Tuesday, August 18, 2009

No Sound/Wonky Sound on XBox When Watching Video

I ran into a minor problem when trying to watch video on my XBox. The sound on the XBox worked fine, but there was no sound when trying to watch video.

I have a Philips 42 inc PFL LCD television and it is connected to the XBox using a standard HDMI cable. It seems like there is some power saving "feature" of the television where the audio of the television shuts down if there is no HDMI video/audio source when the television powers on.

It seems quite obvious now, but the solution is to power off the TV and turn it back on with the video playing (or with the XBox already on). This will allow the TV to redetect the video/audio source and disable the power save mode.

Another problem I ran into is the audio running about 2 seconds ahead of the video. This problem cannot be solved by power cycling the TV. The solution that worked best for me was to exit the video using the XBox controller and Restart it from the XBox menus.

Hope that helps!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Me Chinese, Me Play Joke

If you hang out with serious poker players of any sort, you've probably heard of Chinese Poker. Chinese Poker is a poker variant that is extremely popular in the poker community. When I lived in Ireland, I got heavily involved in Chinese Poker. To say that I got addicted to this game would be a gross understatement.

The Basics
There are many variations of the game, but the basics are pretty simple. Each player (up to 4 players) gets 13 cards from a standard 52 cards deck. The 13 card hand is split into three hands: a 3 card hand (the front) and two 5 card hands (the middle and the back).

The back hand must be higher in value than the middle and the middle must be higher in value than the front. The highest hand you can have in the front is a three of a kind (straights and flushes don't factor into the value of the front hand). The other two hands are ranked based the standard poker scale.

Each player plays one-on-one against each of the other 3 opponents. If you win 2 out of the 3 hands, then you win a certain amount of money. If you win all 3 hands, then you get more money. The amount that you win depends on the type of scoring system you use. The most common scoring system I have seen awards 2 points for winning two out of three hands and 4 points for winning all three hands (called "shooting" or "scooping").

There are also "special hands" that are automatic winners, regardless of what the other players are holding. These hands include the following:
* 6 pairs
* 3 flushes
* 3 straights
* A 13 card straight
* 12 of one suit

Bonuses are also awarded if you get high ranked hands in your three set hands. These include the following:
* Trips in front
* Full House in the middle
* Four of a kind (middle or back)
* Straight flush (middle or back)

For more information on the rules of Chinese Poker, you can check out the Wikipedia entry:

Finding a Local Game
Last week, I came across a dated blog post from 2005 about Chinese Poker being dealt at some of the local California card rooms. This rekindled my obsession with the game and I headed off to search a casino that still dealt it. I was directed to the Bike, where there was a game running in the outdoor pavilion. There was a $5/point game already going, but they started up a new table just for me (they were more than willing to accommodate a newbie). I sat down without knowing what the hell I was getting into.

House Rules at the Bike
They use a 1-6 scoring system: 1 point for winning 2/3, 6 points for scooping all three hands. If you tie one hand and win the other two, then you win 2 points. Special hands are honored (4 points), but you have to turn your 13 card hand up (with just a single card revealed). Bonuses are awarded as well: 2 points for a full house in the middle, 3 points for trips up front, 4 points for quads, and 5 points for a straight flush.

One strange twist that the locals play is called "Aces". If you have one more Ace than your opponent, then you get an extra point. If you have two more Aces than your opponent, you get two. If you have three Aces and your opponent has none, then you get 6 points. If you have all four Aces, then you get 8 points.

The Ace rule does not require any skill and all players will break even in the long run. The only thing it does is increase the variance in the game. Playing Aces is optional, but players who do not participate are not exactly welcomed with open arms.

The bad news is that I got my ass handed to me at that game. The locals are pretty much experts at the game although I did spot a few mistakes on their part. Unfortunately, I made quite a few mistakes as a result of being new to this version of the game and because of underestimating the power of the scoop. Since I usually play with the 2-4 scoring system, I wasn't quite used to the scoop being worth 6 times the two of three win. I'll be ready for round two in a few days!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Using the Kindle 2 Overseas (with no WhisperNet)

Finding the Right eBook Reader
In November of 2008, I started itching for an electronic book reader. After doing a little research, I found that there are really only two major products that were right for me: The Amazon Kindle and the Sony digital book reader.

The Sony product is cheaper, looks nicer, has a (rudimentary) back light, has touchscreen support, and has support for PDF files. On the other hand it also has less capacity, no wireless capabilities, more expensive books and a crappy name (on Sony's site, they call it the "Reader Digital Book" or the "PRS-700BC").

I admit that I am a sucker for good marketing. In the end, I went with the Kindle because it appears to have much more support from Amazon. I know that Amazon is dedicated in their persuit to make the Kindle line the number one product of its category. When you go to Amazon's web site, it's right there on the home page above the fold. If you go to Sony's site, it would probably take you a few minutes to find the PRS-700BC by just clicking around.

This post really isn't about the differences between the two readers though. It's about some of the frustrations that I have experienced using the Kindle outside of the United States.

Buying the Kindle 2
I made my decision to get the Kindle in November of 2008, but there were rumors that a new Kindle was coming in the first quarter of 2009. I decided to wait and I put in my order the day the Kindle 2 was announced.

I am an American national living in Ireland, so I still have an American credit card and an American mailing address. The product was shipped to my mother, who re-shipped it to me. If you do this, I would suggest opening the box and making sure that it doesn't look like you are going to resell the product. This way customs won't slap any duties on the shipment. My mother put "books" on the box and I received it with no hassle.

If you don't have an American credit card, it's probably a deal breaker for you. Not only will it be difficult to purchase the Kindle, it will also be a pain in the ass to purchase accessories and books. Amazon won't even ship any of the leather Kindle covers outside of the US. I have heard some stories about non Americans using Amazon Gift Certificates to purchase the Kindle, but even if they were true, you run the risk of having that branch cut from under you at any time.

Using the Kindle 2 Abroad
The biggest problem with using the Kindle 2 outside of the US is that you do not have access to WhisperNet, the free wireless internet service that is included with the device. Without WhisperNet, you cannot do the following:
  • You can't purchase books/periodicals from Amazon and have them magically appear on your Kindle
  • You can't access the free book samples at all
  • You can't shop for books using the device itself
  • You can't use the "Sync to furthest page read" to synchronize the page you're on across multiple devices (like the iPhone Kindle app)
  • You can't backup your bookmarks, clippings or annotations
  • You can't register your Kindle on the device itself
There's really only a work around for the first issue. You can connect your Kindle 2 to your computer using the included USB cable and manually upload the files that you have to download from Amazon. Finding these files for the first time is no easy task either. For the first week, I was going through a link on Amazon's web site that said "Your Media Library" and through that vein, I would eventually end at an error page that said "We're sorry, this title is not currently available for download." Eventually, I found the right link (under "Manage Your Kindle") and got the books on the device.

This process is a little tedious, but not that big a deal for downloading books once every few weeks or so. What really makes this a pain in the ass is if you want to subscribe to magazines or newspapers. It would be great to wake up, eat a bagel, grab your Kindle and start reading today's issue of the Wall Street Journal on the train. No, you have to log into Amazon, download today's file and upload it to your Kindle like a douche bag. This pretty much makes magazine and newspaper subscriptions out of the question for me.

Not having access to the free samples or the Kindle book store is not a big deal to me. I mostly read technical books and I usually know which books I want. Not having web browsing access is not a big deal either. I would rather browse the web using my iPhone anyway. The screen refreshing on the Kindle really isn't meant for scrolling down a long web page.

The lack of the "Sync to furthest page read" feature is a little annoying. I also have an iPhone and you have to do a little dancing around to figure out what page you're on. It's kind of like having two copies of a book and reading one on the train and one on the toilet, where you have to flip through pages to figure out what page you're on. In reality though, I don't read much on my iPhone. I really only do it when I'm in bed and I can't sleep, since the Kindle doesn't have a backlight and my phone charges next to my bed.

The lack of backed up bookmarks and annotations is a little scary, but not a big deal on a day to day basis. You have to bookmark PDFs a lot because whatever table of contents existed on the PDF usually doesn't work after it gets converted to Kindle format. I haven't annotated much, but I probably will, as I read quite a few tech books where annotations help out. Since I get to the States every few months (I haven't been there yet since receiving the Kindle), I guess they'll get backed up when I bring my Kindle there. Let's just hope if my Kindle needs restoring that I'll be there too or else the backup will be worthless!

One annoying thing about the lack of WhisperNet is that the device thinks it is unregistered. This means that when you go into certain menus, the Kindle will stop you and ask you to type in your Amazon login information. This means that I can't access the "Settings Menu" on my Kindle until I fly back to the States and register it there. I don't even know what's on that menu! I've never seen it because the Kindle won't give me access.

Don't get me wrong. I really love my Kindle and I'm quite happy with the purchase. I know I'll eventually move back to the States in the next year or so and I'll be able to use the Kindle the way Jeff Bezos intended.



Saturday, April 21, 2007

Slingbox Issue Resolved

I was able to resolve my Slingbox connectivity issue last week. I rebooted the Slingbox and I was able to access it afterwards.

I don't believe this exonerates Time Warner. I still believe they purposely degrade their quality of service for their customers who use the most internet traffic. I think Time Warner reads my blog and they were worried about the can of whoop ass I was going to release on them. Time Warner -- you're in my radar. Don't mess with me again.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Slingbox Conspiracy by Time Warner?

I am an avid supporter of Sling Media and their flagship product, the Slingbox. I am living overseas so my Slingbox in Palm Springs is my window to the world of US television. I have been using it for the past 8 months to watch my favorite US shows while living in Ireland.

The Slingbox allows you to stream content from any video source over the internet. While away from your TV, you can view it using their media player, which is available for the PC, Mac and even Windows Mobile enabled phones. You can read this post to see how to set it up and get it up and running.

I have had a fair amount of success with my Slingbox installation. I have it set up at my mother's house, where she has a broadband connection through Time Warner (formerly through Road Runner). The only problems I have had so far have been ISP related.

The first problem that we experienced was that my mother's internet connection simply stopped working. She couldn't connect to the internet at all. Obviously, this would impair my ability to stream content from her home. After a phone call from my mom, a Time Warner technician came over to "fix" the problem.

He resolved the issue by completely disconnecting the router I set up and connecting her network card directly to her cable modem. My mother isn't highly technical, so she assumed everything was OK and let the technician go on his merry way. I really can't blame her. Her cable TV worked, she got her email, she could "search the Google," so everything worked fine in her mind. She had no way of verifying whether my Slingbox was working or not at that point.

The Time Warner technician was either an idiot or only concerned with closing the ticket. Putting a computer directly on the internet with no firewall is extremely dangerous. Removing a router from a home network will prevent other computers in the house from connecting to the internet. I believe he took advantage of my mother's lack of technical expertise.

After a 2 hour call, I was able to get my mother to re-install the router. Luckily, it still had all the network settings I originally set for it. After this, the Slingbox hummed along for another few months.

Now, I am experiencing a different problem. The TiVo is on and working, my mother's internet connectivity is working as well, but I can't connect to the Slingbox. There can only be one of two things going on. My Slingbox is either broken, or her ISP is blocking the port that I opened for the stream. I have tried to connect from work and home and even from my mobile phone, so I am sure it is not a connectivity issue on my side.

I believe Time Warner is blocking ports that they don't recognize if there is a lot of outbound traffic. They may also be using tactics like purposely degrading service for high-consuming customers in order to get them to jump to another ISP. Unfortunately, I won't be able to confirm or disprove this theory until I go back to the States in May. If this is true and if other ISPs follow suit, it will have severely detrimental effects on the success of the Slingbox.

Slingbox, hold tight! I'm a comin'! Don't you a-fret! I'll never quit you!

Vonage UT Starcom Review

I have been using the UT Starcom F1000 handset by Vonage for about 7 months now. Overall, it has been doing the job well, but there is lots of room for improvement. It is a good thing that Vonage does not have a lot of competition in terms of hardware.

I am currently living overseas, so using a phone adapter is out of the question. I've already written a post about the details, but let's just say that you have to use a plethora of adapters to get everything working. My best bet is to use a standalone WiFi Vonage phone. Right now (over a year after this model came out), the F1000 is the only option.

The UT Starcom F1000 is a WiFi phone that uses your existing 802.11b network and broadband connection to connect to the Vonage network and provide a Voice over IP (VoIP) access.

  • This is the only WiFi handset that Vonage offers - period.
  • If you have a good broadband connection, the quality of the call is satisfactory. I have only had a few people complain about the quality of the audio.
  • The phone is fairly reliable. It rings when people call it. When you dial, it will ring on the other end.
  • Setting up the connection to your WiFi network is relatively easy. If you know how to set up your WiFi access point, you can connect to it in a jiffy.
  • The AC adapter will support 100v to 240v connections so you can use it overseas with just a plug adapter.
  • Just like every broadband VoIP solution I have used, there is lag between the person talking and you hearing the audio. This often results in tons of hilarity as you and your friends talk over one another.
  • When you pick up the handset, you immediately realize how little Vonage cares about style. The platic they used is cheap. The buttons feel cheap when you press them. The design of the phone won't be copied by Apple.
  • You have to hold the phone perfectly up to your ear or you won't be able to hear the person on the other end.
  • There is no way to mod any part of the phone. The 6 built in ring tones are all annoying and there are only two volumes: low and high.
  • There are no volume control buttons on the phone. If the phone is ringing and you want to lower the volume on the fly, you can't (although you can send the phone directly to voicemail).
  • The UI is not intuitive. You would think that the big red button on the phone could be used to hang up the phone. You would be wrong.
  • Even if you have a good broadband connection, you are at the mercy of your WiFi connection. It seems that you can't wander too far from your access point without affecting the sound quality of your call.
  • The battery life is not great. The unit can go approximately 2 days without charging with no use. This isn't a big deal since you will mostly use the phone around the house. This can be annoying if you forget to charge the phone and you have to stay tethered to the power cord for a long call.
  • There is no hands-free speaker phone mode.
This isn't a critique of the Vonage service. Overall, I think the Vonage service is a great solution for lots of people. This is mostly a review of the UT Starcom handset itself. If you need a Vonage handset, you should get the UT Starcom F1000. When Vonage comes out with a better phone, you should buy it and chuck your F1000 out the window.

Moving the Taskbar

Whenever I log into a new computer, I go through an extensive script of customizing and tweaking the default settings to get everything just the way I like it. Since I have to do this quite often (because of getting new computers or reinstalling Windows), I try to keep this script short. I don't like to customize my environment too much because it becomes disorienting and frustrating when you use someone else's computer and your settings are not in place (and when someone uses your computer). This is the same reason many left-handed people don't switch their mouse buttons to make the right-click work like the left-click.

I know a handful of co-workers who dock their Start Menu to the left-hand side of their desktop. Whenever I would get "behind the wheel" at their workstation, it always takes a few seconds to figure out what the hell is wrong with their machine. Pressing the Windows key usually answers the question that I am asking in my head: Where is the friggin' Start Menu?

After cursing these co-workers for months, I decided to try it out for myself.

When you start using this layout, it can be a bit disorienting. When you look for the clock, it's not where you want it to be. When you go to click the Start Menu, your mouse will drift to the wrong corner. Of course, this is all to be expected and it only takes a few days to get used to.

The benefits become very obvious after just a few hours:
  • You are making better use of the desktop. When you are editing documents, you typically have a lot of wasted space on the left or right side of the desktop. This is especially true if you have a wide aspect-ratio display (e.g. 1920 x 1200 resolution).
  • You can fit a lot more applications in the Quick Launch section.
  • You can see more running applications in the Taskbar. This makes it easier to switch tasks.
  • You can turn off the annoying "Hide inactive icons" because you will have enough room to show all items in the Notification area (formerly known as the "Systray"). Seriously, how many times have you went to click on something in the Notification area only to have Windows hide it from you one nanosecond before clicking?
  • The clock will display the date and day of the week. It sounds like such a small benefit, but it really helps out a lot.

With every non-standard customization, there are always drawbacks.
  • Some applications assume that you are using the Start Menu at the bottom of your desktop. This will cause some windows to appear with the left side under the start bar.
  • When you click the Start Button, the popup menu will cover a large part of the Taskbar.
  • For some reason, the Taskbar resizes itself each time I restart my machine (this only happens on one of my machines).
  • Every time someone uses your computer, they will ask the annoying question, "Where is the friggin' Start Menu?"

I am now fully converted to the left-docked Taskbar camp. The biggest overall benefit is that you will end up using your desktop more efficiently. You'll be like the Native Americans who use every single part of the buffalo. Now go open a casino.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Using Vonage Overseas

I recently moved out of the United States and I needed to take care of two things in regards to my phone situation. I needed a way to retain my US phone number that I have been using for the past 10 years, and I needed a way for friends and relatives to call me without paying an arm and a leg. The best solution that I found was to use Vonage's Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service.

Vonage is an internet-based telephone service that allows you to get low cost phone service over an existing broadband connection. Basically, you connect a Vonage adapter to your existing router and then you plug a regular phone into their box. The adapter connects over the internet to one of their phone switches, which relays the audio to and from your phone.

Getting a traditional Vonage set up in a foreign country is a bit of a pain. If you follow the terms and conditions of their service, using their service is not allowed. I really don't think it's because they have a problem with people using their service in a foreign country. I think it is primarily because they don't want to have to deal with issues related to this set up from a customer service point of view.

I already had Vonage service in the US, so I figured it would be pretty easy to set up overseas. I contacted Vonage customer support and inquired about the voltage requirements of their adapter. My Vonage box has a 110 watt adapter, and my host country uses 220. Vonage does not have a 220 watt version of their device, so the customer support person suggested that I get a step down transformer. You can get these at Frys or Radio Shack for around $40. I got one, but it was much larger than I expected.

I was skeptical about getting this set up to work. I heard too many stories about fellow ex-patriates plugging in their 110 watt equipment and frying it beyond repair (even when using a step-down transformer).

Here's how to set it up:
  • Make sure your router is up and running and that you can connect to the internet from a connected computer.
  • Make sure you have a DHCP server running somewhere on the network. This is usually enabled by default on the router. This will allow your Vonage adapter to pick up an IP address and connect to the Vonage service.
  • Connect your step-down transformer to the wall, using the appropriate plug adapter (e.g. US to UK adapter). Make sure the main power is turned off.
  • Plug the Vonage device's AC adapter into the transformer.
  • Connect the Vonage adapter to your main router with a network cable. If the Vonage adapter is also a router, you can connect the "WAN" or "Internet" connection on the Vonage adpater to any regular port on your main router. You can also connect a regular port on your router to a regular port on the Vonage device if you have a crossover cable.
  • Plug your phone into the Vonage adapter's "Phone 1" port. In my case, I bought a UK phone, so I had to also use a UK to US phone adapter.
That's it! It's as easy as 1-2-3!

This set up is not a whole lot more complicated than a traditional Vonage set up. The only additional components are the US->UK plug adapter, the step-down transformer, and the UK->US phone adapter. After setting it up, however, I realized that this was much more complicated than it needed to be.

After setting up this monstrocity, I decided to go with Vonage's other product, the WiFi UTStarcom F1000. This is a WiFi enabled phone, which has a 220/110 watt charger, so I would be able to cut a lot out of the picture, including the Linksys adapter. After I recieve it, I'll be sure to post a review.

Slingbox Review by Televangelists

I saw this on YouTube. It is the married televangelist couple that Jimmy Kimmel always shows. They are raving about how awesome the Slingbox is. The YouTube caption is "Slingbox - endorsed by God?".

For the YouTube page, click here.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Slingbox Review

The Slingbox is an internet enabled device that allows you to stream video content from your Television to any other computer on the net. I recently set one up to allow me to watch American television shows while I am living abroad.

My review? Two thumbs up...way up. No, it's not perfect, but it fills a need that no other device even comes close to doing.

Who needs a Slingbox? I have compiled this list of people who could use one:
  • Expatriates who need to watch television shows not available in their host country (you must have a very understanding friend with broadband who will let you keep the Slingbox at their house!)
  • Business people who travel a lot and have extended stays in hotels
  • Commuters who want access to their TiVo via their mobile phone

Even though I think the Slingbox is great, it still has its shortcomings:
  • In order to stream the content reliably, the content needs to buffer for about one minute. The stream is not completely blank, instead, the content is streamed at a very slow rate (as low as 4 frames per second). The normal rate is 25 to 30 frames per second. The lag results in both stuttering and slowness. You can tell because when you start a TV show, the theme music will always sound really slow.
  • Since the content is buffered, the actual content being displayed on the TV is on a 10 second delay. When you press a button on the remote control, you can't wait for the content to catch up, or else you will have to wait 10 seconds between clicks. When you use the remote control, the player goes into "Control Mode", where the player trys to display the most up-to-date content. This also results in choppiness and slowness, and can become somewhat frustrtating as you try to anticipate the remote control prompts.
  • Since there is a bit of time-shift when using the remote control, it becomes very difficult to fast forward through commercials. If you have a TiVo, you should learn the "backdoor hack" that allows you to implement the 30 second commercial skip button. This is your best chance for skipping commercials, but even this becomes a bit of a game trying to hit the start of your programs perfectly.
  • The on-screen remote is also frustrating. For most navigation functions, you have to click on the graphic within the button you want to press. For example, if you want to press "Channel Up," you need to click on the triangle on the button, you can't just click the top half of the button. Since you often have to stay 2 or 3 clicks ahead of the player, this can add to the frustration when navigating through menus.

If you want to see the Slingbox in action, take a look at these video samples (from YouTube):
Slingbox over Windows Mobile
Watching Slinbox from China
Slingbox on a Motorola Q phone

I think most people will be happy with the Slingbox if they can use it in conjunction with a TiVo. Simply trying to watch live TV would just be too frustrating. You can't use the Slingbox if you like to channel surf, because the video choppiness would make you want to shoot yourself in the head. Using the Slingbox with a TiVo (or any other supported DVR) is great because when you press play, you can "set it and forget it" and you will experience very little performance issues.

Setting up my Slingbox

I recently moved out of the US and I needed a way to get my daily 5 hour dose of American television while abroad. I found that Sling Media's Slingbox was the best solution.

The Slingbox allows you to stream content from any video source over the internet. While away from your TV, you can view it using their media player, which is available for the PC, Mac and even Windows Mobile enabled phones.

I would wager that most people use the Slingbox to watch their own live TV remotely. On the other hand, I chose to use attach mine to my TiVo. This means that I can queue up hours worth of content and watch it at my own leisure. I couldn't bring my TiVo with me anyway, since the video format for my host country is PAL, and my TiVo is NTSC.

The Slingbox comes with an IR blaster, which allows you to control a number of devices, most importantly a TiVo DVR. The software even includes a TiVo remote control which works just like the real thing.

Here are the components that I used:
  • Broadband internet connection at the video source
  • Time Warner Cable television service with HBO
  • Slingbox with a non-wireless connection to a router (they do have wireless adapters available, but I would guess that the quality would degrade quite a bit)
  • Series 2 TiVo with lifetime subscription and expanded 456 hour capacity and wireless NIC
  • Broadband internet connection in the destination location
I found sympathetic relatives who allowed me to park my equipment in their home and leech off their broadband bandwidth. They had a cable modem and router. I just got a coax splitter and plugged one end into my TiVo and the other into their cable modem. Then I configured their router to allow entrance through a specific port so I could access the Slingbox.

The setup worked fine at their house, but I needed to test it from outside their network to be certain that it would work for me overseas. I wouldn't want to find out that it was screwed up after my 10 hour flight! I would have been up shit creek, since my relatives are not technical enough to fix the problem without me present. To test the remote viewing, I drove to the nearest WiFi enabled coffee shop and fired up the player. It worked!

I am extremely happy with the Slingbox. I would be dead without it. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement, but I can't think of an easier way to watch my shows. Yes, I could pay $1.99 for some of them on iTunes, but that would get very expensive. I could also BitTorrent them all, but that takes lots of time and is illegal anyway. The Slingbox allows me to watch the shows that I normally watch with very little change to my daily routine.