Everything I need to know…

Have you ever seen those posters that start out with “Everything I need to know I learned in …” that list all these wonderful little truths about life that everyone knows but nobody really pays attention to? I have my own version of this poster. Everything I need to know I learned from anime. The difference between American cartoons and anime (or Japanese animated television shows) is a large gap of maturity and true life lessons gleaned from character development. I find more meaning in one episode of, say, Gundam Seed than in the entire run of Scooby Doo.

There is a huge difference in mentality when our respective countries approach animated works. Americans by and large consider the animation medium as something childish and only fit for the most shallow of pursuits. The Japanese approach animated work as a serious art that can convey even the most complex stories with better efficiency and cost than a live-action and special effects ridden behemoth that one would expect from Hollywood. They do not demean the medium because of silly preconceptions. Some great dramas can be conveyed through animation. I speak of stories and characters with real depth and real growth over the course of the story arc. Characters are often flawed and dealing with inner turmoil that can cause what would normally be a minor situation to turn into a major catastrophe. These same characters make human mistakes and suffer consequences for said mistakes.

The writers have a goal to tell a story. This is true regardless of what country a writer hails from. Stories that are written without regard to what kind of budget the studio has to offer are far better than those crammed into cookie cutter sized generic flavored snack batches that Hollywood is so famous for spewing forth onto the masses. Using animation as a medium, suddenly the cost of that planet exploding or those slow motion effects have no monetary difference from that scene of two guys sitting at a table and talking. This gives the writer the ability to truly delve deeply into the tale he or she wishes to weave for the audience so that they might share some of what the writer has put into the work. But I stray from the subject…

Some of the things I have learned from anime:

  • Choices have consequences both good and bad. I must take responsibility for my choices and actions. [Gundam Seed]
  • It may be far easier to do nothing, but it is far more rewarding to stand up and take action. [DBZ, Gundam, most action anime]
  • Stereotypes are misleading. Everyone is different so give everyone a chance. [Witch Hunter Robin, Inuyasha]
  • Never give up on a dream. [Gundam Wing, Outlaw Star]
  • Money is not the most important thing in life. [King of Bandit Jing]
  • Love conquers all. [Chobits, Appleseed]
  • People can change. [Elfen Lied, Rurouni Kenshin]
  • Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense. Just take those times and deal with them the best that you can. [FLCL]
  • True friends will be there for you. [DBZ, Rurouni Kenshin, Outlaw Star, Dual!]
  • Every day is an opportunity to learn to understand myself better. [Noir, .Hack]
  • Everyone needs help sometimes. True friends will be there for you. [Yu Yu Hakusho, all Gundam]

I could continue this but the point is made. Unlike most American animated shows, anime offers something deeper and more meaningful…something that can provoke thought and understanding. So don’t just shrug off Japanese animated shows as “kiddie stuff”. Give them a chance and you may be surprised at how well written the stories and characters actually are. Just avoid things like Colorful and Bo-bo-bo. After all…every genre has a few bad seeds.

A Comcast Summary

For those of you that have been following my Comcast saga, you can jump down to the last paragraph. Newcomers, you are being treated with a brief summary of the previous trials. More in-depth information can be found in the posts tagged Comcast…just hit up the search feature.

The whole thing started about nine or ten months ago with some poor picture problems. I have a 50″ Samsung plasma television and subscribe to Comcast’s HD service complete with DVR. I figured it would be a fairly simple thing to call them up, run through their troubleshooting script, and get a tech to stop by and fix whatever was messed up. I figured wrong.

Over the course all these months I have been calling Comcast almost weekly with the same problem. Standard definition channels are so fuzzy that they look like I’m watching them on my old Zenith television hooked up to rabbit-ears and HD channels giving me the Max Headroom treatment if they come in at all. I have had no less than a dozen techs at my house over this time all trying to figure out what was going on. They ran a new cable to the house and replaced all the cable ends and splitters where the feed comes in. Nothing helped. I replaced the receiver which was constantly locking up on me (thus losing all my saved programs) and that did nothing except maybe make my problems even worse.

So I blogged it. Lo and behold my little blog which got less than twenty hits a day at the time got a response. In less than four hours after posting my first Comcast rant, I got a comment from Melissa with Comcast’s Social Media Outreach group. Thus ensued a series of emails (which are blogged here) and phone calls with the “local leadership” in an effort to fix my ongoing poor service. More techs were sent and more problems just weren’t fixed. But Customer Service was a pleasure to deal with. Every last one of them was helpful and sympathetic. Their techs consistantly sucked. Insert more blog postings, emails, and phone calls.

Eventually I got a response via Twitter from Melissa’s boss, Frank (@comcastcares). He was very excited about my opinion on how his group was helping me get something done but was just as frustrated at their tech’s inability to fix it. More time passed with steadily worsening service. It literally became unwatchable cable. Finally, Melissa ran across my more recent postings (the one’s with Star Wars-esque names) and decided it was time to up the ante. That got me the head of the local support center and a visit from one of his top engineers. Yep, engineer…not tech. He fixed the problem in less than two hours. Turns out when the cable ends were replaced, the one that went to my DVR had some of the ground braiding touching the center conducter wire. Way to go tech guys.

Well, that was about three weeks ago and I am happy to say that I have been credited for service that was nigh unusable and since the engineer’s visit, my service has been really good. I still get occasional pixelation, but I can live with it. Besides, who on Comcast doesn’t have quality drop on HD every now and then? It took every ounce of patience I had to keep them around long enough to get a fix. This was in large part because of my reluctance to give up Food Network and Good Eats. Alton Brown is the only reason I have cable to begin with and my addiction to his show is the only reason Comcast is still getting money from me. So I have to thank AB for giving me a reason to see it through to a finally happy conclusion. I cannot express how much I appreciate everything that Frank and Melissa did for me. That group deserves positive press regardless of whatever the rest of the Company From Hell is doing. So Frank and Melissa, thanks again and keep up the great work. With luck you won’t hear from me any more unless you want to talk about random topics.

Home Media Makeover Part One: DVD Library

Technology abounds in every aspect of our lives. Computers are usually the center of a great many media types that we experience throughout the day. You can buy a computer pretty much anywhere these days for really reasonable prices. So the question on my mind has been, why are most people still using the old components of yore for their home theaters? Why not leverage some of this wonderful computer technology and versatility for the home theater experience?

Yes, I know there are HTPC options out there. Most of them run well over $1500 for the base model. I also know you can roll your own HTPC/DVR for about the same price. What I’m talking about is using a more distributed model, preferably leveraging systems you already have in place…just extending them to the HDTV in the living room. For my personal project, I have a 20″ iMac on my desk and a Vista laptop that usually sits on the coffee table. There’s a 50″ Samsung plasma TV in the living room that I really want to use to watch my media such as streaming video from the web with an XBox360 under it.

Ideally, I want to get rid of the DVD player and replace the set-top box from Comcast with my media system so I can drop the cable television service and thus save myself over $1000 a year. Now I realize that for my particular desires, I will not need a PVR/DVR setup and can thus skimp on some hardware. Actually, for step one of my media center makeover, I just want to stream ripped copies of my DVD library so my 360 will play the part of extender. For this setup, storage will be the biggest concern with network bandwidth running a close second. With today’s prices for hardware, neither of those should be a challenge to satisfy on a budget.

Let’s start by making sure there is plenty of storage for my media. My eventual completed media system will hopefully house rips of every DVD I own so I can just fire up my extender and select the title that it will stream to the plasma. For this I’m going to need something really large because I own a lot of DVDs. I will add an external 1TB USB hard drive to hold my movies. I will probably add a second one later on to house my anime. This is the nice thing about using external storage. I can add/remove/swap at will even while the system is running. These drives start at just over $150. So that’s reasonable.

Next I need to worry about network bandwidth. Everything in my house is running wirelessly on 802.11g. I was worried that video streaming would saturate the bandwidth, but after testing it last night with Pirates of the Carribean, I am confident that the G network will be sufficient for everything I will be doing in phase one. This is wonderful because I don’t have to spend the money on a new router and adapters for every system in the house. I now have more budget to work on other areas.

Now we have storage and bandwidth taken care of for less than $200. Time to hit software. I already have Handbrake which will handle the rip/convert process for my DVDs. I also have Connect360 ($20) to let the XBox see my iMac. Now I just need time. Handbrake 0.9.2 has a large selection of presets for different types of devices. Since I am using my Xbox360, I selected the presets for that device. It works wonderfully. Handbrake also has presets for everything from the iPhone to a PS3. It is a wonderful little program that costs nothing.

If you are using Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate, you have what you need to connect to the 360…Windows Media Center. That would just leave the ripping/converting software. Many people take the inexpensive route of ripping the DVD with DVD Decrypter or DVDShrink to a single VOB file then changing the extension to MPG. Media Center will let you stream the renamed file to your 360 with full DVD Quality. Details for this method and some caveats are here. There is also TMPGEnc MovieStyle ($39.95) which can encode to different playable formats.

Do not be fooled. Ripping and encoding a full length movie is not going to happen quickly. It took nearly four hours for my iMac to get finished with Pirates of the Carribean. This is not a project for the impatient. You will easily spend a couple of weeks working on rips if you have a large library. I have about 400 or so DVDs from movies to anime and television series. I fully expect this conversion process will take me about two months. On the bright side, unless I lose a drive, I won’t have to worry about it ever again and adding new movies that I purchase will be mostly painless.

Now that my DVD library is taken care of in this design, time to hit up my other wants. I want to be able to stream from video sites such as SurfTheChannel and Hulu since this is where I get a lot of my television series fulfillment. That will be in Part Two.

Comcast Episode Three: Revenge of the Box

Another week and still the high signal issues persist. I figured that since the tech that came out Saturday was one that had been there before and managed to get me fixed back then, I would see some satisfaction. I was wrong. While attempting to watch Good Eats last night I got frozen frames, pixelated video, trilling sound…the full Max Headroom treatment…that culminated in a nice box in the middle of the screen once again informing me that I needed to subscribe if I wanted to watch Food Network. Come on guys, it can’t be that hard to fix a signal problem.

So there I was, on the phone with Comcast yet again. The lady was really nice. I can’t commend their phone reps enough for their great personalities. She couldn’t find my ticket but informed me she was unable to see any that have been escalated. She tried to get someone on the phone from escalation but they wouldn’t answer. This is another area where I have to give kudos. She didn’t just transfer me to their queue and move on to the next caller. She placed me on hold and tried to get them on the phone before handing me off. That failed, though. We settled for an email to her manager and to the escalation team about the problem.

Today’s agenda will include calling Sid and negotiating a reduction in my last bill since I spent roughly 75% of my actual television watching time with either no service or unusable service. I shouldn’t pay for something I just cannot use. Besides, I doubt my tiny little bill will put them out of business if they credit it. As of my writing this, I still have not heard back from the escalation department even though I was assured they would contact me before now. So here’s the lesson boys and girls: Comcast has a great customer service department if you only account for the people that answer the phone when you first call in. Anything after that is a gamble that will most likely end in tears.

Now you may be wondering why I’m still fighting this after all my ranting. I have a daughter that loves Cartoon Network and Nick. If it weren’t for me leaving her TV desolate, I would have dropped Comcast like a bad habit long ago over this. That was then. Now she’s just going to have to get used to the idea of watching DVDs or reading books. I’ve been patient. I’ve been nice. I’ve really tried to work it out and Comcast’s customer service has appeared to sincerely attempt to fix my problems. Their tech support obviously has other plans.

The other part of my dilemma is that even with extensive use of Google, I am unable to find a well written blueprint for replacing a set-top box and cable television with a PC and broadband. This will be my next endeavor. There needs to be a simple and concise article written on the ways you can substitute internet television for cable. I’m thinking a modular blueprint so you can add or skip sections based on what you actually want to do with it. I want to get my normal shows on my HDTV, use the HTPC as my DVD player, home theater amp (5.1 surround), and set-top box. The ability to stream media from my iMac and/or Vista laptop will be a bonus.

Right here on Hippie TV!

I normally reserve my eco/green posts (read “hippie ideas”) for The Energy Farm site. The only problem is that I have to put more of a journalist-like feel to the article. Now I don’t consider myself a journalist. I’m more of a hobby blogger because I like to share my ideas with anyone that will listen. Yes, sometimes I talk a lot. Anyway, the point is I ran across a neat little article about a new cable channel launching next month and I wanted to share some thoughts. I just didn’t feel I could really express myself well in the more sanitized environment of the other site.

Let’s get to it. Apparently Discovery is launching Planet Green next month. It will be focused on eco-friendly lifestyle programming. The resurgence of the “hippie movement” seems to be in full swing. I’m okay with that. I’ve always thought people were, in general, far too wasteful. In the 80’s it seemed like the “in” thing to get as much as you could and do as little with it as possible. Heck, I remember a truck customizing magazine I used to read that had a special on a souped up Chevrolet 4×4 that got….1 mile to the gallon. You read that right…it had a 1:1 ratio of gas to distance. This was the centerfold truck of that issue. For years now that memory has stood out in my mind as the true representation of our wastefulness.

How does this relate back to Planet Green? General Motors is the only automotive sponsor of the channel. They will be airing several two-minute ad spots on the station. According to the article, two will be corporate spots, four will be Chevrolet spots, and the final two will be Saturn related. I’d imagine that the vast majority of these will be used to try and change the perception that GM only works with large, gas-hungry designs like the Hummer and Suburban. And while a vast amount of its products would fall into the large, heavy, and thirsty category…they do have quite a few more eco-minded lines.

If you consider how GM is fairing financially right now – poorly – you might wonder why they are dropping serious dollars on a fledgling cable station. Personally I think it’s a brilliant move. A lot of my opinion comes from how much I think the company is counting on the Chevy Volt to save them. I’ve been following the electric and extended electric car movement for a while. I hope that my next car is one of them. And I can say that if GM delivers on the promises of the Volt, they could take this new market by storm. And they’ll have to if they want to stay relevant for a few more generations. Oil prices won’t come back down unless the global economy magically resets. Put away those pipe dreams. It’s time to wake up and smell the exhaust.

Alternative energy is more than a fad at this point. It was a nice little sideline to funnel a bit of R&D money into as a write-off a few years ago. With energy prices soaring the way they are now, it’s far more serious. People want ways to do what they always do without having to take out a second mortgage (and don’t get me started on the housing market). GM is poised with the Volt to offer the first mass production extended range electric vehicle for under $40,000 around $30,000 (so says GM-Volt.com). Now I know that some people like to slip on the sandals and grab their hemp necklaces before heading out to the rally supporting the $10,000 PHEV. Get over it. You can’t buy any new car for that and you most certainly won’t get a car using a new technology for that. I think GM’s idea of a car with style and function for the price point they suggest is great.

If you want less range but a slightly higher top speed and no gas tank at all, feel free to get in line for the $108,000 Tesla Roadster. You could have the $600/month lease for the Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell car if you live in the right place in SoCal, just don’t expect to make long trips with it. I believe those hit empty near 200 miles. Speaking of SoCal, you can also jump in line for an Aptera. They should be under $30k according to their website. I imagine it has less storage space than the Volt will. And it’s only a two-seater where I the Volt should be four. Did I mention the Aptera Typ-1 looks like it belongs to Darkwing Duck? That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but this isn’t something you want to buy if you are shy. People will stare and they will take pictures.

It seems like I’ve strayed from Planet Green again, doesn’t it? I haven’t. This is exactly the kind of thing they will be talking about…tech to free us…tech that’s eco-friendly. The other point I was making is that GM is far from the only player in the market for new car lines that are more efficient and “green”. However, they are the only automotive sponsor for the channel. It’s a brilliant move by the beleaguered company that could go a long way to saving them from extinction. So keep your eyes open for Planet Green by Discovery launching on June 4. We could all use a little more Green…

I Think We Should See Other Providers

It already appears that my new HD-DVR is a much more stable than Tom Cruise, unlike my last one. But I am still dealing with HD channels suffering from what I call “Max Headroom Syndrome”. This is where…oh if you don’t know who Max Headroom is, hit Google and Youtube for a little much needed education. Between that and the screen and sound just blanking out every minute or so during Poker After Dark, I’m less and less pleased with my new Comcast deal.

Now that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what they’ve done so far. But with my latest online discovery I don’t know that I have any real need to pursue these issues much longer. To be honest, Sid’s offer on my service rate adjustments only make up about 40% of the reason I didn’t cancel. The real reason is I cannot live without Good Eats. I’m an Alton Brown fan until the end and when I wrote my previous posts about internet television and about Comcast I mentioned that it was the one show I was unable to find online. I’m weak and just couldn’t part with that one show to save money.

That’s different now. Enter TidalTV. They offer channels like DIY, HGTV, and Food Network. They also offer a couple of news channels like AP and some sports channels as well. And yes, they have Good Eats. So take heed Comcast, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me thus far. I think that Frank‘s team (Melissa M. in particular) are one of the best things you’ve done in years. I can’t thank Sid enough for the help he is still giving me on my issues. But if things don’t change between us soon, I’m gonna start seeing other providers. I hear that Hulu and TidalTV and Netflix will give me everything I want. Three at once might be more work, but they also don’t give me all the crap I can live without. They also don’t spend as much of my money as you do. And with the new Netflix Player on the market, I can get more of that goodness on my plasma should I choose not to snatch up an AppleTV for my house.

This isn’t just science, it’s…..

Good Eats.

Alton Brown’s new book Feasting On Asphalt: The River Run is out and he made a book signing stop in Jackson today. Alton hosts several shows on The Food Network including Good Eats and Iron Chef America. He has added to this list a new show that he works on from time to time called Feasting on Asphalt. The first season he hopped on his motorcycle and cruised the backroads of America from the east coast to the west coast. Along the way he discovered lots of down home diners that hearken back to the “good ole days” of going out to eat. With the success of that he went on and did a second season where he started down in Louisiana and rode his way up the mighty Mississippi River looking for more of those hidden gems of dining.

Now I have lived in Mississippi all of my life and I am a huge fan of Alton’s shows. So when I heard yesterday that he would be in town to sign his new book … well I left work early and spent about four hours at Lemuria Books to have a moment with my culinary hero. As a matter of fact, I had three. The first of which threw me off balance just a bit. I was waiting in my spot in line well outside the doors of the bookstore and he came walking up while I was talking with the guy next to me. Alton put on that quirky smile and asked, “What are all of these people here for?” Now because I was in mid conversation and I didn’t actually look up to see who spoke, my mouth kicked in before my conscious brain picked up what my eyes saw. So I just grinned and blurted out, “We’re waiting on you.” He chuckled and said, “Oh, really?” and walked away before I realized what just happened. Once he was a few feet away it hit me that I just had a witty moment with Alton Brown.

Fortunately I had plenty of time to wait before I finally got up to him to get my books signed. By then I had calmed down a bit and got a chance to mention to him that the Old Country Store in Lorman, Mississippi is a place I know well because I have family there. We exchanged a few cursory pleasantries while he signed the books and then I turned around to hand my phone to someone so I could get a picture. Behind me was a small herd of children that all appeared to be less than 10 years old. Not wanting to hold up the line, I just stepped down with the taste of bitter disappointment that I would not have anything more than a few drops of Sharpie ink and my questionable memory to preserve this moment. Then it occurred to me that I am a stubborn individual that will accomplish what I set out to do.

Since I knew about a dozen people in line and one of the ladies that works at the bookstore, I hung around chatting until the line finally dwindled down to about 6 people. I took my spot at the end of the line, fair is fair after all, and eventually wandered back up to him. When I stepped up he said, “You again?” in that funny exaggerated way he has. So I told him I didn’t get my picture because of the gaggle of small children behind me. He laughed and said, “They kind of freaked you out, didn’t they?” I agreed and he said, “They kind of freaked me out too.” He had made several comments throughout the signing about his amazement at the sheer amount of progeny he encountered at this signing. So with that I finally got my picture with my greatest hero and a wonderful memory of how I met him. Like AB says…”You’re patience will be rewarded.”

Me and AB

And let me add…OMG!!!!


Hulu – Internet Television

I happen to like some television shows. I also love my DVR. This makes for a wonderfully easy way for me to enjoy the shows I like at a time that is convenient to me. However my current Comcast DVR is less than reliable. I’ve had to delete and recreate my season recordings (that’s a Season Pass for you Tivo users) because they randomly just stop working. Which I of course do not discover until the latest episode of Chuck has already come and gone.

Living where I do, I also don’t have the luxury of OnDemand. Which would supplant my DVR fetish when it comes to watching TV. I mean think about it. With OnDemand you wouldn’t have to configure all those pesky recording options and worry about what to do if you want to watch a live show while two others are being recorded. That is, if your DVR comes with dual tuners. If it doesn’t…then you should retire the device and spare the poor hamster that powers the archaic thing.

It was a situation just like I described when I happened to hear about Hulu. This is a site(still in beta) where you can watch both old and new television shows with surprisingly little commercial interruption. The interface is clean and the show selection is getting better every day. They already have my current new show selection up and running (Chuck, Heroes, Bionic Woman). They also have a lot of old favorites like Airwolf, The A-Team, and the original Twilight Zone. It’s as simple as logging in, clicking the episode you want, and watching the show.

I spent the last day and a half watching Tin Man, Chuck, and Airwolf. I have literally been at my laptop for many many hours watching TV. For a 15.4 inch widescreen monitor and my wireless network connection, the strain was very light. I was able to watch the shows with no discernable stutter or degradation in video quality. The commercial breaks number about the same as they do on the air, but the breaks are only a single commercial between 15 and 30 seconds. How’s that for nice? No, you cannot fast forward or pause during a commercial…but for the mildness of the marketing incursions, I’ll gladly replace my DVR with my laptop for my TV fix….assuming I can get everything happily showing over my 50″ plasma and running through my home theater sound system.

If I manage to get all of that working, I’ll let you know how it sounds and looks over equipment a little more tuned to video playback than my Dell Inspiron. But everything I’ve seen up until now is how I think Internet Television should be done. Now if I can just find out where they hid episode 3 of Chuck….


We live for the One. We die for the One. We walk in the dark places that no one else will enter. We stand on the bridge and no one may pass.