Night Sky Photography

I am not a photographer, but I can certainly appreciate a great photo. I'm also not an astronomer, but I enjoy looking up at the stars. Ever since moving out to the country we've had some great views of the night sky. Planets shine brightly and on a clear night you can see the faint glow of the milky way. I'd really like to be able to capture some of these views, but I'm not willing to spend thousands of dollars on a camera (at least not right now). I'd love to have a high quality telescope too, but that is a pretty low priority right now. So I've been trying to figure out if the things we have around the house might allow me to take a passable picture of the night sky.

I did a little reading to see what I would need, and it turns out you can get a respectable picture with some simple equipment. What I had on hand was my smart phone with camera (Moto DROID v1) and my son's toy telescope (Gallileo 600x50mm refractor). The functions on the Droid's camera are pretty limited. For a night image, the most critical feature is the ability to set the exposure time, followed by setting the focus to infinit. The Droid does allow setting the focus to infiniti, but there are only three exposure settings: 0, +1, and +2. We had a clear night and a bright moon, so I tried to get a shot.

Not what I was hoping for. I mean, sure, you can tell there is some light out there, and it is vaguely crescent shaped, but you can't really say whether it is the moon or a flashlight.

Tonight was another clear night so I decided to try taking a picture through the telescope. I got the telescope setup on the tripod and aimed at the moon, which was again very bright and clear. I had a devil of a time trying to get the phones camera lined up with the eye piece, and absolutely no luck getting anything in focus.

I was pretty frustrated with the results. Then I had the thought to try the Logitech QuickCam Communicate STX web cam sitting on top of my monitor. It has a very low resolution (1.3MP interpolated) vs. my Droid (5MP). I found it was quite a bit easier to align with the eye piece of the telescope and I was able to get the image mostly focused.

I was surprised and very happy with the way this one turned out. The software for the camera allows for automatically adjusting the exposure and gain, but I found I got the best image when I turned that feature off and set the exposure and gain to their lowest setting. There is a bit of ghosting here based on how the camera takes a photo.

I have yet to try this with our point-and-shoot digital camera. I think I'll have to try that next.

UPDATE: I tried my hand at using our point and shoot, both unaided and through the telescope.

Unaided. Not much but a bright blob.

Using the telescope and playing with the cameras settings, I got this fairly nice shot.

Using the "Easy Mode" setting of the camera got this one.

The camera also has a "Starry Sky" long exposure / composite feature. I don't have a tripod, so I did my best to get the camera situated before clicking the shutter release. It took 60 seconds worth of sky, then composited the result. I'm not sure if the slight blur is due to the movement of the stars in the sky during that time, or from the slight movement of my pressing the shutter release. Either way, neat!


I've mentioned before that we converted our DVD library so that we could stream it over our home network. One drawback of that setup was that my main development machine had to be online to host the videos. In addition, when anyone in the house wanted to stream that content, it put a small load on my machine. I really wanted to offload those demands. I looked at the various options on the market, and settled on the Western Digital My Book Live (2TB). The WD My Book Live is a single drive NAS that is DLNA certified. We had recently purchased a Samsung SmartTV (UN55D6000) which is also DLNA certified, so I was looking forward to streaming directly from the drive to the TV with no other components in the mix.

I installed the WD My Book Live on our network and set about copying over our music, movies, and pictures to the drive. We have quite a collection, so this was a multi-hour job. When the copy completed, I switched on the Samsung TV and it immediately found the My Book on our network. It streamed our home movies, music, and pictures perfectly, but each time I tried to stream one of our movies the set would stall on the Loading screen for about a minute before giving the message "Not Supported File Format". Even more frustrating, rather than returning to the table of contents, the set immediately attempted to stream the next file in the directory, which hung the machine for another minute until it responded to the request to exit.

I searched to see if this were a known issue, and which product was the culprit. I found that each product has their own slight issues that, combined, resulted in many users complaining about the same problem. It seems that Samsung's DLNA client makes use of the DLNA server in an unusual way, although still keeping within the letter of the DLNA spec. The WD My Book Live uses the Twonky Media Server to stream content. The version of the server on the device (5.1.9) did not respond appropriately to these requests, which resulted in a failure to stream the video. Other DLNA clients, such as my PS3, stream those same videos just fine from the WD MBL.

My first thought was to figure out what file format our home movies used and transcode our movie library to that format. That is a pretty daunting task considering the size of our library though, and if it sacrificed picture quality I wasn't interested. Fortunately, I found that other users with this same issue had found a solution. It seems that Twonky recognized the issue with Samsung sets and corrected it in the latest version of their software (6.0.34). Western Digital doesn't have any plans to release an official firmware with this version of Twonky, but that didn't stop folks from finding a way to do it on their own. This forum posts describes the steps for upgrading from the stock version of Twonky to the latest revision:

The Western Digital My Book Live is apparently powered by a PowerPC CPU and runs an embedded version of Linux. After modifying the config file for the machine, it is possible to get a terminal prompt and update the Twonky software. In addition to correcting the streaming issue with Samsung sets, it also includes the ability to display album cover art. Using this new version of Twonky is unsupported, and you have to pay a $20 license fee for the upgrade. I'll gladly pay that fee for working software, although I am disappointed that Western Digital doesn't plan to release this as an official upgrade.

How to Make Your DVD Collection Streamable

If your family is like ours, you probably have a fairly sizable collection of DVDs. You have kids movies, feature films, television show collections, and potentially even home videos. Before Netflix made movie streaming mainstream, you probably thought nothing of keeping a media shelf full of DVD cases and occasionally popping one in your DVD player. It is so much easier now, though, to search for content through that Netflix interface. Wouldn't it be great if all of those DVDs you have around the house were as easy to access as your Netflix content?

Well, with a little time, a PC, and a home network, you can. There are a number of steps involved, though, so I've put together this guide on how to make your DVD collection available on your home network.

DISCLAIMER: This is a guide is intended for use with content that you *own* and have the *right* to use. Distributing copies of copyrighted feature films is against the law. Everybody behave and do good, mmkay?

Ok, with that out of the way, let's talk about the major steps in making your DVD collection available over your home network. First, there are a couple of things you are going to need:

  • A Computer with a DVD drive. This guide assumes a Windows machine.
  • A home network, wireless or wired
  • A gaming console (PS3, Xbox360, Wii) or Home Theater PC (HTPC)

There are three major steps in going from the content on your disc to streaming to your TV, and one optional step.

  • Rip the DVD content to your PC
  • Transcode the content to a streaming friendly format
  • (Optional)"Tag" the file with additional information
  • Publish the content on your home network

Step 1 - DVD Rip

The first step is to get the content of the disc and onto your PC (otherwise known as ripping) where you can work with it. For this I recommend DVDFab. DVDFab is actually a swiss army knife when it comes to DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, but we're only interested in one feature: HD Decrypter. If you find the software suite useful, I encourage you to buy a copy, as the suite of tools is really quite nice.

When you open DVDFab you will be presented with a list of options along the left. We are interested in the DVD Copy option at the top. We then get additional options. When ripping a DVD, you can select to copy all of the contents of the disc, which includes the special features, menus, alternative languages, and other content on the disc. Alternatively, you can choose to copy just the main movie feature. Your selection will depend on the content you are ripping, but for most feature films your best option will be Main Movie. On the right hand pane of the window use the source field to select the DVD that you would like to copy from. In the Target field select the folder to copy the content to. DVD content is large, and you will want to have plenty of room on your hard drive. If your PC has two hard drives, I recommend creating a folder on the second drive for storing the DVD rips. In the "Volume Label" field name the content you are ripping. DVDFab will use the name from the source DVD label, but you are free to use whatever you like. The software will create a new folder in the target folder with this name. Finally, for best quality, dropdown the DVD size selector to choose DVD 9. This will retain a perfect bit-for-bit copy of the disc rather than performing compression. We're done here, so click the next button.

This next screen displays the tracks found on the disc and which one will be copied. DVDFab is very good about detecting which track is the feature film on the disc. However, if you are ripping a disc that contains episodes of a television show, you may find that you need to fiddle with some of the options. For now, I'll assume that DVDFab correctly selected the main track. Go ahead and click Start to get the rip going. This is a long process, and the time it takes to rip the disc will depend on the length of the content, the speed of your DVD drive, processor, and hard drive. Usually you can expect an hour of content to take about 10 minutes to rip, but this will vary.

Step 2 - Transcode to H.264

Transcoding is the process of converting from one video file format (or codec) to another. I like the Handbrake software for this step. Handbrake comes with a number of profiles that allow you to tailor the transcoding process to the device you intend to display your content on. For the purpose of this guide I'm going to assume you want to display the content on a high definition television from a gaming console, such as a PlayStation3. Select the High Profile option, as this will give you a good copy of the content for streaming without too much compression. From the menu bar, click the Video Source button and choose Video Folder. Now browse to the folder created by DVDFab when it ripped the disc. You may notice that the folder you selected now has several sub-folders: Main Movie->->VIDEO_TS. The video content from the rip is located in the VIDEO_TS folder, so let's select this as our source. Handbrake will then suggest a target destination file. Again, I recommend creating a new folder for storing your transcoded content. Once you have the source, destination, and profile selected, it is time to start transcoding. At the top of the window you will see toolbar button to Start. Click this to begin transcoding. The transcoding process takes a very long time, especially on the High Profile setting. I've found that on my PC, the time required is usually minute-for-minute the same length as the content, but this will be very dependent on the processing power of your PC. If you have a lot of DVDs, you may want to rip several DVDs at once (Step 1), and then setup Handbrake to transcode them at night while you sleep. You may notice that after clicking the start button, the button changed to say Enqueue. You can create a job list for Handbrake in this way. Your PC will work throughout the night, completing the job list.

Step 3 - Tagging (Optional)

While this step is not required to get your content streaming on your home network, you may find it helpful. Tagging allows you to supply additional information about the video file, such as the actors who perform, the director, date it was published, and cover art. I use a free app called MetaX to do this tagging. It isn't the easiest app to use, but the price is right and it has the features I need. First, open the video file you would like to apply tags to. You'll see it added to the list on the right. Next, select that item from the list. Now, on the left side, enter the name of the video in the search box and click Search. The app will pull up data from several tag databases that match the search term. Clicking search results will populate the fields in the main section of the app. If you don't find what you are looking for you can manually enter the details for your file. Once complete, click the check box next to each box that you would like associated with the file, or click the check mark button in the toolbar to toggle all checks. Finally, click the Apply button (shaped like an arrowhead) to apply these tags to the file. You can add several files to your queue and tag them all at once.

Step 4 - Publish

The final step to making your content available is to publish it on your local network. If you are running Windows 7, the built-in Windows Media Server software can do this for you. I've found the security settings required to get Windows Media Server to work properly to be very frustrating, so I use PlayOn. The PlayOn service runs on your PC and makes content available to your other network devices, such as other PCs, game consoles, and mobile devices. While you need to pay for a license for much of the content, the My Media (beta) feature is free to use without a full license. Again, the PlayOn software is great, and I encourage you to purchase a copy, but if you are looking to stream on the cheap, the free version will get you there. The My Media feature of PlayOn requires that you also install the VLC Media Player, which is a fantastic piece of free software for playing movies.

From the PlayOn control panel you need to configure the software to find your local files. Pull up the PlayOn settings window and go to the MyMedia tab. You need to check the box to enable the My Media feature (beta). You can then add folders to PlayOn that will be made available to your networked devices.

Start Streaming!

Now your content is published, go watch it! If you have a PlayStation3, your PlayOn server will appear as an option in the Video section of the cross bar interface. If you use a Wii you will need to open the Internet Browser and browse to the address of the server on your network. The same works for the Xbox360 or a laptop. You will be presented with a menu that allows you to select content. If you use an iPod Touch, iPhone, or Android device there are PlayOn apps.

The PlayOn interface for streaming is a little quirky, and it can be frustrating to try scrubbing to a specific point in a video. The DLNA support on the PlayStation3 is fantastic, and is a great way for viewing your streamed content.

What is a Fair Tax Rate?

As our representatives in Washington attempt to agree on a budget, one of the topics of discussion is how much tax we should pay. Specifically, should the wealthiest Americans continue to receive the tax cut put in place by President Bush?

Before anyone answers that question, I think it is important to go through the thought experiment of determining what a 'fair' tax would be. Let's say you were suddenly granted the power to decide the rate at which income tax is paid. We'll stick with income tax to focus the discussion, but there are a number of other sources of tax, including social security, medicare/medicaid, and payroll tax to name a few. First, let's look at the spectrum of income in the US. Income is typically divided into quintiles, which is dividing the spectrum into five pieces, each with equal population. The Census Bureau published the mean income for each quintile for the year 2009:

Bottom Quintile: $11,552
Second Quintile: $29,257
Third Quintile: $49,534
Fourth Quintile: $78,694
Top Quintile: $170,844

Within each quintile you will find folks who make more than the mean, and folks who make less than the mean, but the idea is that an equal number of households are making somewhere around this amount. Another thing to keep in mind is that for the year 2009, the threshold for poverty was annual income of less than $11,161 (I covered this in more detail in an earlier post).

So given that $11,161 is the minimum necessary to live, what level of taxation is fair?

One common school of thought is to impose flat tax amount, where each citizen pays the same. After all, we all are equal citizens, so we should all pay the same for that privilege. In 2009 the US government received $1.21 trillion in income tax. We'll ignore the fact that the US ran a $400 billion deficit this year, and assume that this amount of tax was sufficient for a balanced budget (along with those other tax receipts we are ignoring for the moment). The IRS received 236 million returns that year, so we'll use that as our population count. So if we divided the tax receipts ($1.21T) by our population (236M) we get $5,127.12 from every household.

Our top quintile would love that. After all, it is easily afforded, and likely much less than they pay now. Our bottom quintile is in real trouble though. They had less than $400 to spare, and are now several thousand dollars below the poverty line. As a percentage of income, the lowest quintile is paying 44.38%, while the top quintile pays just 3%.

That isn't the only school of thought though. There is also the concept of paying a flat percentage rate. So what percentage rate would we need to use across all of those households in order to get back to our $1.21T in revenues? First, we divide our population by five to get the number of households in each quintile (47.2M). Then, we multiple each quintiles mean income by the population for that quintile to determine the total income from the quintile:

Bottom Quintile: $0.545 trillion
Second Quintile: $1.380 trillion
Third Quintile: $2.338 trillion
Fourth Quintile: $3.714 trillion
Top Quintile: $8.063 trillion

Total Income: $16.042 trillion

Our revenue ($1.21T) is 7.54% of that $16T in income our households earned. If every household, regardless of income, paid that rate, the same amount of revenue would be generated. Now, of course, the math here isn't perfect because we have households earning more and less than our mean household income for each quintile, but it helps us understand how this works. Taking a look at our bottom quintile, this tax would cost them $871, which still puts them into poverty. Is that fair?

Again, not the only method for assigning tax rates. We could also apply a different tax rate to folks in each quintile. Let's say the bottom quintile pays no tax, the next quintile pays a small rate, and so on with the highest quintile paying the highest rate. This is close to how our federal income taxes are assessed now. The thinking is that those in the lowest tax bracket are least able to pay, and so they are taxed the least. Those in the upper tax bracket are most able to pay, and so are taxed the most. But how should those rates be assigned? It's a sticky matter, and this is the basis for the arguments going around about whether or not the wealthiest Americans should continue to receive a tax cut.

There is one issue that causes our current method to break down: extreme income disparity. Let's say that there are ten folks in a room, and they represent all of the income for the US. Let's also say the income breaks down something like this:

1: $5,000
2: $15,000
3: $25,000
4: $35,000
5: $40,000
6: $60,000
7: $70,000
8: $90,000
9: $150,000
10: $4,000,000

Whoa, I wanna be #10! I feel really bad for #9 though. If we assign our tax rate by quintile, #9 and #10 get taxed at the same rate. #9 and #10 represent 92% of the total income, and so it should be assumed that they should also be responsible for at least 92% of the taxes paid, if not more. Poor #9 is going to get saddled with a pretty hefty tax rate because he lives in the same quintile as #10, even though the income levels are extremely disparate. This is an extreme example. However, income disparity is real, and the trend has been for more disparity, not less. This means that in our room of ten people, we will have more folks at either extreme. What happens when 5 are earning poverty income, while 5 are earning six-figures?

An Appeal to My Friends Regarding H.J.R 6

My friends, I ask you today to consider Indiana House Joint Resolution 6, a bill before the Indiana legislature that would amend our state constitution to ban the recognition of any same sex partnership. The text of the bill reads:

Provides that only marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Indiana. Provides that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.

I know many of my friends will agree with the first statement. Marriage is a religious term, and for you, you would prefer that the state not use this term in recognizing same-sex unions. While I disagree, I would like to instead focus your attention on the second sentence. The second sentence bars any same sex couple from enjoying the rights assigned to a married heterosexual couple under any name. I have spoken to many of you who oppose the government recognizing same-sex couples as married. In all cases that I remember, those who feel this way have had no issue with recognizing a same-sex couple as a civil union. The language of this bill would specifically deny those rights of married couples to a same-sex couple even if they agreed to call their relationship a civil union.

What does this mean for same-sex couples? There are a variety of rights that married couples enjoy that will be explicitly denied to these couples. Among these rights:

  • Filing of joint taxes
  • Veteran's disability
  • Domestic violence intervention
  • Joint parenting rights
  • Permission to make funeral arrangements for deceased spouse, including burial or cremation
  • Right to inheritance of property
  • Next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions or filing wrongful death claims

Many of my friends feel that same-sex marriage is acceptable, and I agree with you. Many of my friends feel that same-sex couples should be able to enjoy the rights of married couples, but should be assigned a different term from their religious definition of marriage, such as civil union. I am not aware of any of my friends who feel that same-sex couples should be specifically denied the rights assigned to their married counterparts. I am pleading with you today to consider the impact of this bill on same-sex couples in Indiana. I am pleading with you to contact your state representative and let them know that this bill does not represent your thoughts on the rights of same-sex couples.

Last Call for Google I/O

Google is running a series of contests this week to give away the last remaining tickets to the Google I/O developer conference. The 2011 conference sold out in record time, so for me, this is about the only way I'm going to have a chance to go. Yesterday was the start of the first challenge which focused on Android. Due to the time difference, the 30 minute "lightning" round 1 started during my normal lunch break, and I was able to quickly submit my answers. I was pleasantly surprised to receive an e-mail 30 minutes later informing me that I was one of 200 entrants to pass round 1 and move on to round 2.

For round 2, the objective was to create and submit an Android app that recreates the bouncing balls countdown clock seen on the Google I/O home page. Of course, today being St. Patrick's day, the clock is slightly changed to be formed of clover leaves blowing in the wind, but on non-holidays it is multicolored balls. Contestants had 22 hours to complete their app and submit, with the deadline being 9am pacific time this morning.

Now that the deadline has passed, I thought I would share my entry. I'm publishing both the source code and the APK file, so if you are curious how I made it, feel free to take a look.

Minimum Wage and Poverty

Unions, collective bargaining, and fair wages are getting a lot of press due to the attempts in several states to introduce Right to Work laws, eliminate collective bargaining for public employees, and generally reduce the power of unions. It got me curious about what the current rules were according to the Department of Labor's Fair Labor Standards Act. What are the minimum benefits that an employer must offer?

The first item that comes to mind is minimum wage. Effective July 24, 2009, the minimum wage was increased to $7.25 per hour. There are some caveats though. If you are under 20 years of age, the employer is permitted to pay as little as $4.25 per hour for the first 90 days of employment. This falls under the subminimum wage clauses of the FLSA. That's pretty convenient for employers who look to pickup temporary help during the summer when schools are out. A fairly shrewd employer could substitute these youths for regular employees during the summer months and cut their wage expenses nearly in half. The hourly rate is even lower for those who regularly accept tips. Employers of tipped employees (anyone who receives more than $30 in tips in a month) may pay an hourly wage of $2.13 per hour, so long as the total of tips and hourly wage for the hours worked in that month at least equals the minimum wage rate.

So let's say that you are single, and you are entering the workforce after graduating high school. You are 18 years old and on your own. You canvas the town and are able to find a job with a local business. The business owner is very shrewd, and is only willing to offer the absolute minimums since you have no prior experience and no higher education. The owner offers you $4.25 for your first three months, with a pay increase to $7.25 at the end of those three months. The business is closed on all federal holidays (9 days in 2011), and is also closed the friday after Thanksgiving. You will not receive pay for holiday closings. You are permitted to take 5 unpaid sick days with short notice, and 10 unpaid vacation days with a minimum of one month notice. The employer notifies you that you may work a maximum of 40 hours in a week, but indicates that those 40 hours will regularly be available.

So how does this first year go for you? First, let's assume you work all of the hours that are available to you in that year.

52 weeks in the year.
40 hours per week

13 weeks at $4.25 per hour = $2,210
37 weeks at $7.25 per hour = $10,730
2 weeks at $0 per hour (holiday closings) = $0

Your total pay for the year would be $12,940. According to the census bureau, the threshold for poverty in 2009 for an individual under the age of 65 was $11,161.

That's pretty bleak, but that is also assuming the best case scenario that you were able to work every day of the year. In the worst case scenario, where you exhausted all of your sick and vacation time at the $7.25 rate, your annual income would have been $12,070. Minimum wage is just barely keeping you above the poverty line.

Now imagine if you were coming out of high school with a pregnant girlfriend. You move in together, and the baby is born during the year. You are now a house of three. One of you stays home with the baby because the cost of childcare is greater than the wage you are able to earn. The 2009 threshold for poverty for a 3 person family was $17,098. You've worked a full-time job for a year and you are still under the poverty threshold.

I've seen several remarks indicating that Governor Mitch Daniels has indicated that $9 per hour is a livable wage. Unfortunately, I can't find any documentation of this quote, so take it with a grain of salt. Even so, a quick perusal of the job postings in a newspaper or online will show that $9 per hour is a fairly common offer from folks looking for appointment setting and phone support staff. How would that $1.75 increase in pay affect our earner? Let's assume that our worker gets that rate throughout the year, and again, isn't paid for holidays but otherwise works all the hours available.

$9 per hour x 50 weeks x 40 hours per week = $18,000 per year

That would put them above the poverty line for a family of three, but just barely. Keep in mind that this is gross pay too, not take home pay. This has to cover not just food, housing, and transportation, but medical benefits (likely not offered at this wage level), retirement savings, taxes, and all of the other expenses of life.

So what does it all mean? I don't pretend to know. In theory, the appropriate wage for a particular role is what the market will bear. We all want to save money though, so we encourage businesses to seek methods to cut costs by demanding lower prices. Labor is one option for cutting costs, and this can lead to reduced quality when those who are qualified to do a job are not willing to accept the wage offered, but those unqualified to do the job are willing to accept it.

It will be interesting to see how the legislative moves in progress in several states impact their local economies.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting

There has been a lot of discussion recently concerning federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The CPB is a non-profit, private organization created by the federal government in 1967, and is charged with the stewardship of federal funds for promoting public broadcasting. The lion's share of these funds are awarded to local television and radio broadcasters. A much smaller portion of those funds is awarded to companies like National Public Radio (NPR) and Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Both of these companies are private, non-profit media enterprises that generate content such as Car Talk, All Things Considered, Radiolab, Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, NOVA, and others.

According to CPB's 2009 Revenue report, the CPB had total revenue of $2,643,336,000. Of that total revenue, 81.9% came from non-federal sources, leaving 18.1% of the CPB's revenue coming from federal sources, or $478,443,816. In 2007, there were roughly 138 million federal tax payers in the US (the most recent number I could find). We don't all pay the same amount in taxes in the US, but if we did, that would work out to just under $3.47 from every federal tax payer going to the CPB.

Two of the biggest issues in politics today (or any day for that matter) are taxes and jobs. The tea party, and by extension republicans, have suggested that eliminating federal funding for the CPB is one method to help reduce overall taxation and move towards a balanced budget. This has met with a mixed response across party lines. Fans of NPR and PBS have expressed concern, and have taken to social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to plead for continued federal support of these organizations.

In my view, the majority of those pleading for continued support of the CPB are doing so because they enjoy the programming provided by NPR and PBS. I don't have any numbers to back this up, I'm basing this off of what I'm seeing from my social media streams, so this is hardly a scientific analysis. What may not be clear to these fans of NPR and PBS is how little of those federal funds are appropriated to the media enterprises. According to the CPB's Fiscal Year 2010 budget, $28,535,000 was allocated towards radio programming grants. According to NPR's records, federal grants make up around 2% of their annual revenue, which in 2010 were just over $184 million. So doing the math here, NPR received around $3.7 million in federal funds. Television is a similar scenario. The CPB allocates $71,587,500 in grants for television programming. I had trouble finding information on the portion of those grants that were awarded to PBS, but even if it is the full amount it represents a small percentage of the $571 million in total revenue that PBS received in 2010.

The funding to NPR and PBS represents a very small portion of the total funds the CPB distributes. The vast majority of funds are given as grants to local radio and television broadcasters. This is where the real impact of de-funding the CPB would be felt. By de-funding the CPB many broadcasters in rural locations who could not otherwise support their operations will go silent. These rural broadcasters are often one of only a handful of sources available in their area. Growing up, we didn't have access to cable at our home, as our home was in a very rural location. Satellite television involved very large dishes, not the Dish Network and DirecTV that you see today. The stations we could regularly receive at our home were our local PBS station, NBC, ABC, and CBS. Our home was certainly not as remote as what you might find in states farther north and west.

Given this analysis, I don't have a big problem with revoking funding to content producers, such as NPR and PBS. These media enterprises receive a very small portion of the federal funds allocated to the CPB. While any reduction in revenue is painful, to those pleading for continued funding based on their love of the programming, I say, make a bigger donation! I highly doubt that the revocation of funds to either of these media enterprises will result in the end of Sesame Street or Click'n'Clack. However, I do feel that the CPB provides an important service to Americans who do not represent a profitable investment to major network broadcasters. I do feel that revoking funds to local public broadcasters very likely might mean the difference between them staying on air or going off air. I do support the continued funding of these local broadcasters, and I hope that the CPB continues to receive funding to support them.

However, I hope that the CPB's mission is modified. Radio, in my opinion, is a medium on the death march. When do you listen to broadcast radio? At the home? Likely not. In your home, you are much more likely to be watching television or browsing the web. In your car? Maybe, or you might be listening to satellite radio, or your MP3 player. At work? Again, there has been a major shift towards streaming content over the web by office workers. Television, too, is not the media powerhouse it once was. I believe that the CPB's mission should be modified to help meet the president's call to improve broadband internet service to every American. By using the CPB's funding to retrofit local broadcasters with LTE data services (or some other data technology) more Americans will have ready access to broadband internet service. This will provide more than just a public media outlet, it provides access to the wealth of content on the web.

Right to Work

Indiana is currently embroiled in the discussion of Right To Work. Right to work is a bill put before the Indiana legislature that would, if passed, make it illegal for employers to require employees to join a union or pay union dues (HB 1468). Currently, if you are hired at an employer that utilizes union labor, you are required to join the union and to pay union dues. These union dues are often deducted from your paycheck automatically.

I've had first hand experience with this scenario. In my teens, I worked as a bagger at a Kroger grocery store. Kroger employees are members of the AFL-CIO. As a condition of my employment, I had to join the union, and union dues were automatically deducted from my paycheck. I only worked part-time, and I was paid minimum wage. My union dues were around $5.00 on each two week check, which means that for one hour every two weeks, I was sending my pay directly to the union. That was a pretty significant portion of my income when I only worked a few hours each week (between 8 and 24 depending on whether school was in session). I never met my union steward, attended a union meeting, or really felt a part of the union. Still, every two weeks an hours pay went to the union. It was frustrating! Still, the union did negotiate our breaks (one paid 15 minute break if you work 4 hours, two if you work six, and two paid 15 minute breaks plus a paid 30 minute lunch if you worked 8 hours). I believe that unions have their place, and that there is definitely a need to unionize. I believe that unions can and do provide benefits to their members. However, I also feel that our nations largest unions are no longer effective.

On the one hand, I can definitely see the argument for eliminating the requirement to join or pay dues to a union. As a teenager, I definitely would have taken the option to keep that money for myself. What I wouldn't have realized then is that, without the union, I might not be making that same hourly wage. My break times might not be paid either, or even exist for that matter. If I didn't pay those dues, I would effectively be free-loading on the union. I would be receiving the benefits of union membership without joining the union.

Attempting to make an argument on whether or not a Right to Work law is good or bad based on states that do or do not have such a law is difficult. There are many more factors at work than just the Right to Work law, such as tax breaks for the employer, or other pro-employer benefits. Those in favor of unions will quickly show statistics that demonstrate states with Right To Work laws have lower wages and high on the job injury cases than states without. Those in favor of Right to Work will talk about how employers specifically seek out states with a Right to Work law when expanding their business.

Growing up in a manufacturing town, I've heard the arguments back and forth. The unions argue for higher wages, better benefits, and better working conditions. The employers argue that the union demands are putting them out of business. The Right to Work bill is clearly an attempt to diminish the power of unions in our state. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I just don't know.

Is Barnes & Noble Scamming Groupon Users?

On February 4th Groupon ran an offer for "$10 for $20 Worth of Toys and Games, Books and More at Barnes & Noble". As an avid reader I was interested in what could be a great deal on some new books. I checked the terms and conditions and saw that the Groupon could also be used for Nook purchases, which was the clincher for me. I purchased the Groupon and registered it with my Nook.

One of the terms of the B&N Groupon is that it expires on April 10th. If you did not spend the full amount of the Groupon by April 10, the remaining balance would be reduced by $10, or to $0 if less than $10 was remaining. I was a little concerned about this as I already had a $50 gift card registered with my Nook, and there is no way to re-order gift cards on the B&N website. Unless I spent $70 on books in the next two months, I wasn't going to get to take advantage of the deal.

On February 18th my wife and I were on a date and we had some time to kill after dinner before we went to a comedy club. We stopped at the local B&N and had coffee and browsed books. I found a paperback copy of "Good Omens" by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman for $7.99. This book isn't available on the Nook and it was on my to-read list, so I decided to use my Groupon for it. When I presented the Groupon to the cashier, he gave me a funny look and asked if I wouldn't like to get something more. He explained that any unspent amount from the $20 Groupon would be lost. This was news to me, as my understanding of the terms was that it worked just like a gift card. He went on to say that all of the Groupons used the same number, so there was no way to tell them apart. We were pressed for time to get to our show, so I returned the book to the shelf and we left without purchasing anything.

The next day, I got to thinking about what the cashier said. It made no sense that all of the Groupons shared the same number. If they did, either the first customer to use it would use it for everyone, or I could go into the store and use my Groupon over and over again. I double checked the terms and conditions. Based on the wording regarding the April 10th expiration, I was certain that the Groupon would retain the outstanding balance. I went to a different Barnes and Noble location and picked out the same book, along with "Anansi Boys" (also by Neil Gaiman). Each book was priced at $7.99. I again approached the cashier with my Groupon. The cashier looked at the Groupon and said that I had to spend a minimum of $20 before I could use it. I held my ground this time. I said that there was no minimum purchase, and the remaining balance would be retained. She shrugged and we entered the number and pin. Sure enough, the receipt showed that the Groupon had a remaining balance of $2.90. I also confirmed the remaining balance on the B&N site.

I thought about this situation some more, and it started to seem more suspect. I had visited two different Barnes and Noble locations and spoken to two different cashiers. In both cases, the cashier instructed me to spend over the $20 Groupon amount (one in order to avoid forfeited value, the other as a minimum purchase). Are the B&N stores intentionally misinforming their cashiers in order to encourage customers to spend more than the Groupon amount? If you took advantage of the B&N Groupon, did you receive similar information from a cashier?


I did a little research to see if anyone else was getting the same feedback when using the B&N Groupon. This thread on one of the B&N blogs details how some Groupon users were able to purchase multiple Groupons and use them in shady ways.

In addition, I sent a support request to both Groupon and Barnes and Noble to let them know about my experience. I'm not looking for anything in return, just to inform the businesses about the confusion surrounding this deal. I received two replies from Groupon within a few hours of submitting my e-mail (wow, fast feedback!). However, the two responses conflict.

Simon, Feb-21 11:39 am (CST):

Hi Adam,

I'm so sorry you ran into some problems when trying to redeem your Groupon.
Typically, our Groupons are used in one transaction and while this was an exception, that is no reason for the Barnes & Noble staff to not be better informed.
Thank you for your feedback and I appreciate your email informing me of your experience.



Simon, Feb-21 11:39 am (CST):

Hi Adam,

Sorry for the confusion and thanks for your feedback. These are the universal restrictions that apply to every Groupon (unless specifically contradicted in the deal's fine print):

- Not valid for cash back (unless required by law).
- Must use in one visit.
- Doesn't cover tax or gratuity.
- Can't be combined with other offers.
- Can't use until day after purchase.

In summary, I am positive that your receipt (with the remaining balance) cannot be used for future Barnes and Noble. If it does work, please email us back so we can correct this immediately for all Barnes and Noble Groupons.

Sorry again for the inconvenience.


Mark P.

Two messages sent at exactly the same time with directly conflicting information. Looks like the cashiers at B&N aren't the only ones confused about how this offer works.

Controlling your Home Theater PC

Last year I converted one of our PCs into a Home Theater PC (HTPC). We had moved to a rural location that didn't offer cable, and I didn't want to pay a monthly subscription to Tivo just to be able to record Over The Air (OTA) television broadcasts. I purchased a Silicon Dust HDHomerun Dual Tuner unit and connected the PC to our television using an HDMI cable. This worked really well for setting up recordings of broadcast television for later viewing. One of the hurdles that limited use of the HTPC in our household was how to control the HTPC. Using a television or DVR is fairly straight forward. Most people are familiar with a remote control and will intuitively understand how to use them. What do you do when someone hands you a keyboard and mouse instead? I made several attempts at finding a good control solution that everyone could understand.

Attempt #1 - Wireless mouse + wired keyboard

Mouse - Logitech MX Revolution

Keyboard - Logitech Wave Corded Keyboard

These were already in the house, so it was the first thing to try. It worked ok, but there were some major annoyances. The range on the wireless mouse was terrible. The mouse was very touchy about detecting movement on fabric. It either wouldn't move, or it would jump all over the screen. We didn't need the keyboard often, but it was an irritation to have to get up to use it.

Attempt #2 - Wireless Multimedia Keyboard

Keyboard - BTC 9019URF

I also had this keyboard, which I'd picked up at Fry's on sale for $40 a few years back. It is a wireless keyboard that includes a joystick for moving the mouse as well as mouse buttons (right, left, click wheel). When I originally bought it, my intention was to strap it to my treadmill so I could get some exercise while doing my regular browsing, e-mail, bills, etc. It uses some custom RF protocol for communicating back to the USB dongle. It worked fairly well when sitting close to the receiver, but the range is really poor (less than 15 feet in my experience). It also chewed through batteries like mad. The mouse would tend to drift, as the joystick sometimes wouldn't right itself. Typing was painful, as it often missed or doubled keystrokes. I wouldn't recommend this keyboard.

Attempt #3 - Windows Media Center Remote + wired keyboard

Remote - Siig Vista Media Center Edition Remote

Keyboard - Logitech Wave Corded Keyboard

After the batteries died on the wireless keyboard, we ditched it and went back to the corded keyboard. Fry'shad the Siig Vista MCE remote available for $30, so I picked it up. Like the wireless keyboard, it uses a usb dongle, but is IR rather than RF. This worked really well on our Win7 HTPC. All of the buttons on the remote work as expected within Media Center, and the family felt comfortable using the HTPC this way. It was familiar, and it was a lot less like using a PC and a lot more like using a DVR. The remote also worked within the Hulu and Boxee interfaces to some extent. The only negatives were the need to get up to use the corded keyboard, and the slight ugliness of an IR dongle at the front of our media cabinet.

Attempt #4 - Logitech DiNovo Mini

HTPC Keyboard - Logitech DiNovo Mini

I received this as a Christmas gift and it is *awesome*! The DiNovo Mini is a very small form-factor wireless keyboard with a touchpad that can be toggled to either act as a trackpad for moving the mouse, or as a D-pad. The keys on the keyboard are about twice as big as on most cell phone keypads, which makes it easy to type with. The keys are also backlit, which is great when watching something in the dark. It uses a rechargeable battery, so no stocking AAs or AAAs. It has a hinged cover so that when it is not in use you can cover the keys to keep dust and other couch detritus out. The form factor is great. Traditional wireless keyboards are pretty big, and it is awkward to keep them on the couch or endtable. This little guy fits right along side my other remotes. I only have one minor quibble with it. The record button doesn't work. There is a driver hack to get it working in WMC, but by default the record button is mapped to Windows Media Player, and will launch it rather than setting the currently selected show to record. You can either use the driver hack or manually select record to work around this, but it was a point of confusion when we tried using the remote to schedule recordings. Aside from this minor issue, I can't recommend this device highly enough. The $150 MSRP is a little salty for a keyboard (you can find it for closer to $110 from Amazon) but in my opinion it is totally worth it for making the HTPC more useful.

Mobile Data Performance in Lebanon, IN

I found myself at the Starbucks in Lebanon and decided to run the mobile data performance tests again. Same setup as before, but with some slightly different results. This time, both T-Mobile and AT&T could only manage an EDGE connection, while Verizon was able to supply a 3G connection.

For ping time, lower is better. This is the amount of time that it takes for a packet to travel to the server and back.

I think the T-Mobile upload rate on test one must have been a fluke. I've seen the tool report incorrect results like this when the connection is lost mid-test.

Given these results, if you use your mobile data near SR39 and I65 in Lebanon, IN, Verizon is your best choice for a provider.

Mobile Data Performance in Castleton

I had an interesting opportunity to do some mobile data performance testing. I have a Motorola DROID on Verizon that I carry around, and I recently got access to a Nexus One with a SIM good for both T-Mobile and AT&T. I did a little testing to see how these different carriers performed in my location. I used the SpeedTest.Net Android app. I ran the test 5 times, all to the same server (Carmel, IN - nFrame). I ran the test from my client's office in Castleton, IN. I ran the test five times each on each network. The results were interesting. Both T-Mobile and Verizon reported 3G service, while I was only able to get EDGE service from AT&T. These results are very location specific, and should not be considered a blanket reference. If you regularly find yourself in the Castleton area, these results may be useful to you.

Cutting the Cord

Last year we cut the cord to our cable provider, not out of desire, but out of necessity. We moved to a rural location that didn't offer cable services. Still, this was something that I had wanted to do for some time, and was glad to have my hand forced. My current setup is as follows:

- Win7 running Windows Media Center
- PlayOn Lite
- HDHomeRun Dual Tuner
- PS3
- Wii
- Netflix

I'm not a big TV watcher, but my wife is. She was quite surprised to see how much of the TV she really wanted to watch was available OTA. Sure, she missed being able to scan for the background noise of guilty pleasures on traditional cable networks, but not so much that we've missed paying the $100+ per month to watch them. We have a very limited "broadband" internet connection through our rural wireless provider (~1.4M down, 512K up) but it is enough that we can stream one show from Netflix. This has been a boon for our kids, who definitely would be missing Nick, Sprout, and Disney.

We setup our recording through the Win7 HTPC, and those recorded shows are available on our other sets via the PS3 using Windows built-in DLNA support, and on the Wii using PlayOn's MyMedia, which is currently in beta.

Another big project during this switch was to make all of our DVD content available on-demand. I used a combination of DVD Shrink, Handbrake, and MetaX for this project. Just like our recorded TV, that content can also be called up using the HTPC, PS3, or Wii.

It isn't a perfect solution. Bad weather knocks out both our OTA TV reception as well as our internet connection. Even with good weather, online content and services have a long way to go before it is a true competitor to what the major cable operators can offer. Asking my wife and kids to switch between Clicker, Hulu, PlayOn, Netflix, and a variety of other apps in the hopes of maybe finding the content they want to watch is non-starter. Keeping it simple is key, and that is something the cable operators have much better control over.

Jade Mason