Why I’m seriously considering going back to physical media

A few years back I was deeply committed to the Apple ecosystem. I loved Apple, mostly due to it’s user focused approach to its products, and, to a lesser degree, its services. I loved the deep integration they offered, being the first to provide usable integration across multiple platforms, without the need for complicated setup… things mostly just worked the way you expected them to. Create a document using your phone, do some updates on it later using your Mac. And the integration got better over time to the point where, should one choose to use the Apple products, you could stop caring about where you did what, and just concentrate on the what. For Apple users, the hardware was just a portal into your content, and after a while you forgot about the hardware and you could concentrate on the content. This had been Steve Jobs vision for some time… give people the tools to create… and Apple was king in this domain.

So deeper and deeper I went into the Apple way of doing thinsg… sometimes called the “walled garden”… but I didn’t care. Apple gave me what I needed, without (much if any) special setup and configuration. This included music and movies/TV. I could buy a movie using my phone, and watch it on any of my Apple devices: my iPad, my Mac, my MacBook, my Apple TV… so I started to build my collection, music, and movies, buying content exclusively from Apple.

I first moved to Apple from Linux back around 2010 or 2011. And all was fine, and actually got better, for years-and-years. But then, something changed. Steve Jobs died, and I believe with him, Apple’s user/customer focus to its products and services began a slow death.

Slowly over time more and more of Apple’s decisions seemed to favour the Apple shareholder, without Apple’s past regard for the customer, for the user experience. The slow march towards being just another company producing shareholder value rather than products customers wanted was slow at first… and very subtle. I accepted the decisions at first, but then, shortly before I was to replace my iPhone, Apple decided iPhones no longer needed headphone jacks.

Apple claimed the removal of the headphone jack was to make the phones thinner, and waterproof. The former was something I didn’t care for… thinner (smaller) phones meant smaller batteries, and battery life was never a strong motivating factor for iPhone ownership.

“Use the included audio dongle”, people say. Sure, so I have to remember to bring the dongle with me everywhere? And the sound quality through the dongle, because it had to provide the DAC and amplification in a tiny package, was inferior. Measurably so.

“Use wireless headphones”, some say. So… why? Why should I pay $300 to get a pair of wireless headphones that are substandard in performance when compared with a wired pair half the price? Why worry about headphone batteries all the time? Why not use my audiophile grade headphones that I have been using for years? What about when you show up somewhere and want to plug into the 1/8″ audio jack to play DJ? Yes that does happen to me! Steve Jobs is rolling in his grave, of that I am sure.

So I started looking for a replacement for my MacBook Air… it was (and is) still working, and in fact I am writing this article on it, but for reasons not germain to this discussion, it was time to move on to something new. I checked out the new MacBook Pros… and… wow, somehow, Apple had managed to ruin them! Apple had removed the top row of keys and replaced it with a touch bar. This meant the ESC key, a key I use hundreds of times a day in an editor that requires it, was no longer a physical button. But never mind the missing ESC key, the remainder of the keyboard used a new design that was horrible to use, and became the subject of many, many customer complaints. It was so bad, Apple went back to the old design, after trying three re-designs to fix it. They also removed all the ports except for a USB-C, so you needed to carry a device with you… a dongle, to use existing USB-A devices. Yes, USB-A is on the way out, but it’s not gone yet, far from it… a single USB-A port would have been nice. And then I noticed they removed the MagSafe connector, and that was the last straw for me.

You see, MagSafe was a brilliant design by Apple… the power connector connected to the laptop with a magnet. If someone walked by and tripped over your power cord, the power connector simply, and safely disengaged. It fell to the floor, usually followed by “Oh, sorry”, and no drama beyond that. Now, Apple uses a standard USB-C connector. So that same Starbucks customer running for the door takes your laptop half way across the room with them.

I reluctantly gave up on Apple and over the past year replaced my iPhone with a Pixel 3A, and I now use a PixelBook as my day-to-day laptop and tablet. I love both. And integration, I was surprised to find, was better with Google suite than the Apple implementation. Yes, the PixelBook uses USB-C, but it and the phone both have a real headphone jack. Sold!

Regarding media consumption on my home theatre, I had also moved to a Roku as my preferred streaming device. It provided more configurability than the Apple TV, and provided services Apple just didn’t offer at the time, such as an Amazon Prime Video player, and a Spotify player. The older Apple TV I had did play the music I had purchased from Apple, but it did not play music from Apple Music, Apple’s streaming music service. Yes, you read that right… to enjoy my Apple Music subscription on my stereo, I would have to upgrade my Apple TV to the newest generation device, at the cost of over $350 (at the time). And for that $350, I would have gained little else of value to me.

I decided to drop my Apple Music subscription, and got a Spotify subscription instead, and while its sound quality is measurably not as good as Apple Music, it would take a critical A/B comparison to notice the difference. For background listening, it was indistinguishable, and Spotify beat Apple Music in the music discovery area as well. And Spotify works on all my devices, including my Roku streamer. I was also able to move all my iTunes purchased music over to Google Play Music (more on this later), but my Movies and TV stayed behind. I had purchased about 40 titles, but had decided I would move to Google Play Movies and TV as my video media supplier. I made this decision because I knew I would be able to play my content pretty much everywhere, without needing an Apple device. Apple did eventually come out with a player for TV/Movies that worked on the Roku, so I could still enjoy the video content I had already paid for.

So I continued buiding my video media collection on Google… happy in the knowledge that would be able to watch it on all my devices.

Or so I thought.

Yesterday, after much research (but clearly not enough), I bought an Nvidia Shield TV device to replace my Roku. I chose the Nvidia Shield for a few reasons, but the main reasons were that it supported Dolby Atoms on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and it had an amazing AI 4K upscaler. It also had a built in 4K Chromecast TV, which is a $CDN80 value!

I came home, hooked it up, and started setting it up. The device runs Android TV which tightly integrates with the Google Ecosytem. It has a microphone too, so with a press of a button on the remote, I can say “what’s on my calendar” to hear my upcoming meetings, or I can say “add coffee to my shopping list” and boom, it’s done. Of course because it integrates with the Google ecosystem, it needs your Google account, requested as part of device setup. I have two Google accounts… a gmail one where I keep my contacts, calendar, etc., and a custom gSuite domain which just so happens to be the account under which I purchased my Google music and video content.

So I set up Google Play Music to play my music, and the Shield diligently asked me which Google account I wished to use, so I choose my gSuite one. I tested it, and as expected my music content played fine! I can now listen to the music I purchased on iTunes on my home theatre. Yay!

Next, I set up Google Play Movies and TV… and… wait… what? There’s no way to choose which Google account to use for media? Nope. To watch the Movies and TV you have paid for, you have to have only one Google account set up on the Shield. Why!! The music app doesn’t do this… only the Movies and TV app.

So I have a choice. I can log in to my gSuite account only, and lose the ability to do any of the cool Google Assistant tasks on the device. No calendar. No control over my thermostat. No notifications. Or, I can set the Shield up to use my gMail account, and lose the ability to play the Movies and TV I have purchased.

Sigh.

So thankfully the Nvidia Shield will play media off of an internal network, which leaves me with a third choice. I can start buying content on physical media again… CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray. I can then rip the content to my media server and enjoy the content from there. For remote access, I can upload my music to YouTube Music (more on that in a moment), and use Plex for my Video and TV content.

So I just mentioned YouTube Music, with a “more on that in a moment”, and earlier I mentioned Google Play Music, also with a “more on that in a moment”. Well, here’s the rub. The Shield will play music from Google Play Music, but Google is shutting down that service, moving all customer music content to YouTube Music. No problem… just use the YouTube Music app! Sigh… not so fast… there is no YouTube Music player for the Shield (yet!)

And the same may happen to Google Play Movies and TV, that is, there’s quite a bit of speculation online that Google Play Movies and TV might be retired in favour of YouTube. It makes sense… content you purchase on either platform is viewable on the other… but right now YouTube content, including purchased content, does not support surround sound.

Wait, what?

Yes, you read that right! If I purchase a movie on Google Play Movies and TV, and it’s in surround, then to enjoy it in surround I must play it with the Google Play Movies and TV app. If I play it with the YouTube app, it will be downmixed to 2.0. Sure I can use the Dolby Surround Upmixer to dematrix surround, but that’s suboptimal… it is not discrete surround.

So, sad as it is, the promise of purchasing content in the cloud has not been realized to the level we had with physical media. Will we get there? I thought we would. I thought we were close. But we’re not. And then there’s the pretty crappy realization that when you “buy” content, you’re really just licencing it for your use. This actually means you’re not legally permitted to use that content in certain ways outside your licence agreement. This may not seem like a big deal, until you dig deeper and realize that–for instance–you would not be legally permitted to use the CDs you bought to provide music and your neices wedding! Still don’t care? “I can play my CDs wherever I damn well please you say.” Yes, you can, but not necessarily legally.

So why should you care? Consider this… did you know you are not legally permitted to leave your cloud based digital music collection to your kids? Don’t believe me? Check out this article on the issue: https://www.cnn.com/2012/09/03/tech/web/bruce-willis-itunes/index.html

So yeah, physical media is a pain in the butt now, compared to the convenience and “I want it now” satisfaction of cloud based media, but physical media is-what-it-is, meaning if you bought a movie with Dolby Atmos, then you have a movie with Dolby Atmos. How you access that content in Dolby Atmos without using the physical media is detailed enough to warrant another article, but if you have the knowledge, and some basic equipment and software, it is possible.

But with cloud based content, you’re subject to a licence, one that’s easier for the licensor to enforce, a licence which could change, and which may not suit your needs in the future, or may force you to upgrade hardware just to continue to enjoy media you could previously enjoy on your existing hardware. And then there’s the unfathomable idea of the media provider ceasing to exist at some point in the future. Think that’s not possible for Google and Apple? Unlikely, sure, but impossible? I used to think the same about Sears… but gone it is.

To conclude, I will admit I still love cloud based media. It’s convenient. You can play it from just about anywhere (with the right device), and it’s typically very affordable. And sometimes you get upgrades for free… buy the HD version of a movie one day, and get upgraded for free to the 4K version (it happens!) I’m still holding out hope that Google will fix the Google Play Movies and TV app so it does let you choose the account it’s pulling its content from, and that Apple will write an Apple TV app for Android, so I can run it on my Shield. But until all this happens, I am going to ponder further the idea of going back to physical media.

Potentially Dangerous Mobile Antenna Failure – Could Happen to You!

Maybe this should be called operator failure, and not antenna failure, but there is an important lesson in it… please read on!

Corona Ball

I am an amateur radio operator (“Ham”) and as such I have several antennae mounted on my truck, and as is often the case with antenna design, each one has a round ball at the top of the antenna, as you can see in the picture to the right.

It’s actually got a name, and a purpose. It’s called a “Corona Ball”, and no, it’s not there to save you from poking your eye out–the actual purpose is to prevent the accumulation of coronal energy at the end of the antenna, which can be harmful to your radio. I believe such coronal discharge is related to the phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire, but this article isn’t about coronae and some-such… read on!

Recently I was staying at a hotel in Toronto, and at one point I decided to park in the parking garage. One of the antennas on my truck is nearly 2M (6 feet) long and mounted on the top edge of the fender, so the tip is easily 3M (10 feet) from the ground, if not more. Normally when driving in a parking garage, I fold my antenna over by drawing the antenna into the passenger side window and raising the window to just catch the corona ball tip.

But on this particular occasion I was not feeling well and decided I would just let the antenna drag along the garage ceiling as I carefully drove into the garage. Well, that was a mistake! As I was driving into the parking garage, the corona ball rode along a bundle of wires, and was captured, with amazing tenacity, by the overhead wire bundle. In fact, the bundle got hold of the antenna so firmly it literals ripped the antenna from my truck, and did so quite violently!

10M Antenna – in Better Times
Death of a 10M Antenna

In the pictures, you can see what my antenna looked like in better times, and what it looks like today, the silver part having remained screwed to my truck, with the black part staying with the extricated antenna.

This rapid evisceration of my beloved 10M HF antenna made quite the loud BANG… but as I was only moving at about 2-3kph, less than walking pace, and because I had not noticed this as the source of the bang, I’d assumed I had either hit something, or I had been hit by something. I got out of the truck to do a walk-around, and as I rounded the passenger side first noticed the antenna was missing, and then I looked behind the truck and there was my antenna, a few metres back, appearing to be standing in mid-air, hanging from the ceiling wire bundle!

I walked back and grabbed the antenna, intending to remove it by walking it backwards to free it from the wire bundle. While this was perfectly effective, in retrospect, it was a very stupid thing to do! I was standing on the ground, holding a metal rod in my hand, a metal rod that had been forcefully wedged into an overhead wire bundle. Think about that for a second. Imagine if that wire bundle had contained mains wiring, and the antenna had torn the mains sheathing!

Thankfully, the garage I was in conformed to Canada’s building code, and therefore no high current wiring would be included in that bundle, at least not without some form of armour, but it’s still quite a lesson to me, at least in retrospect. Even if the wiring had contained low voltage, it’s not something I would want injected into my radio!

So the moral of the story is, if you do have tall antenna on your vehicle, you cool nerd you, you may wish to consider a clip or some other retaining method, such as the corona-ball-in-the-window trick, as a way to ensure your safety, your radios safety, your vehicles safety, and the safety of the overhead wiring in parking garages!

Until another time, 73’s!

My Security Camera “DIY”

So for the past little while someone has been stealing our mail… yes, our physical mail. I decided to handle this in the way I usually handle these sorts of things… I over engineered a non-solution.

So rather than simply get a locking mailbox, like my sensible neighbour, or even cutting a mail-slot in the door, I decided what I really needed was a security camera system.

After lots of research, I found some awesome free (for non-commercial use) camera software named Shinobi CCTV that will run on just about any common platform (*NIX, Windows, MacOS) and loaded that on my Linux box and attached a Web Camera. After some experimentation I got something working, but the camera was inside, and had a poor view of the front of the house, but as a proof of concept it was a pass! And as DIY goes, this is a win because most of the “D” has been done for me.

Next, I bought a Raspberry Pi from BuyaPi.ca, and tried that but it was less than ideal… the Pi just didn’t have the oomph to work with the camera… nearly 90% CPU with one camera, but it was not the Pi’s fault… I was doing video conversion, video noise suppression, and zoned motion detection, on a Pi… which was never designed to do that much heavy lifting. I either needed a more powerful platform, or a camera that did much of the processing itself before even handing it to the Pi.

After some more research, I bought a “real” security camera, a HoSafe H2MB6A for just $65CAD delivered overnight from Amazon! It allowed me to use hardware acceleration on the Pi, and CPU usage dropped into the teens even with motion detection being done by the Pi! Woot!

After some testing, I was very happy that the system would work. so I ordered a second camera, and today I installed them both… one on my side of our duplex, facing East, and one on my intelligent* neighbours duplex, facing West. Just a few hours and it was working! It still needs some tidying up (the wiring is exposed, for now) but it’s running, and should catch my mail thief any year now.

I have been tweaking the settings since installation, but am very pleased. One of the things I am really impressed with is the low light performance of these cameras… in fact, you can see a video of the test here on YouTube.

Anyway, that’s it for now… with any luck I will post some more interesting things I “catch” on this system… wish me luck catching my mail thief.

*He’s intelligent because not only does he have a locking mailbox, but his neighbour ended up installing a security camera system so he doesn’t really have to.

Jamie’s Instant Pot Baby Back Ribs

This one was inspired by and partially plagiarized from a bunch of recipes on the Internet! Let’s call that research.

Ingredients

  • Cajun spice – as a rub
  • 1/4 cup Canadian Rye Whiskey – this is optional and I have not tried it without it yet to see if it makes much of a difference. If you do try it without I would love to get your feedback
  • 1 cup BBQ sauce – choose bold flavour – I use original recipe Bulls Eye
  • 2 cups Coca Cola (or your favourite cola beverage)

Preparation

  • Rinse ribs under cold tap water to remove any bone chips, etc.
  • Pat dry.
  • Some butchers remove the membrane when selling ribs. If yours still have the membrane on, don’t worry, it’s easy to remove:
    • At the smaller end, of the rack slide the tip of a knife under the membrane, next to the bone.
    • Lift membrane until it separates from meat. Put down the knife. PUT. DOWN. THAT. KNIFE!
    • Grip edge of the membrane with a paper towel and pull up, then pull back toward larger end of rack.
  • Cut ribs in half or thirds to aid removal from pot afterward. Or you can tip ribs out into stainless steel bowl and leave as full racks.
  • Rub cajun spice onto both sides of ribs 
  • Add wet ingredients to pot, being sure to stir well
  • Add trivet to pot, Trivet will almost be submerged
  • Place ribs in pot, curved with “top” side toward the curvature of pot, curved inward with membrane side towards the middle of the pot. This is the way the ribs naturally curl. If you chose to leave ribs un-cut you should be able to put two racks in. If you have three, you will probably have to cut the third one. This is based on 6lbs being three racks. 6lbs seems to be the limit of the 6 quart Instant Pot.
  • Meat button, or manual button, Normal, High Pressure for 30 minutes for 5-6lbs of ribs; 25 minutes for 2-4lbs
  • Natural release 15 minutes.
  • During the natural release:
    • Put oven shelf on second highest rack, unless that’s your middle position, in which case choose the top height.
    • Pre-heat broiler
    • Prepare a foil lined large cookie sheet
  • Transfer ribs to foil lined cookie sheet. Careful, they will be fall-off-the-bone tender so they will fall apart if mishandled
  • Brush with your favourite BBQ sauce
  • Place ribs under broiler, 5-10 minutes.  Watch them closely after 5 minutes so they don’t burn.
Enjoy!