for me to judge how hard or easy something is to use.  I’m not a good test-case.  Instead, I judge it based on whether or not my poor mother could get it sorted out without calling me more than once or needing additional outside help.  I feel confident that she’d have no problem with this at all, especially if she knew to setup an account on roku.com first.
Then, once setup, adding and removing channels was really easy.  And, of course, actually viewing the content was no more complicated than using a DVR or similar device.  Really, in spite of the criticism, the interface made it all very easy to use and figure out.  On a media player, that’s precisely what I want; ease of use.
The one thing I don’t like is that you have to manually refresh your device when you add channels via the website before they show up.  As a technologist, I understand why they probably went that route, but it’s still a little annoying sometimes.  Still, that’s pretty much the only thing I don’t like about the Roku.

So, yes, I highly recommend this device.  In fact, later this week I’m going to order Sling TV and take advantage of their deal to get a Roku 3 at half-price for pre-paying three months of service.
When we get that setup and I feel confident about a decent review, I’ll post something here.
Also, I had an ulterior motive for getting this older version.  My next project is to setup a homemade DVR and, based on some research, the only way to get some of the streaming services onto a DVR is via analog.  The HDMI standard now includes a signal that prevents digital recording.  Analog recording, however, is still not blocked.  The Roku 1 has both the HDMI connectors and analog connectors.  So, at some point, I’ll be able to use this to record things for more convenient play-back at a much later date.  At least, in theory.  I’ll let you know how that eventually goes, too.


Cutting The Cable – Streaming Services

Filed under: Better Living Through Technology,Cutting Cable,Movies,The Network Geek at Home — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Snake which is just before lunchtime or 11:30 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is a Third Quarter Moon

Streaming content changes your relationship with television programming.

Of course, so did the DVR, but this is different.
I was probably a little ahead of the curve here, because I’ve been streaming Netflix since, at least, 2007.  So, back when it was still just starting to be a thing, really, I had gotten totally comfortable with the idea of streaming content.  In fact, the first of the three services I’m going to talk about might as well be Netflix.  As it turns out, when I decided to drop cable the first time, after Hurricane Ike in September of 2008, Netflix was the only service I had.  I didn’t realize at the time that had only really been possible since January of that year, but it didn’t matter.  I bumped my subscription up to the level which allowed me to have four discs out at a time and I actually watched more content that way than any other.  Let me tell you, binge watching Lost, four episodes in an evening, really opened my eyes.  Not only was it far more understandable and easier to follow the plot of an otherwise complicated and confusing show, but it let me indulge the obsessive side of my personality to my heart’s content.  Most of the time, I prefer movies to regular serial television anyway, but this really let me dive deep into whatever show was popular.  Well, whatever show was popular last year.  At the time, there wasn’t a lot available for streaming, but that changed pretty quickly and, for several years, I got caught up on  a lot of movies I’d missed and shows that I’d come to late in their life.
Now, Netflix has changed, but I still keep them.  And, I currently have an account that allows streaming and up to two discs at a time.  I have upgraded to the Blu-ray option, though, since I’ve upgraded my home theater system to a Blu-ray system.  I do that because there are a lot of things that I might want to watch which I can’t get via streaming.  That being said, for movie content, Netflix still has some of the best options around.  Currently, a streaming-only plan is $8/month for a single screen at a time, but will go up shortly.  I have a grandfathered plan that includes streaming on up to 4 screens and two Blu-ray discs at a time which runs me about $25 /month.  I expect that will go up at the first of the year, based on some news reports I’ve seen, but I think it’s still a bargain.  (You can check the latest prices at NetflixReview, though I don’t know how often the update them.)  Until I bumped up my network speed, we had a lot of issues with buffering if either of us were doing anything else on-line, but that’s not a problem any more.  If we start to have issues again, I’ll bump us up an additional tier, though.  We haven’t done it yet because at least one of our goals here was to save money.

When I first started asking people who I knew had cut cable what they streamed, a surprising trend emerged.
It seemed like all of them had Amazon Prime.  As it turns out, besides getting free shipping on anything that’s sourced from an Amazon warehouse, Amazon Prime includes a lot of free, streaming video. They also have a lot of on-demand streaming video you can buy.  So, the old cable “pay-per-view”, basically, only streaming and with at least as wide a selection, if not larger.  It really feels like Amazon is still building their video catalog, but they do have things that I can’t find on Netflix sometimes.  They seem to have a lot more television than Netflix does for streaming, too.  And, most of their stuff seems more current.  By that I mean, Amazon has more things that aired more recently.
Also, Amazon has some content that they produced.  Of course, Netflix does, too.  I have some those in my queue, at both Amazon and Netflix, but I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet, so I don’t have any comments.  Though, I know Amazon won several Emmy Awards this year for their work.  In fact, in celebration of that, Amazon Prime was on sale some time back, and I got it then for $67/year for the first year instead of the usual $99/year.

The other streaming service I heard people mention a lot was Hulu.
Initially, I started streaming everything via my Sony home theater system and, since Hulu was one of the options available, I decided to try it.  I figured it was cheap, at $7.99/month for “limited commercials”, and they seemed to carry a lot of programming that interested me, like the SyFy Channel.  What I really like about Hulu, though, is basically two things.  One, is that it has a lot of the series I like and a ton of anime, which I love, but haven’t watched a lot of in recent years.  And, two, I can get a lot of shows that recently aired, like Agents of SHIELD, usually, the day after they aired on regular TV.  So, in some ways, Hulu has replaced a lot of what I used my DVR for in the first place.
Hulu also has a lot of more obscure shows, many from Canada, which I’ve never heard of or seen before, which can be fun.  And, the “limited commercials” are just that, limited.  On most shows, the ads are less than 30 seconds long and only show two or three times during an episode.  In some cases, like when my wife and I are watching different shows on different devices, only one of us will actually get ads that interrupt our show.  And, lately, the ad I see the most is from Hulu itself, trying to tempt me into upgrading my service to the “commercial free” level.  For an additional $4/month, I’m tempted, to be honest, but the commercials aren’t very disruptive as they are now.

All three streaming services we’re using have their own content.  So far, though, I’ve only watched original content on Amazon Prime.  Specifically, I’ve watched the first two episodes of Man In The High Castle, which is based on a book by Phillip K. Dick.  It’s been pretty good so far.  I’m also looking forward to watching Daredevil and Jessica Jones, which are both produced by Netflix and are Marvel properties.  They’ve gotten great reviews, even though the general public only has access to Daredevil so far.  Hulu’s original content is mostly comedy and doesn’t really appeal to me that much.  And, I have to admit, the original content is all just icing on the streaming cake for me.  None of the original work had any real bearing on the choices we made regarding streaming services.

All that being said, there is actually one more streaming service that I haven’t gotten yet, but plan to add; Sling TV.  They’re new, but they sound promising and they may be the only way we can replace some of my wife’s favorite programming, namely classic movies.  So far, Sling TV is the only way to get her favorite channel, Turner Classic Movies.
But, that’s going to be a post all on its own at a future date.

Hey, if you made it through all this and still have something to add about your favorite, or least favorite, streaming service, please, leave me a comment!


Cutting the Cable – HD Antenna

Filed under: Better Living Through Technology,Cutting Cable,Fun,The Network Geek at Home — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Monkey which is in the late afternoon or 5:30 pm for you boring, normal people.
The moon is a First Quarter Moon

Or, getting your shows the old-fashioned way; over the air.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that my wife and I were cutting cable.  At first, I think it was a slightly terrifying idea for both of us, but, as it turns out, there are loads of options besides the standard, mainstream “cable” television providers.  As I explore some of the options, I’ll write them up here and try to keep things up-to-date regarding any changes we make.
First, though, before getting into any of the various streaming services, I’d like to remind you all about how we used to get our television.  Back in the Before Time, as I like to refer to my distant childhood, television meant an antenna of some kind, usually sticking up high on a roof somewhere.  Actually, the higher the better!  And we’d risk life and limb to get those monstrosities all lined up just right to receive the clearest signal, which, of course, translated to the clearest picture, that we could manage.  For those of you too young to remember those times, count your blessings.  Viewing options were few and far between.  Generally, you could only tune in about four or five stations, if you were lucky, and they often would all be broadcasting things like the news at the same time.  Once cable television entered the picture, if you’ll pardon the pun, regular broadcast television died a swift, merciful death.

But, as it turns out, not really.
You can still get broadcast television, now in high-definition.  (Or HD as all the kids say!)  All you need is a television with a tuner built into it and a good HD antenna.  I recommend the Mohu Leaf 50 Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna.  This is a really great, little antenna.  It runs less than $70, less than $40 if you get a refurbished model, at Amazon, which is where that link leads to, and can pick up a surprising number of stations.  The actual number and variety obviously vary from area to area and I can’t tell you how well this will work outside of large cities, but in Houston, we get quite a few stations very clearly.  Granted, more than a third of them are non-English oriented stations, but we do get some great programming over the air.  For instance, we watched “Big Bang Theory” just fine via the our Mohu Leaf 50 the first week we had it.  And, we had plenty of time to go get snacks during the commercials!
Okay, yes, the big drawback of this technology is that you don’t automatically get a DVR or rewind option with it.  Of course, over-the-air digital video recorders to exist, but they will cost extra.  At some point, I know my wife and I will invest in one.  I’ve been toying with the idea of rolling my own, but that will probably be a series of posts on its own!

Not sure what’s available in your area?
No problem!  Check out AntennaWeb.  The front page is a little tricky, so look for the pale blue button that says “Click Here to Start”.  That will take you to a page where you can fill in your address and some other information and get a good idea of what broadcast channels you’ll be able to pick up in your area.  Notice, though, that it depends on the antenna that you use and how high up it is.  My wife and I have noticed that height and position of the antenna really do make a significant difference regarding what you can get and how well it comes in.  Even with the fancy, amplified antennas we use.  The nice thing about this site is that it will also give you some idea of the kinds of antennas you can use to get what channels.  Though, again, we really have been pleased with the Mohu Leaf 50 so far.

But, how do you know what’s on?
You don’t get a viewing guide on-screen with over-the-air broadcasts.  But, there are plenty of places to find what’s playing in your area.  My wife’s favorite is TitanTV.  You can sign up for a free account that will let you save your preferences and customize settings for your location or locations.  It’s a pretty comprehensive listing and you may not get all the channels.  (In fact, the listings include cable channels so, under the premise that you’re cutting cable like we are, you definitely won’t need all the listings they provide.)  Also, they have an app for your phone, so you can have a handy guide to what’s currently on TV in your hand and don’t need to be logged into your computer for that.
Two of my wife’s favorite broadcast channels are Antenna TV and MeTV, both of which play re-runs of old, syndicated television.  Antenna TV is going to start playing the old Tonight Show from when Johnny Carson was on it in January of 2016!

Notice, that both of the last listed websites advertise some over-the-air DVR systems.  I can’t vouch for any of those, yet, but I know I’ll be looking into them in more depth eventually.  So far, the one thing we do miss a little, is our DVR and the option to rewind the last couple of minutes of broadcast to catch what someone was saying when we weren’t paying close enough attention.  It’s not a big loss, but I know I’ll have to address it eventually.

Also, I’d like to note that if you don’t get a lot of channels right away, try moving your antenna around a bit.  We did that and, after rotating one of ours 90 degrees to a different wall, we got 30 more channels that we did initially.  We had to “upgrade” our antenna cable from the 16 foot cable that it came with to a 25 foot coax cable, but for about a $10 investment, it was totally worth it to add some stations that we hadn’t been getting.


Cutting The Cable

Filed under: Better Living Through Technology,Cutting Cable,Never trust a Network Admin with a screwdriver,The Network Geek at Home — Posted by the Network Geek during the Hour of the Hare which is terribly early in the morning or 6:11 am for you boring, normal people.
The moon is Waning Gibbous

It seems to be all the rage, but I think we’re going to do it anyway.

I killed “cable” television a number of years ago, after having lost it during Hurricane Ike in 2008.  I used Netflix, before streaming was really a thing people did, and binge-watched shows a disk at a time.  Lost made a lot more sense when I watched four episodes a night, and not one a week.  The plot continuity between episodes was a lot easier to follow and I really enjoyed it.  I found that I read more and wasted less time.  I was more productive and more relaxed than I had been in a long time.  And, I really didn’t miss having all those channels that I didn’t watch to surf endlessly, trying to find something “good to watch”.  In short, it was no loss to me, outside of the cost, to cut cable.
But, in early 2012, I met a girl and things changed.

Okay, so that’s a little poetic license.  She’s not “a girl”, but is, in fact, a woman my age.  However, like virtually all significant change that has occurred in my life, a woman, whatever her age, was at the heart of it.
Seriously, though, after four, solid years with nothing but books, the internet and Netflix for entertainment.  But, before my future wife moved in, I got the television service for AT&T’s U-Verse again.  I got the U-300 package to get her some specific channels that she wanted to watch.  Most important to her was Turner Classic Movies, because she is an old-film buff and part of several on-line old-movie communities.  To not have that would have been a “deal breaker” and, well, that wasn’t a deal I was willing to break.  So, in the spring of 2013, I got cable TV again and got two wireless DVRs as part of the package.  Wow, did she widen my horizons with the introduction to the DVR!  I don’t know how I managed to get by without one before.

In any case, all of that is to say, we’ve decided for various reasons, including costs, to cut cable again and go to streaming services.
And, I’ve decided to document the transition, outlining the choices we made and why we made them.  This post will anchor the series and give you a reference point for what we have now.  Specifically, we have AT&T U-Verse, with the 6 MBPS “Elite” internet package and the U-300 channel package with one wired DVR receiver and two wireless DVR receivers.  Additionally, we have Netflix streaming with HD and two-disks-at-a-time rental with the Bluray option.  Our current total is roughly $200/month or $2400/year.  I’m fairly confident that we can cut that in half with some judicious changes.  And, also because a handy savings calculator told me so.

Want to run the numbers for yourself?  Get your bills and click over to the “Should you cut the cord?” Calculator at Slate.com.  You may be surprised.
And, keep coming back here for details and updates on how we do what we do, saving money and gathering information as we go.
Just do be warned, this is primarily a blog by geeks for geeks, so at some point I’ll probably get into some technical stuff as I work to replace or improve some of the systems we’ve grown used to having.
The updates won’t come every week, but I’ll try to keep them regular.  And, they won’t normally come on Friday after this one, either.

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