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September 26, 2008

Digital TV Failure

TV used to be so simple, you bought a TV and it just worked. It didn't matter if you were using an antenna, hooked into cable, satellite, a video game or your camcorder, it just worked. The digital TV era has ushered in a complex mess that just never seems to get to a stable working point.

In the US, the format for the Over-The-Air (OTA) digital broadcasts, those you can pick up with an antenna, was standardized and is solidly deployed and quite functional. Canada has adopted the same standard and deployment has been slow to non-existent. If you receive your TV OTA, this is well standardized and regulated model and its pretty straightforward to figure out what you need and get it working. You take your antenna, plug it into a digital tuner and voila. Although on the downside, the increased complexity of having to search out channels and poor products in the space make it more complicated to do simple things.

That is all well and good, but most people don't receive their TV via an antenna any more, cable and satellite dominate. Cable was traditionally almost identical to OTA, you plugged in the cable and there were all the channels. In the digital realm, all hell broke loose, with proprietary standards and deployments and customer lock in from the cable companies. They basically mirrored how the satellite companies did things. You bought the hardware from the company and that was the only way to access their services. The hardware controlled and regulated your access to television. In the US, the FCC didn't like the anti-competitive marketplace this created, it certainly was a bad thing for the consumer. So they spent a long time creating a unified standard with the companies, CableCARD, and mandated that they use it. The device took so long in development, that it was pretty much obsolete before it was ever delivered. The cable companies reluctantly deployed them when they were demanded, but other than regular TV, many of the newer features like Video-On-Demand (VoD) simply wouldn't work with them. Over the past many years, cable companies have been making more and more services inaccessible to CableCARDs, introducing Switched-Digital-Video (SDV) for example. The deployment rate for CableCARDs is staggeringly low compared to Set-Top-Boxes (STB). More surprisingly, is that even though this is standardized and mandated such that 3rd parties can make compatible hardware, there is very little compatible hardware out there. It's not clear if the corporations or the process crippled and delayed the product so as to make it nearly useless, but that is the end result and its continuing to occur with the discussions on a new version. The current state of things is that they've obsoleted a lot of older products, it is confusing to figure out how and if something will work and 3rd party products are being squeezed out more and more. You used to be simply able to split the cable or reconnect it to another device like a VCR, but now you'll likely have to spend some money to make that happen, if its even possible.

In Canada the future is even murkier. There are no regulations on digital cable distribution, vendor hardware and lock in is where its at. While deployment for OTA digital is now mandated for August 31, 2011, it won't really change anything else in the market. HDTV seems to be the catalyst that is driving consumers. I have friends in the US who are forced into hardware they don't want or don't want to use because there is no other choice to receive HDTV from their cable company. In Canada the lack of any standards means 3rd parties, such as TiVo are completely locked out of access to the HDTV market as cable companies want to retain control and profit with STBs. The problem has forced TiVo to back out of their entrance into Canada as they can't make any solid inroads without HDTV capability. For many in Canada the choice is simple, because there isn't one, buy what they are selling. For me, I'm holding on to analog and standard definition for the time being, until there is some clear path or tipping point to upgrade into the digital realm. While I do utilize digital and HDTV services, the bulk of my TV reception comes from analog services. I've found the HDTV service to be extremely lacking, at least 50% of the time the programs are unwatchable due to audio or picture problems on Shaw cable service.

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Advancing Search

There are two things that I still find very difficult to search for 1) narrowing a large list of results by parameters 2) finding a place to buy a product.

There are often cases where you get a large list of results for a search in which you'd like to improve the results by adding parameters. The most frequent example I run into is shopping for something generic and then filtering based on price and features. Many specialized search engines allow you to make an attempt at this, but often make it far too limited in scope. Perhaps you can add one parameter based on price and one based on a specific feature or brand but no more. Carmax is an example that actually does almost exactly what I would want. While their front page starting points don't really reflect what I want to do, once you drill into the search, you can easily add or remove all kinds of related and unrelated parameters. At each stage, it will list each remaining variable parameter and the number of entries in the subset. This makes it extremely simple to hunt down and isolate specific classes of vehicles of your own definition. For example, if you wanted to look for a sedan in Michigan that got better than 25mpg, was green, had a manual transmission, is a domestic brand, etc. etc., it is very easy to do. The only thing it doesn't allow is negative options. i.e. not a truck. eBay on the other hand uses a search method that often ties your hands to a limited scope of 1 or 2 parameters of specific types.

The other challenging search I often encountering is finding a store to purchase a product at. The obvious starting point is the manufacturer. They usually have lists of stores where you can buy the product, but the lists are often extremely short and contain stores with no local presence or no contact information whatsoever. In this case it would be really nice to add some kind of generic "I want to buy this" parameter to an online search, or even something as simple as a '$'. But I've yet to find any method of doing this. I usually just put the product in the search and then wade through the results looking for stores and shops. Further to that now, I need to weed out those odd store fronts that do nothing but display Amazon.com products for commission. Even if I could get that to work, I'd still like another parameter, like finding a store in Canada, or at least one that sells to Canada. Certainly there are specific specialized search engines for shopping, PriceGrabber comes to mind. I find that these often return few to no results and often what they return are the big shops that I already looked at and wanted to keep looking for a better price or a product in stock.

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September 25, 2008

Thunder Bay Trip

I took a some time off at the beginning of September to make a little excursion with my Dad out to Thunder Bay and back. I've never travelled east of Kenora or Fort Frances and not recently or much at all. We started out east on Hwy 17 to Thunder Bay and ended up stopping at both Dryden and Kakabeka Falls for the night. I managed to snag an EarthCache in Ontario so I would qualify for the EarthCache Masters program. Along the way we stopped at quite a few caches, mostly roadside rest stops, but did take some time to pick up a few of the Dryden caches. I was more determined to snag the "Grand Trunk" cache as it was a FTF and it sounded like a very interesting location. It took some time and effort but it was found and it was a great cache. We didn't end up spending much time in Thunder Bay, I did manage to find a nice Marsh after we got lost. There were some really nice caches in the marsh and it was enjoyable to walk around to find them all. It was also a great place to drop the travelbugs I was carrying and pick up one for the trip back. My GPS maps seemed to be quite outdated for Thunder Bay, they were missing a major highway reroute, a couple other roads and some bridge openings and closings. On the return trip we took the southern route on Hwy 11, dubbed MOM's way by tourism staff. It's pretty deserted wilderness for the most part until you get to the US border. Not many caches out that way either, so even with stopping at all of them along the road, we traveled quite quickly. We stopped for the night at Atikokan, the site of an old open pit iron mine. Just before sunset we spent some time driving out to the mine and all around it, looking for some views and some caches. The pit is still something to look at, but it's getting over grown and it's filled up with water. The old asphalt road surface was interesting to study as it's degraded over the years but is largely intact. The earth is so ladden with iron ore that it's the rusty red brown orange color, and it's quite odd to see plants and trees growing out of large piles of it. There weren't many caches at all the rest of the way to the US border then through the US and back into the Manitoba, even along Hwy 12 in Manitoba there really aren't any caches. Even so, we did stop at most of the caches and there were some memorable and interesting ones. There certainly is one that has a story that I won't repeat here. I finally managed to find a benchmark, I've looked for quite a few in Canada that just weren't findable. That was the last of many little check boxes on my geocaching todo list that I managed to check off on this trip. An interesting tidbit, the Canada Customs agent knew about geocaching and had found some in Ottawa but hasn't done any in Manitoba. One of the more odd things that I didn't realize before the trip, Rogers has no cell coverage over most of the area we traveled. There is also one GSM provider in Dryden that Rogers doesn't roam on which gave me a "Inactive SIM" message. Even though I was only out of coverage for a couple days at a time, I never received any of my SMS or voicemail messages when I emerged back into service areas.

Continue reading for some pictures from the trip.

Click for the log with picture and then click the picture from the log for an even larger one.

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September 16, 2008

The Dirty Wash

I used The Chamois car wash a couple times in winter to get a full service clean, inside and out. It was an okay job the first couple times, generally much cleaner than when I arrived. The 3rd time my car was returned with a broken mirror. The manager insisted that the car wash could not possibly cause that damage but he would give me credits equal to the cost of repair. It took a couple months and many phone calls before I ever got those credits. Now that I had them, I felt obliged to use them up. The service since has ranged from mediocre to satisfactory. Mediocre being substandard to a gas station self service wash. The car is returned almost dirtier. The dirt is smeared around and nothing is completely wiped or wash. The windows are especially problematic as the smeared dirt is much harder to see through than a uniform coat of dirt. The seats are always dramatically moved out of position, the carpets aren't hooked back up to their retainers. It takes nearly as long to clean up the job as it would for me to wash the whole car myself. I just returned from the latest visit to find a mess of smeared dirt and missed areas and a nice hunk of glue residue where a badge was once attached on the exterior. :(

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