Monday, April 08, 2013

Have you cut the cord, but still want to watch some cable TV? Then stream it

So far we’ve cut the cable TV cord and maximized our over-the-air (OTA) antenna reception including the sharing of a coax cable with an Internet feed. While I extol the virtues of cutting the cable cord (one million people cut the cord in 2012), there are moments when I long for a quip from Stephen Colbert or really want to watch a U.S. men's or women's soccer match. At least for soccer, my only viewing options are to go to a bar, invite myself over a friend's house, or hide in the bush in front of my friend's house and watch it through his living room window.

But there's actually another choice...a media server! Join me as I walk you through this exciting world! And use an exclamation point for three sentences in a row! This is the fourth and final chapter in this OTA adventure, so in case you missed what has been covered so far, here's a recap:

Chapter 1 - Receive HD channels on your TV with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna

Chapter 2 - Optimize the antenna signal for all TVs with splitters

Chapter 3 - Run an antenna's signal on the same cord as your Internet feed

Chapter 4 - Stream videos from cable stations with a media server

Your streaming media setup will look something like this.

Media Server Concepts
A media server takes many forms; in our case I'm referring to a device that provides a more comfortable experience (interface) to watch online movies and TV shows on your TV.  A media server visits streaming media web sites, pulls their content in, and displays the content in an interface on your TV that's easier to navigate.

Still having trouble understanding?  That's okay.  Put it this way, you could either visit the local farmer's garden for fruits and vegetables, the butcher for your meat, and the five-and-dime shop for your cereal, or go to the supermarket that pulls all of these together and presents them more conveniently. You guessed it, the supermarket is a media server.

Popular streaming media sites include YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix.  Hulu streams network and cable programming with "limited commercial interruption" they're quick to point out. Hulu's basic service is free, but for a little less than $10/month, you get access to more shows and they're available sooner than basic users. A monthly subscription of $7.99/month is required for Netflix's streaming service. These sites work like YouTube except they offer different programming.

To watch streaming media from you computer, just point your browser to these sites, pick your show, and press play. Let's say for the purpose of this post that you'd rather watch streaming media from your couch.

Between these services, you'll find enough content to get your entertainment fix.


Streaming Media Access
In addition to visiting Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube for entertainment, all networks (CBS, NBC, FOX, and ABC) and many cable channels offer most of their shows on their web sites by navigating to their "view this show here" links to watch what you want for free.

I have a monthly subscription to Netflix streaming and have been very pleased with its performance. I'm able to view Netflix content at my computer, or sitting on the couch via my TiVo, PS3, or Wii. I prefer the PS3 because its Netflix interface is smooth and responsive. It's great watching entire seasons of programming without commercials.

 
Netflix streaming offers the first three seasons of "Archer" and our country is better for it.

Cable channels that already require a separate subscription like HBO (whose streaming service is called HBOGO), and a selection of ESPN's live programming require you to verify that you already pay for those channels (which you don't if you cut the cord). You won't get to watch HBO or every game on ESPN, but let me remind you that it shouldn't stop you if you have a sight line into your friend's living room. Amazon also offers a streaming service that requires a subscription, but it's free for Prime members.

Media Server Choices - Just Your TV
Some of today's HDTVs are well connected to the Internet and may already offer improved interfaces for selected streaming sites like Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube. If that's the case, by all means go ahead and watch away by following your TV's instructions. If not, let's keep going and talk trash about those fancy TV owners. Such showoffs, they are!

Media Server Choices - Roku, Apple TV, Google TV, Netgear NTV300, and Boxee Box --> TV
These are names of boxes, about the size of your digital camera, that connect to your Internet router to pull streaming media and then display it in the user-friendly way I've been promising.  My media server setup does not involve any of these devices. If you want more information about them, visit a site like http://deviceguru.com/google-tv-vs-apple-tv-vs-boxee-vs-roku and http://www.digitaltrends.com/home-theater/set-top-showdown-apple-tv-vs-roku-3-vs-boxee-box-vs-wd-tv-play.

Netflix streaming is available from a ton of devices, so get on board in time for the new "Arrested Development" season coming May 26.

Media Server Choices - PC Software --> PS3/XBox/Wii --> TV
Another option is to use your computer as a media server device. The software uses your computer to take your Internet feed, grab the latest online offerings, and make them available on a variety of devices connected to your home network. From there you use that device, such as a PS3, XBox, or Wii, and watch the online offerings on your TV.

According to this Wikipedia page, there are tons of media server software choices. I'm not going to compare them here, but I will tell you that most will require you to pay for their services at a monthly, yearly, or one-time lifetime cost. Provided your computer handles streaming media well already, this software should run fine.

For my setup, I have been pleased with the performance of PlayOn for my media server software needs. After installing it on my computer with a lifetime subscription, I simply boot up my computer which runs PlayOn from the start, turn on my PS3 and TV, and I'm off and watching. PlayOn offers tons of content, improves the software regularly, and works seamlessly with major home devices.


Let's reminisce on the experience of going to a video rental store.

Another piece of PlayOn software that's intriguing is its PlayLater program that records streaming media. I haven't tried it out, but it sounds great if you can delay your viewing while a program is recorded so you can watch it later and not sweat any buffering delays. The company does offer sales for lifetime memberships.

Peace and Tranquility
No longer viewing cable TV's content was tough at first, but then something funny happened...I found that life did go on without its filler programming. I still watch the same amount of TV, but instead I feed my viewing needs with other, cheaper, sources of TV entertainment. I pay a monthly subscription for Internet access (which I'd have anyway) and Netflix and have paid in full for the OTA antenna and PlayOn software. My monthly cost is still a fraction of what it was to be entertained and I don't have to deal with poor cable TV billing practices.

I hope these four rambling posts have caused you to at least consider cutting the cord and joining the revolution.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Can You Run OTA Antenna TV and Internet Feeds on the Same Coax Cable? Yes!

So far we’ve cut the cable TV cord and maximized our over-the-air (OTA) antenna reception for our TVs; however, if you're like me, there's a snag with sharing the antenna's signal with a TV that also depended on one coax (that's a coaxial cable if you're new to these procedures) to provide cable TV and the Internet feed.  Fear not, for I would not lead you astray and will show you the way.  This is the third chapter in this OTA adventure, so in case you missed what has been covered so far, here's a recap:

Chapter 1 - Receive HD channels on your TV with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna

Chapter 2 - Optimize the antenna signal for all TVs with splitters

Chapter 3 - Run an antenna's signal on the same cord as your Internet feed

Chapter 4 - Stream videos from cable stations with a media server


When my cable TV was installed, a coax was run from the cable box on the bottom floor to the upstairs TV, which is where my main antenna is now located.  When I went about maximizing my reception, I wanted to use the coax installed by the cable company to feed the signal from the main antenna upstairs back down to the single coax connected to the downstairs TV.  The problem was that the coax from the cable box to the downstairs TV was still being used to connect me to the Internet (you only need one coax to run cable TV and the Internet).  Because cable TV and the Internet feed use the same signal, a simple splitter is all that's needed to give the TV its channels and your Internet router its Internet data.

Life does go on after you stop subscribing to cable TV, I promise.

The fix in my head was to combine the main antenna's signal with the Internet feed on one coax...if that was even possible.  I did lots of research on audio/video forums to see if this was possible and almost everyone said it was impossible.  Most said that you could not run the two different signals on the same coax because they run at different frequencies, there’s an issue with interference, and the gods would not allow it during the summer solstice.

However, I found one person who said you could use a device called a diplexer.  It sounds ominous, but really it’s friendly once you get to know it. It took plenty of research to confirm that a diplexer would do the trick so let's hope you found this blog in less time than it took me to learn about diplexers and type this entry.  Here’s how I used to diplexers to help cut the cord and solve this problem; your setup may differ, but the concepts still apply.

I should stop burying the lede…to run an OTA signal on the same coax as an Internet feed, use one diplexer where the signals combine onto one coax and one diplexer where you want the signals to split again from that single coax.

Step 1 - Return to your sketch in chapter 2 of the optimal setup for your OTA signal, now knowing that you can run the OTA signal on the same coax as your Internet feed. Recall that using one antenna’s signal on multiple TVs does not decrease the video quality even when they’re all on and showing different stations.

 In my case, the "satellite antenna" is the Internet service provider's feed to the house, the red line is the single coax that carries both streams, and the "satellite signal" is the Internet feed that finds its way to the router. 

Step 2 - One diplexer is needed to combine the antenna signal and Internet feed and another diplexer is necessary to (re)split them. Diplexers look like splitters and have all female ends just as splitters do. Go online or your electronics store and purchase your diplexers and connectors as necessary, holding onto that receipt just in case this whole experience fails. 
 
Step 3 - With your diplexers in hand, setup your main antenna and run its signal down to where you want to combine it with the Internet feed. It's okay to use a splitter anywhere in the feed’s path, no matter how far from the combination point, to reach other TVs before the fancy combining happens.

Step 4 - Go where you want the antenna’s signal to combine with the Internet feed.  Based on my story, this was outside on the first floor because of where the Internet (and cable TV) box was located.

Step 5 - At the combination point, you should have a free hanging coax with a male end that finds its way back to the main antenna.

Step 6 - Take one of the diplexers, we’ll call it diplexer A, and locate the side with two connectors (the bottom side in the picture above).

Step 7 - Screw the male end of the coax from step 5 into one of the bottom side diplexer connectors, the side with more than one connector on it.

Step 8 - Unplug your router (and modem if you have one).


Just one word: diplexers.

Step 9 - Locate the box that pulls the Internet feed into your house, this is probably the same as what was/will be your cable TV box.

Step 10 - Connected to the Internet box is a coax that runs into your house and is split with a familiar looking splitter.  Disconnect this coax from the splitter, or closest connection point to the box, leaving the other end of the coax connected to the Internet box.

Step 11 - Take the free hanging Internet feed's coax (and its male end) and screw it into the other “IN” female connector of diplexer A.

Step 12 - At the combination point, you now have diplexer A being fed the signal from the main antenna and your Internet feed.


Here's my setup proving something, I'm just not sure yet.

Step 13 - Locate the coax that runs into your dwelling; one end should still be screwed to the splitter that was connected to the Internet feed's coax.

Step 14 - Unscrew this coax from the splitter.  Congrats, you’ve got a free splitter from the cable company!

Step 15 - Take this same coax and screw it to the “OUT” female connector of diplexer A.

Step 16 - If all is well, diplexer A still has the antenna coax and Internet feed coax connected as inputs, and now has the coax that goes into your house connected to its output.

Step 17 - Take hold of the other diplexer, let’s call it, oh I don’t know, diplexer B.

Step 18 - Follow along the coax that goes into your house and locate its other end where you want to (re)split this super-mega-awesome combined feed.  In my case, the cable company setup a coax that ended with a splitter sending the signal to the TV and Internet router.

Here's my diplexer B in action.

Step 19 - Connect this main coax to the “OUT” female connector of diplexer B (it's the lonely port in the picture above, you can't miss it.  Well I guess you could miss it, but then this whole thing won't work well).

Step 20 - From the indoor splitter near you, unscrew the coax connected to your home's Internet router and then unscrew the coax that connects to your TV.  Again, you're removing them from the splitter and not the router or TV.  The router and TV will keep their coaxes attached.

Step 21 - Locate the coax that runs to your home’s Internet router and screw its free end to a connector on diplexer B with multiple connectors (bottom of the picture above).  In the pictured diplexer, the bottom connectors now become "OUT" connectors and the connector that's alone on one side becomes an "IN" port.

Step 22 - Locate the TV’s free coax and screw it to diplexer B’s other “IN” or “INPUT” port.  If you want to run multiple TVs from this feed, connect a splitter to this port on diplexer B and connect TVs from there as usual.

Step 23 - Turn on a TV connected to the diplexer and see if you receive signals as done in Chapter 1, step 19.

Step 24 - Any luck? If so, high five yourself, I may have been speaking the truth afterall.

 Don't forget the importance of cable management, keeping them bound and tidy.

Step 25 - Turn on all TVs receiving the main antenna’s feed and see if they receive channels too, setting them up as necessary.  Pretty cool how you can watch different channels on each TV at the same time, right?

Step 26 - Plug in/turn on your Internet router and let it reconnect to the Internet; then plug in/turn on your modem and let it reconnect to the router.  These devices should reconnect to the Internet on their own.  If you see lots of lights flashing in good ways then we’re doing alright.

Step 27 - Find yourself a device that connects to the Internet and see if it can connect. Any luck? If so, give yourself two high fives! You may now have every TV tuned to different channels while streaming Internet video without any issues on any of them.  As with any antenna signal splitting, channel reception is tied to the quality of a single antenna, but it should have been placed in a location that nullifies this issue.

Step 28 - Congratulations! You are now running the OTA antenna signal on the same coax as your Internet feed, have maximized the signal for every connected TV, and can wow people at your next cocktail party by saying things like, “I spent the weekend working with coaxes, splitters, and diplexers and I’m awesome.”

In the fourth and final chapter, I’ll talk about replacing some of those cable channels you used to watch by relying on a media player and streaming video.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Optimize Your OTA Antenna Signal With Splitters

In my first post about cutting the cable TV cord, I showed you how to cut the cord and receive over-the-air HD channels.  At the very least you now have one TV connected to one antenna, or maybe multiple TVs with their own antennas.  We can improve this design, using the best antenna for every TV's signal, even when they're on at the same time.

Here are the chapters to follow me on this journey to glorious HDTV goodness:

Chapter 1 - Receive HD channels on your TV with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna

Chapter 2 - Optimize the antenna signal for all TVs with splitters

Chapter 3 - Run an antenna's signal on the same cord as your Internet feed

Chapter 4 - Stream videos from cable stations with a media server

Before you entertain the thought of using your best antenna location for every TV, you will need to have a coaxial cable (coax) running from the best antenna location to whichever TVs you have in mind.  If your antenna's on the top floor and the TV's on the bottom floor, my advice won't help you if there's no coax between the two of them. Because you purchased an antenna to stop your cable TV service, it's likely that your cable company ran a coax to every TV in the house, meaning this might just work after all. 

As this PSA from the 1970s shows, cable TV is bad, free TV is good.  Thought it aired in a movie theater that didn't want to lose business to movies on cable TV, it's the right sentiment.

In my case, I wanted to connect my TV that's downstairs to the TV and its antenna that's upstairs.  Because the house was wired for cable TV, the TV that's upstairs has a coax from its location down to where the cable box used to be.  Meanwhile, the TV that's downstairs is still near that same cable box area.  Because the wiring is already done, this won't require me to drill holes through my walls.

This blog post is much more interesting if your living quarters have coax running between whatever rooms you need from the prime antenna location.  Let's assume that's the case so we can start the steps.

Note: The antenna may be hooked up to a TV or another device capable of searching for OTA channels.  For example, my OTA antenna is hooked up to my TiVo, just as I used to run my cable TV through the TiVo.  For this blog, assume "TV" means whatever device you're using to search for OTA channels.

Step 1 - Make a drawing of your setup from the main antenna to the other TVs, noting where the coax would have to split to reach each TV, including the need to add coaxes as necessary.  Don't worry, I won't judge the drawing's quality, it just has to make sense to you.

Step 2 - Determine how many splitters to purchase.  What's a splitter you ask?  Well a splitter splits a single coax signal, in this case the main antenna's, and sends it to coax outputs.  The most common splitter takes one signal from a coax and splits it into two signals.  Larger splitters split the signal into three or more signals as in the diagram below.  In my case, the main antenna's signal had to be split to one other TV meaning I would need one splitter to split the signal to two outputs, allowing the antenna to work with its normal TV and the one downstairs.

 This diagram gives a good idea of what we're trying to accomplish with a splitter.

Step 3 - Now that you know how many splitters you'll need, also note how many coaxes you'll need.  Look at your drawing and note how many coaxes are needed and how many you have; also consider if you need to extend a coax by connecting it to another cable.

Step 4 - Each coax has two male ends and a splitter only has female ends.  Look at your drawing again and for each connection point, note each side's male or female end.  Do you have two male ends connecting?  Maybe two female ends are connecting?  For these conflicts, you'll need female-to-female coax connectors or female-to-male coax connectors to bridge the issue.  Make a note of what you need to purchase.

You may need a mixture of female-to-female and male-to-female coax connectors for longer coax connections and device connections.

Step 5 - When you think you've got the right number of splitters, coaxes, and connectors for your design, look online or visit your local electronics store and buy the items.  These are rather basic audio/video products so they're found everywhere.  As always, keep your receipt in case you need to return items and check the store's return policy for opened items.

Step 6 - Optimize the main antenna's location.  You already have a nice reception, but see if you can improve it by moving the antenna, adjusting its rabbit ears, or turning it in a new direction.  Then see if you can receive even more channels; this may require you to rescan for available channels.

Step 7 - Note the main antenna's optimal location.  The antenna will probably move during this chapter so this makes it easier to come back to when all is done.

Step 8 - Get all splitter(s), coaxes, and connectors in hand.  For this post, we'll assume you're in the same boat as me, requiring just one splitter.  Your home's coax, splitter, and connector needs will vary from my experience, but the same ideas apply.

Step 9 - Locate or place whatever coaxes you need to connect other TVs in your home.

Step 10 - Unscrew the main antenna from the TV or device it's connected to. 


With a nod to Ted Williams...all hail the splendid splitter!

Step 11 - Take the main antenna's coax cable and screw its male end into the splitter's female "IN" coax port.  As with all coax connections, tightening it with your hand is enough and it doesn't have to be super tight.

Step 12 - Take a coax and screw it to one of the splitter's "OUT" coax ports.  This should be a male-to-female connection.

Step 13 - Take the other end of this coax and connect it to the TV's coax port.

Step 14 - For the TV that's a new addition to this antenna, take its coax and screw it to the other splitter "OUT" port.

Step 15 - Take the other end of this coax and connect it to the TV's coax port.

Step 16 - If all is well, you now have a single antenna providing a signal to a splitter, and from that splitter there are two coaxes running to two TVs.


My beloved splitter setup.

Step 17 - Return the main antenna to its optimal location noted in step 7.

Step 18 - Run a channel reception search for each TV; this can be done at the same time.  Both TVs should find the same stations.  If they don't list the same stations, it's because one of the TVs doesn't consider a station with low reception worthy of saying it is available, while the other one does.  If you connected more than two TVs to the splitter, repeat this process with each TV.

Step 19 - Congrats!  Now your TVs have the best OTA reception possible and they can watch TV at the same time.

In my next post, I'll introduce you to the world of diplexers which solved my problem of running an OTA antenna's signal on the same coax as my Internet feed.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

How to Watch Local Channels in HD Without Cable TV

I invite you to join me on a journey.  A journey to a magical world free of cable TV bills, shyster pricing, and frustrating phone calls when your bill is wrong or your service is on the fritz.  If you follow this four-chapter journey you will leave the land of $100+ cable TV bills and finish in Shambhala where the cable TV industry's poor pricing model has no place.

Our journey's chapters (links available as they're published):

Chapter 1 - Receive HD channels on your TV with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna

Chapter 2 - Optimize the antenna signal for all TVs with splitters

Chapter 3 - Run an antenna's signal on the same cord as your Internet feed

Chapter 4 - Stream videos from cable stations with a media server

Why should you listen to me?  These steps worked for me after I taught myself and made some mistakes.  I hope these posts save you from the same mistakes.


Let's hope the cord cutting is a smooth ride for us all.

Chapter 1 - Set Up Your HDTV with an OTA Antenna

Note: The antenna may be hooked up to a TV or another device capable of searching for OTA channels.  For example, my OTA antenna is hooked up to my TiVo, just as I used to run my cable TV through the TiVo.  For this blog, assume "TV" means whatever device you're using to search for OTA channels.

April 2013 Update - If you're comfortable with streaming media, you now have the option of streaming local OTA content from a rented antenna in your area. Thanks to the recent appellate ruling in the 2nd Circuit in NY, Aereo may continue offering and expanding such a service.

Step 1 - Don't do anything. I know you can't wait to flip off the cable company and disconnect, but don't do it until you're able to watch TV without that moneysucking cord. 

Step 2 - Do something. Determine which channels you should expect to receive with different OTA antennas. Visit http://www.tvfool.com/?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=29.

Step 3 - Enter your address and click the "Find Local Channels" button.

Step 4 - Try not to be worried by the flood of data that appears. All you care about is what channels fall under which color backgrounds.  As it states on the bottom of the page:

Background color
Estimated signal strength
Green
An indoor "set-top" antenna is probably sufficient to pick up these channels
Yellow
An attic-mounted antenna is probably needed to pick up channels at this level and above
Red
A roof-mounted antenna is probably needed to pick up channels at this level and above
Grey
These channels are very weak and will most likely require extreme measures to try and pick them up

Step 5 - Do you see most of your local channels in the green section?  That's great!  You get to start with the cheapest digital antenna out there!  If most of your local channels were in other colors, don't sweat it; all it means is that you'll probably have to buy a more powerful antenna.

Ranking antennas in terms of signal pulling strength/cost in order of weakest/cheapest to strongest/most expensive, antennas generally go indoor/non-amplified, indoor/amplified, outdoor/non-amplified, and outdoor/amplified.  Some posters on technical forums say that amplification degrades the signal a bit, but I'm not sure that I'd even notice.

Step 6 - Note which antenna should do the trick for your TV viewing needs.  If you live in a city or near other houses, you may need a more powerful antenna than what's stated here, but that's why receipts were created to return items you don't want.  I suggest trying the "lowest" model and work your way up as needed; often this will be an indoor/non-amplified model.

Step 7 - Digital antennas come in four flavors, indoor (non-amplified and amplified) and outdoor (non-amplified and amplified).  Living close to DC and surrounded by townhomes, I chose to start with the cheapest, an indoor non-amplified model, and haven't had any issues.  As you might expect (and just read), outdoor models are more expensive than indoor, and amplified is more expensive than non-amplified. 


There's no shame in using an antenna with rabbit ears when the picture's crystal clear.

Step 8 - Visit a site like Amazon or go to an actual store and find an indoor or outdoor (are you comfortable installing it to the outside of your house?) HDTV antenna.  From there, pick an amplified or non-amplified model that suits your price point, has lots of positive reviews, and looks fine in your living quarters.  An indoor antenna works best near a window and some models use good'ol rabbit ears which may disrupt your space's feng shui.  My antenna has rabbit ears, but it's out of the way so I don't mind them.  More powerful indoor antennas are placed in the attic so how it looks doesn't matter, but what does matter is the thought of running cables from the attic to your TVs.  Also, an amplified antenna does need to be plugged in somewhere.

Step 9 - Go ahead and purchase the antenna that you'll come to love and adore.  Go to step 10 when the antenna is within arm's reach.

Step 10 - Go to the TV that will get the honor of not receiving video of inferior quality from cable.  In a later post, I will explain how you can use one antenna to pull channels for all TVs in your house provided you can reach each TV with a cord from the attic or wherever the optimal antenna location ends up being.  For now, we'll work with and assume that each TV will get its own antenna.

Step 11 - Provided that the TV was purchased after 2007, it will be ready for a digital antenna.  Locate the cable cord that connects to the TV and unscrew it (pictured below).  A coax cable's connecting ring can be screwed and unscrewed with your hand.  If it's on tight, use a set of pliers to help.  This type of cable is called a coaxial cable (coax) and contains a thin copper wire at its male end so be try not to move it too much while unscrewing it.

Believe it or not, the cable company will not smite you when you disconnect its coax.

Step 12 - Congratulations!  You've just finished the hardest step of breaking free of the "I can only watch HDTV with cable TV" mindset.

Step 13 - Open your antenna and put it together, if necessary.  Some models may require some simple installing of the rabbit ears or other signal catching peripherals. Outdoor antennas will require mounting to your house which you won't learn about in this blog.  Sorry, but even a one-man band can't play every instrument out there.

Step 14 - Take the coax cable coming from the antenna and screw the male end into the same outlet where you unscrewed the cable TV cord in step 11.  The coax should be screwed well with a normal amount of hand tightening; it doesn't have to be super tight!

Should your TV have more than one plug such as one just for antenna signals, then screw the antenna cord into that one.  If you already know that you have to place your antenna in your attic or outside to receive stations, do what you gotta do to get the coax from the antenna down to a TV.  Again, in a later blog post, I'll talk about using this one antenna to pull channels for TVs on multiple floors provided each TV could be wire to a single antenna.

Step 15 - If you have an amplified antenna, plug it in the outlet nearest to where the antenna will probably reside.  If you have a non-amplified antenna you don't have to do anything for this step except continue reading the words that I'm typing to see if anything is worth doing only to find out there's nothing else to do except finish this sentence.

Step 16 - Move your antenna where you think it will probably reside, preferably near a window (if not in the attic or mounted outside). If your house has siding, it really helps the reception if the antenna has a clear path to the window view.

Step 17 - If the coax connected to the antenna is not long enough, connect it to another coax cable using a simple coax connection; most likely a female to female connector pictured below.  This would allow you to connect the antenna's male end to the connector's female end, and connect the extra coax cable's male end to the connector's other female end, leaving the extra coax cable's male end to be screwed into the TV's female end.  Got that?

So simple, yet so necessary.
Step 18 - If you've reached this step, you now have your TV connected to an antenna through its coax connection.  Way to go!

Step 19 - Let's see if the work has paid off.  Turn on your TV.  You probably won't see any picture.  Take a deep breath, things will be okay.

Step 20 - Use your TV's menu and navigate to its area called "channels" or maybe "video".  You're looking for the menu option that will allow you to change the signal that your TV receives.  Again, in my case I searched for channels using TiVo and not my TV.

Step 21 - At the signal screen, change the input or signal to "antenna"; really just about anything other than cable or satellite.

Step 22 - The TV should begin searching for channels or ask you if it may do so.  By all means, let it loose and see what channels the antenna picks up!  The search may take up to 10 minutes while the TV checks area frequencies for OTA stations.  Most TVs will keep a running total of the number of stations picked up during this search.

Industry secret: while the TV searches for channels, improve your chances by saying, "big money, big money, big money, no whammy, stop!"

Step 23 - When the search is finished, change your TV's channel to see if anything comes in.  With any luck you'll have your standard station affiliates for NBC, CBS, FOX, ABC, and PBS.  Larger markets will usually offer another 30 channels.

Step 24 - If you do not receive even half of the "green" channels listed from step 5 or are not satisfied with the found channels, move the antenna to a different location in the room or another room altogether.  You may even try connecting it to a TV on a higher floor near a window just to see if reception is possible with this antenna.  Each time you move the antenna, return to step 16.  If you've tried all rational, reasonable, and legal locations without any luck, you should consider buying a different version of the antenna or upgrading it; then return to step 13.

Step 25 - If you're a picky channel surfer like me, go back to your TV's menu and eliminate stations you don't want.  For example, if you don't know much Spanish, you may want to delete the Spanish-only channels from the rotation.

Step 26 - Congrats!  You now have your familiar network channels and some new ones, all in HD that is clearer than any cable or satellite provider could, well, provide you with.  By all means, call the cable or satellite TV provider and tell them to get lost!  This does not mean you must cut ties with the company's Internet service.  Also, if you'd like to optimize the TV reception throughout your living quarters, don't remove the coax installed to each room just yet.

In future posts, I'll explain how you can see most of your favorite cable TV shows for little cost and how to use one antenna to pull stations for every TV in your house.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

NOTM – Local Man Makes Like Bradley Cooper in “Limitless”

Rockville, MD – On a rainy day off from work, Morris Herlis settled into a caramelized onion brown lounge chair at his local coffee shop. He readied himself with a medium cup of caffeine, cream, and caramel syrup that was much too sweet, as the shop’s folksy-blues-reggae music was just loud enough that he couldn’t quite understand the conversation across the room.

“That guy, Bradley Cooper, in the movie Limitless," Morris said having watched the movie alone last night, "he had serious writer’s block, but with a special drug he wrote a novel in three days."  He went to his own source to score some writer’s block drugs.  And enjoy an egg and cheese croissant. With his laptop plugged in and drugs coursing through his bloodstream, his creative writing outlet was powered.

Bradley Cooper didn't know he was inspiring Morris' epic composition.

"Now I'm ready to do some serious writing," Morris announced.  He brushed his fingers on the touch pad and opened a blank canvas. It stared back and Morris froze. The cursor blinking to his ever accelerating heartbeat. The artist in residence shied away, adjusted his jacket, and took off his shoes. “It’s easier to write with proper lumbar support and non-constricted feet,” he noted.

Ergonomically comfortable, Morris took a few bites of his croissant and washed it down with another concentrated drug hit. “Ya ever try counting the number of ceiling tiles in this place?  It's dizzying”.  He then gazed to the olive green walls with Santa Fe gold accents for inspiration, but an hour after settling into his chair, the screen remained blank.

Of the people in this picture, three of them are distracted from their writing assignments.

“I was just about to get started when a guy asked me to provide security detail for his laptop.” Morris graciously put his writing on hold while a mid-30s man with a shirt from Brooks Brothers and hair suited for the Berkeley Bowl went to the bathroom. "He finally came back two minutes later, but I lost all of my momentum. It’s really difficult to get back in that writing groove I was in before.”

Morris slumped in his chair and titled his head back for clarity.  The ceiling tiles were counted again.

Then the drugs started to work. Morris' head whipped down, his eyes widening, and fingers furiously firing.  The composition he had waited for spewed out quicker than he could type, "Dear Uncle Felix, Thanks for the gift."

He clicked send and left the coffee shop.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

One Way to Help our Struggling Economy

Out of the mouths of every economist on TV and from the fingers of any financial columnist in town, it sure seems like our economy isn't doing so well these days.  I don't understand how our gross domestic product is calculated or the Modigliani–Miller theorem, but financial experts are telling me things are bad so I believe it to be so.

To improve our economy, I think we should look into how our food sources are managed and operated. And by food sources I don't mean the commodities traded in Chicago.  I mean the supermarket checkout experience.  If we improve our cashiers, we improve Wall Street.

At Safeway last night, I was trying to pay for just four items (humus, a cucumber, and two loaves of bread). I had a choice of six staffed checkout lanes and the self-checkout lanes. The self-checkout lanes averaged three people in line which took them out of the running because few consumers have ever been supermarket cashiers and I wasn't willing to watch someone learn the ropes as I did 15 years ago.



Avoid evil looks of incompetence from people behind you; use a real cashier who knows produce lookup (PLU) numbers.

Of the six staffed lanes, only one was an express lane for 15 items or less, but it had six people waiting. Often, the express cashier is one of the better cashiers, but with six people in line and only two waiting in normal checkout lanes, I went with line quantity over cashier quality. I chose a lane without a full conveyor belt and a full cart waiting to be loaded.  I added my items and a minute later, the customer at the front swiped his credit card while the cashier loaded his reusable bags.

At this point I would have been fourth in the express lane at this point.

My cashier began scanning the next family's items, handling them as delicately as you'd expect for a carton of eggs or loaf of bread, but not for the can of Cheez Whiz and box of brownie mix they were buying.  Then the mother thought it'd be okay for their two-year-old to hold the plastic container of cherry tomatoes.  One squeeze and they were on the floor and took away the cashier's attention.  I helped round them up of course; damnit if I'm going to lose to the express line.

After the cashier paused to make funny faces at the baby for a third time, the couple dumped a bunch of coupons on her to scan.  After a misunderstanding of the coupon's terms, the cashier bagged the groceries as though they were Faberge eggs.  Heaven forbid the brownie mix box has a dent.

At this point I would have been next in the express line.


Why are Safeway's cashiers slow when they're not even trusted to count coins?

Finally it was my turn in line.  The loaves of bread and humus scanned easily, but for some reason the cashier took her lazy-swing-in-a-hammock-time punching in PLU 4062 for the cucumber. I swiped my Safeway card, gave her cash, and waited much too long for her to return a 5-dollar bill and bag my four items.  Safeway cashiers don't even have to count coins from their drawers which is why this should be so much faster.  The express lane cashier was already onto her second person after me had I stayed in her lane.

I know that our country's cashiers can do better with just a little more training and desire. In 1996, I did my best to learn how to work the cash register, deal with personal checks, and remember PLU numbers.  I also took pride in packing paper bags with fragile items on top, sound foundations using boxy packages, and the proper weight per bag based on the customer's strength.  Perhaps I only took pride in the work because it paid for my Sour Patch Kids' habit.

To save the economy, I propose that Safeway improve its training to make cashiers more efficient.  More efficient cashiers encourage customers to shop for more items because of a better front end experience; which leads to more money going to the store; which leads to greater food sales; which increases demand for food industry jobs and production; which gives the food industry workforce disposable income to spend on items in other sectors; which increases jobs and product demand in those sectors and their supporting industries; which leads to a continual increase in spending across the economy.

Or maybe I just won't get those two minutes of my life back waiting to checkout at Safeway.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

NOTM: Man's Life Changed 10 Years After College Park Tornado

Rockville, MD - Ten years ago today, a tornado ravaged College Park and the University of Maryland family.  Morris Herlis (MH) was living in his fourth floor apartment at University Courtyard with his roommate when a typical rainstorm came rolling through.  They left their rooms to take in the sights of lightning and sounds of thunder from the safety of their balcony.

That's when the rain started flying sideways and the afternoon sky turned dark.

After Morris' roommate found the wind too strong to make it safely down the exterior stairs, they convened at the kitchen island, holding on while their entire building swayed and creaked.

"Oh yeah I was scared.  I'm glad I went to the bathroom before the storm or it would've been a mess," Morris said over a 32-ounce blueberry Slurpee.  He contacted News of the Minutiae (NOTM) to explain how his life was impacted by the tornado.

Give a man a Slurpee and he'll talk a long time after the brain freeze.

NOTM: What damage did you see after the tornado?

MH: One car was flipped over, another was leaning next to a building.  My car's windows were gone and my other roommate's ceiling had a hole in it.  Lots of other buildings were messed up.  I even had to throw away a gallon of milk.

NOTM: Were you in shock afterward?

MH: Oh yeah, how I viewed my time on this planet was forever altered.

NOTM: Can you tell our readers in what ways?

MH: Well, back then, I had no cell phone.  Without that tornado, I may never have bought one.

Imagine a world before you could play Angry Birds.

NOTM: Did the experience cause you to live life differently?

MH: Oh for sure. Nowadays I double-knot my shoes, sleep with two pillows, and clean the dryer lint trap more frequently.

NOTM: How has your life changed in larger, more meaningful ways?

MH: My life these days is full of inane Twitter updates, empty Google alerts, and inconsequential Facebook statuses.  It was rough back then, we had none of those. 

NOTM: How ever did you survive the change to 2011?

MH: That's what I mean. My life wouldn't have been the same without this tornado. In fact, I no longer use my finger to clean out ear wax; I use cotton swabs.

NOTM: Sounds rough and off-topic. Have you become thankful each day you're alive?

MH: Sure, but only when someone asks me that.

NOTM: Does your level of fear increase when a tornado watch is issued for the DC area?

MH: I take it more seriously, but nowadays I fear losing my iPad, forgetting a 9-iron on the golf course, and fitting into last season's bathing suit.


NOTM: Right. Ok then. Other people volunteer their time after learning how precious it is, but you don't seem to have had such a life affirming experience.

MH: I don't regret it when my day is spent playing PS3 in my boxers, eating Lucky Charms, and drinking root beer. It's a bit cliche when someone says they live every minute to the fullest just because of a life event.  Eventually we all regress to lazy Saturdays.

NOTM: So you're saying that bad stuff happens to everyone and it's often out of your control, but what matters is how you deal with it?

MH: Precisely.  Like when you run out of body wash and improvise with shampoo.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to Stay Cool on Metro

Now that we’re in a three-day cone of thermodynamical torture, here are tips on staying cool while riding Metro. None of these tips will work when you’re on a packed train, but then again, it’s your fault for not waiting all of three minutes for the much emptier train behind it.

1. Stuff your bladder. Guzzle the coldest water you can find before heading into the station to cool your core. If your platform is outside when temperatures are more than 100 degrees and humidity is off the charts, well then, it sucks to be you now doesn’t it?

2. Cannonball run. Find the nearest community pool and do a wicked cannonball splash entry. Now that you’re soaking wet, you’ll be nice and cool for the walk to the station.

Cannonball!!!

3. Find your vents. As indoor stations allow, go as far to the end of the platform as possible and find vents in station sign columns and underneath escalators. The vents should be pumping out cool air. I don’t know if the air is all that clean for your lungs, but it sure feels good. Best of all, broken escalators don’t guarantee broken vents.

4. Gatorade shower. Have two friends follow you around with a Gatorade jug. After you achieve a high score in Angry Birds, have them douse you with it like a football coach. You’ll be sticky, cool, and all sorts of lemon-lime awesome.

Bill Parcells and the 1986 New York Giants knew the secret to sticky coolness.

5. Remain still. While standing next to a vent, it helps if you don’t move. Nothing raises your sweat rate faster than burning calories. Remember, fanning yourself actually makes you warmer...so said “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”!

6. Find that fire hose. Open valves to the Metro station fire hose and douse yourself. Spray water on everyone else too. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it.  The hose should have enough pressure that you don't have to place your thumb on the end to make a stronger stream like your garden hose.

7. Enter the first car. This will be air conditioned because the operator’s in there.  The 2nd car may also be an option because Metro cars are air-conditioned in pairs, but that’s assuming a lot about Metro’s mechanical reliability.

8. Freon immunization. Unhook the Freon tubing from the train and start drinking. If Freon keeps cars, trains, and refrigerators cool, just think what it’ll do for your intestines!

When I want to cool down, I drink dichlorodifluoromethane.

9. Find a seat. Save energy and calories by sitting because it’s easier than standing.  Surely your feet hurt from sitting in a cubicle all day. If you'll be going above ground, pick seats on the side of the train away from the sun.  If there are no seats, then enjoy Metro’s summertime eau de toilette, “Those Without Deodorant”.

9a. Avoid hot thighs.  If two seats are open together, grab the aisle seat and remain there until someone else wants to sit. Then take the window seat whose cushion will be cooler because nobody’s thighs were heating it up in the meantime.  I might be overthinking this.

9b. Back off. Try sitting forward so that your back isn’t pressed to the cushion. This will give it just a little more space to breathe and sweat itself out. Though, if you’re like me, your back sweats in perpetuity no matter what you do. Anybody invented back antiperspirant yet?

10. Pray. Remember that hell will never be as bad as standing armpit-to-armpit in a Metro train that’s stopped above ground for a schedule adjustment in July and August.

This is hell...stuck in a booth with sweaty Dick Vitale at a duke game.

11. Grab some metal. When you’re in an air-conditioned car with metal handlebars, grab any free handlebar space. The bar should be cool to the touch. Better yet, place the bottom of your wrists or entire forearm along a bar to better cool your blood. It’s biology, trust me, I’m a doctor. Keep touching other bars that feel cool, but be sure to shower in Purell when you get home.

12. Drive. Why are you taking Metro when it’s so freakin’ hot outside?! Instead, drive around in a motorized air conditioned metal box. It won’t be cheaper, better for the environment, easier, or safer, but it’s cool.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

NOTM: Man Saves D.C. from Germ Attack

Smithsonian Metro Stop - There are many things that can kill us. Cancer, heart disease, Metro buses, that piece of gum you swallowed as a kid that's still in your stomach, a ninja pummeling you with nunchucks, and germs. Fortunately, Morris Herlis saved the entire DC metro area from one of these silent killers on Tuesday - during his lunch break.

When it's not a typical DC summer day full of high temperatures and humidity, Morris enjoys a gentle walk on the National Mall. On Tuesday, he was walking by a game of pickup ultimate frisbee that's too serious to be called "pickup", when a gust of pollen passed by.

Snot began to drip down the inside of his nose, but Morris' breathed in, his nostrils filling with air in a vain attempt to keep the snot inside. It was too late.  The pollen had opened a faucet of germs begging to get out. Another large intake of air only slowed fate.

Snot drips turn into a snot stream in no time.

"That snot kept on coming and coming. I didn't know my body could make that much stuff. Where was it coming from?" Morris wondered. As much as Morris loved trees for their shade, he despised them for their blossom fornication.

The snot continued to run. Wearing a polo shirt and lacking classy tactfulness to carry tissues, Morris pulled his left forearm, elbow to wrist, along his nose. His reward was a clear sheen coat of aligned hairs.

Morris walked by the Hirshorn Museum toward 12th Street and the Smithsonian Metro station. His snot volcano erupted again. Simple snot rockets would not suffice because there was no solid material to be found in this liquid waterfall. Morris used the only wiping surface he had left and decimated his right forearm hairs in a flood of snot.

Toilet paper, it's not just for wiping yourself anymore.

After another inhale to pull snot back inside, Morris was toast. His body wanted the snot out quickly. With many tourists wandering from one air conditioned museum to the other, the Mall was plenty full. Morris did not want to infect all of them, yet he could not keep up with the cubic centimeters of microbes that just had to rush out of his body.

"The dam in my sinus cavity broke. Nasty stuff and lots of it were on their way out." With a convulsion and jerk of the head, Morris unleashed back-to-back germ torrents destined to infect, annoy, and disgust hundreds of people.

But on this day, Morris did not act the fool. He acted in good conscious of his fellow citizen. He pulled his right arm to his face and sneezed into the space between his forearm and bicep.

Just don't put your arm around someone after.

Though his arm was now engrossed in gross fluids, he saved DC from his germ attack. Proud of his kindness, he entered the Metro station with a bounce in his step, ready to ride back to the office.

He boarded a near empty Metro train that became standing room only just two stops later at Metro Center. There he found himself rubbing shoulders with other passengers and exchanging germs on handrails. A woman's perfume tickled his olfactory system, but he did not have enough space to capture the sneeze carnage in his left arm. Milliseconds after it flew out of him, he felt the weight of other passengers' eyes, glaring at him and his germ containment failure. If only they knew his story.