Roku 3–”Loading, Please Wait” Message is Driving Me Crazy-But Is It Roku’s Fault?

I have a Roku 3 and have been using Rokus for three generations now.  However, in the last year I’ve been getting more and more “Loading, Please Wait” messages.  I’m even using Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi, to have the best connection.  At first I thought it was my internet provider, or network traffic, or even an example of net neutrality breaking down.   I stream Netfix, HBOGo, Warner Archive, Amazon and HuluPlus.  I was mostly getting the loading message from HBOGo and Warner Archive, but then it started with Amazon too.  Amazon even automatically refunded my rental fee when a western I was watching timed out too often.

Then I made an interesting discovery!

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I got the idea of streaming from my computer that’s also attached to my TV—I use it as a DVR for over-the-air TV.  Bingo.  Everything streamed perfectly, at the highest resolution, plus the picture looked richer in colors.  Evidently, a computer with a Athlon X2 processor and 4 GB of memory, with a PCIe video card does a better job decoding streaming television than the Roku.  So maybe it’s not the internet or my provider?  Speedtest.net does tell me I get 19.43 Mbps download and 1.92 Mbps upload on my U-Verse connection, which is pretty good.  But that’s to a test site and not to a streaming server.

On the other hand, my Roku 3 seems to have no trouble streaming with Netflix.  Is it the hardware or the servers the Roku is streaming from?

The Roku does have a dual processor, but only 512 MB of memory.  This might explain why the Amazon Fire TV has 2 GB of memory and a quad processor.  I would buy the Amazon Fire TV to give it a try but it doesn’t support several Roku channels I depend on.  Using the computer is great for viewing films and shows without the dreaded “Loading, Please Wait” message, but instead of channels I have to go to individual web pages, each with their own different kinds of controls.  I have to use a wireless keyboard that doesn’t work as conveniently as the Roku remote, and that’s a pain-in-the-ass.

The Roku is an excellent system for viewing internet TV—I’d hate to see it crap out.  My biggest headache using the Roku is watching Warner Instant and HBOGo.  And some people do have trouble with streaming Netflix, even with fiber optic connections, like this story.  The solution this user found was to use a private VPN that circumvented congested internet routing.  This makes me wonder if my Roku 3 is somehow using different routes than Chrome on the PC, or if internet providers can detect Roku traffic and treat it different.

Like I said, I’ve been a faithful Roku user for years, and love it.  Maybe there’s something wrong with my Roku 3, but checking Google I see other people have this problem too.  And it does seem to be somewhat internet traffic related.  I usually don’t see the “Loading, Please Wait” during the day time, mostly during primetime, especially on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.  So it appears the Roku 3 works well if things are just right.  My guess, as more and more people use these streaming services because of the popularity of Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire, traffic and server demand will get tight.  Adding a bit more horsepower, memory, and maybe a better video GPU, might process the bulging traffic in a more efficient manner.  I expect the Roku 4 will have specs similar to the Amazon Fire TV, or top them, to fix this problem.  That is, unless internet providers aren’t throttling traffic from devices like the Roku.

This is a technical mystery beyond my ability to decipher.  I recommend people having “Loading, Please Wait” issues with their Roku, or other small streaming device, try plugging their laptops with HDMI connectors to their television and see if they get better streaming via a computer.

My guess is demand for internet services is always growing and we’re always going to see breakdowns at the weakest link in our technological chain.  Right now, for me, it’s my Roku when it’s connecting to the most used servers on the internet.  We might be pushing the limits of what a $99 device can do.  I wonder if the Amazon Fire TV costs more to make than what it sells for?  Or is the solution for Warner Instant and HBO to add more server capacity and pay for better peering?

JWH – 7/22/14

Amazon Fire TV v. Roku 3 v. Apple TV v. Chromecast

Amazon just announced their Amazon Fire TV with a quad processor and 2GB of memory.  Since my Roku 3 only has a dual processor and 512MB of memory, I’m wondering if I should put a Amazon Fire TV in my Amazon cart.  The Amazon Fire TV also ups the Roku 3 with gaming, offering far more games than the Roku, or the Apple TV, plus it can use an option game controller.  See list of games and apps here.  I’m not really a gamer, but it’s a consideration.  My wife plays games on her laptop, so she might like it.  I need to see more gamer reviews before I spend $99 dollars to try it out.  But it’s a big advantage point for Amazon.

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What really tempts me is the tech specs.  My Roku 3 has trouble streaming certain channels in primetime.  Now, this is most of all a problem with the Internet, and maybe even Net Neutrality, and not the Roku.  All of these devices are heavily depended on the speed of your Internet connection.  Recently upgrading to the Roku 3 did show that more CPU power does help, and more memory will too.  The Amazon Fire TV has a quad processor and 4X the memory.

Netflix streams fine anytime on my Roku 3.  But HBOGO and Warner Archive Instant both will crap out in primetime, frequently going to the reloading screen.  In the daytime, I get a HD signal with fast start ups and no stopping, but in Primetime, especially on the weekend, things don’t work as well.  I just wondered if the Amazon Fire TV with 2GB of memory could buffer that problem.  I’m not quite ready to order an Amazon Fire TV to find out, but I’m awful curious.  I don’t want to jump in right away, and because Warner Archive Instant and HBOGO are not listed for the Amazon Fire TV at the moment.

By the way, my streaming problem didn’t happen until a couple of months ago.  I’ve wondered if its because more people than ever are using streaming TV services, or has Net Neutrality issues popped up?  The quality of the TV picture on these devices is directly related to your Internet throughput.  But content can be interrupted by overwhelmed servers at the provider site, just like the Obamacare servers.  So I wouldn’t buy one of these devices unless you had at least 6 Mbps or better Internet.   Try Speedtest.net to check your speed.  Make sure you click the Begin Test and not any of the other buttons that trick you into buying stuff.  I got a 19.60 Mbps for download, and I still have problems on weekend nights.  I don’t think it’s the Roku or my Internet, but the content provider servers and peering deals.  Netflix pays its peering partners, so they get good throughput.

The big hold back – will Amazon Fire TV have all my favorite Roku channels?  One of many reasons why the Roku is superior to the Apple TV is the vast away of channels.  And the poor pathetic Google Chromecast is really a no show.  I didn’t send my Chromecast back, because my wife thinks she might have a use for it, but I haven’t found one yet.  To me, it was a one horse race until Amazon showed up.

My fear is Amazon Fire TV will be like the Apple TV, mainly gearing its content to what Amazon sells.  The Roku has over a thousand channels, and their numbers are growing fast.  They have Rdio and Spotify, which apparently Amazon and Apple do not.  Sure, most of those channels are crappy, but it does offer a tremendous variety, and crap is in the eye of the beholder. 

I don’t have cable TV and I don’t miss it because of my Roku 3.  Right now, it would be a step back in terms of streaming content, to switch to the Amazon Fire TV.  Over the years I’ve convinced many friends to try the Roku and they’ve all been very happy.  Some have even given up cable TV too.  I know a few people with Apple TV, and I’ve set up one for a friend, and it just hasn’t impressed me.  Because my Mac friends haven’t gushed about their Apple TV I assume it was ho-hum.  Even the guys at Mac Power Users podcast seem to prefer the Roku. 

I’m on my third Roku.  My first generation went to a friend who is still using it, and my second generation went to my wife’s apartment.  It’s going to be hard for me to switch, but not impossible.  I like new gadgets.  It’s still too early to run and buy an Amazon Fire TV.  I think I’ll at least wait until the Roku 4 comes out.

Which makes me ask:  How far can these internet TV boxes evolve?  The competition is obviously heating up.  What’s weird, is over the air broadcasting is heating up too, with new channels popping up from time to time.  Now, with internet TV, the competition to cut the cable TV cord is getting intense.

The one thing that cable TV has that most won’t give up is the DVR.  Internet TV could completely invalidate both broadcast and cable TV because it’s not time bound.  A Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV  do not have a DVR, but their channels work just like everything was already DVRed.  Instead of watching shows live over the air, I can watch them later on Hulu Plus or the PBS Channel on Roku.  So Internet TV boxes could be the wave of the future except for one thing – live sports.  Since I have no interest in sports, I’m good to go.  But I always warn people who ask me about the Roku, is if they love sports.  If they do, cable TV is still their meal ticket.

I’m mighty impressed with the Apple Fire TV specs and rollout.  I’m very tempted to buy one.  Susan has a Kindle Fire.  We are Amazon Prime users.  I keep my MP3 music at Amazon Cloud Music.  The world is dividing into Android v. iOS users, and in particularly, Amazon v. Apple as content providers.  The Amazon Fire TV runs on a customized Android OS.  Is there room for the Roku?

Here’s where the Roku has to go up to the plate and hit a few more homers to prove itself.  There’s still plenty of room to innovate.  Take the Rdio channel.  It’s bare bones.  Now the channels are created by the content providers, but Roku should help them improve with programming tool kits and standards.  I’ve even considered switching to Spotify because the Spotify Channel is better on the Roku.  However, I prefer Rdio’s software on the iOS and web.  Warner Instant Archive recently did an overhaul of their interface, but in many ways it was a step down.  The new look is slicker, but hides the content.  The apps on these devices are all still rather primitive.  Apple which is legendary for its Mac UI, falls down on the UI for it’s TV box.

Amazon gives their users voice search at the remote, which is a huge jump forward because typing in movie titles or actor names is tedious on the other streaming TV players.  Of course, Roku gives their users a headphone jack at the remote which is a very useful option.  I expect these devices to find plenty of ways to innovate and compete in the future.  I know most iPhone and iPad users assume they need to get Apple TV, but they really should consider the Roku or Amazon Fire TV.  It’s still too early to be locked in, especially at $99.

If you don’t already own a streaming Internet TV box, the choice now will be very hard to make.  I think Amazon wins on tech spec and slickness, Roku on content, and Apple for dedicated iOS users.  Because Amazon is an 8 million pound gorilla, and because Roku is not a household name, I’d bet that Fire TV will succeed like the Kindle Fire.

JWH – 4/3/14

Professions and Fame

Our society loves the famous, and the glamour of being famous, yet I think we have a rather narrow range of professions in which people become famous.  Quite naturally, the most famous in our society are the people who work in front of cameras:  movie stars, television stars, sports stars.  Musicians are less famous because they aren’t on television as much, and the more famous of rock stars seem to be due to media exposure rather than just musical ability.  If you want your song to become a hit, you have to make yourself famous. 

With the Internet, people are gaining fame through online exposure, but more often than not, it’s because of video hijinks.  YouTube now allows anyone to produce themselves as their own star.  See “The Impact of the Like Button.”

Fame drives ambition, so kids want to grow up and become the kind of people we see on screens – television screens, movie theater screens, computer screens, tablet screens and smart phone screens.  This limits what professions kids will think about when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 

I’m thinking we need to make more types of professionals famous.

Take for instance architects.  PBS has a new series Super Skyscrapers that is about building monstrous structures that would make the Tower of Babel dinky.   Their episode on the Shanghai Tower, about a 121 floor “vertical city” was mind boggling.  The feat of designing such a building is so tremendous that I have to wonder why such a person isn’t more famous than any movie or pop star on the planet.  Of course, Shanghai Tower wasn’t designed by one man, but a firm, Gensler, but even still, they should be as famous as any rock band.  But I can’t name them.

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How many professions out there are so cool, so important, so dazzling, that their best practitioners should be famous?  Shouldn’t doctors who develop new techniques to cure cancer be more famous Justin Bieber?  Shouldn’t the creators of the Mars rovers or space telescopes be more famous than Miley Cyrus?  Shouldn’t the top philanthropists get as much attention as Olympic athletes?   Would two weeks of fame every four years inspire more people to change the world for the better?  Hell, I think there should be a weekly show devoted to such people.

Since people love CSI shows so much, why don’t we have weekly shows about real criminal investigators?  Our cities are plagued by crime, so why not focus on real crimes being solve by real people?

Why do we need so many reality shows about faked reality when we have so much far out real reality to film?

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates became famous, but why aren’t the programmers of all the apps and games we use today not famous?  Things do change, because chefs have gotten famous lately.  And I assume because of that, more kids want to take up the culinary profession.

I love The Big Bang Theory, but why not have a weekly show about real scientists and engineers and what they really do?  Would a weekly show about particle physicists around the world encourage more kids to study math and science harder in school?

I can’t help but believe if we made more smart people famous then kids might choose to become smarter.

JWH – 2/21/14

Aren’t Television Shows Just Short Stories for People Who Don’t Want to Read?

Many of my bookworm friends tell me they dislike reading short stories.  They claim short stories are too slight, not enough plot and character, to waste their reading time on.  Okay, I can buy that.  But isn’t a 22 minute episode of The Big Bang Theory just a short story?  Isn’t a 47 minute episode of Nashville, merely a novelette?  I’m currently listening to The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James that runs 24 hours.  Most current TV shows have a season of 24 episodes.  So if they were collected as an audiobook, the entire season of 30 and 60 minute shows would still be shorter than one literary novel.  Doesn’t that sound like an anthology of stories?

In other words, don’t people still really love the short story?  Some people like to read, others to listen, but most love to watch!  Don’t most of us crave two or three stories a day?

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At one time the short story was very popular in America.  There were hundreds of short story only magazines for sale at newsstands, and some writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald were paid big bucks for a single story.  Even when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, most women’s and men’s magazines would contain at least couple short stories. 

Why did people stop reading short stories?  Why did they fall out of favor?  The obvious answer is they haven’t.  Pulp magazines just mutated into television shows.

How long have humans needed a daily diet of fiction?  Aren’t short stories just oral story telling in mass production?

It seems pretty logical to think folks just switched from reading a thirty minute story to watching one.  It’s also easy to assume that the half hour show is the short story, the hour show the novelette, and the movie is the novella.  But if we look deeper, I think there are some other concepts to consider, most notably the continuing character, the series, and the genre subject focus.

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At the beginning of the 20th century most magazines, even pulp magazines, were general purpose magazines for readers of all ages of both sexes.  But as the century progressed publishers created specialty subject magazines, some devoted to single characters, that catered to particularly reading tastes, and demographics.

If you read the latest volume of Best American Short Stories 2013, the annual anthology that collects the best of literary short fiction, you don’t see stories involving a continuing character, a series, or can easily be pigeon-holed into a micro-genre.  Now there are plenty of genre magazines devoted to the short story that do regularly publish this type of story, but their content seldom gets picked for the annual Best American Short Story collection.  For the last 50-75 years, publishers seem to be zeroing in on the continuing character novel, so that most mystery novels, and many science fiction and fantasy books, are now about popular characters involved in a series of adventures.  Doesn’t that sound like television?

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Television supplanted the pulp magazine, and is now inspiring how many writers write their books.  What happened to the slice of life short story, and the great American novel?  Writers prefer to develop a character and setting they stick to, like those in television shows.  It’s easier to sell, and sells better.

The best literary short stories are tiny slices of life, unique views of humanity.  Most novels from the early history of book publishing were always stand-alone tales, just longer slices of life, with highly detailed unique views.  In the early days of television there were many drama shows that featured a different story and cast of characters each week, the most famous at the time was Playhouse 90, but probably the most famous still somewhat seen via streaming, is The Twilight Zone.

The unique slice of life story was quickly supplanted by the continuing character show.  But that had already started in pulp magazines before the age of television.  I’m curious who the first continuing character was?  Sir John Falstaff appeared in three plays by Shakespeare.  And how many stories did Sherlock Holmes appear in?  Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer appeared in several books, and readers wouldn’t let Louisa May Alcott stop writing about Jo March.  If Louisa was alive and writing today, the March sisters would be a television series.

It seems most people love short stories, about favorite characters, in a setting and subject of particular interest to them.  Other people like stories stretched into novels.  While I love continuing character stories on TV, I avoid them in novels.  But I still love short, unique, slice-of-life stories, either written or dramatized.  I wonder why most people don’t.  I’ve been re-watching old episodes of The Twilight Zone, and some of them are very powerful.

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However, my brain quickly forgets them, or most of them.  In over fifty years I’ve never forgotten Henry Bemis, or the pig nose people.  If I had only seen one episode of The Big Bang Theory in my life, would I still remember it?  Maybe it’s memorable because I’ve stuck with it for seven years.  Apparently we crave long term relationships with our fictional friends.

Memorable novels are like short intense love affairs we never forget.  By that standard, it seems most people would rather have long term friendships.

JWH – 1/17/14

Gravity–Riveting Story Set In Space

[Don’t read this review if you haven’t seen Gravity.  But when you have, because you should, come back here and let’s talk.]

Television watchers are experiencing a renaissance in storytelling.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Shameless, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, The Newsroom, have taken the art of storytelling to new heights.  By carefully focusing on character, writers have developed new techniques to create highly addictive forms of fiction.  This has revolutionized television.  Character driven storytelling has always been preeminent in novels, and prominent in movies, but television was always seen as a vast wasteland of lowbrow entertainment.  Now I like television better than movies, or even books.

So what is television doing that movies aren’t?  Movies often seem like a vast wasteland of teenage schlock.  CGI unreality, over the top action, Three Stooges type violence, and silly premises that should insult grade school kids.   But most of all, the characters are unbelievable.  Movies aren’t about things I could actually experience.  I don’t relate to their stories.  Maybe kids can love superhero characters because they haven’t yet learned there aren’t any superheroes.

A week ago when watching the final episode of Breaking Bad I wondered what I would have to watch next Sunday.  I remember mentally wishing I could find something that surpassed Breaking Bad in storytelling intensity.  Well, I got my wish, because on Sunday night I saw Gravity, the new film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón.   The previews brought me to the theater with great expectations, but I wasn’t prepared by how blown away I would be by the film.  While the credits were rolling I thought how Gravity set a new standard for science fiction movies.

This space story seem real.  The characters felt like they could be real people.  The special effects were wonderful, but not the story.  This movie had the attributes of what make the current great television so much better than the movies.  But what are those attributes? For one thing, there’s not a superhero in sight.  Nobody is saving the world.  Even though the characters are involved with extraordinary situations, they are ordinary people.  Maybe we aren’t rooting for the little guy, but we are resonating with characters that are closer to ourselves.

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Don’t get me wrong, Gravity isn’t literary or deep.  And although Bullock and Clooney give amazing performances, their characters were almost clichés.  How Gravity amazes is through simply gripping storytelling.  It is a story of survival, beating tremendous odds in a harsh environment.  And although Gravity wasn’t very scientific, Gravity felt very realistic.  Gravity was brilliantly science fiction in the same way Gattaca had been years ago, it was about a individual overcoming tremendous adversity in a science related setting.

Although in the last couple of decades we have had more and more female action heroes, I felt while watching Sandra Bullock that Gravity represented a paradigm shift, transforming story hero from male to female.  It didn’t feel like a gimmick that Ryan was a woman.

For the first hundred years of of filmmaking Ryan Stone would have been played by a male actor.  Ripley set the precedent, but when Ryan pulls herself out of the muck and stands, with the camera angle from the ground looking up at her towering figure, it felt that women had finally surpassed men at their own game.    It was much like Vincent beating the genetically enhanced humans when he took off into space at the end of Gattaca.

George Clooney plays the ultra-cocky space jock to a tee.  Matt Kowalski is perfectly at home in a vacuum.  Kowalski has the science down cold.  But more than that, he is mature way beyond his boyish antics.  He is an alpha male passing the baton to a female saying with total confidence, you can do this.  I know most viewers won’t see this film as a feminist statement.  Most girls won’t think twice about Sandra Bullock being the lead character.  But in real life and in movie life, things have changed a lot in my lifetime, but not nearly enough.

The message is clear, women can fly the fighters, drive the tanks, pilot the spacecraft, command the ships, shoot the M-16s, control the telescopes, construct the skyscrapers, etc., but it’s sad that so many women have MTV ambitions, like Miley Cyrus, to wear skimpy outfits and twerk.  Movies and television, the most heavy-duty of pop cultural social programming, sends the message that women can now do anything.  But will they?  And will we accept it?

If you think I’m making a pointless issue, then think about this.  What if our two actors were cast against type.  Would you have liked Sandra Bullock as the veteran space jock, and George Clooney as the mission specialist rookie?  We’re still brainwashed to think George Clooney should have played Matt.

Yes, we have made women into action heroes that can shoot and kill, but action heroes aren’t believable characters, they are cartoon characters.  How often are complex male roles given to female actors?  Would you have believed Sandra Bullock as Matt Kowalski?

Let’s put it another way.  I work at a university and the majority of the engineering and computer science students are male, and the majority of the teacher education and nursing students are female.

The role of Ryan Stone calls for a rookie, and most rookie astronauts are still male.  Picking a female to play Ryan is an intentional decision to make the character to appear more helpless because we’re still conditioned to think of women as helpless, or of needing help.  Gravity shows us we’re wrong. But being helpless is good in this movie, because good storytelling is about getting the audience to identify with the main character, and we’d all be essentially helpless in space.

Picking the name Ryan is an intentional choice too – Sandra Bullock is to stand in for a man.  I think that was a perfect choice by the writers of Gravity.  We’re cheering the stand-in for everyman who also happens to be everywoman.  Not only that, we’re all identifying with her, guys and gals.  While watching the movie I totally identified with Ryan Stone and not Matt Kowalski.  I never had the Right Stuff, but I might could have been Ryan Stone.

Maybe next time when they make a film like Gravity, the veteran space jock will be a woman, and it will be as natural as our need for air, but for now Sandra Bullock was perfect in this role.  Whatever is the magic formula for modern storytelling, Breaking Bad and Gravity have it down as well as Walter White cooks meth.

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By the way, many people are nitpicking Gravity for scientific issues.  That’s cool.  But don’t let it keep you from seeing and enjoying an amazing film.  I was really disappointed with Neil DeGrasse Tyson because his complaints were rather lame compared to the problem of orbital mechanics.  Here are some things to read, but don’t get too hung up about them.  Gravity is a triumph of storytelling.  Like preconceived gender roles, we still want fiction with far more excitement than actual reality.  It’s hard to embrace perfect realism.

I expect gender roles to continue to evolve, and I expect incorporating realism into popular fiction to evolve too.  Breaking Bad was far more realistic than such a show would have been ten years ago, but in ten years, writers who will surpass the talents of the Breaking Bad team, will create a series about cooking meth that is far more realistic.  Gravity could have been just as exciting if it had been 100% scientifically accurate.  And I’m not dinging it for its scientific faults.  I’m just pointing out that we’re moving towards a kind of absolute realism in fiction, and that includes gender roles too.

Fact Checking Gravity

JWH  – 10/11/13

The New Normal (NBC)–Now and Then

The New Normal – I love the title of this NBC show that premiered back in September, it says so much.  Makes you ask, “What was the old normal?”  Is there such a thing as normalness?  Having grown up back in the 1950s during the Leave it to Beaver and  Father Knows Best normalcy, I can remember a long parade of new television seasons where Hollywood tried to capture the new normalness of the American family every Fall for a half century.

(Some of the more famous shows about the American family from the last 50 years were My Three Sons, Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, All in the Family, The Waltons, An American Family, Good Times, Little House on the Prairie, The Jeffersons, Eight is Enough, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Our House, Married with Children, Full House, My Two Dads, thirtysomething, The Wonder Years, Roseanne,  Life Goes On, Family Matters, The Simpsons, Home Improvement, My So Called Life, South Park, That 70′s Show, The Sopranos, Family Guy, Freaks and Geeks, Malcolm in the Middle, Grounded for Life, Two and a Half Men, Weeds, Big Love, Jon & Kate Plus 8, Breaking Bad, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Modern Family, Parenthood)

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But were Ward, June, Wally and the Beav ever a normal family?  ABC, CBS and NBC painted America as if everyone were WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon protestants)  in the 1950s, and even though my family was just as waspy, George, Virginia, Becky and Jimmy looked and acted like nothing we watched on TV.  America wasn’t lacking in people of color or various sexual orientations back in that black-and-white TV era, television just didn’t report on their normal day-to-day lives.  Some of those old gay couples getting married today were together back during the old normal.

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My parents were on the ass end of middle class, drank enough to be called alcoholics, fought and smashed things like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and my and I sister ran wilder than any switch or belt could control.  Although television didn’t chronicle my family or anyone I knew, I think it did influence American society, and may have even shaped us.  TV showed us there was no such thing as normal.  Have you ever seen your family on TV?

Conservatives might swear to God that television news is biased to the left, and shows like The New Normal and Glee are propaganda for the liberal lifestyle, but television news reporting and fictional shows have always trailed the changes in society – they have never led the way.  Television has always been the fantasy of how we want to live.  I think America has always wanted television to chronicle the countless types of people that we are, and the accidental byproduct of all this voyeurism was that we have adapted to diversity.  Real life strangers would flair up your xenophobia, but put that same subculture or ethnic group on TV and they became endearing.

Real life and television life seems to have some kind of reverb going, with television echoing changes in society and stimulating society with its feedback.  The New Normal is about two gay men, Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and David (Justin Bartha) hiring Goldie (Georgia King) to be the surrogate mother of their baby.  This arrangement is far from new in the real world, or even on TV, but it’s taken for granted normalcy is a way to convince all those Americans who haven’t gotten the memo, that this is the new normal.

I find The New Normal just as comforting and pleasant as Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet back in 1958.  These happy families, both then and now, make me feel good and wish all families were just as happy.  Like Modern Family, to which The New Normal is often compared, these and other feel-good liberal shows are designed to make us feel better about life in America in 2012, they are our Sunday School classes about how to be good people.  Our economic lives might suck, but at least we’re evolving as accepting and empathetic beings.

Sadly, this doesn’t work with everyone in our polarized society.  We’re still fighting the war between extreme religious belief and the Enlightenment.  I wonder what Descartes, Bacon,  Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau would make of our modern times, and what philosophical issues would they make out of our television shows?

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That’s the thing, I don’t think television initiates social change, but soothes us to accept it.  Many Americans don’t like gays or gay marriage, but as a whole, those attitudes are changing.  Last October, GLAAD released a report showing the 2012 television had the highest percentage of gay LGBT characters ever.  Not only are there more gay characters on TV, gay characters are finding more fans, and even the hateful grumpy people who protest their outrage are becoming fewer.

Television makes us comfortable with new ideas.  Television is an agent of integration, and I don’t mean that in just the racial integration sense, but in the integration of all change that’s going on in society.  Television is the spoon that stirs the American melting pot.

Television has been programming my social awareness since the 1950s, and it’s fascinating to contemplate all the changes the TV has made to America in the last fifty years.  If we had a time machine and could go back to 1962 and convince NBC to show The New Normal to America back then, how would it have been received?  Of course the show would be seen as a kind of science fictional view of the future.  There’s more new to The New Normal than two gay guys living together, and besides they did have gay people in 1962 so it wouldn’t have been a totally new concept, but they didn’t have surrogate mothers, or iPhones, video games, an African-American president, global warming, etc.  Change is relentless.

Remember, 1962 was before the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  The pill had just been released a few years earlier and it still hadn’t made it’s social impact.  If you watch The New Normal it has an whole spectrum of liberal ideals integrated into the show that would have been overwhelming to the “normal” people of 1962 to digest.  On the other hand civil rights and feminism had already begun by 1962, so maybe the viewers of 1962 would connect the dots between then and now.  And even though America was a technological giant in 1962, I just don’t think those 1962 TV viewers had any clue as what computers would do to our society.

Today we have hindsight to see how far we’ve come.  All too often we judge the citizens of the past by the morality and political correctness of today, but let’s reverse the tables.  How will people fifty years from now look back on us in 2012 and will they judge us harshly?  I’m sure in 2062 there will be a sitcom that’s the equivalent of The New Normal, and if we could see that show today, how would we react?

Liberal education marches on.  Will we ever reach an end and be perfectly enlightened?  I’m sure the seeds of future liberal standards of political correctness exist in our day-to-day life now.  Our treatment of the environment and animals will horrify our descendants.  Our polarized politics and fundamental religions will make the people of 2062 scratch their heads in amazement wondering how we could have been so irrational.  Our wasting of natural resources will be judged criminal.  But those are the easy issues.  What are the harder ethical issues we can’t discern with our quaint old-fashioned minds?

What will be the next new normal?

JWH – 12/10/12

When I Was a Remote Control

If the remote control had been invented before 1951 I’m not sure my parents would have had me and my sister Becky.  As toddlers, my parents taught us how to change the channels on our Sears black and white TV, so they could laze on the couch smoking their Camels and Winstons and drink Seagram 7 and Canada Dry ginger ale while we twirled the knob to locate Topper or Have Gun Will Travel.

tv-1950s

Kids born today come out of the womb with giant IQs, able to handle hundreds of stations and dozens of gadgets.  I wonder if my four-year old self from 1955 could have competed with a 2012 four year old at all?  If my parents were still alive, I wonder if they’d long for the days when things were simple without all these goddamn gadgets.  Life was easier with a Kid Channel Flipper, or the Rug Rat Reciting TV Guide.  Oh yeah, that was another childhood duty – to memorize the TV schedule and let my folks know when their favorite shows were on.  It’s also why my parent’s generation had so many kids.  We baby boomers were conceived to manage TV technology for the Greatest Generation, or the radio generation.

Today, anyone with a finger can change the channel, and onscreen guides have made the Rug Rat Reciting TV Guide go the way of the Bad Child Switch Fetcher.  If political correctness had been invented before 1951 and my parents told that kid herding couldn’t involve belts and switches, they’d definitely been willing to get off their Brooks Brothers covered butts and do their own TV knob twirling.

I’ve seen some real cultural and social changes in my lifetime due to fantastic inventions like the TV clicker and screen guide.  Young people really have no idea how hard life was back in the 1950s.   Toddlers today are whizzes at iPads, but could they have dialed a rotary phone?  OK, I admit they could – modern tot nerds would beat wee baby boomers at any kind of pre-school smack down.  We never had any of those fancy Sesame Street advantages, but we did have to work harder for less rewards, which us boomers like to brag is character building.

TV was dinosaur primitive back then, with small low-rez screens that frequently got out of adjustment so you had to fine tune the vertical and horizontal hold knobs just right to see a steady, but grainy black and white picture.  And that picture had visible scan lines.   There was an array of other knob-less adjustment dials inconveniently located on the back of the set that required a screw driver to twist and mirror to see the results.  If you were too lazy to get the dressing mirror off the back of the closet door you could try to talk someone into describing the picture while subtly adjusting the settings from verbal clues.  What a lost art!

Also, TVs had vacuum tubes instead of solid state devices, and when a tube blew you had to get dad to drive you to the 7 Eleven. While he waited drinking his Schlitz in the Pontiac, you dashed inside to run the tube tester and hopeful find the arcane coded replacement in the test cabinet.  All this just to see some show call Huckleberry Hound that was so moronic you’d poke your eyes to avoid seeing it today but your seven year old self thought state of Eisenhower era pop art brilliance.

But back to the future – or our present.  Even though today’s TV pictures are rock solid, hi-rez, and huge, the show selection takes more brain power to select than that famous wild hair guy figuring out general relativity.

Now this brings us to the greatest invention in television history:  Netflix streaming.  It’s not perfect, but it’s almost as easy as Samantha’s twitch of her cute magical nose.  If they could only combine Siri with the Netflix interface, and we could sit in our recliners like Captain Picard and tell the HDTV what show we wanted and then say the words, “Make it so” we’d all reach video nirvana.

Recently I had to anxiously wait for Netflix to send me Blu-ray discs of Season 3 of Glee after watching Season 1 and Season 2 via their streaming service.  Don’t get me wrong, a Blu-ray picture and sound is Breaking Bad better than the current state of Netflix best streaming resolution, but the convenience of clicking to Glee on the Roku is Friday Night Lights goodness.

What a philosophical conundrum!  Fantastic picture versus fat-ass lazy highness.  Well, you know which one we’ll always choose, don’t you?

Music on iTunes iPhones is 5 transistor* radio crappy, but it’s what people prefer over the pain-in-the-ass fetch the CD and put it in the player hard work.

Streaming video and music is going to kill off the CD, DVD and BD disc.  So it goes, as Mr. Vonnegut used to say.  Vinyl, formerly known as the LP, is making a technological comeback, even through it requires the physical effort of storing albums, cleaning them, and playing them on mechanical players.  I’m sure it’s a passing fad.

If you pay attention to technology there are two consistent trends.  First, the evolution towards fewer moving parts.  Second, the evolution of ease of use.  We’re all heading to a future of moronic simplicity and slothfulness.

I love the CD and Blu-ray disc for their wonderful high resolution music and video, but they are goners.  Resting on my big motionless butt enjoying the brilliance of streaming music and video will always overcome the theoretical desire for high fidelity and high definition.

My wife and I never had children.  We never needed them.  We grew up with the remote control.  If you charted this essay on a graph, it would show the decline of civilization.  Well, like I said before, so it goes.  If you don’t believe we’re actually devolving with all this technological evolution, just picture this:  The Victorians had to play their own musical instruments if they wanted to hear music.  Even cavemen could drum like crazy man.  Imagine what Spotify would have done to the British Empire.

Stream with the flow.  Make it so.

JWH – 10/22/12

* When I was a kid, the cutting edge technology of portable sound was the transistor radio.  They came with a single mono earplug, and you listened to AM radio.  Of course 1961-1968 AM radio was the peak of musical genius in the 20th century.  These transistor radios were about the size of a iPhone (which by the way have millions of transistors) and  a tinny sound.  50 years later, I think portable sound still sounds tiny and tinny.   Listening to The Beatles on an iPhones makes them sound like they are five inches tall.

I Need A New TV Show!

I just finished 70 episodes of Glee and I need a new TV show to feed my TV addiction.  I’m not a super binger like those described by John Jurgensen in “Binge Viewing:  TV’s Lost Weekends.”  This Wall Street Journal article reported on heavy weight TV bingers like Chad Rohrbacher who watched 22 straight hours of Breaking Bad in one sitting.  I’m a fly weight when it comes to binge TV watch, just watching 2-3 episodes at a time.  At the end of the day, I love to have one or two episodes of a fabulous TV show to watch before I go to bed.  And if they’re really fantastic I might stay up past my bedtime to watch a third.

breaking-bad

Having a TV series that covers several TV seasons is like having a very long novel to read before falling asleep.  I recently read Anna Karenina, which clocked in at 42 hours on audio.  That’s about three seasons of Big Love or The Sopranos.

Before I watched all of Glee I watched all of Breaking Bad.  I go months without a TV show fix because I can’t always find a series insanely great enough to trigger the addictive response.  I really hate when I don’t have a TV show to look forward to each day.  I’m in one of those dry periods now, and I need a new TV show!  I ache with TV withdrawal.

That’s kind of sick when you think about it – I should use these long periods on the wagon to go cold turkey and break this habit, but I don’t want to.  I should work on my novel.  I should write on my blog.  I should finish the essays I’m writing.  But instead, I want to veg out with another epic TV series.  I know this is the worst kind of escapism – I’m turning off reality and switching on virtual reality.  But this kind of TV is fiction at its very best, and I’m a life-long fiction junky.

Here’s my problem.  I need GREAT television to feed my addiction.  Merely good, is not good enough.  I thought after Friday Night Lights, Downtown Abbey and Breaking Bad that I’d never find television that good again.  Then I discovered Glee.  Now, it’s not that Glee is better than those shows, but the shear creative innovation that went into Glee made it stand out.  I was hooked on it’s extreme novelty.  Now, I’m going through Glee withdrawal.

It seems every TV series I consume must be better than all the ones before it.  And sadly, re-watching old favorites don’t ease the cravings.  Neither do shows that are self-contained in each episode.  I need long story arcs.  I need my nightly soap opera.

From the WSJ article, Jurgensen describes the social change that’s going on.

Binge viewing is transforming the way people watch television and changing the economics of the industry. The passive couch potato of the broadcast era turned into the channel surfer, flipping through hundreds of cable channels. Now, technologies such as on-demand video and digital video recorders are giving rise to the binge viewer, who devours shows in quick succession—episode after episode, season after season, perhaps for $7.99 a month, the cost of a basic Netflix membership. In the past, such sessions required buying stacks of costly DVDs ($66.99 for seasons one through four of “Mad Men”) or special broadcast marathons.

Having a great TV show to look forward to each week was the standard way I watched TV for almost fifty years.  Then came DVD box sets and that changed everything.   Thinking of TV as whole seasons was a game changer.

Now with Netflix, where you can pick a show like Glee and have 66 episodes waiting to be seen one after another.  That’s another quantum leap in TV watching.  Is it good or bad?  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  I love it.  It’s better than binge eating, it’s even better than drugs, may even be better than sex.

I think the first TV show I watched from first episode to last in a binge fashion was Northern Exposure, when it was first syndicated.  I printed an episode guide off the Internet and watched its entire 110 episodes.  After that I watched seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, starting with season one and catching so I could watch season seven live.  Battlestar Galactica was another show I caught up with before watching the last season live.  That also happened with Breaking Bad and Friday Night Lights.  I watched the final season not on cable, but on Amazon, buying the new episodes a day late.  I prefer to have shows I binge on to be finished, or have many successful seasons.

So, if you know of a great TV show to recommend, please let me know.  Here’s are the ones I’ve already discovered – in no particular order.

  • Breaking Bad
  • Glee
  • Friday Night Lights
  • Big Love
  • Sopranos
  • ER
  • Dexter
  • Weeds
  • Californication
  • Six Feet Under
  • Deadwood
  • Mad Men
  • Hell on Wheels
  • Dead Like Me
  • Most Masterpiece Theater shows
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Lost
  • United States of Tara
  • Nurse Jackie
  • True Blood
  • Rescue Me

JWH – 10/21/12

Why Does Hulu Plus Show Commercials?

I used regular Hulu.com off and on for over a year before subscribing to Hulu Plus.  I was used to the commercials and accepted them.  I don’t expect to get anything for free.  However, when I started paying $7.99 a month I assumed the commercials would disappear.  That didn’t happen.  Why?  Here’s what they wrote at the Hulu site:

“We include advertisements in Hulu Plus in order to reduce the monthly subscription price of the service. Premium content — especially from the current TV season — is not only expensive to make and license, but we also want to compensate our content partners fairly for the valuable entertainment they provide.”

hulu-plus

I imagined that Hulu Plus would be like a premium cable channel and be commercial free.  That’s turned out to be a false assumption on my part.  But is my assumption that ads are natural for free content, but paid content should be ad free not valid?  I’m watching the same shows, so why am I paying $7.99 a month?  What am I getting that makes the plus in Hulu Plus?

To get the free Hulu I have to watch it through a computer.  Until my HTPC died, I had a computer to watch web content on my big screen TV.  I also used this computer to record shows.  It was like a home built DVR.  Until I replace it, I’ll have to reply on a Roku box to see web content on TV, but the Roku doesn’t offer free Hulu, just Hulu Plus.  So essentially I’m paying $7.99 to stream through the Roku.

I had assumed and hoped when I sprang for Hulu Plus the commercials would go away.  Boy was I wrong.  Now that I’m using Hulu more, the commercials stand out.  They are getting annoying, especially since they seem to show the same ones over and over.

I love streaming Netflix because a hour TV show is only about 42 minutes.  On Hulu Plus they aren’t back to a full hour, but I’m losing sleep because I’m staying up later every night because of the commercials.  Commercials that I hate to watch.

Hulu Plus is a marginal service for me.  I gave up cable years ago.  I love watching TV shows on DVD and Netflix streaming, but if I want to watch anything current I have to watch it live over broadcast TV, pay Amazon $1.99-2.99 an episode, or get it from Hulu Plus.  So my $7.99 pays for a five week window to watch current shows.  If I miss Revolution on Monday nights at 9pm, I can still watch it for five weeks.  I can do it for free on the computer and pay for my supper by watching commercials.

Or I can pay $7.99 a month, AND WATCH COMMERCIALS, if I want to use my Roku box connected to my TV.  I won’t shout that’s unfair, because that’s how Hulu plays the game.  I’ve just got decide if I want to pay twice for the convenience.

It is true Hulu Plus has more shows, and for some shows, complete runs instead of the most most recent five episodes.

I’ve read that Hulu Plus streams at 720p instead of 480p, and that is indeed worth some money.

This still doesn’t answer why Hulu Plus, a premium service, has commercials.  That bugs me.

I’ll use it for a month or two, and see if I get addicted to it, but I tend to think I’m going to cancel my subscription.  I really hate paying for commercials.

Hulu Plus should be free if we have to watch commercials.  It’s only delayed broadcast TV, and unlike DVR TV shows, we can’t skip over the commercials.

JWH – 10/9/12

The Dangers of Building Your Own HTPC and Living Without Cable TV

As I reported earlier in FYI: DIY-FIY (Do-It-Yourself, Fix-It-Youself), my HTPC started crashing intermittently, the worse kind of electronic failure to troubleshoot.  I tried everything to fix it.  Eventually I decided it must be something wrong with the motherboard, so I bought a new motherboard and new CPU, one of those new AMD A6-3500 CPU/GPU combos.  For a few weeks it worked beautifully, much better than the old machine, but then it started acting up.  This time something different, it just wouldn’t boot.  In the rebuild I used a new, but old hard drive for the boot drive so I could save my recordings off the old boot drive, and use it as a second drive.  The only parts from the original machine was the case, 2nd power supply and the original memory.  I had two theories.  One, the used hard drive was bad, or two, the original memory was my problem all along and it had gotten worse.

Now all of this is very aggravating.  I had gotten used to having a home theater PC connected to my den television and now I’m making do with off the air broadcasts, Netflix discs and streaming, and a Roku box.  This still provides more TV than I have time to watch, but it doesn’t let me record shows.  However, this time around I have a backup DVR.

I bought a HD HomeRun Dual network TV tuner.  It was a snap to install.  Just plug in the over-the-air antenna, Ethernet cable and power cable and run a small install program on each of my PCs.  Now I can bring up Windows Media Center on any computer in my house and watch live TV, or record TV from two tuners.  Very slick.  So I can still record shows while my HTPC is broken but now I have to watch them on this computer.  This also simplifies my HTPC setup because it no longer has a TV tuner card in it.  And because I bought the new A6 with Radeon HD 6530D graphics it doesn’t have a video card either.  The new HTPC worked much better and drew less power.  Great until it started crashing.

I was so happy when I got the HTPC going again.  I thought I’d have years of worry free service, but dang, I must have jinxed myself, because the new HTPC is completely dead now.

The other day I ordered some new memory and just tried it out, but it wasn’t the fix.  I’m now hoping it’s the old hard drive, and not other bad motherboard.  So sometime in the future I’ll have to take everything apart again and start troubleshooting all over again.  Another troubling idea is the HTPC is being damaged by electrical spikes.  But this is a long shot.  However, the 2nd hard drive went out just before the machine started crashing.  I’ve bought a UPS to protect it in the future.  It already had a good APC surge protector.   

But I’m putting off fixing the HTPC off for awhile.  I want to get some other things done this weekend.

This is a real lesson in building your own computers.  Normally you buy a computer and it comes with a 1 year warranty.  You can even buy extended warranties.  If something goes wrong you take it back and someone else fixes the machine or gives you another one.  When you build your own machine and it stops working you’re the one that’s got to fix it.

More than that, this whole affair of giving up cable TV has taught me a number of things.  Comcast got me addicted to DVRs, so giving up cable means learning to live with live TV or building your own DVRs.  I’ve starting to wonder if DRVs are worth all the trouble.  I love the simplicity of only having 5 channels I care about, instead of over 200.  But even then, how much do I even care about those 5 channels?  The absolute gem is PBS. 

When my HTPC died I had 200 documentaries I had recorded from PBS that I wanted to watch.  This is very revealing.  Why hadn’t I just watched those shows when they aired?  TV documentaries are like the books I buy but don’t read.  I keep thinking I’m going to watch those shows or read those books, but my to-be-watch and to-be-read lists just get longer and longer.

Last night my friend Janis was over and we were just going through the Netflix menu on my Roku.  I’ve got 196 shows in my queue waiting to be watched, and we found dozens of foreign movies we wanted to watch in the suggestion lists.  There is no shortage of TV to watch.  Then why do I want to hoard TV shows on a DVR?   Isn’t this like going to a restaurant and buying a meal with the intention of eating sometime in the future?

I have a hang-up about controlling time.  My DVR infected me with a time control disease.  I think hoarding books is a time control disease.

I am tempted to simplify my TV watching yet again and give up the DRV and HTPC.  I’d miss playing Rdio and Rhapsody through the den stereo, but I’ve also rediscovered the greatness of just listening to a CD again.  CDs sound so much better than streaming music and MP3s.  I’ve been going retro in the last several weeks.  I’ve been buying DVDs of old westerns and watching one every night before I go to bed.  It shows I can live without cable TV, or even HTPC TV, or even broadcast TV or even Netflix.

Which makes me ask:  Does it matter what’s on TV?

JWH – 7/21/12

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