Jan 292012

I’ve been using Windows Media Center for years. I run WMC on my desktop computer to a projector and speakers. We don’t have a TV, so this is how I get my fix of Netflix, DVDs, and loads of downloaded documentaries I stream from my Synology NAS (home file server). This has been a cost effective setup, but it always had disadvantages. The main issue is that the computer serves dual purposes but can’t multitask – it isn’t possible for one of us to play a game and the other to watch a movie (first world problems, I know). It also lead to some interesting issues with speakers, cables, and training guests how to use the system.

Today my need for WMC is essentially dead. For around $100 (or even less depending on your needs) you can get almost the same experience without WMC (minus DVR functionality) in a dedicated, energy efficient device. There are others (including the interesting Raspberry Pi) but the main contenders for me were Roku and Apple TV.

Out of the box, the Roku was the easy winner – it supports playback for everything on my file server (extracted DVDs, MKV files, etc) and has a number of streaming content channels. The main strike against Roku is that it doesn’t support any sort of AirPlay. I would need to add another device in order to link the home theater system into whole house audio (I use speakers and airport express devices to link audio in other rooms).

The base Apple TV simply wasn’t a contender. AirPlay solves many issues, and the Remote App software for iPhones or iPads is very nice. But the bottom line is that the only non-walled garden content available is from YouTube and Netflix. The rest of the time you are stuck with Apple only video formats (mp4) and integration into iTunes (no NAS support). This simply pales in comparison to the Roku.

There is however, another choice. The most recent firmware of Apple TV allows for jailbreaking. Well, allows isn’t really the right word as the next version of Apple’s software updates is sure to try to break this option. In any case, this jailbreaking opportunity puts a lot more options to extend the Apple TV on the table. One of the most popular (and free) options is to run XBMC, which is mature media center software which has plugins to do almost anything you need. The negative aspect of the current XBMC on Apple TV is that it isn’t integrated within the existing Apple TV menu system – instead it launches its own system to play back media.

Instead of XBMC I went with a product option which has a much more simple and integrated approach for my jailbroken Apple TV. I purchased a software package called aTV Flash. Once installed it easily connected up to my NAS, allowed for file management and folders, and favorite sections in the main apple tv menu without having to launch something separate. It feels like it was part of the Apple TV from the start. It plays everything I throw at it from the NAS with ease – movies, mkv files, etc. It also preserves all of the things that Apple got right – remote app support and the built in apps like Netflix and AirPlay.

I was worried that the lower output on the Apple TV would be an issue (it supports 720p instead of 1080p), but I can’t see a difference for the vast majority of the content I’m consuming, and the stuff that is 1080p still looks great. I’ve only had it running a few days, but I’m quite happy with the Apple TV & aTV Flash so far.

Jan 292012

Apple has been in the news a lot lately, mostly reactions from the NYT report on factory working conditions. Some of those facts have been disputed by a BSR open letter. But it still leaves the conclusion that more can be done. Of course there are those that argue that this is simply all part of the economic revolution all developed nations go through and that all things being equal, this is a far better path for them. Personally I think Apple is slightly better than most of the other companies dealing with China (e.g. Dell, HP) and working with the same factories, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t improvement for line shifts and hour caps to reduce repetitive strain injuries.

I’ve been working through my backlog of podcasts while doing some work around the house. I listened to one yesterday which made me pause. So often the labor conditions discussions don’t really hit home. Mike Daisey’s monologue featured on This American Life changed that for me and gave the facts a human face. Though some of the things he mentions are out of date (his visit to China was in 2010), the majority of it is valid and visceral.

A lifelong Apple superfan, Daisey sees some photos online from the inside of a factory that makes iPhones, starts to wonder about the people working there, and flies to China to meet them.

Jan 242012

Wired has a great story on Urban eXperiment in Paris titled The New French Hacker-Artist Underground. I’ve heard little bits about Untergunther through other stories via Urban Exploration, but Jon Lackman gives a fresh narrative to the information.

UX’s most sensational caper (to be revealed so far, at least) was completed in 2006. A cadre spent months infiltrating the Pantheon, the grand structure in Paris that houses the remains of France’s most cherished citizens. Eight restorers built their own secret workshop in a storeroom, which they wired for electricity and Internet access and outfitted with armchairs, tools, a fridge, and a hot plate. During the course of a year, they painstakingly restored the Pantheon’s 19th- century clock, which had not chimed since the 1960s. Those in the neighborhood must have been shocked to hear the clock sound for the first time in decades: the hour, the half hour, the quarter hour.

It reminded me how shocking it is to learn the reactions to much of their work, and how it parallels work and reactions by others. Instead of being celebrated for their good deeds, they are villainized. In the case of the clock, it ends up almost being a case of spite:

… the administration later decided to sue UX, at one point seeking up to a year of jail time and 48,300 euros in damages. Jeannot’s then-deputy, Pascal Monnet, is now the Pantheon’s director, and he has gone so far as to hire a clockmaker to restore the clock to its previous condition by resabotaging it. But the clockmaker refused to do more than disengage a part—the escape wheel, the very part that had been sabotaged the first time. UX slipped in shortly thereafter to take the wheel into its own possession, for safekeeping, in the hope that someday a more enlightened administration will welcome its return.

Reading the article one gets the sense that a lot of the flak they take is because they are exposing incompetence, but I wonder if there is also an element of mistrust for altruism. Either way, it means much of their work goes on in secret.

Jan 132012

The Examiner notes that this is the year work starts on a large number of changes to 25th street in Golden Hill, San Diego. I am looking forward to seeing the changes when completed, it will give the street much more pedestrian and tree-lined feel. The largest change looks to be a traffic circle instead of a 4 way stop on B Street. If done right it could make a lot of sense, I quite enjoy the changes made to Birdrock after the traffic circles there – the traffic flows better and it is a whole lot nicer to look at.

Jan 022012

This is a bit mind blowing. The US debt is a bad situation. Japan after fighting its slump for decades is even worse. Both of them are not critical yet, but very well could be if China and others decide to stop buying bonds. However recent data analysis on British debt shows it now has a 950% private debt to GDP ratio, and a financial sector debt ratio alone of over 600%. Read more here:

Everyone Is Starting To Realize The Size Of Britain’s Debt Crisis