Monthly Archives: July 2014

Cutting The Cord, Part III

Assuming you’ve read the previous discussions on the subject of dropping traditional cable / FIOs / satellite TV, you’ve pretty much thought it through and are now seriously considering dropping out for your television / viewing enjoyment. Of course, this begs a fundamental question: which service type is truly best for your Internet needs? If you’re moving in the direction that subscribers are increasingly heading toward, you need to ask yourself: which service enables you to fully exploit what the Internet can offer you?

The answer ultimately lies with location.

Each service – satellite, cable and FIOs – offer various advantages and abilities largely based on where you live. If you live in an isolated, rural area, than you’re not likely going to get FIOs or cable and will instead find yourself relying on satellite services. In other locales you may be able to get satellite or cable, but not FIOs, owing to FIOs requiring a need to be located no further than five miles away from the nearest CO (Central Office) (a central office is one of those ubiquitous square, usually brick telephone building where all the telephone lines come in and are routed to the nationwide telephone network).

In other more urbanized areas, you may the advantage of choosing between any of the three top services – cable, FIOs and Satellite – but may also be limited as to market access (for example, Comcast cable is notorious for crushing any competition in and around it’s home base, the City of Philadelphia, while FIOs rollouts are often delayed by Verizon seeking to focus on specific locales / municipalities with likely customers as opposed to reaching out in a blanket approach).

Let’s briefly review each delivery option (in layman’s terms):

Satellite

Cool stuff and neat idea, but there are still some aspects you need to consider. Weather plays a role; if you live in a region where there’s a lot of snow, rain and impenetrable cloud cover, satellite can become problematic. In addition, there are costs (sometimes more than either FIOs or cable) associated with installation and service (along those have stated to get cheaper). With the launching of second generation satellites, satellite internet service is getting faster, but still has a ways to go.

Cable

Cable has come a long way and offers some rather competitive services and advantages, so it shouldn’t be dismissed. Service and support is (depending upon your provider) is usually a common complaint / refrain, however, and thus is something you need to consider.

Another aspect of cable is that it’s based on old technology – Token ring – (no, not as in Hobbits) function by having (for purposes of analogy) a large pipe delivering data to smaller pipes within segmented networks – just like the water department delivering water to a neighborhood, where each neighborhood is monitored and controlled by larger network services separate and apart from one another (roughly speaking).

Two primary aspects of cable service you always need to consider are as more users sign up onto a particular section / neighborhood – or ‘pipe’ – delivery can be impacted and be somewhat slower depending on time of day and who’s doing what with their computer (got a neighbor who enjoys porn? Chances are that’ll slow things down a little).

The second point is that although Token rings have vastly improved over the decades and are far more robust, security is still a potential problem as ‘pipe’ sections can be accessed and monitored by unauthorized personnel, resulting in data loss – ‘hacking’. Naturally, cable providers will deny this but that’s the inherent nature of Token rings. Also, it’s worth noting that cable providers are presently offering faster services targeted specifically for television services, and not just for Internet (despite their claims to the contrary) – and not surprisingly for it is in their interests to keep viewers fixed to the traditional service delivery models and discourage any direct / uncontrolled access to Internet / torrent viewing.

In some instances, cable services are also increasingly (and quietly) imposing user data limitations, limiting users to how much data they can access and use during the course of ‘surfing’ the Internet. Cable providers will offer cheap television, but sometimes will charge more for Internet access, encouraging users to stay with traditional services and away from direct Internet access for viewing shows and movies.

FIOS

The future is here – for some. FIOs is very cool and their service / support is generally better than cable providers; problem with FIOs is not everyone can enjoy it based on the inherent need for FIOs to function within 5 miles of the nearest CO (Central Office). That being said, despite FIOs inherent ability to more readily interface and offer secure, high speed internet for come computers, companies offering FIOS are increasingly being criticized for ‘throttling’ users seeking more bandwidth for torrent and/or sole Internet services, pushing said users into higher paying plans that are increasingly viewed as a deliberate effort to charge more to those who want to move away from standard television offerings. In some instances, FIOs will allow a user to drop their television services, but will soon find themselves being charged far more for ‘router rental’ or other costs.

TNSTAAFL: ‘There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch’ (kudos to Robert Heinlein)

Increasingly, more and more consumers are being hit with the reality that there’s no free lunch. Recent efforts by providers creating tiered pricing for Internet access is not an obscure development that only geeks can possibly appreciate, but increasingly regular families and the average consumer will soon find expensive. It’s not too much different than folks who have ‘Easy Pass’ access to the tool booths versus those who don’t: sure, everyone can drive on the freeway, but soon class distinction becomes obvious when you find yourself waiting in line to drop a quarter into the toll booth bucket while the other guys are zipping along past you getting the good seats at the theater or the beach.

The same goes for Internet access.

Depending on the service you’re currently using, review your monthly bill and break down the individual costs. When calling for a new plan, ask any provider the specific costs – i.e, router rental or any other special fees. Take it from me, chances are you’ll be surprised and more importantly, so will they as they’ll then respond to you a little better, given your knowledge and awareness.

It never hurts to shop around. One approach is to call your current provider and then inform them you’re thinking of switching; call the other provider and do the same. With any luck, you may get a better price (bear in mind, however, you’ll still facing factors that we’ve already discuss, primarily data limitations and potential ‘throttling’).

Revisit your viewing log, and ask yourself how badly do you really want to continue doing what you’re doing: continue paying high rates for a service that may not be giving you your money’s worth (whichever service it is).

Below is a (very) basic spreadsheet that may be of some use for you:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 11.27.03 AM

It may well be worth your while to spend a couple of hours one day and find yourself not only at the forefront of a growing revolution, but also at the forefront of saving yourself money.

And if you’re in doubt about this entire effort, realize that you’re not alone, for even the Big Boys are questioning the entire industry approach. Steve Wozniak, the co-investor of the Apple computer, once commented that he does not use any cable / FIOs or Satellite service for his home, but rather accesses his Internet access via his wireless phone service through a dedicated data plan; this may also be something to consider as well (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/9263919/I-dont-have-home-internet-admits-Apple-founder-Steve-Wozniak.html).

It’s your computer; don’t you think you have a say in what websites you wish to visit and which shows you want to view?

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Cutting the Cord (Part II)

Business-Insider-Cable-TV-Subscription-Decline-680x500

The numbers don’t lie: more and more folks are canceling their cable / FIOs / satellite services. As the above chart so notes (http://techgage.com/news/cord-cutting-not-slowing-down-decline-of-cable-tv-subscribers-continues/) the slide is gradually growing, particularly in light of faster internet being more readily available – a development which was also recently noted in the Wall Street Journal:

http://online.wsj.com/articles/getting-rid-of-cable-tv-the-smartest-ways-to-cut-the-cord-1405472757?mod=rss_Technology

Likewise, in response to the number of readers contacting the WSJ following publication of their article on this very subject matter, the WSJ followed up with a (rather) brief response in their blog answering just a few basic questions:

http://blogs.wsj.com/personal-technology/2014/07/18/cutting-the-cable-cord-answers-to-your-questions/

Clearly, this is a revolution in the making; a growing mainstream of folks are dropping out and tuning in through other means – and doing so doesn’t require you holding a Master’s in Computer Science or advanced technology. For additional discussion on approaches, here’s one helpful site worth reading if you’re in doubt as to which direction you should consider:

http://www.steve-oh-mg.com/streaming-television-revolution-confessions-of-a-cord-cutter/

And if you’re still in some doubt, here’s another helpful site for the novice cable cutter worth checking out:

http://www.tomsguide.com/us/cord-cutting-guide,news-17928.html

Mind you, it’s a growing market. Amazon, Roku and naturally Apple are all veying for this fast growing cable cutting market segment (for the record, I use Apple TV; just my choice) – so much so that now there’s even a growing developer’s middle market – as witnessed by this sample site:

http://skystreamx.com/cutting-cable-android-tv-box/

And lastly, concurrent with this trend is the growing realization users also have free access to digital TV stations – a fact that many are not fully aware of. In a nutshell, the FCC mandates duly licensed television stations to broadcast not only in their standard / regular VHF range, but also in a variety of upper frequency digital TV broadcast ranges. Many viewers are not aware of the fact that there’s a plethora of free TV routinely being  broadcast 24 x 7.  Below is a very helpful website worth checking out (it’s free) that’ll give you the lowdown on what digital (free) stations are readily broadcasting in your immediate area and what your options are – i.e., whether or not you could be served by an indoor or outdoor antennae, and what direction you’d need to point the antennae toward:

http://www.tvfool.com

Let’s face it: the traditional way of watching TV is changing; channel surfing is morphing into a more direct, focused effort of watching TV. Considering the numbers of channels the typical users gets through their subscriptions balanced against the cost of such services, people are fooled into thinking they’re getting their moneys worth by continuing utilizing the traditional cable / FIOs / satellite services; financial reality says otherwise. Consider: add into the equation the amount of time you spend watching each and every channel you’re paying for you’ll find that it’s a loss for the average consumer – a waste of money.  Think of it this way:

Number of channels / (divided by) Monthly cable bill x (times) Number of minutes spent on each channel

So, let’s say you have 500 channels that you’re paying $150.00 per month; this would come to a $3.30 per channel monthly cost.  Multiply this figure by the number of minutes you watch for any of the channels you watch (to do it right, do a spreadsheet and lay out all of your channel line ups, note how many minutes per month you watch each and every channel you’re paying for and total it up).

Chances are the vast majority of those channels are going to be listed as “0” minutes spent – and therein lies the inherent problem intrinsic with TV subscription services: you’re wasting your money paying for channels you’re simply not watching. Gee, it may be nice to offer you all these channels at seemingly low competitive rates, but are you going to really watch all that?

This is how the traditional cable / FIOs / satellite services work: you’re subsidizing the majority of channels by paying a premium for those select specific channels you tend to view more often; this is necessary as these select channels would likely not be able to exist without these subsidies. This is all well and good, but ask yourself: is your viewing practices offering a true balance between what you’re paying for and what you’re watching?

It all comes down to what and how you use your television.  So ask yourself: what are your viewing practices? Here’s what you do (and it’s rather easy and surprisingly revealing): do a viewing log. Mark down the following every time you turn on the tube:

the channel you’re watching;

the show you’re watching;

how long you’ve watch that show on that specific channel;

Repeat.

Do this for a month and see for yourself. Once you’ve done this ask yourself: are you getting your money’s worth from your TV subscription services?

Given how much it costs per month, you could be looking at anywhere from $1,800 to $2,400 per year you’re paying out for something you’re not really fully using.  Add up over several years and you’ll find yourself paying out serious money for something you’re not fully using.

“All The News That’s Fit To, Er, Write,…?”

 

 

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So by now you’ve probably heard about how the Associated Press is rolling out a new means of reporting: an automated writing system (http://www.complex.com/tech/2014/06/ap-machines):

The AP has announced that it will soon switch to an automatic version of writing and reporting for its corporate earnings stories. A computer program that will be able to take a company’s numbers and produce a 150-300-word article about it will soon be tasked with penning the quarterly corporate earnings reports. The switch will be made in part because the program is now able to take the “by the numbers” information and produce a readable format suitable for its users.

The article then went on to assure us ‘no employees will face termination’ as a result of bringing about this change. 

Now to be clear, this does not mean robots will be appearing at press conferences to ask questions, take notes and write to us stories about the events they’re covering. Rather, all this involves is the implementation of a / series of computer program(s) reviewing and writing up linguistically basic stories directly based upon mere corporate earnings reports. For the AP, what this means is that now AP can “create more than 10 times the number of earnings reports in comparison to past quarters.” Kind of like feed the computer earning reports, pull out a few adverbs and random additives and viola! A cut and dry (read: boring) news report about corporate earnings. 

But what does all this really mean?

Does this mean Skynet (via “The Terminator” movie fame) is taking over the media? Our news will soon be filtered by way of a series of electronic systems, removing the human element whereby we will only hear and read ‘good news’ as opposed to knowing and seeing how bad things really are? Can we soon expect to see messages scrolling across our television screens of “I’m sorry Dave, but you’ve seen enough porn for tonight?” Can we expect to see robots and machines inhabiting our news broadcasting services (although some may argue that’s already happening now) thus totally removing humans from the media broadcast altogether? (Cue the evil laughter: “MWAHAHAHAHHAAAAA!”).

Hardly.

But is the beginning of a greater trend, reflective of the manner by which we view and interact our world and each other. 

Understand, in many ways this is a rather bold step in a domain traditionally held as sacrosanct, safe from the realm of robots / AI (Artificial Intelligence): writing.

We are (generally) taught writing is thinking: you cannot write without some kind of thought or notion – however minimal it is. Whether one is writing about tag team wrestling or the philosophical nature of quantum mechanics, writing – even a mere grocery list – takes some thought.

Some wags would argue perhaps it’s not so much machines are getting smarter, but rather humans are getting dumber, with robots writing about things that really don’t take a whole lot of thought – but this is not an accurate way of looking at things. Consider: the necessity of corporate earning reports now as compared to what they were some 70 years ago; they didn’t exist anywhere in the form we now consider normal – nay, necessary – in today’s modern world, yet they are another vital thing done as part of our daily, modern lives. Now with this new program it’s one less thing off of our collective plates.

Look around you: what is happening as civilization becomes more and more complex, the details which matter – making sure reports are produced, there’s enough fuel calculated in a jet plane prior to flying or that the triggers on our nuclear bombs are actually locked and secure – all of these and more are getting done automatically because frankly, we got a lot on our plates already. We carry on, safe in our assumptions that all is being handled properly by machines, safe from the dreaded ‘human error’ factor. After all, the last thing we need to hear while eating our peanuts in the tourist class is the co-pilot telling the pilot somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean “I thought you figured out the fuel consumption rate!?”

But could this mean the end of writing as we know it?  Not likely, but it raises an interesting question as it relates to the Turing Test: could we tell if something we’re reading is written by a machine or by a human? In which case, does this recent innovation introduced by the Associated Press presage the end of Expository Writing 101 and the pain of attending 7:30 am college freshman writing class? (By the way, if anyone can test this specific hypotheses, please do so and contact me ASAP to share your results; I do, however, deny any responsibility). And would such a trend possibly suggest that soon associate professors teaching such courses will be replaced by robots as well? (Not likely; even robots would find the work and pay insufferable).

Rest easy, we got awhile to go before a machine written item passes the Turing Test (at least for anything not involving 7:30 am Exposition Writing 101).

Speaking as a professional researcher, however, I do note we are crossing a new threshold with regard to our automated tools: the border between the mundane and the dynamic. Consider: something considered boring and “dry” reading – say, for example, corporate earning reports – are based on dynamic and fluid events, often involving complex factors even diehard experts find baffling with unexpected results.

And this is exactly the border where the Associated Press’s new program is going to cross over. Fortunes are made and lost on such reports so we better hope that those “machines” are up to the task – and more importantly, the humans overseeing such services are making sure the correct and proper (read: accurate) adjectives and adverbs are being applied – otherwise some folk are going to find themselves flying over rough seas with no fuel.