Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Curmudgeon falls into the streaming revolution -- Part II

I begin today's installment (for yesterday's, click here or just scroll down) with something of a confession: I was not entirely ignorant of streaming services before the kids gave me the Roku stick.

The TV in our family room -- the one that's hooked up to the DircTV service -- came with Netflix and YouTube and something else (I forget which) built in.

And, when Olaf and Younger Daughter were living here (they moved out four years ago already!) I was allowed to use their Netflix account.

See, it can be set up for five people -- and I was one of them. I think my designated screen name was "Mooch." No, that's not a name I chose.

Anyway, that's when I learned an important lesson about how these services operate: Every time I clicked on a program or movie to watch, a computer algorithm started whirling and twirling deep within the bowels of Netflix -- if I clicked on a Mickey Mouse cartoon, I got all sorts of cartoons and other Disney effluvia "suggested" for me next time I watched. And, of course, if I clicked on a rom-com I'd get a whole bunch of those suggested for me. Eventually, the Netflix algortihm would start getting to "know" me -- just as Amazon's algorithm has since gotten pretty good at figuring out what books or movies I might like. Scary good.*

Sometimes, with the DirecTV, or, before that, with the cable, when I've clicked through the channels, I'd pause on some cheesy movie or tasteless TV show, just to see what all the fuss was about. You've done this, too, I'm sure; don't pretend otherwise.

But the way I figured it, the show was on anyway, and would be there, whether I lingered there or not. Unless I was hooked up to a Nielsen meter, I didn't contribute to the decline and fall of Western Civilization by peering in.

On the other hand, with Netflix or some streaming service, when I order up a program to watch I am in some small way endorsing it. I am complicit. Because the algorithm will note what I have chosen and then serve up more or whatever it was that I elected to watch. A reality show. A Chuck Lorre sitcom. Any movie with the words "bikini" and/or "hot tub" in the title.

I understand that I could give a negative review if I thought the program tasteless or trashy or whatever -- but I assume the algorithm would just wait and see if I called up another episode or similar show before sneering, yeah, right.

So I'm a little uncertain about how much I'll actually use my new Roku stick. I might learn -- or confirm -- things about myself that I don't really want to know.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
* Long-time readers -- as if I had any left given my erratic, and infrequent, posting here -- might remember that, in 2011, I publicly declared that I was afraid to buy from Amazon. I wasn't lying. And I did not in fact buy from Amazon until the giant corporation made peace with my home state by collecting taxes on purchases. And, once that happened, I didn't suddenly start buying everything online -- mostly, if not always, I confined my online orders to stuff not readily available from local stores. But even this was enough for the Amazon algorithm to start predicting with increasingly eerie accuracy stuff I might like. Recently, I've begun searching on Amazon for things I don't like and wouldn't buy -- so I can put its computer off my scent....

Monday, January 07, 2019

Curmudgeon falls into the streaming revolution -- Part I

My children were generous again at Christmas, giving Long Suffering Spouse and me a Roku stick and a "new TV." And all it's cost me so far is $132.

You may wonder why the phrase "new TV" is rendered in quotes. (You may also be wondering what a Roku stick might be and why gifts from my children are costing me money, but all things will be revealed in time, Dear Reader.)

TVs in this day and age aren't really TVs at all. They are monitors. No different, really, than the monitor on which you are viewing this post, if you're reading on a desktop.

TVs today have no tuners; they receive neither VHF or UHF stations (remember when that was a big distinction?); they have no knobs or buttons -- except possibly a manual power switch, well concealed. They do have plugs in the back. Since this was allegedly a "TV" it had a threaded protrusion as well as an HDMI cable plug. The threaded protrusion is where one might connect an antenna with a coaxial cable.

The TV that formerly stood atop my dresser was where the juvenile squirrel that invaded my house in 2007 perched when said squirrel, after I'd noticed him mewling in the open living room window, opted to ignore my suggestion that he exit through the front door, and scrambled up the stairs to the second floor instead.

This was a small color TV -- 12" maybe -- and an outmoded, analog type to boot. Somewhere along the line, though, we'd gotten a digital TV tuner -- which we connected to the TV with one of those aforementioned coaxial cables -- enabling us to watch TV in our room, sort of, depending on the atmospherics, or whether it was our night to be on the main flight path for O'Hare. Which it is, seemingly, on most nights.

But, whatever, I had the digital tuner. The new 24" super keen flatscreen had a threaded protrusion for a coaxial cable so -- I thought -- at least I'd be able to sorta kinda watch TV as we had before, if on a bigger screen.

I hadn't taken the rabbit ears into account.

The old TV had an antenna -- rabbit ears -- that, while not designed for these frequencies, allowed at least some of the modern digital signal to reach the connected tuner.

The super keen new flatscreen, of course, did not.

As a result, we got no picture at all from the digital TV tuner. Not even a sporadic one.

So I knew I would have to buy a digital antenna.

But, first, I would install the Roku stick.

The Roku stick -- about the size and shape of a pack of gum, only with an HDMI plug on one end (that plugs into the back of a super keen flatscreen TV) and a power cord on the other -- picks up a signal via the home wireless Internet. The signal that the Roku stick picks up allows the viewer to log into Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime or ESPN or CBS All-Access or any number of free, or allegedly free, providers -- including Roku.

"Yes, yes, yes," Long Suffering Spouse said, with some exasperation, as I offered this explanation. "But how does it work?"

I gave the best answer I could. "Magic, I think," I told her, and, unsurprisingly, she found this answer less than satisfactory.

Still, it's the best one I have.

The First Law of Technology is that one need not know how something works in order to use it. I gave up trying to keep up with how computers worked when Windows replaced DOS -- but I've managed to get by, more or less, ever since.

This, of course, would be one of those "less" situations -- but I didn't know that as I gamely plugged everything in, set up my account, linked it to my laptop and started downloading Roku "channels."

I did everything properly -- it's my blog, so you'll just have to take my word for it -- at least on the second run-through. Long Suffering Spouse and I went out to a New Year's Day reception while the Roku "channels" were first installing. At some point, while we were out, the operation failed, leaving me with only six of the 20-something "channels" that I was supposed to have gotten on the standard install. When we got back, I started installing these one at a time.

It took... a... long... time.

But this was nothing compared to the time it took to load and play a 90 second instructional video.

Now we did have a wireless network before this. And it worked fine. Our phones or iPads got signal upstairs, as did my laptop. When Olaf and Younger Daughter were living with us, I'd upgraded the cable modem, which intensified the wireless network throughout the house to the point where the kids could use their computer in their room without difficulty. Youngest Son fell asleep at night, when he was living with us, watching reruns of The Office or Seinfeld on his computer.

But, apparently, Roku sticks need more signal than my modem -- however adequate it had been heretofore -- could provide.

I consulted with the kids and their spouses and learned that I would need a Netgear router.

So, now you see how the kids' gift cost me $132 -- the price of the digital antenna and Netgear router.

And I still had to install them both.

The antenna installation was fairly straightforward, of course. It has a flat panel that is supposed to be part of the antenna rig -- but it also has rabbit ears. I knew what to do with these.

But I thought the Netgear device would replace the AT&T modem.

Not so.

It apparently takes the modem's feed and amplifies the signal throughout the house -- pumping it up to the point where, now, I could finally find out what was available on all those Roku channels. And I should talk about that in my next installment.

But, for now, the best part about the Netgear super high-tech Nighthawk router?

It has rabbit ears.

The more things change....