Sunday, May 7, 2017

2017 Guide to Cord-Cutting - Episode 1: The "Free" content

As a TV cord-cutter, I have gone mostly legit.  One of my G+ buddies Keith Wilson, posted an article recently showing the drastic reduction in bittorrent traffic over the course of a decade.  His question was, what happened to all the pirates???  I have never believed that content piracy was about a lifestyle or philosophy.  It's always been about ease of content acquisition.  The classic example is pre-2000 Napster vs post-2010 Spotify.  At it's peak, OG Napster was king of the pirate apps and there were virtually no legal alternatives.  Today, pirating albums is trivially easy, but the vast majority of music consumers buy from iTunes or stream from Spotify.  Why?  Because the legal options are abundant and pervasive.  Spotify works on my phone, car, home and work with zero friction and benefits like social sharing features, playlists and such.

It's taken a while, but TV has reached a similar nexus.  Barely five years ago, cord-cutting was synonymous with piracy.  One of my favorite phrases in 2005 was "bacon and Battlestar" as I downloaded Battlestar Galactica via usenet overnight after it aired and enjoyed it during Saturday morning breakfast.  Why did I go down this particular path?  Because the alternative was a cable TV subscription, commercials, and channels I didn't want.  So, as I have described in posts to this blog many years ago, I became an early cord-cutter, watching only the shows I was interested in, and ditching the traditional​ cable TV subscription.

My game changed a few months ago when a few things happened.  OTA digital capture devices got good at delivering content within your local network, ala carte channel bundles got good and cheap with integrated DVR functions, and all-in-one set top boxes got good at integrating the full experience on your TV.  This post will focus on the first "got good" item, the OTA (aka Over The Air) experience:

So, some years ago, Over The Air TV went digital.  I remember the craze because I was working at Best Buy at the time.  We were selling digital tuners to old people like street tacos to hipsters.  But what did it get the average person?  Channel 2.3 airing marathons of M.A.S.H. and Gilligan's Island.  At some point over the last few years, someone realized that you could capture that digital content and pipe it to your phone, tablet or.... wait for it..... TV.  Now I know what you're going to say.  Tivo has had TV tuner capabilities and has been handling digital OTA content for well over a decade.  That's the someone I must be talking about!  WRONG.  In the words of Charlie Murphy (RIP), WRONG.  Some how, some way, Tivo derailed, and they failed to deliver the content to the relevant devices (more on this in Part 3).  Enter HDHomeRun.

But first, you need to do some pre-work.  Go and fork over the cash (about $400 or $500, give or take) and get a roof antenna installed.  Just do it.  Don't be fooled by those plug-in window-attached magic sounding antennas.  If it ain't hard-wired on your roof, forget about it.  Trust me, the investment will pay for itself in a few short years.  You will get all your local channels, CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, CW, Univision, etc, plus a bunch of HSN bullshit, like 4 PBS stations and every religious church station in your area.

Next, buy an HDHomerun box.  It's $100 or so on Amazon,  but there's magic in this box (real magic, not like the fake magic I was just talking about).  But first I will be honest.  The app is shit.  Pure shit.  And there's no intuitive way to connect it and control it on your TV.  So, why do you want this flaming piece of garbage tech?  Three words.  The. Beta. App.  It's good, it can chromecast, and it snuggles up inside the Android TV Live Channels app.  And once you connect it to Android TV, you get a program guide and DVR.  All for the cost of zero after the upfront purchase costs of the antenna and HDHomerun box.  THIS is the sweet spot.  Next week, part 2 will discuss the new live/DVR-able channel bundle services, and part 3 will talk about tying everything together on your TV with Roku, Apple TV, Android TV, etc.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Social media madness

I hate Facebook.  I should just be upfront about that.  Back in 2007 I thought it was the coolest thing since Star Trek, but now I loathe everything about it.  From its ever changing privacy policies to how it actually shares data with your "friends" and friends of your friends, its a continuous source of irritation to me. Especially because I can't avoid using it!  My family and close friends are on it. My work peers are on it.  And if you ever meet anyone new, the first thing they want to do is Facebook you.  Nevermind that its only full of lolcats, internet memes, and people's TMI.  It's the juggernaut of social media, and if you want to have a presence online, you gotta be on Facebook.

I thought Google+ would supplant Facebook at some point, but that's just not going to happen anytime soon.  Facebook has mastered one half of the law of social media inertia.  In short, once most regular folk are "at rest" on a social media property, they tend to stay at rest there.  Google+ would have to exert an overwhelming value proposition in order to capture the masses quickly as Facebook did.  Over time, Google's strategy is sound: integrate G+ into every Google property so people can't avoid it.  But, for now, Facebook is still the 800lb gorilla.

We techies represent the other half of the law of social media inertia (to continue beating a bad analogy to death).  We are in perpetual social media motion, and when introduced to new social media properties, we remain in motion.  Thus I am on Facebook, G+, Twitter, Instagram, et al.  Posting, cross-posting, editing, and keeping up with the various mediums can be EXHAUSTING.  But if you want to promote your online presence, its a necessary evil.  Recently, I stumbled upon a tool that made my life a LOT easier, at least with cross-posting.  Friends+Me.  In short, if I post something publicly on G+, Friends+Me pushes it to Twitter and Facebook within just a few moments.  It's pretty amazing and I've been a loyal user for the past few months.  That is, until last week when I got this in my Gmail:

Apparently, if I want to continue reliably using this wonderful social media solution, I need to pony up between $30 and $50/year.  As I read my options, I was all
Yeah. Like that.  So now what's a geek to do?  Tech pundits like +Robert Scoble contend that cross-posting is lazy.  Each social media property has a unique audience and deserves a unique post.  I used to disagree, but recently I have been deliberately posting limited audience items on G+ to avoid the Facebook re-post. Especially on items concerning religion, as my atheism doesn't go over too well with the FB crowd.  Maybe Scoble is right.  Maybe I'm just being cheap.  Who knows.  I'm sure I'll make a decision soon and I will proudly announce it right here on my humble blog...

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Brought to you by the makers of Bittorrent, It's Bittorrent Sync!

I am a huge fan of cloud storage ever since I downloaded Dropbox for the first time and realized the power and efficiency of having access to critical files everywhere across all devices.  In addition to storing all of my mobile-phone camera snaps, my wife and I also use it to maintain a shared finance folder for things like tax info, important receipts, etc.  Dropbox is mission critical for me, and it's the first thing I install when I setup a new phone or tablet.

Since 2007, when Dropbox was a relative loner in the cloudsync game, many other competitors have sprung up and a few are quite good.  I personally use Evernote, Google Drive, Bitcasa, and Mega.  Why would any human being need five different cloudsync services?  Well, my needs have changed over time and each service has different strengths and weaknesses.  Evernote has great tagging and search features, but it's focus is primarily on note-taking.  Google Drive does OCR and has a document editor, but there is no linux client.  Dropbox (where I keep EVERYTHING) has a client for any and every conceivable device, but their troubling security terms and conditions have left me uneasy about my privacy.  And so on.  Recently, I have flirted with Mega because of their user-enforced encryption scheme, but their lack of a linux client is a non-starter for me.  A few days ago, a new service caught my eye, and I am intrigued largely because it turns the cloud storage paradigm on its head.

Bittorrent Sync is currently in beta, but it is wildly popular within the underground tech community.  Here's the catch: there are no cloud servers to deal with.  Files are synced between devices (desktop, laptop, mobile, home-servers, etc) via encrypted bittorrent transfers.

I had to read the description of the service a few times in order to wrap my brain around it, but it seems like an interesting solution to the "access your files anywhere" problem.  Encrypted transfers, no external servers (and zero cost), and since you're distributing the files across multiple devices, there is little risk that you will lose all your files if a single device fails.  It also supports all platforms, including mobile (android).  I'm not sure what the mobile experience looks like.  Nor am I certain that I want bittorrent running in the background on my phone all the time (guzzling my precious battery life) or using up all of the local storage space for my files (Dropbox downloads on demand on Android, along with some caching).  For now, though, I am reserving judgment.  I will be testing this out next week and doing a full review soon. Stay tuned!!!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hulu fails to satisfy, but like most things, its hackable

I remember the early days of Hulu when all it had was the Daily Show, Family Guy, and a bunch of anime.  I was an early cheerleader and vocal supporter because the promise of on-demand streaming TV anywhere  was and is so important to the cord-cutting movement.  Hulu has come a long way since then. It's library is huge, it now boasts some impressive movie titles, and it's now possible to subscribe and watch media on your TV, tablet or phone.  And this is ultimately what is so frustrating about Hulu.  Despite all that the streaming service has achieved, it fails to deliver consistently on its promises.

So what do I mean by all this?  Let's say you want to watch an episode of The Outer Limits (90's version).  Hulu has every single episode ready to stream.  In fact, they are the ONLY ones with the streaming rights to this series.  You can't even *buy* an unedited DVD for anything past Season 1. Usenet and bittorrent also come up empty.  Bottom line, if you want to watch The Outer Limits, you MUST watch through Hulu.  Here's the problem:

Yep.  You had better be prepared to watch this show on your PC or laptop, cause TV's and tablets are banned.  WHY??????????  Amazon doesn't do this.  Neither does Netflix.  I know that the studios are heavily invested in Hulu and are calling the shots, but it's still a frustrating situation that occurs way too frequently.  I've blogged about this before, so I won't dwell on it any longer here.  I will, however, discuss an awesome hack I just discovered.

A few months ago, just for fun, I bought one of these little guys:

It's a tiny android-powered TV box.  So cute, right?  But it sucks.  At life.  In every way possible.  The UI looks like it was designed by Jackson Pollock, the remote control is barely functional, and there are times the box itself decides it simply wants to lay down, rest and do nothing for a while.  But there is one thing it does rather well.  It runs a native and customized version of XBMC.  Now, as I have Plex running on my Roku 3 on that same TV, it had never occurred to me to play around with XBMC, especially given the G-Box's limited ability to do ANYTHING properly.  Both apps essentially solve for the same problem and run much of the same code.  They transcode and stream content from your home server to your TV. The also have some plugins available for extra bells and whistles.  However, there's one critical difference.  XBMC has a Hulu plugin; one that tricks Hulu into thinking that it's a PC, rather than a TV or mobile device.  This was the secret revealed to me after an hour of good old-fashioned googling.  Some enterprising young go-getters who maintain the plugin over at the XBMC project found a way to hack Hulu and fool it into giving up all it's content.  It looks like this project has been a moving target for the developers, though.  Hulu keeps changing things, and the devs keep having to adapt the plugin.  And its not pretty in terms of functionality.  I tried it out a few nights ago, and I spent an hour trying to configure the thing properly.  When it finally started to work, things were a bit jarring, with a "loading media" dialog every 15 or so minutes.  But I was watching The Outer Limits!!!!!!!!!!!!111

Sound like too much work?  Is it worth the time and headaches?  Only you can make that call.  But I now have access to the FULL Hulu Plus catalog, and I feel that I'm much closer to getting my money's worth ($6.99/month).  I will also contribute to the plugin developers; because of them, the value of my Hulu subscription just went up, and this is what the whole cord-cutting game is about. Maximizing value.  Cord-cutting isn't cheap, and sometimes it can be complicated, but we are not a bunch of free-loading slackers.  I pay for unsubsidized internet, usenet, VPN, Hulu, Netflix and Amazon (about $115/month).  That total bill is probably similar to the average cable subscriber's.  The difference is that I get the TV Shows that *I* want to watch, when I want to watch them.  The value of those services increases even more when you consider that I use the internet and Amazon subscriptions for more than just TVwatching, unlike any cable subscription.  And yes, as a nerd, I do get a certain level of geeky satisfaction from all of this.

So, if you're a potential cord-cutter, or you're an HTPC enthusiast, PLEASE check out XBMC.  The Hulu plugin is awesome, and to whet your appetite, here's a decent youtube video of XBMC in action on an android device similar to mine...

(I'm thinking about shooting some demo videos like these myself soon, so please stay tuned.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A little about me...

So, for any new readers that I gain via G+ or wherever, here's a quick FAQ about me.

1. Where are you located and what do you do for a living? - I'm Atlanta-based and I work in the consumer electronics industry (go figure).  I know that anyone who is anyone who blogs about tech needs to live in San Fran or NY, but I figure now is a great time to start bucking that trend.  Atlanta is a huge and growing city, all the major tech players have a presence here, tech startups are everywhere, we have 4G LTE coverage from all the carriers, the food is good and the cost of living is cheap.  You do the math.

2. Why are you blogging about "underground" tech? - Because there's a gap in the tech media right now.  Every other blog is talking about Apple this, or Samsung that.  They are reviewing the latest iteration of five-inch black slab of plastic after five-inch black slab of plastic.  But very FEW blogs are talking about cord-cutting and how the various programs, protocols and services have converged to service a relatively seamless TV-watching experience.  No one is talking about the everyday costs vs benefits for using something like bittorrent, for example.  The VPN market is EXPLODING right now, but again, you wouldn't know it if you just read articles from the good people over at The Verge or Tech Crunch.

3. Who should read this blog? - Anyone interested in cord-cutting , privacy, security, etc.  I never want to be overly techie just for the sake of sounding that way, but I think tech enthusiasts will get the most out of what I write.

4. So, what does your setup at home look like? - I have two old desktops that have been re-purposed into headless servers that sit in my office closet.  Both run Ubuntu Linux.  One runs Plex, Sickbeard, CouchPotato and SABnzbd (I will elaborate on these in a future post, but you can click the links for more info).  I use the second server to run MakeMKV and Handbrake as necessary (again, click the links for more info right now).  I subscribe to cable internet only, both my TV's are hooked up to Roku boxes (one TV also has a GBox MX2), and I actively subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus.  I have a laptop running Linux Mint, a rooted Nexus 10 tablet, a rooted HTC One, and a stock Galaxy Note 2.

5. As a cord-cutter, which shows do you watch? - Nightly News and Morning Joe via podcast, CNN International live stream, any original Netflix series, Burn Notice, Dexter, Game of Thrones, Defiance, Falling Skies, Hannibal, Doctor Who, House of Lies, Orphan Black, Through the Wormhole, True Blood, and now Ray Donovan.  If there's a storm coming, I'm on broadcast TV faster than a speeding bullet.  I don't mess around with twisters...

Any more questions?  Post a COMMENT!  Thanks!

Sunday, July 7, 2013


Ladies and Gentlemen, this blog is once again OPEN FOR BUSINESS!!!

It's been about four years since my last post, and I'm not quite sure why I'm starting things up again.  I think the likely answer is the sheer volume of my tech "rants" over on Google+.  I think  I need a home for them as they are just piling up over there in quite a disorganized fashion.  Also, with the exception of the good people over at TorrentFreak, there really are not a lot of online informational sources for underground tech, P2P, and the like.  I personally find myself weeding through a lot of web forums, rather than nicely curated blogs.  Also, I figured that since I have like 3,500 circlers on G+, maybe I will actually get some readers!

So, what can you expect from my random rants and raves?  Well, I think all previous posts from this blog are preserved (and boy was I wrong about some stuff. More on that later), so take a peek if you dare.  I warn you, though, that stuff is ancient history.  But, it might be fun for a laugh, and it will give you an idea of what I will be talking about.  Unlike previous posts, I won't be discussing any specific products or hardware.  A very close reading of my company's conflict of interest policy gives me the chills, and I would very much like to remain gainfully employed.  I will be sticking to services, software, apps, and general technology.  I will also be posting any news articles relevant to the blog's focus areas, especially as they relate to piracy, security, privacy, and copyright.  I hope to crank out a couple posts a week, but we will see what I'm capable of.  All I ask of you, dear reader, is COMMENTS!!!  Good, bad, critical or indifferent, I would LOVE to hear from you.

If you ever read this blog at any point years ago (which would be weird as the chances are astronomical given it's obscurity), you may be asking yourself, what's changed?  Excellent question!  First of all, I have a dedicated custom URL now!  No more blogspot nonsense, even though the old address should properly redirect.  I also changed some colors and formatting, so it actually looks somewhat 2013.  What I cannot change are my awful predictions.  Take a peek at the previous posts on the right, if you really want to read about them.  Tonido is still around, but still obscure.  Napster has been sold so many times, I don't even know who owns it now.  Twitter clearly rules the world, even though I thought it was completely ridiculous.  I still sort of think that.  And got bought by CBS and has languished in relative obscurity.  I did have a few good predictions, though.   Boxee was such a hit that Samsung just bought them for like $30mil!  Netflix is king of all streaming, just like I said they would be.  And smartphones have indeed helped our work/life balance!  Um, wait a sec...

Anyway, the blog is back. I hope you all enjoy, and remember to COMMENT!!!  Oh yeah, and +1 me and circle me and stuff too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Well, loyal readers, I have strongly considered shuttering Underground Media. But, for some reason, I just can't hit the delete button. I will leave it up and accessible indefinitely, and perhaps I will occasionally post something. But for now, consider this blog CLOSED. Too many things to do, and too few hours in the day to get them done...