Monday, April 16, 2018

Cutting The Cord (Part 4) - One Month Later ... Lower Costs and ZERO Regrets!

Here is Part 4 of our adventures as we Cut The Cord!

We are of the belief that our TV programming costs could not be maintained into retirement.  Almost $125 each month is way too much to pay if we intend to do other things besides watching television in our old age!  It is time for a change ... how close to FREE can we get?

After selecting our hardware (Roku) and our paid streaming services (CBS All Access, Hulu, and Philo) we tested everything and around the middle of March, 2018, cancelled our DirecTV service.  I disconnected the satellite boxes and packed them away.

One month after the cut ... This is nice!

The most serious problem we encountered after the cut involved the lovely Miss Mindy and our two remote control devices.  With cable or satellite, the remote that ran the "box" also handled the television set.  One remote, easily mastered, brainless, and painless.  
Not so with Roku ... two remotes were needed, one for the TV and one for the Roku.  By the second hour of the first day after shutting off DirecTV, she was frustrated with trying to keep track of which remote she needed to perform a certain function.  I needed to jump in and save the experiment before she demanded the satellite back!  A quick trip to WalMart the next day took care of that pesky remote challenge!

For less than $10, the problem was solved with the universal remote pictured on the left.  This control worked right out of the package for the Roku, and only took one code entry to have the Visio TV setup correctly!  This control now resides by Mindy's chair, while the original Roku and Visio remotes are at my fingertips.  Easy fix!

It did take us both a few days to master our new viewing regimen.  We had to remember which service we use to watch a particular program. We also had to remember what new programs were available to us on what nights ... a bit confusing to say the least!

We Had Become Slaves to the List!

One thing that I quickly realized was how much we had become dependent on the DirecTV "List" feature.  Pushing a button on the remote brought up a list of all programs that had been recorded, stored on the satellite box, and were available to view.  Selecting a program from the list launched it for our enjoyment.  It became the method by which we chose our programs ... if it was on the list, it had to be watched!  If we fell too many episodes behind (like General Hospital after a two-week vacation in Florida) it had to be binge-watched ... after all, we can't get too far behind!!!  OMG - we're behind!!!  Of course, my dear bride (with a few OCD tendencies) could not handle being too far behind on viewing recorded TV shows!  

Stress is not something that should be happening when you are watching television with your wife!

While we were enjoying the lack of  list-induced stress, we soon realized that we no longer had much guidance (or even knowledge) about what to watch!  It became quickly apparent that we had to replace "the list" if we were ever to know how to watch TV ever again!  Thank goodness for an old standby:  TV Guide.

I remember TV Guide from back in the '60s ... a small booklet sold in the supermarket checkout line that had all of our locally available TV listings.  Over the years, and with the move to cable and satellite packages, the magazine that we grew up with changed.  It is now a bi-weekly publication, focused more on articles about television rather than detailed listings of every show on every channel.  The modern-day on-line edition (www.tvguide.com) is actually owned by CBS.

I signed up for a free account, specified my favorite shows, and now receive almost daily emails from TV Guide informing me of new episodes and current events pertaining to those favorite shows.  I have my email set up to automatically forward those emails to Mindy ... now we know what to watch, and when to watch it!

Immediate $avings!

Shortly after the first of the month, I went online to my bank website to make sure that DirecTV had, in fact, cancelled my automatic payment.  They did!  Over the next two weeks, our three paid services made their scheduled debits for a total of $37.98.  I also received a $24.33 refund from DirecTV by way of a pre-paid MasterCard for the partial month cancelled.  If I add in the one-time hardware costs of two Roku boxes (living room and bedroom) and a remote control (just under $70 total) I'm still almost $20 ahead in the first month!  From hereafter my savings will be about $86 each and every month!

Could We Get Closer to Free?

Yes ... we could have made it all the way to "Free TV" even without the availability of over-the-air broadcast channels ... but it would have come at a cost to our enjoyment level.  If we were totally broke, living on a fixed income, or otherwise unable to pay the $37.98 then yes, we would live with "Free".  However, our desire to be only a day or two behind in viewing and be able to skip commercials is well worth the price we are now paying.

If we had access to free over-the-air programming, an OTA DVR such as Tablo (about $250 and up) would allow us to record shows from our antenna for later playback over our local WiFi network.  "Cable" channels would still have to come from a streaming service such as Philo.

So What Are We Missing?

Nothing, really ... except Red Sox Baseball (and other sports programming.)  For some, this would be a deal-breaker.  NESN (which carries all Red Sox and Bruins games, except nationally-televised games) is available (along with other sports-themed networks like ESPN or FS1) with a subscription to either fuboTV or You Tube TV, for about $40 per month.  Play Station Vue also carries NESN for about $45 per month.  The nice thing about streaming services is the no-contract provision, so if the Sox are in a tight pennant race in August, I just might sign up for a month or two and cancel afterward!

In the meantime, I purchased a season-long subscription ($19.95) to Gameday Audio, MLB's streaming audio service.  I can listen to the radio broadcast of every MLB game (without blackout restrictions) and select from either team's broadcast along with the Spanish language broadcasts if desired.  Looking back to the days of my youth, many a ballgame was spent with my Grandfather listening to the Red Sox on radio ... and we enjoyed each and every game that we listened to together!

MLB-TV also has a free app on Roku, that features one "free" game every day along with video highlights from every other game - all available without subscription.  A "condensed" game is also replayed about 90 minutes after the game is over via the MLB team websites.  So, I can listen to games on Gameday, and see every exciting play afterward on my computer.

What Pleasures Have We Discovered?

Without the pressures of "The List" we are enjoying a more relaxed approach to our TV viewing.  On some of the free Roku content (Baby Boomer TV and the Roku Channel) we are watching some of the old shows of our youth.  CBS All Access has some shows from the more recent past that Mindy is enjoying, since she missed the first several seasons of some of them.  Now that I have DIY, Texas Flip and Move and Barnwood Builders get regular views from me as well.  More importantly, we're not tied to a list, but rather are enjoying the browse through the programming forest without haste or anxiety.  TV seems more fun ... and I still don't have to fuss with an antenna!

Our content comes via the Internet; therefore, wherever we have access to the "web" we have access to our programming.  Our Android phones, Mindy's Kindle, and my iPad have now become truly portable TV sets.  When we visit my mother in Florida, we plan on bringing a Roku with us so we can keep up with our favorite shows.  A two-hour airport layover may become more enjoyable without the need for overpriced adult beverages at the terminal lounge!

Cutting the cord also made me take a look at other entertainment costs that could be saved.  For years I have had a subscription to XM radio in my car.  This dates back to when I was traveling quite a bit and playing music several nights a week.  My XM listening is down to just a couple of talk shows and the occasional "classic old-time radio" show or two.  A 99-cent app for my smart phone lets me download free public-domain radio shows from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, while free apps let me download favorite talk show content on-demand.  As of today I have cancelled my $220 per year XM radio habit!

Now if I can only find a suitable replacement for the daily newspaper ...

Some Amazing Math ...

$86 per month saved on television, and $19 saved on XM radio, for a total of $105 saved every month.  If I invest that savings each month in good quality growth-stock mutual funds with 12% annual track record, I will have $45,370 in my investment account after 15 years.  Ok, maybe a bit too risky for some of you, but that same calculation at 8% (the average rate of return for the stock market) still produces a balance of $38,940 after 15 years!

I guess I do have one regret after all ... we should have done this years ago!




Saturday, April 7, 2018

Cutting The Cord (Part 3) - An Unbelievably Bad Customer Service Experience!

Here is Part 3 of our adventures as we Cut The Cord!

We are of the belief that present costs of TV programming cannot be maintained into retirement.  Almost $125 each month is way too much to pay if we intend to do other things besides watching television in our old age!  It is time for a change ... how close to FREE can we get?

Plan your work ... and work your plan!

Taking the list of programs and channels, we looked at various service packages to see what we could find that would suit our watching needs at the lowest possible cost.  We settled on a combination of three paid services, along with several additional free streams.  All of the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) offer some form of free on-demand streaming.  The drawback, however, is that the shows are not available on the network stream until several days after the air date.  If you are one who absolutely must know who gets voted off the island before you go to bed, free streams are not for you!  But, if you don't mind waiting up to a week to view the latest episodes of your favorite shows, free is not a bad price!  Of course, if you live in an area with good over-the-air broadcast signals you can always watch live broadcast TV . . . just like we all did back in 1965!

One common feature of streaming services is a free trial period.  When you sign up, you will need to provide a debit or credit card number for billing.  Most services offer a seven-day free trial (Hulu offers the first month free) and do not bill your card until after the trial is up.  These are all no-contract services; as long as you cancel prior to the next billing date there is no additional payment required.

If you (like us) cannot receive broadcast TV signals, some form of live stream will be needed if you wish to stay up-to-the-minute with the latest Bachelor or Bachelorette.  Live stream packages generally cost around $40 per month, and offer about 50 channels.  If you want to record shows to watch later, some of the packages offer DVR service as well.  Since we were rarely watching live TV, we did not feel we would be missing anything if we no longer had it.

Here are the packages we chose:

1.  Hulu

Hulu is one of the early pioneers of television streaming, and offers a well-rounded package of programming from most of the major networks, both broadcast and cable/satellite.  New episodes of ABC, NBC, and Fox shows are available 24-48 hours after broadcast.  A basic subscription costs $7.99 per month, with an optional commercial-free version for $11.99.  The service is easy to use and navigate, and allows you to build a list of regularly-watched shows for easy selection.  It keeps track of which episodes you have already viewed, and will even remember where you were if you stop watching in the middle of a program.  One major drawback, however, is the lack of CBS programming.  Along with that, many of our regularly watched cable network shows (like Alaska, The Last Frontier) are as many as two SEASONS behind!

2.  CBS All Access

Instead of selling content to services like Hulu, CBS has taken the bold step of selling content directly to the viewer.  I like that idea!  For $5.99 a month, CBS All Access gives you next-day access to all new shows, along with on-demand access to a vast library of CBS content.  If that wasn't enough, they also give live access to the "local" CBS affiliate, which in our case is WGME/Portland, ME.  So, in case of major news or weather events we are still able to watch at least one real, honest-to-goodness live television channel!  Like Hulu, CBS also offers a commercial-free option for $9.99.

3.  Philo

Philo is an interesting player in the streaming-content arena.  They offer live-streaming along with the ability to save programs (almost like a DVR, only different!) for later viewing.  Their service, at $16 per month, is substantially lower than other live-stream services.  The reason for the low cost is because Philo does not carry the four broadcast networks or sports programming.  (Those are the channels that cost the most!)  We rely on it to provide content from A&E, Food Network, Discovery Channel, History, HGTV, DIY, and several others.

With those three services we replaced all of our regularly-watched content, with the exception of Red Sox Baseball on NESN, for a cost of only $37.98 per month, down from our monthly satellite cost of about $125/mo for a savings just shy of 60%!  After a few days of watching both streaming and satellite (and proving to Mindy that she wasn't going to miss any of her favorite shows) we were ready to make the cut!

The. Worst. Customer. Service. Experience. Ever.

I am a fan of The Dave Ramsey Show, a nationally-syndicated radio talk show that focuses on eliminating debt and building wealth for retirement.  Dave tells his callers that they are on the right track when they follow his advice and their broke friends think they're crazy!  Cutting the cord can bring about a similar reaction from friends and family ... but I never expected the treatment I received when I called my satellite provider to give them the news!

When I started writing this story at the beginning of our journey, I purposely did not identify my now former provider by name.  I was not mad at them in any way, but was only looking to see if I could save money on programming costs.  I did not identify them out of respect for the service they provided to me for the past five years, along with my intent that if I ever returned to satellite content they would be at the top of my list.  Sad that a simple phone call to DirecTV would change that!

I called DirecTV late one afternoon in the middle of March.  I navigated their phone menu, and was quickly connected to a Customer Service representative.  I don't actually recall his name, but let's call him "Bubba."  Bubba was from the south, and spoke in a very polite manner.  He asked for my account  number and how he could help.  I told him that I wanted to discontinue my service.  Bubba, the ever friendly and helpful salesman, started addressing me by my legal first name.  (Those who truly know me know that I prefer not to be called by that first name that appears on my birth certificate, driver's license, passport, and other legal documents.)

"So, Lloyd, just so I get this right, you want to discontinue your DirectTV service ... is that correct?"

"Yes, and please call me Brad.  All my friends call me Brad," I said.

"Ok, Lloyd, can you tell me why you want to discontinue today?" he said, obviously not listening well.  "If I may, I'd like to see what DirecTV can do to keep you as a customer."

"You can start by calling me Brad, I replied.  "It is simply a matter of cost.  I am at a point where I need to spend less money each month, and I am replacing the satellite content with streaming video."

"Well, Lloyd, if we can save you money on your monthly bill would you be interested in staying with us?  I'm sure I can do something for you."

"No, I'm really not interested.  I just want to disconnect my service."

Bubba continued his sales pitch, insisting that if I could just give him a minute or two he wanted to check to see what they could do to keep me.  Bubba started asking about the weather in New Hampshire, and told me he was in Georgia.  After a minute of polite chit-chat, he said "Lloyd, I think we can save you a lot of money.  How does $69.95 a month sound?  Can I sign you up for that?  Of course, Lloyd, that would be with a two-year service agreement so we can guarantee that low price for the next two years."

"Um, no ... please just cancel my service."

He kept on pushing and trying to close the sale.  In frustration, I made the mistake of telling him that I would be paying around $37 a month for streaming services.  He then came back with the amazing low price of only $27 per month for satellite!  His tone of voice and attitude changed as I persisted in telling him "NO".  Gone was the polite attitude.  He finally stopped calling me Lloyd.  He started yelling at me and demanded to know why I wouldn't keep DirecTV for only $27 a month.  I had finally reached my limit, and asked to speak with his supervisor.  He kept right on pushing until I finally screamed, "SUPERVISOR!  NOW!"

"Mr. Bradford, you want to speak with my supervisor?  Is that correct?" he asked.  "I don't think that is neccessary."

"SUPERVISOR!" I exclaimed. "RIGHT NOW!"

The phone went silent for a few seconds.  I thought Bubba may have hung up on me.  Finally I heard a much quieter voice asking "If I can be allowed to disconnect your service, will you allow me to do that without involving my supervisor?  Please?"

It really shouldn't be that hard!

Join us next time for Part 4 as we discover some pleasant side-effects from cord cutting ... along with the start of baseball season and no Red Sox on TV!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Cutting The Cord (Part 2) - Simply Complicated!

Here is Part 2 of our adventures as we Cut The Cord!

We are of the belief that present costs of TV programming cannot be maintained into retirement.  Almost $125 each month is way too much to pay if we intend to do other things besides watching television in our old age!  It is time for a change ... how close to FREE can we get?

Our Watching Habits Changed Over Time

Both my satellite provider and the cable company have been bombarding us with junk mail recently, offering Internet-based streaming services with no contracts and prices as low as $21.95 a month for a limited channel offering of live programming from all the major networks and several popular cable channels.  Could a streaming service, coupled with a "Smart" TV or other device, be the answer?

Checking into it a little further, I found a major drawback to these offerings:  no DVR service is presently available with these packages, and DVR is a must-have for our television lifestyle!  (I have learned that my satellite provider has a DVR in beta testing, but I don't know when or if it will be available and how much of an extra premium it will be.)

Lack of DVR ability made me stop and realize how much our television watching habits have changed over the years.  Mindy's job at the hospital requires her to work various shifts and schedules; my self-employment and music gigs can also compound our "together time" in front of the "boob tube."  We never watch live TV anymore ... everything is "taped" using the DVR function of the cable or satellite box!  ("Taped" - isn't it funny how outdated legacy words continue to be used in language!)  Depending on our schedules, we may spend around two and a half hours each day watching television programming, all of it pre-recorded.  We could watch as many as five shows in one evening.  And lets not forget our regular favorite, General Hospital!

Each hour of modern television contains about 15 minutes of advertising content.  By fast-forwarding through the commercials we are able to watch a one-hour show in 45 minutes, or a half-hour show in about 22 minutes.  Mindy hates commercials (I sometimes watch them when I am watching TV by myself) and prefers not to watch live TV because of them.  Therefore, all we tend to watch is recorded content, except in the case of a sporting event or breaking news.  We usually don't watch today's shows until at least tomorrow or the next day, and always have something of interest recorded so we never experience "there's nothing on right now" syndrome.

Occasionally, though, we do want to watch today's episode of certain shows.  When we do, we just delay watching it for at least 10 minutes for a half-hour show or 15 minutes for an hour-long program.  We then start watching the recording and are still able to zip through the commercials!  We even have a term for that ability ... we call it "gas!"  Sometimes, if we start watching too soon we will catch up with the live feed and "damn it, we're out of gas" is the usual expression!  We then pause the program, take a bathroom break, grab a piece of fruit or other snack, and return to the show with enough "gas" to get us through the commercial stop set, and hopefully the next one as well!

We schedule our recordings so that favorite series record automatically.  When we see an ad for a special show or event, we manually set that to record and never have to worry about missing a show we want to watch.

Analyze Your Watching Habits To Identify Your Needs

Since we watch almost every program as a digital recording, live TV is not at the top of our requirements list.  Live shows need to be watched on the network's schedule, not your own.  Get scheduled to work on Thursday evening and you're going to miss Grey's Anatomy.  And what about when two different shows air at the same time?  We need to be able to record shows for playback later.  The only time we actually watch live TV is during a major news event, and of course during baseball season when the Red Sox game, if not watched live, is checked every half hour or so for the score!

Most of our regularly-watched shows are on a small handful of networks.  We record shows from CBS, ABC, FOX, HGTV, History, CMT, and Discovery.  Mindy likes horror movies from SyFy and "chick flicks" from Lifetime.  I also like programming from DIY but have never had it available on our cable or satellite packages except for "free preview" promotions.

With the exception of my beloved Red Sox, I watch very little in the way of sports programming.

We started our process by making a list of every show that we regularly record, and the network or cable channel that it airs on.  This list proved to be very useful in selecting which streaming services we needed.

If you are one that can't live without sports programming, streaming packages that include national and/or regional sports networks will be required, and will add to the monthly cost of programming.

Take A Test Drive Before You Cut

Before cutting the cord, you should familiarize yourself with the streaming process and how it changes your personal interface with the television set.  In my case, my 18-month-old Visio TV has built-in WiFi, and came with some streaming service apps installed.  Since Hulu was a service I was familiar with (I had a free account years ago) I gave that a try.  I logged in using my old account credentials, and was surprised that they still worked!  I was given the opportunity to start a free 30-day trial, with the ability to cancel service anytime before the month was up.  So it began!

I was immediately impressed with how easy it was to navigate the Hulu app.  Not as easy as turning a rotary dial on a 1965 set, nor as easy as selecting the guide button on the satellite remote and choosing a program, but fairly easy none the less.  If you are accustomed to the look and feel of smartphone or tablet apps you will feel right at home.
My biggest amazement (after the overall program selection) was the quality of the picture and sound.  It was every bit as good as any digital HD obtained from either my former cable or present satellite provider!

One key to high-quality streaming is your Internet connection.  HD video requires at minimum a 3Mbps download stream, which some older phone company DSL lines cannot provide.  My cable-based Internet service, at 20Mbps, proved to be more than adequate for this task!

Invest In A Streaming Device

Although my TV has built-in Internet capability and apps, they are limited and are not easily added to or upgraded.  Streaming devices, on the other hand, provide the interface between the Internet and the TV, and are regularly updated by the device manufacturer.  New apps are easily added from within the device's built-in interface.

Streaming devices are available from Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, Amazon Fire Stick, and others.  I chose Roku, which is available (March 2018) from WalMart starting at $29.00 and is a strong basic device.  Apple TV, at $149, also comes with the inherent connectivity to all Apple i-devices.

All streaming devices use HDMI (High Definition Multimedia Interface) connections to your HD television set.  If you have an older set that does not support HDMI, the Roku Express+ supports composite video, but none of them support direct "antenna" connections.  If your TV is that old, you should consider upgrading before cutting the cord!

I chose a Roku Express, the lowest-price option, available at Wal-Mart, for $29.  I am favorably impressed! 


Stay tuned for the next installment, as we actually cut the cord and have a really bad Customer Service experience!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Cutting The Cord (Part 1) - Free TV and Rising Cable Costs

With retirement on the horizon, we want to explore ways of reducing our living expenses so we can spend winters in a warm place and not be stuck in the frozen northeast for all nine months of winter!  This is part one of a multi-part blog documenting our journey back to television service that won't break the bank or wreck the budget!  Join Mindy and me as we "Cut The Cord!"

Free TV - How It Used To Be

Television used to be free, and some claim its value was exactly equal to its price!  Growing up in the 1960s, my television experience consisted of a black-and-white picture, low fidelity monaural sound, and three channels to chose from.  The remote was my sister, on those occasions when I could convince her to get up off the couch, walk across the living room, and change the channel or adjust the volume for me!  Three broadcast networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC provided 100% of the content.  (A fourth network, DuMont, was the first television network launched in 1946, but failed in the mid '50s and finally went off the air in 1956.)  Independent stations that had no network affiliation, and non-commercial educational channels (which would become PBS) were only found in urban markets; they generally did not broadcast with as much power as the "network" stations did.

The best part about those three-network days, however, was the cost.  Television was totally FREE back then, that is, once you purchased a television set, put up an antenna, and committed to improving and maintaining it!  My father was always trying to find ways to make our picture clearer with less "snow" and reduced static in the sound.  Buying newer and bigger antennas, or adding another six feet to the pole to raise it higher were constant events in the Bradford household!  The signal was delivered from the antenna to the TV by way of special un-shielded 300-ohm wire.  Antenna wire was flat with two conductors spaced about a half-inch apart, and was responsible for over half of the signal loss and interference failures experienced back then!

Obtaining (and maintaining) high-quality reception was almost a full-time hobby for my father and me back then!  It seems we were always adding or fixing something on the antenna and wires, all for the sake of receiving the essential three television channels that we watched on our old B&W set.

About 1966, my father added another piece to our maintenance challenge, a rotor system which could turn the antenna and orient it to obtain the strongest signal from the broadcast tower.  A control box sitting on top of the TV was used to point the antenna to the desired compass direction.  At that time we were living in Norwich, CT and received our TV signals from three different cities.  The ABC station, channel 8, was from New Haven.  The CBS station, channel 3, was from Hartford.  Our NBC programs came from Providence, RI, on channel 10.  Changing channels on the TV tuner also required turning a dial on the rotor control box which sent power to a motor mounted on the antenna mast which in turn pointed the antenna to the correct city.  It could take as much as a full minute to rotate the antenna from one direction to another, with the control box making a loud "hum-click" sound every two seconds or so while the antenna was rotating!


Pay TV - Changes On The Horizon

There was this thing coming along back then that people called "Pay TV," and according to an article in the newspaper, it was soon going to be available in Norwich!  CATV (Community Antenna TV) was envisioned as a way for people who lived outside of urban areas to share common antennas (located high on nearby mountains or hills) and therefore enjoy better reception.  Shielded cable was used to deliver the amplified signals to subscriber's homes, and the cost would be shared among the subscribers.  My father said Pay TV was wrong and that he would never pay for something that we could obtain for free!

Once we moved to northern New Hampshire in 1970, however, things changed! With only two stations available over the air (one a very weak CBS signal from Burlington, VT, and the other the Mount Washington based ABC affiliate, WMTW) my mother put her foot down and decided we were going to have cable TV!  The days of putting up antennas and maintaining them were over!

We were then enjoying ten channels (three of them from Canada with one in French) and the clearest, most interference-free picture we ever saw!  Changing channels was so easy ... all we had to do was get up and turn the tuner dial!  No more noisy rotor box!  If I remember correctly, the monthly charge from Paper City TV Cable at that time was well under five dollars. Quite a deal by today's standards!

For the first few years of my married life I was living in the Boston, MA television market with several over-the-air channels available.  After my Army service I returned to Lancaster, still with only two broadcast channels available.  A year or so later Kim (my wife at that time) insisted that we get cable so she and our two young sons would have more entertainment during the day.  We paid about $7 a month for 12 channels.  TV was entirely analog in those days, and 12 channels was the limit for the old VHF (2-13) broadcast band.  Soon the local cable company was purchased by Warner Bros. and started offering more channels by using a set-top tuner box.  The TV was tuned to channel 3, and a dial on the box was used to select the desired cable channel.  "Basic" cable was still available, but for just a few dollars more the new enhanced cable became the up and coming thing.  Special cable-only channels like CNN and MTV, along with "Superstations" and more made basic cable seem so ordinary!  Extra cost movie channels were also available that brought recent theater presentations into our living rooms and would add several dollars to the monthly fee.


Sky High and Climbing


As years progressed, cable TV channel offerings continued to grow, along with the monthly charge!  According to a report issued by the FCC in October, 2016, a study conducted between 1995 and 2015 shows that the average prices charged for various cable packages has risen at over twice the rate of inflation!  In 1999 I was paying $33.01 a month for cable.  In 2010, when I switched from analog cable to digital service (with phone and Internet) it was up to $58.07  After the programming portion of the combined package rose to over $100 in 2013 I switched to a satellite provider at $61.99 per month.  Now, five years later in 2018 that same TV package is costing us $123.82 each month.

Television has become our fourth-largest monthly household operating expense, after groceries, heating fuel, and electricity.  Just think ... it used to be less than $10 a month!

Living where we do in northern New Hampshire, we no longer have over-the-air options.  WMTW (Portland, ME) stopped broadcasting from the top of Mount Washington in 2002 in preparation for digital broadcasting.  WCAX's digital signal is not watchable this far away from Burlington, VT.  An analog repeater station 20 miles away in Littleton, NH provides NH PBS programming for that community, but terrain issues make reception impossible here.  Broadcast TV is simply not an option in Lancaster!

We'll be back (after station identification) with Part 2 of our adventure as we Cut The Cord!



Saturday, December 12, 2015

Windows 10 - Did Microsoft actually get this one right?

I received a phone call from one of my clients back in August.  It seems she upgraded her computer to Windows 10 and could no longer find her way around the system, couldn't find her desktop shortcuts, and could not get her email to work.  While I had been involved with a beta test of W10 with one of my other clients, I had not yet sat down to use Microsoft's latest Windows version, let alone provide client support! I scheduled an on-site visit to help her straighten things out.

All-in-all I was favorably impressed.  Microsoft's upgrade practically installed itself on this 70-something grandmother's PC with hardly more than a click or two required on her end.  Her biggest problem came in not knowing how to navigate the new interface without a few tips from her helpful tech support guy, me!

One week ago, I finally got around to installing Microsoft's free Windows 10 upgrade on one of my Windows 7 Professional computers so I can give click-by-click client support when the need arises.  Personally, I have never felt the need to upgrade immediately to the "latest and greatest" if the "tried and true" was still doing the job properly.  Experience has taught me that waiting for the price to come down on the latest PC configuration or waiting for "bug fixes" or service packs on software was well worth it in both cost and aggravation savings!

Seven days into the experience and I must admit that I like the look and feel of W10.  Yes, there are a few things that I don't like, but so far none of them are deal breakers.  The interface is smooth and intuitive.  The subdued color schemes calm my ADD-riddled brain.  The inherently slow-as-death (by today's standards) PC that I am using (Pentium Core2 1.8GHz processor, 4GB RAM) seems to respond a tad faster than it did under Windows 7.  Best of all, the programs that were installed prior to the update are still there and working flawlessly under W10.

The actual upgrade process was relatively easy.  Clicking the "Get Windows 10" icon in the system tray area of the task bar starts the process.  This icon will appear automatically on Windows 7 or 8 computers that are up-to-date with Microsoft Updates and whose hardware is compatible with Windows 10.  (This only applies to computers that are not part of a "domain" network.  If your PC belongs to a domain it must be updated manually.)  You are given the choice of updating now or just downloading the update and installing it later.  Make this choice carefully - once the update starts it cannot be stopped and will take one hour or more depending upon your Internet connection speed.

In my case, the download and installation took about one and a half hours.  The system restarted at various points in the upgrade without any intervention on my part.  (There is nothing that wastes more time than an upgrade that requires a manual reboot before continuing to the next step!)  Once completed, I had a working Windows 10 computer, but I was not pleased!  My desktop and documents were nowhere to be found!  This PC was configured for several different users, but is usually logged-in as a user named "server," since it  hosts some shared folders and backup services for my network.  While I could find the upgraded user folders for every other user, the "server" files were missing!  I started going through the process of rebuilding the desktop and reinstalling software, mildly cursing Microsoft for losing my stuff, when I needed to restart the computer to complete an install.  After the reboot, the login screen listed the four users that were originally on the machine prior to the upgrade . . . so I clicked on "server" . . . and my previous Windows 7 desktop appeared.  My documents were back, and everything was right with the world!  What happened?

I recalled that the first time W10 came up at the end of the upgrade, there was no choice of user given.  I assumed that it came up as the same user it was using at the start of the upgrade in Windows 7.

Don't assume anything!  Restart one more time after the upgrade finishes if you have things missing!

I spent the rest of my spare time last weekend learning more about the features of Windows 10 and getting comfortable with the new look and feel.  For those who liked Windows 8 or 8.1 you will still find "apps" and "tiles" that work the same as they did in 8.  For those who could not function without a "Start" button (like me) you will find the W10 icon at the far left of the task bar works very much like the Start button, with a handy alternate menu for administrative tasks if you right-click it.

Of course, there are some big changes with Microsoft's new browser, Edge, embedded in W10 like spots on a dalmatian.  (Don't worry, you can still use IE, Firefox, Chrome, or "whatever" as your default browser!)  My jury is still out on Edge . . . perhaps that will be a subject for a future blog!

In the meantime . . . if you feel the need to upgrade you probably can . . . as long as you are not on a domain network or are using old software that may not work under W10.  (Check with your software vendors first to ensure compatibility!)  Feel free to email me if you have questions or need help feel free to shoot me an email: brad(at)bbays.com.

Peace!


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Nana's Cast Iron Dutch Oven

I'm getting a little bit away from my usual Information Technology blog, but this is about technology of a different sort.  Technology that brought us from the days of Adam and Eve all the way to today.  I'm talking about a special technology called "cooking" . . .

Those who cook (and generally love to eat what is cooked) are a special breed.  While some cook (and eat) to live, others live to cook (and eat); I certainly fall into the latter category!  I love nothing more than to share cooking techniques and recipes with other like-minded souls.  Most "foodies" are always looking for the next "new recipe" or latest cooking technique.  I, on the other hand, have been searching to find a flavor from my youth . . . a taste of a bygone era.  I speak of my Grandmother Robinson's chuck roast and her incredibly rich, dark gravy - so tasty when served on the meat, potatoes, and of course, her homemade bread!

One thing that I learned years ago is how important a piece of cookware can be to the outcome of a recipe.  In the case of Nana's roast, her cookware of choice was an old cast iron Dutch Oven.  I don't know when she acquired it, but I can only guess that it has been around long enough to feed my mother and her five siblings as they grew up on Cascade Hill in Gorham, New Hampshire between the two World Wars.  My mother said Nana used her Dutch Oven on top of the stove.  From my youth, I remember an old, black, pot but I never really paid much attention to the details at that young age . . . besides, Nana didn't allow too many people into her kitchen when she was cooking, and I never dared to ask questions!  As close as I ever got was at our family's lake cottage, when I would sit on the stairs overlooking the kitchen, watch her cook, and smell the goodness.

Mother told me that she believed the old Dutch Oven was still at the lake cottage where it had been since her passing in 1973.  I asked my Uncle Barney, the present owner of  "Camp" and youngest of my mother's siblings, if he knew where the old Dutch Oven was.  He told me he wasn't sure, but I was welcome to take a look around the camp (both downstairs and up) and see what I could find.  Sure enough, in the cupboard next to where she kept her flour tin and bread board I found it - her Dutch Oven!  I asked my dear Uncle if I could borrow it, to try to re-create her chuck roast and gravy.  He took it one step further and told me that I could have it!  Needless to say, I didn't argue the point!

At some point, the pot had been placed into a plastic grocery bag and tied tight.  The exterior was in beautiful shape, but sadly, the interior bottom was showing some light rust.  I did something I have never done with cast iron cookware . . . I used a steel-wool soap pad and scrubbed the heck out of the bottom!  After I cleaned up the rust, there was a little mild pitting left behind.  I used some 400-grit wet sandpaper to polish out the pitting.  This was followed by a good wash, a coating of shortening, and an hour in a  350-degree oven to re-season the bottom of the pot.  With fingers crossed, I was now ready to try it out!



I decided that the first thing I would cook in Nana's oven would be braised boneless beef short ribs.  This is a dish that I cook regularly (in the oven) and would be a good control to compare the outcome using the Dutch Oven on the stovetop.  Also, the fact that our local supermarket, Shaw's, had the beef on sale this week (buy one, get one free) for a net price of $3.99 per pound!  That didn't hurt my decision-making process one bit!


I started by browning the beef in two tablespoons of shortening melted in the bottom of the pan.  They browned beautifully with absolutely no sticking!  (Yes, my re-seasoning was a success!)  I flavored the beef with salt and pepper and added garlic, chopped onions, celery, carrots, rosemary, and bay leaf to the pot. 


Once the beef was browned, I added one can of beef stock, turned the heat down, and put the lid on.  I lifted the lid to check it after about fifteen minutes.  The meat was simmering nicely, and I noticed an aroma that I haven't experienced in over forty years . . . this pot of short ribs already smelled like Nana's gravy!  Two hours later, I had some white rice ready along with some fresh broccoli that I stir-fried with some olive oil and soy sauce.


I removed the meat and carrots/celery from the pot, and added some freshly-chopped mushrooms.  I brought the pot back to a slow boil for a few minutes to cook the mushrooms.  I put 1/4 cup King Arthur flour (Nana always used King Arthur flour!) and 1/2 cup cold water into a shaker jar, shook it up well, and added it to the stock and mushroom mixture.  I added a little pepper and salt to taste.  Plating was simple and basic - some rice, broccoli, meat, and of course, gravy . . . along with a glass of cold buttermilk!


Mindy mentioned that this was the best tasting gravy that I had ever made.  While it didn't taste exactly like Nana's gravy, it did have a different character and richness of taste than when I make this dish in the oven using a covered enamel roasting pan.  A good meal was enjoyed by all!


So, I guess the next step is to buy about $20 worth of seven-bone chuck roast and really give this thing a workout!  Stay tuned!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Scam - Beware of Phone Call from "Windows Support"

Over the past few weeks I have received several phone calls from individuals claiming to be from Microsoft, Windows Company, or Windows Support.  The Indian-accented voice addresses me by name and asks if I am the main user of my computer.  I have responded in many ways . . . getting angry, replying to them in Spanish, and lately, letting them speak for a minute and then using my handy-dandy duck call to give them a splitting headache!

Why would I be so rude to someone who is only trying to help?  That answer lies in the fact that these friendly folk are only trying to make their way into my pocketbook by way of my computer!  These dudes don't work for Microsoft, Windows, or any other legitimate company.  (Believe me, Microsoft has a hard time responding to incoming support requests, let alone having time to initiate outgoing calls!)

They start by asking how you are doing, and how well you are enjoying your computer.  They then tell you that they have scanned your computer and have discovered "viruses" on your computer that need to be removed.  To "prove" the existence of viruses, they talk you through viewing your computer's event log and count how many red and yellow-flagged item there are.  They then tell you that these items are from viruses and are responsible for slowing down your computer.  Fact is, any Windows computer in use for any length of time will log some critical errors and experience some slowdowns.  They then guide you through viewing the msconfig window.  One of the tabs will show all the processes installed on the computer from Microsoft and other software vendors.  They ask you to see how many processes are turned off, and use this a "proof" that viruses are shutting down critical computer functions.

For their final act, they talk you into viewing the "prefetch" directory, a hidden folder that is not normally viewed.  This folder contains system installation files, all with cryptic names.  They tell you that these are actual virus files and cannot be removed.  They ask you to count them . . . you will be well over 100 files before they stop you and tell you how badly "infected" your machine is!

Now that they have gained your confidence, they ask you to access a website and download a remote access program that will give them direct control to start removing the viruses.  In doing this, you will be giving them the ability to download actual malware and completely cripple your machine.  The final act is to ask for your credit card or bank account information in order to "renew" your warranty (for life!) and allow them to fix your horrible problem . . .

Today it is known as "Social Engineering" . . . but it is really just a modern-day version of the old "confidence game" . . . which is where the term "con-man" came from!

For legitimate technical support you can trust be sure to call Brad Bradford, At Your Service!