PC Apps


My wife and I watch a little TV but mostly peripherally. Neither of us care at all for serial dramas like CSI, Lost, Heroes, or the like. We love animated shows like King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad, but 99% of those broadcasts are reruns. We were offered a free trial of G4/TechTV for a month or two, but it didn’t disappear from our cable roster after that so I presume I was paying for something I barely watched.


The real kicker is advertisements. We can’t stand them. At all. I block ads from the web, we refuse to pay a movie theatre that crams ads down our throats before and after the lights go down, and we religiously mute the TV when a commercial comes on. I understand cable TV was introduced as a commercial-free alternative to advertising-supported aerial broadcasting, but just like satellite radio this promise was reneged before long. So where does my $50/month cable bill go?

I called Rogers a few weeks ago to cancel my cable TV service. They were very nice and even offered to waive the reconnection fee should we change our minds. A personable install tech visited us a few days later and collected our digital terminal. I kind of felt like my lifeline was cut. However, we opted to upgrade our cable internet service to Rogers Extreme (8Mb down, 1Mb up) so that softened the blow.

A day or two in I didn’t think I could handle it. The apartment was so quiet and I missed the reruns. I’m known to my friends as a naysayer of passive entertainment and a vocal champion of interactive media, but I’d come to the sudden realization that a little downtime is nice sometimes – especially since my wife and I eat dinner at our computer table every evening.

I scoured the internet but couldn’t really find any conclusive answer as to whether it is legal to download television shows – merely speculation that the absence of clearly stated rules was close enough to a blessing. I decided to take my chances and have been collecting the entirety of several animated series. The quality is, for the most part, crap, and many shows even have (skippable) TV commercials left intact. That’s a bummer, but it’s a real treat to be able to watch and pause shows as we please. If we learn that downloading TV shows is in fact illegal we will of course delete our archives.

For some reason, the same old reruns are inexplicably less watchable when you have the power to stop or skip them, so this ever-growing repository felt flaccid and unsatisfying from the get-go. I turned elsewhere.

I dabbled with Miro, formerly Democracy Player, a few months prior and was amused if not impressed by its wide breadth of free “television” series. However, I wasn’t interested in leaving the fat client running 24/7 and it was a burden having to wait for a show to download on demand before watching it so I kicked it to the curb. Faced with my small screen absentia this requirement didnt’ seem so bad anymore. I installed Miro, perused the broader-than-ever content guide, and subscribed to several shows.

Miro displaying a page of its show guide

Miro is fantastic, albeit currently better in theory than in practise. It’s even better than downloading traditional shows. There are series based on Windows Server administration, video game reviews and previews, wacky vignettes from High Times magazine, various computer nerd video blogs, educational and instructional videos, a homebrew science fiction series (Infest Wisely) from Toronto, and so very much more. The only thing cooler than the variety of programs is the freedom of the media – commercials – if any – are very succinct and far-between (and skippable), shows are not limited to the half-hour time block format making them easily digestible, old episodes are available on demand, and new series are added every day. Also, the player is easy to use and almost sufficiently bug-free to be called version 1.0. I’ve been participating in the user forums to voice my cheers and jeers, as is my privilege with this open source software application.

Television seems like a huge waste of money by comparison. My $50/month mostly paid for 100 channels I didn’t watch, and 3 or so channels I watched for maybe 4 hours per week. Almost every show I’d ever want to watch is available on the 6 or 7 channels I get in perfect clarity over my mostly-crippled cable, and the only show we miss is Jeopardy which isn’t worth $50/month.

Give Miro a try, browse and do some searches, and check out some of the content. There’s so many options you’re bound to be at least amused by something. If you’re like I was last month, mindlessly paying a TV bill you don’t use, it’s in your best interest to explore your options. Roll your own cable package at no extra cost.

Video Games

3 things that suck about Half Life 2: Episode Two

Valve’s Orange Box was released yesterday and I was happily running Half Life 2: Epsiode Two after 10 minutes of decrypting the data since I’d already preloaded the data files (kudos to Valve for rolling out the whole download in one shot unlike the cascaded rollout with Episode One). I have a few quibbles with some features which I’ll state here, but I’ll give my full review after I’ve played through the whole thing. (here’s my review of Half Life 2: Episode One if you haven’t already read it)

I maxed out all the graphical and audio settings and prepared to jump right into the action. I was surprised to see a preliminary recap play immediately without any loading screens. It’s a prerendered video. I hate video. The resolution is super sharp but I can still tell. It feels even more out of place because this is the first time I can recall in the Half Life universe that the camera has left the first person view. The story recap isn’t really necessary since Episode One was so short. Bad vibes from the get go.

Skipping over the awe I felt from the incredible graphics and spectacular scenery, a second frustration popped up before long. I was given a taste of Steam’s new achievement system, akin to Xbox Live’s, while playing the fantastic Team Fortress 2 (the only multiplayer shooter I’ve enjoyed since Quake 1). After completing an arbitrary “achievement” in Episode Two I’m shown a cutesypoo little icon on a small popup at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen telling me I’ve unlocked this achievement. This absolutely sucks. Playing this game is enough of an achievement. I don’t give a shit that I’ve earned a turkey baster award for squishing 30 insects. This totally sucks me out of the game and for a universe as rich as Half Life this is the ultimate crime. I can find no way to turn off these alerts. I’m tempted to play the game poorly to avoid them. Very, very disappointing.

The last straw yesterday was when the game crashed. The Source engine is known for a few idiosyncrasies such as the screen freezing and audio looping for a couple of seconds when entering an area with new texture assets, but it’s incredibly rare that the game will actually crash to the desktop. Rarer still, everything became completely unresponsive, even to ctrl-alt-del and atrl-alt-esc. Since I couldn’t see what I was doing I had to use the force, pressing Windows-R to open a run dialog, typing “cmd[enter]” to open a command window, press alt-enter to make it fullscreen, and type “exit[enter]” to return me to the desktop where a crash dialog had been obscured behind the frozen Half Life window with an OK button to dismiss it.

This is like a gaggle of teenagers talking on cell phones during a movie. I was completely turned off by this point. I started playing Portal and didn’t stop for 3.5 hours.