iTunes TV shows - worth trying out

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(Originally started in December 2006)

My wife and I don't watch much TV, primarily because we cancelled our TV cable subscription several years ago. While we are both fans of science fiction shows there simple was too much junk on aside from two or three shows to spend upwards of $60 each month, and we also wanted to move towards more constructive ways of spending our time. However, there are still those one or two shows we really enjoy and wish to keep up with, without having to wait a year or more for the episodes to be released on DVD. Enter what is currently IMHO the best alternative solution to our predicament - iTunes!

Although originally released as a music-only platform, iTunes has expanded to cover an array of additional media, starting with podcasts and audio books, and more recently to music videos, TV shows and full movies. When the TV show and music video support was originally launched in late 2005 I was not overly keen, primarily because the size of the video was a pokey-small 320x240. This screen size is less than quarter of DVDs, so a video playing in full-screen looked pretty bad, at times worse than an old VHS tape, which wasn't worth it to me.

It took almost a year, but the day finally arrived that I was eagerly awaiting - Apple announced that from September 12th, 2006, all video downloads would be at the much improved 640x480 size, equivalent to the venerable VGA computer monitor resolution of yore and just a smidgin under full DVD size. In addition, over the summer several new TV shows were added to their lineup, including two of the main shows we were interested in obtaining - the SciFi channel's Stargate SG1 and Battlestar Galactica (yes, we're geeks). As a gift to my wife we splurged on a season pass to SG1 for $38 while I'll be picking up BSG weekly for $2, which works out to be less than $8 per month for TV shows ($38 + 20x$2 = $88 / 12 = $7.50) versus the almost $60 for the comparable cable service, so its worth it for us.

After watching several episodes in this new format I have to say that on the whole it is a great way to obtain media you can't otherwise. One thing I can see lots of people using it for is if they are following a show on TV but miss an episode, $2 gives them a chance to catch it later, regardless of any rerun schedule. It is also a great way to try out new shows - for less than the price of a decent coffee you can view an episode of any show available to see if you might like it. Lastly, the obvious market is for people, like my wife and I, who don't pay for a cable or satellite TV service but still wish to follow shows as they happen rather than a year down the road.

Along with the chance to buy TV shows, there are a few other tidbits worth mentioning to pique your interest. Firstly, every week Apple gives away some content via the iTunes Store - a few songs and a few TV episodes. What I've enjoyed seeing is the pilot episodes of some shows getting posted for free, giving you a chance to see what a brand new TV show is like while it is fresh on the market.

The second item worth considering is that Apple also makes full movies available through their service. For a price between $10 and $15 you can download a full length movie to view any time on your computer - no discs required. This may not seem like a great deal when you compare the price against buying a discounted movie via Amazon or a brick-n-mortar discount store, but it could be useful to e.g. build up a library of kid/family-friendly entertainment that you can allow your children to watch whenever they like; couple that with the "allowance" system that the iTunes store has, and parent controls on access to content based on the standard movie ratings, this could be useful for many parents.

Lastly, it does have to be mentioned that you can view the content at any time you like. You are no longer at the mercy of when the TV stations decide that your favorite show should be aired, and you also no longer have to deal with the flaws associated with digital video records (DVRs), which have a tendency to be occasionally hit-or-miss with start/stop times. So, if you like you can queue up five hours of new Battlestar Gallactica episodes some night your newborn is having difficulty sleeping, or organize to have some friends over for a Supernatural party, or you could be really boring and watch that Disparate Housewives show.., that's your choice :-P

There are a few limitations which are a little frustrating. Firstly, there is no way to download a file multiple times without paying for it again. With technology the way it is, it is quite likely that you may some day need to re-download your files again, but Apple would prefer you not. Instead Apple recommends that you back up your downloaded files rather than relying upon them, which I can't really fault too much.

Secondly, TV shows and movies can't be burned to DVD to play in your living room or your portable players, you need either a video iPod to play portable or hook to your TV, or a laptop, and neither solution is particularly enticing. An obvious problem with playback on either laptops or on a desktop computer is the size of screen - most people have much smaller monitors than they do TV screens so the picture won't look as enticing. As for video iPods, those are stick stuck with tiny three inch screens and cost at least $250, which is pretty poor in comparison to the $80 portable DVD players on the market.

Thankfully Apple are well aware of these problems and so have released a set-top box, called the AppleTV, to connect to your TV to play any iTunes content directly from your computer through either a wired or wireless connection; though priced a little high at $300, it will give people an easier solution in their desire to view their paid-for content in their more comfortable living room setting. On the portable front I'm still holding out for an iPod with a larger screen, probably something with a six or seven inch screen, basically something that can be more easily placed on a shelf near the viewer (think: prop it in a cupboard while doing dishes) or propped up while lying in bed, without having to squint quite as much.

One final concern is the video size itself. The decision to go with 640x480 versus the only slightly higher 720x480 DVD resolution is curious. Almost all video content is sold on DVD at some point so the content providers (TV stations, movie companies) have to re-save a new version of their content, which may or may not be possible; it has been mentioned online that some content has been the older 320x240 sized up, which defeats the purpose entirely. Also, with the announcement that the set top box has HDMI connectors for connecting to HDTVs, the realization hits that none of the iTunes content will be available at a native HD resolution as the smallest HD size is 720x480 (same as DVD); this means that all iTunes content played through the set top box will be sized up, reducing the overall quality and, therefore, the value of buying content through this alternative means. My only guess as to why this happened is that the movie & TV studios were unwilling to allow Apple to encroach directly on "their" territories so denied them the right to use standard DVD or HD sizes. Here's hoping that Apple manages to push the movie & TV industry into doing the full resolution as it really makes no sense.

So, these issues aside, I personally think that, unless you happen to watch a great deal of TV and thus can warrant the expense of cable vs picking a few shows ad-hoc, iTunes is a great way to keep up with your favorite TV shows, and the new AppleTV will just make it even better.

Most important thing for ColdFusion development

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After working with Adobe's ColdFusion for several years I've come to the conclusion that the single most important thing that a developer can do is use the CFQUERYPARAM tag. This single tag can help prevent many security problems as it will automatically work out how to pass the variable into the database based on the type of data you say it is, e.g. strings will get the proper quotation marks around it, dates will have pound signs added if needed, etc, etc. Wonderful stuff and one of ColdFusion's best features.

Compiling software is a pain - Cygwin, PHP, MySQL

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I'm working on a lengthy article explaining how to install a bunch of web server software in Cygwin and I've found that I have to manually compile several key pieces. While I'm not unwilling to do this, the sheer hassle of having to go back 'n forth testing different configuration and installation options is a pain. Why on earth PostgreSQL can be available through the Cygwin installer but MySQL isn't is beyond me, likewise for PHP - every Linux distribution on the face of the planet includes them so why can't Cygwin? I've easily lost over a day of work due to this, a day that I could have spent designing a new system in Ruby on Rails that I've been tasked with.

Crossover Mac recipe for Outlook 2003

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After having problems yesterday getting Crossover Mac to work, today I took a more rigid approach to installing it and it works! Here are the exact steps I took:

  • Create new bottle.
  • Install Crossover HTML components.
  • Install IE6.
  • Started IE and verified that I could view web pages (google).
  • At this point I made a backup of the bottle directory from ~/Library/Application Support/CrossOver/Bottles.
  • Installed Office 2003, selecting only Outlook and customizing some of the installation options.
  • At this point I made another backup of the bottle directory.
  • Started Outlook.
  • Continued through the initial configuration to connect to the Exchange server.
  • Verified that I could open different types of messages, specifically both plain text and HTML.

At this point it was all pretty good now, with some minor issues:

  • It takes several seconds to for a HTML email to display (on a 2x2ghz Mac Pro!).
  • The message list does not refresh properly when a message is removed from the list.

I can live with those two issues, now that I have an apparently fully working install of Outlook, which is what I was after.

So, while I was initially frustrated with Crossover Mac, it does seem to be worth it, if you can spend the time getting your specific software to work correctly.

Crossover Mac + Outlook 2003 - neat idea, very unstable

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Microsoft's Outlook 2003 has been the defacto standard for business-level communications for several years, especially for businesses that use Microsoft's Exchange system (which is most of them). For anyone using a Mac the options were limited to either basic IMAP access, which doesn't support all of the stored address books, calendars, etc, or Microsoft's Entourage application which is promoted as a reasonable equivalent. There are two key problems with Entourage, however:

  1. It doesn't support many of the "Public folder" data sharing mechanisms, so you can't use shared calendars, tasks, etc that are stored in Public Folders, only messages.
  2. It is unstable:
    • I can fairly consistently crash it just by writing a message and hitting down down arrow (!)
    • it randomly gets the server connection messed up - you leave it running overnight, come back in the next morning to see "unable to connect to the server", at which point it fails to connect to the server no matter what you do, and requires a magical combination of star alignment and crossing of limbs to get it working again.

A new option entered the arena lately - directly running Outlook using Codeweaver's Crossover Mac application, which provides an emulation layer to run some Windows software directly on your Intel-based Mac (or Linux box). With the brand new release of Crossover Mac (comparable to Crossover Office version 6 for Linux) they finally added official support for Microsoft Office 2003 including Outlook 2003, so at work when my Entourage decided to implode I politely asked for it to be bought for me. Half an hour later I was sitting down to install it.
Crossover Mac has the potential to be a really great program, it is just currently hampered by a few issues:

  • Lack of specific documentation. Several people on their forums say that they have Outlook running without any problems but nobody has said exactly what release they're using, exactly what extras were used (you need IE6 installed for it to work fully), what the installation options were for the software, etc.
  • Instability. CXMac has locked up on me a few times when it was attempting to "reboot" (not a physical reboot, it's all within the emulation layer).

After wasting half a day on it I still don't have Outlook 2003 running correctly: one install stopped working after I installed IE6, one refused to start Outlook at all, on another I installed IE6 first only to have Outlook not display HTML emails at all (but it is at least running my mailing list filters to keep my inbox clean).
Tomorrow I'm going to try out Outlook XP/2002, to see if it is any more reliable, but so far I'm rather disappointed.

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