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The Gray-Hoverman antenna

I threw together a Gray-Hoverman antenna tonight. It’s literally two pieces of bent copper wire taped to a piece of plywood, connected with a 75 to 300 ohm transformer like this one, stashed behind the entertainment center. I’ll pretty it up at some point.

This $6 transformer is the most expensive part you need to build a quality antenna

I now get 15 channels of over-the-air TV. With my old antenna, I only got 10.

With some tinkering, Antennapoint suggests I should be able to get channels from as many as 9 nearby cities, including, potentially, Springfield IL, and Jefferson City, MO.

I’m definitely hoping to pull in a couple of additional distant PBS stations, since they tend to vary their programming a little bit more. It would be nice to get an additional PBS Kids station, since the local PBS Kids stopped carrying a couple of shows my oldest son liked.

A basic cable TV package only gives you 20 channels, and most of them are stuff you wouldn’t want to watch anyway. And they usually don’t include the extra DTV channels. For instance, the local PBS channel also broadcasts a channel that alternates between home improvement and cooking, a kids channel, and a news channel. All are better than their cable equivalents, and they’re free. A couple of the other stations broadcast syndicated programming on a secondary channel.

I eventually want to build a better one and possibly mount it in the attic or even outdoors. But it’s amazing what 30 minutes with a piece of scrap lumber and $2 worth of wire yielded.

Save energy and money with smart power strips

I stumbled across this money-saving tip today. A company called Bits Limited sells “smart” power strips. Here’s how they work: You plug a device into one of the plugs, and when you turn that device on, it switches power on to other outlets. The strip also figures out how much energy the device uses when it’s off, so when it senses you’ve turned that device off, it cuts power to those other outlets.

Here’s an obvious use: Plug your TV into the master outlet, then plug your VCR, DVD player, cable box (or powered antenna if you’re a cable-hating tightwad like me) into the autoswitching outlets.The reason these strips work is because most home appliances use power even when they’re switched off. A powered-off TV uses power because part of it has to stay on all the time waiting for you to hit the power button on your remote. The same thing is true of your DVD player, VCR, and anything else that has a remote. Any device that uses a plug-in “wall wart” transformer is also consuming power. The transformer chews up a watt or two even if the device it powers is turned off.

So if you can bring yourself to walk over to the TV to turn it on rather than using the remote, you can buy the cheapest $31 model for each TV in your house and plug your stuff into that. (To save more money, check for refurbs.)

The manufacturer states one of these devices can save you $11.55 a month, on average, when used with a computer.

The savings won’t be as high with other devices like TVs, but you can expect to save a few dollars and in the summer, you’ll save slightly more because those devices won’t be generating excess heat that your air conditioner has to dissipate. Each strip you buy should pay for itself in less than a year.

Plus, those wall warts will last longer if power is cut to them when they aren’t in use. I’ve come across numerous “broken” old-school video game machines whose only problem was a burned-out wall wart. Replacements can be pricey ($10-$20), so if these power strips save you from having to replace two of those over the lifetime of the unit, they pay for themselves right there.

The company also sells beefier units with more outlets and more protection intended for computers. The idea there is you can plug the computer in, and when you turn your computer off, it will automatically shut off your monitor, printer, and any other peripherals you have in order to save power.

I have mixed feelings on using these with computers. From an energy consumption standpoint, having a computer powered on all the time is comparable to having the lights on in the room all the time–and we’re talking old-fashioned incandescents here, not CFLs. So plugging your computer into one of these devices and turning it off when you’re not using it would save a lot of power. While computer monitors should be turned off when not in use, there’s nothing worse for the computer itself than turning it off and on repeatedly. I leave my computers on all the time, and in the last 10 years, I’ve had two hardware failures. One was a hard drive crash in a laptop (very difficult to avoid), and the other was a dead power supply in an HP Pavillion desktop after a power failure. As underpowered as that power supply was, that failure probably was inevitable too. Two failures in 10 years is a pretty good record.

Electricity is expensive, but computer failures are expensive too. I prefer to leave my computers on, save power where I can (I own several computers but they all only print to one printer, for example), and maximize my computers’ life expectancy.

I’m thinking very seriously about at least ordering one of these for the living-room television. It won’t pay for itself as quickly as the programmable thermostat did, but they only cost about $5-$10 more than a traditional power strip with comparable protection ratings. If I look at them as a $10 investment instead of a $30 investment, they’ll pay for themselves pretty fast.

I did go looking for other manufacturers. It appears that Fellowes made these in the past but has discontinued them. For now, it appears Bits Ltd’s offerings are the easiest ones to find. It would be nice if that changed.

A crude way to get some of the benefit of these is to use an electrical outlet timer. Plug the timer into the wall, plug your power strip into the timer (assuming the timer has a grounded outlet), then set the timer to cut the power off at night. The savings won’t be as dramatic, but if you happen to have a timer or two around the house to control Christmas lights, you might as well put them to use saving you some money during the other 10 months of the year.

How to connect a Commodore 64 to a television

It is less than obvious how to connect a Commodore 64 to a television, especially a modern television, and it’s even more difficult if your C-64 didn’t come with the cables or the manual.

There are, as it turns out, several ways to do it. The C-64 and 128 have an RCA jack on the back that matches the RCA jacks on most televisions, whether LCD or CRT. Confusingly, this isn’t the key. If you just plug a cable from the RCA jack into the RCA input on a TV, you won’t get a display.

Read More »How to connect a Commodore 64 to a television

Ways to save money on your DVD player

If you’re the only person left in the United States without a DVD player, you might want some tips on how to buy them.
I know, I know, since this year was the year of the DVD player, this information would have been a lot more helpful a couple of months ago. I don’t always think of things as quickly as I should.

Believe it or not, your best bet for a DVD player is very likely the cheapest one on the shelf at your local store, the one that’s a brand you’ve never heard of and made in China.

The main reason most people want a cheap DVD player and don’t know it is old TVs. I’ve got a Magnavox console TV that looks like it should be sitting in a shag-carpeted living room with an Atari 2600 connected to it. DVD players have S-Video and composite outputs. The only words of that sentence my ancient TV understands are “have” and “and”.

There are two ways you can put composite inputs on an old TV like mine. You can connect an RF modulator to it–that’s an accessory you can buy at Radio Shack for $30 or most consumer electronics stores for $25 that plugs into your TV’s antenna jack and gives you composite and possibly S-Video inputs.

The second way to put composite inputs on an old TV is to connect a VCR to it. Chances are you already have a VCR. Every VCR I’ve ever seen has composite inputs, which are intended to allow you to chain two VCRs to a TV.

But most brand-name DVD players have copy protection circuitry that detects the presence of a VCR and degrades the picture to an unacceptable level. This is because Hollywood is convinced the only reason someone would connect a DVD player and a VCR in tandem is to make copies of DVDs. And since the lack of composite inputs on old TVs presents an opportunity to sell more stuff, and most big-name makers of DVD players also make stuff like TVs, they’re more than happy to comply.

The brands you’ve never heard of, however, really don’t give a rip. They care about making stuff cheap. And, well, extra circuitry means extra cost. So that’s one reason to leave it out. And China is notorious for thumbing its nose at Western copyright law anyway. (I find it really frightening that totalitarian China is more interested in my rights as a consumer than the supposed Republic of the United States, but that’s another topic.)

Connecting a VCR to a TV through its antenna doesn’t noticeably affect picture quality, because VHS’ picture quality is lower than that of broadcast TV. Connecting a DVD player through the antenna–whether through a VCR or an aftermarket RF modulator–does reduce picture quality. But the picture will still look better than VHS-quality.

Every time I’ve looked, I’ve been able to find no-name DVD players for $60-$65. Name-brand ones cost closer to $100. So a cheapie could potentially save you $70, if it saves you from having to buy an RF modulator.

But even if your TV has composite and/or S-Video inputs, you probably still want the ability to chain your DVD player through your VCR. Because chances are you still want to keep your VCR around for recording TV shows (don’t tell Hollywood) and watching all your old tapes that you don’t re-buy on DVD.

An awful lot of TVs that have those inputs have two sets of inputs, one on the front and one in the back. If you ever connect your camcorder to your TV, you want to save your front-mounted inputs for that, to save fumbling around. If you have a videogame console that you’re in the habit of disconnecting and reconnecting, you want your front inputs for that.

Having the ability to chain your new DVD player to your old VCR gives you more options in setting things up. Options are good.

If you just got a DVD player and you’re having problems with it, you might just want to exchange it for a no-name model.

Finally, if you’re into foreign films and want to import DVDs to get movies you can’t get in the United States yet (if ever), you’re much more likely to be able to disable region codes on a no-name cheapie than you are on a big name brand.

What about reliability? Yes, a $60 no-name model is probably more likely to break than a $100 brand-name one. How much more likely? It’s hard to say. Is it worth the risk? Absolutely. In all likelihood, by the time your cheapie breaks, you’ll be able to buy a replacement cheapie for 40 bucks. Or, since many cheapies use a plain old IDE DVD-ROM drive like your PC, and that drive is the only mechanical part in a DVD player, you stand an awfully good chance of being able to fix the thing yourself. It’s pretty easy to find an IDE DVD drive for $50 or less right now. Within 18 months, I expect them to be selling for $20. If not sooner.

Finally, a tip: If your TV has S-Video inputs, use them. Using S-Video instead of the more conventional composite gives you a sharper picture and better color accuracy. With VHS, this doesn’t make a lot of difference because the format is really low-quality to begin with, and tapes wear out and reduce it even more. There are a lot of things that can go wrong before the signal even starts to travel down that set of cables.

Since DVD has much higher resolution and doesn’t wear out, you’ll notice the difference.

The limits of compassion

My phone rang Wednesday night. I’d laid down around 9, intending to just call it a night, because I was tired. It was 9:30 when the phone rang. I thought about not picking up, but something told me I should. I was glad I did.
It was someone I admire a lot, a relative. She works with a lot of disadvantaged people. She told me about some of them. One woman she works with can’t afford to buy groceries. But the last time she visited her, she was excited. “You gotta see my TV!” she said.

She wasn’t impressed. If anything, she was a bit appalled. We’re talking someone who’s perfectly happy with a 10-year-old Sony 19″ TV and an antenna made from aluminum foil by Yours Truly sometime last summer. But this woman who can’t afford to buy groceries had a big-screen TV and super-premium cable with a couple hundred channels. She asked how she could afford it. “Rent-a-Center,” came the reply.

“You know,” I said. “One of my teachers way back when said that if the government came in, seized all the money in the country, then handed everyone an equal amount, within 15 years everyone would be unequal again, and the money would pretty much be back in the same hands it was before.”

“Because some people do things like make TV a higher priority than groceries,” she said.

Some people have next to nothing because they spend what they do have so frivolously. She said she doesn’t feel sorry for those people. But other people have next to nothing, have their priorities straight, but still don’t have enough to make ends meet. I knew one of those stories. She moved, and when she moved, she forgot to get the name on the utilities changed. So her former landlord went in and cranked the heat, running up a nice four-figure bill. She’s slowly paying the debt down now. It’s easy for me to sympathize with her, having a psycho ex-landlord in my past as well. Fortunately for me, my psycho ex-landlord is dumber than rocks, but I know that’s not always the case. I haven’t met this woman, and I probably never will, but I did what I could to help her. It wasn’t much, but it was the right thing to do.

She knows another woman who had to come up with $350 by Friday to keep her car from being repo’ed. And that was the dilemma she called me about.

“You or I could just write a check, straight up,” she said. She’s right. While not exactly pocket change to either of us, I know I spend about $150 a month just eating out. I could adjust for an unexpected $350 expense without much trouble. I could give up eating out, eating meat, and drinking soda for a month and probably save $200. But I probably wouldn’t. I might give something up, but I’d just dip into savings and get on with it.

Which raises a question: When is it right to help someone out? Doesn’t God want us to help our neighbor?

The answer, of course, is yes. But that just raises another question: How much?

Chances are, if I knew the needs of everyone around me and I met all of them, I’d have nothing left. I saw it at work earlier this year. For a while I was working 50-55 hours a week and still falling behind. Finally someone sat me down and told me that at 55 hours a week, I was running myself into the ground and at the rate I was going would soon be no good to myself or anyone else. I listened, for once, and backed off. What I found was that I could work 40-45 hours a week and be productive. I got more done in 45 hours than I could get done in 55, because I was fresh.

So the answer is, no, you don’t meet every need of every person you know.

Then I asked what everyone expected of her. Her boss expected her to open up lines of communication and listen. Done. This woman asked her to look into whether there was help available for her. She started doing that too.

“So you have helped her,” I said.

And I think she did the right thing. Most people make you earn the right to help them. They don’t want a big favor until you’ve proven that you’re trustworthy, won’t ask something completely unreasonable in return, and won’t nag them about it every time a cloud moves.

And sometimes you just know what to do. I can’t explain it, but you probably understand. You find yourself in a situation and it’s like you were born knowing what to give.

Come later today, if this woman asks for fifty bucks, should she give it? I’m inclined to say yes.

And if the day passes and this woman doesn’t ask for anything, should she feel guilty? No.