Help someone plug a computer into a TV, become a criminal

Digital video is confusing. You get some clear advantages, since signal degradation becomes a thing of the past, but if you’re not someone who works in video for a living, it’s difficult to keep it all straight. And standards are a problem. You can’t just assume that two devices will work together because they’re both “digital.”

One of the problems is physical incompatibility. Some devices have Displayport ports. Some of them have HDMI ports. The solution is easy: get a cable with an HDMI connector on one end and a Displayport connector on the other. Problem solved.

And now the guy who sold it to you is a criminal. (You aren’t necessarily. Possession isn’t illegal, just sale or manufacture. So don’t sell it at your garage sale in 2019.)
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Ye Olde Nintendo 64

I fixed up a Nintendo 64 this past weekend. People of a certain age affectionately refer to it just as “the 64,” though to me, “the 64” refers to a computer with 64K of memory introduced in 1982. I have an inherent bias against almost anything that reminds me of 1997, but in spite of my biases, I found a number of things to like about the system after spending a few hours with it.

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DVD players as cheap home media centers

I thought the steady stream of Thomas the Tank Engine, Dora, Bob the Builder, Thomas, Thomas, Thomas, Elmo, Thomas, and Thomas had finally done in our DVD player after almost 8 years.

It turned out the VCR I was running the video through was actually the problem, but what I learned in shopping for a potential replacement suggests I may want to think about replacing it anyway.Modern DVD players will upscale your old DVDs to make them almost hi-def, and have HDMI ports for digital connection to HDTVs. But they do more than that.

Mid-range ($50 and up) players include a USB port, so you can plug a flash drive or hard drive into them, and they’ll play MP3 audio or DIVX video off them.

Due to the United States’ anti-fair-use laws, I won’t tell you how to do it, but what you’ll want to do is rip your DVDs to a USB hard drive, convert them to DIVX, then plug them into your DVD player. Ask Google how. Then you have a library of movies in a 5-inch box and don’t have to mess with discs. That’s a big plus when you have small kids like I do. Plug in the box, turn it on, and pick your movie or show from the on-screen menu.

For ages, I’ve been planning to build a media center PC for just this purpose.

But I think I’d really rather just buy a $50 DVD player and plug a USB hard drive into it. Even though our 32″ CRT TV can’t really take advantage of a modern player’s video capability, the convenience of not fiddling with discs (and no risk of scratching them) makes it worth the 50 bucks. And once LED-lit LCD TVs get affordable, the DVD player will be ready for it when I upgrade.

Update: Rather than buy a pricier DVD player, you might want to consider a $35 DVR, which can double as a media player.

My hot water heater: 1984-2008

I think my hot water heater died today. I thought my shower seemed colder than usual today, and in the late afternoon my wife reported no hot water in the kitchen.

It could be something simple, but even if it is, it’s time.Let’s consider this. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was president. The Kansas City Royals went to the playoffs. The big name in video games was Atari. People were predicting that video game consoles had no future. The big names in personal computers were (alphabetically) Apple, Commodore, IBM, and Radio Shack. Only one is still in that business. It was the year that Chrysler popularized the minivan. It was the year Apple introduced the Macintosh, popularizing the graphical interface and the mouse. Not only did MTV still play videos, but that was all they played. Not every home had a VCR. For that matter, not every home had a microwave. It cost 20 cents to mail a letter, and on average, a gallon of gas cost $1.21. (I remember it being a lot less than that in Missouri.)

The world that built that hot water heater is a lot different from the world we live in today.

About four years ago, a plumber came out to work on it. It was giving me problems then, but under the conditions of my home warranty, he had to bubblegum it back together. I asked how long it had. He said its realistic life expectancy was about 12 years, so it was about 8 years beyond that. It could last another six months, but it could last years.

So now the question is what to replace it with. The stingy Scottish miser in me sees tankless water heaters claiming to save you $150 a year and really likes that. I went to Lowe’s this evening and tried to buy one. There were several reasons why I don’t own one right now.

First, they don’t keep very many in stock. They had exactly one, even though their website said they had two of two different models. The one they had wasn’t the model I really wanted.

Two, they don’t install them. They’ll sell one to you, but then you have to find someone to install it on your own.

Three, they cost more to install than a conventional tank heater. Sometimes as much as the heater itself.

And then I found a controversial column that did the math, and said that a tankless heater might not actually save you any money anyway. I can’t find fault with his logic.

One thing I noticed is that the tankless heaters that the big-box stores sell are 85% efficient. The tank heaters are 76% efficient. The propaganda for the tankless heaters always assumes lower efficiency than that. As best I can tell, the heater I have is 67%, a little lower than the literature assumes.

So it seems to me that if a tankless heater that’s 18% more efficient than what I have now will save me $100-$150 a year, then a conventional heater that’s 76% efficient ought to save me $50-$75 per year, right?

The tank heaters sell for around $320, and installation is about $260. By the time you pay for taxes and the nickel-and-dime extras, it’s $600-$700.

Half the savings for 1/3 the price sounds pretty good. And I can buy one pretty much anywhere and have it installed tomorrow if I make the purchase before noon.

And it will pay for itself in 8-12 years. A tankless heater would pay for itself in about 13, if all the claims are true. If I make a mistake today, either way I go I’ll be likely to be revisiting it in about 12 years anyway. By then, tankless heaters will be more common and probably cost less than they do now (adjusting for inflation of course).

I’ll call the plumber who bubblegummed my old unit back together in the morning. Depending on what he says about the cost of installing a tankless heater, I’ll make a decision. But at this point, I think I’m leaning towards buying the most energy efficient conventional heater I can find.

Replace your video game system’s power cord cheap

This weekend I found myself in search of a power cord for an original Playstation. It’s the same plug that the Sega Dreamcast and Saturn and Sony PS2 use, but it seems like online almost everyone wants $10 for a suitable replacement. I learned how to replace your video game system’s power cord cheap, and I’ll share the secret with you, too.

I found out by accident that the local Game Stop sells them for $4.99. I had to run an errand about four doors away from a Game Stop anyway, so I dropped in. It took me a little while to find, but I found the cable.

It’s not the same. What they sell as a “universal” AC power cable has two round sides on the plug, not a round and a square like the original Sony cable. I knew I’d seen the connector on the end of that Gamestop cable before, so I didn’t pay $5 for it. It turns out it’s universal because it also fits the original Xbox. An Xbox cable works on a Playstation but not the other way around.

Replace your video game system's power cord cheap. Look for this connector.
This super-common power connector fits most video game consoles. If you find one of these in a junk drawer, it can replace a missing video game power cord. Image credit: Miguel Durán/Wikipedia

I did some digging, and I found that the official name for the connectior the Playstation uses is IEC 60320 C7P. The “P” stands for “polarized.” The “universal” connector on the cable Gamestop was selling is the IEC 60320 C7. The nonpolarized plug fits the polarized connector, but not the other way around.

A ton of home appliances use the IEC 60320 C7. Every tape recorder or boombox I ever owned, for instance. It’s the most common connector used for devices that draw 2.5 amps of current or less. Well, my boomboxes are long gone, so I raided my wife’s. Hers just happens to be different. Rats. I ended up swiping the cable from a dead laptop AC adapter. Wouldn’t you know it, it plugs right in to the Playstation’s power port. That old laptop cable was probably made in the same factory as the cables Gamestop sells as universal video game power cables.

I’m happy. I saved five bucks. (The wasted trip to Gamestop doesn’t count because I walked there from someplace I had to go anyway.)

It wasn’t long ago that you could find this type of AC cable anywhere for a two or three dollars, tops. By anywhere, I really do mean anywhere–discount stores, Radio Shack, consumer electronics stores, maybe even dollar stores if you’re lucky.

Cables are high markup items, but even at $3, these things offer a healthy profit margin, so they should still be readily available at something near that price. I know sometime in the last decade I’ve bought one of these things at Kmart.

So before you pay even $5 for a replacement cable, raid the drawer where you keep all your stray electronics wires and see if you can find one that fits. Failing that, look around for something else around the house, like a boombox, VCR, or DVD player, that has a power cord that will fit. If not, hit the electronics section of your local discount store. Odds are it’s closer than the closest game store, and a suitable cable should cost less there too.

Don’t go into a store asking for an IEC 60320 C7 because they won’t know what you’re talking about, of course. The name may be listed on the packaging. The United States doesn’t require that name to be molded onto the cable, although some countries do. Study the image above and you should recognize the cable on sight in a store. If worse comes to worse, print out the picture above and bring it with you to compare. Miguel Durán drew it to be helpful, so let it help you.

So why does Sony use the polarized connector? Probably to fool people into buying a replacement cable from them at an inflated price to replace a lost cable. They fooled me, and I should know better.

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.

The Microsoft Killer

Yet another story about what’s going to kill Microsoft popped up on Slashdot today. This time it’s cheap solid-state computers running open-source software. I didn’t bother reading it.

Here’s what I think the Microsoft killer will be: Windows.

Say what?Yeah, Windows.

Computers are cheap enough now that the majority of people who want one have one. Even those who can’t afford to buy new can turn to the used market–used 1 GHz systems are now selling in the $100-$150 range without an operating system.

The biggest problem with a computer these days is keeping it running. People throw away VCRs and DVD players because it’s cheaper to buy a new one than to have one repaired. And had I charged fair market value for the last computer repair I did, it probably would have exceeded the cost of a $399 Emachine.

But there’s a problem. When a VCR or DVD player dies, you unplug the old one, plug in the new one, and get on with life. You’re looking at three or four cable connections. It takes most people less than 10 minutes, usually much less. When you go to swap out a computer, you have to worry about all your data and the programs you installed.

Most people don’t know that 99% of their data is in one place, and even fewer people know where that is and how to get to it. These same people are the ones who are most likely to inadvertently end up with their data in weird places.

The result is the cost to replace a computer is much higher, and it’s not necessarily something the majority of people want to undertake themselves.

The result is lost revenue. And an opportunity.

Google, if you’re the one who wants to unseat Microsoft, find a way to help users move their data from one computer to another. Someone else, if you want to beat Google to the punch, find a way to help users move their data and their programs. I know such a program won’t be foolproof, but if it works even 75% of the time, it’ll sell like crazy.

Of course if someone does it and it proves successful, Microsoft will just clone it and assimilate the market.

But if no one does, maybe Steve Jobs will sell a lot more Macs, because this is one task that’s always been easier on a Macintosh.

Fascination with old technology

I found this New York Times story on retro technology today. I have my own take on retro gaming.

My girlfriend tells me the 1980s are terribly hip with her students. As she was grading papers last night, I noticed one student had doodled Pac-Man on a paper, the way I remember my classmates and I doing in 1982.

I dig it.I was feeling nostalgic in the summer of 1996 when I started visiting old 8-bit oriented newsgroups on Usenet. Someone wrote in with a question about an Atari power supply, and I happened to have a Jameco catalog in my hands that was advertising some old surplus Atari boxes.

That led to me meeting Drew “Atari” Fuehring, who along with his brother had accumulated one of the largest collection of retro video game consoles in Missouri. Atari 2600, 5200, 7800; Vectrex; Colecovision; Intellivision–you name it, they had it, and if they didn’t have every cartridge and accessory that came with each, they had more than 75 percent of it.

I did a feature story on them for the Sunday magazine of the newspaper I was working at the time. It was easily the most enjoyable story I did during my time at that paper. Maybe the most enjoyable story I ever did.

I didn’t take up video game collecting, but obviously I never forgot that article. (I’d link to it but the database seems to be down forever.)

Those of us in our 20s (I’ve still got 3 1/2 months left of my 20s) grew up around technology. We’ve watched it grow up with us. So why does it seem so odd for us to think of older technology as something other than inferior? Isn’t that like saying that once you’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll, you have to give up jazz and blues?

In some regards the old stuff’s better. Hold up that original fake wood-grained Atari 2600 alongside my GPX-branded DVD player. Hold both of them up and then ask any person which of those two things originally cost more money. Even if they don’t have a clue what the two objects are, they’ll know.

There was a time when things were built to last and they weren’t rendered obsolete in two years or six months just to force us to buy more stuff.

Take the guy in the article who bought a 15-year-old Motorola cell phone. I’m sure some people think he’s nuts. The new phones have all the functions of a Palm Pilot in them, and you can play video games on them (funny, they’re old video games–I hold out hope that the people who make these gadgets have some clue) and you can take pictures with them and you can program them to play annoying songs when people call you, and I think some of them even do septuble duty as an MP3 player. But have you ever tried to talk on the phone with one? Or worse yet, talk with someone who’s talking on one? They’re terrible! They cut out all the time and the conversation sounds robotic, so everyone talks really loud trying to make up for the terrible quality–and succeed only in annoying everyone around them–and if you drive under a bridge, forget it. You’ll lose the connection.

I remember all the promises of digital. I’ll tell you what was so great about digital: It allowed the phone companies to cram a lot more conversations into a much narrower frequency range. It saved them a buttload of money, and we get the benefit of… ever-smaller, costlier phones that are easier to lose, along with an endless upgrade cycle. Trust me, next year the annoying salespeople in the mall will be asking you if you can watch movies on your cellphone, because you can on this year’s model.

Eugene Auh says he bought the phone to impress girls. Maybe he did, but he’ll keep the phone because it works.

I spend my day surrounded by technology and by the time I manage to get home, I really want to get away from it. My sister asked me a few months ago where my sudden fascination with trains came from. I think that’s exactly it. The first time I saw a train with onboard electronics that ran by remote control it really wowed me, but I’m constantly drawn to the old stuff. The older the better. I have a lot of respect for the 1950s units that my dad played with, but for me, the holy grail is an Ives train made between 1924 and 1928. In 1924, Ives came up with a technological marvel: a train that could not only reverse when the power was cycled, but added a neutral position to keep the train from slamming itself into reverse and doing a Casey Jones maneuver, and could keep the headlight lit at all times.

Trust me, it was a big deal in 1924.

Besides that, those oldies were built to be played with hard and built to last. And they were built to look good. Remember that picture I posted this weekend? That’s nothing. The electric units were gorgeous, with bright, enameled paints and brass trim and the works.

Why should I settle for a hunk of plastic made by someone who gets paid a dollar an hour whose electronics are going to fry in a year, rendering the thing motionless?

Nope. I like old stuff.

Next time I’m at a flea market and I see a Betamax VCR, I might just buy it.

Heading back to Way Back When for a day

Someone I know house-sat this weekend for a couple who are slightly older than my parents. Their youngest daughter, from what I could tell, is about my age, and they have two older daughters. All are out of the house.
It was like walking into a time warp in a lot of ways. There’s an old Zenith console TV in the living room. My aunt and uncle had one very similar to it when I was in grade school, and it spent several years in the basement after it lost its job in the family room. First there was an Atari 2600 connected to it, and later a Nintendo Entertainment System. My cousin and I used to spend hours playing Pole Position and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out and various baseball games down there.

The living room housed a modern JVC TV, armed with a modern Sony DVD player and RCA VCR. But in the other corner was a stereo. The Radio Shack Special 8-track player was the stereotypical 1970s/early 1980s brushed metal look, as was the graphic equalizer. The tuner was also a Radio Shack special, styled in that mid-1980s wanna-be futuristic style. If you lived through that time period, you probably know what I’m talking about. But if you’re much younger than me, you’re probably shrugging your shoulders. Beneath it was a Panasonic single-disc CD player in that same style, and a Pioneer dual tape deck. A very nice pair of Fisher speakers finished it off. It was definitely a setup that would have turned heads 17 years ago. (I have to wonder if the Fishers might not have been added later.)

It seems like there are only two genres of music capable of being emitted by an 8-track player. Once genre includes Led Zeppelin and Rush. The other includes John Denver, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow and The Carpenters. Their collection was on the latter side, which sent my curiosity scurrying off elsewhere.

But I had to try out that stereo. I kind of like The Carpenters, but I have to be in the mood for them, and I’ve heard enough John Denver and Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow to last me forever. So I checked out the CDs. Their CD collection was an interesting mix, but with a good selection of contemporary Christian (albeit mostly pretty conservative contemporary Christian). I popped in a CD from Big Tent Revival. I don’t remember the title, but the disc was from 1995 and featured the song “Two Sets of Joneses,” which I still hear occasionally on contemporary Christian radio today.

About three measures into the disc, I understood why they hadn’t replaced that setup with something newer. It blew my mind. I heard a stereo that sounded like that once. In 1983, we moved to Farmington, Mo., which was at the time a small town of probably around 6,000. We lived on one side of the street. Our neighbor across the street owned the other side of the street. Any of you who’ve lived in small midwestern towns know what I mean when I say he owned the town.

Well, in addition to owning the biggest restaurant and catering business and tool rental business in town and a gas station, he also owned a mind-blowing stereo system. Hearing this one took me back.

I almost said they don’t make them like that anymore. Actually they do still make stereo equipment like that, and it costs every bit as much today as it cost in 1985.

And Big Tent Revival sounded good. If I’m ever out and see that disc, it’s mine.

Upstairs in one of the bedrooms, I spied a bookshelf. It was stocked with books of Peanuts cartoons, but also tons and tons of books I remember reading in grade school. Books by the likes of Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume, and books by other people that I remember reading 15 or even 20 years ago. The only things I didn’t remember seeing were S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel, but as I recall, those books hit me so hard at such a period in my life that I didn’t leave those books at home. Or maybe Hinton and Zindel were a guy thing. I’m not sure. But seeing some of the names that made me want to be a writer, and being reminded of some of the others, well, it really took me back.

Next to that bookshelf was a lamp. Normally there’s nothing special about a lamp, but this lamp was made from a phone. This reminded me of my dad, because Dad went through a phase in life where there were exactly two kinds of things in this world: Things you could make a lamp from, and things you couldn’t make a lamp from. Well, this was a standard-issue wall-mount rotary phone from the pre-breakup AT&T Monopoly days. One just like it hung in my aunt and uncle’s kitchen well into the 1980s.

The computer was modern; a Gateway Pentium 4 running Windows Me. It desperately needed optimizing, as my Celeron-400 running Win98 runs circles around it. Note to self: The people who think Optimizing Windows was unnecessary have never seriously used a computer. But I behaved.

I don’t even know why I’m writing about this stuff. I just thought it was so cool.

But I remember long ago I wrote a column in my student newspaper (I’d link to it but it’s not in the Wayback Machine), which was titled simply “Retro-Inactive.” Basically it blasted retro night, calling it something that people use to evoke their past because their present is too miserable to be bearable.

Then I considered the present. Then I thought about the 1980s. We had problems in the 1980s, but they were all overshadowed by one big one–the Soviet Union–that kept most of us from even noticing the others. We had one big problem and by George, we solved it.

So I conceded that given the choice between living in the ’90s or living in the ’80s, well, the ’80s sure were a nice place to visit. Just don’t expect me to live there.

I’m sure people older than me have similar feelings about the ’70s, the ’60s, the ’50s, and every other previous decade.

And I guess I was just due for a visit.

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