Friday, July 31, 2015

The Dark Tower

tl;dr skip to the end if you want to see my crazy spoilery theory about "the ending" of the series...

Back in high school, I have a hazy memory that I actually ... read... books.
One of the authors I couldn't get enough of was Stephen King. Christine, Cujo, The Dead Zone, Tommyknockers.. I read a whole ton of his work.

And then I came across the Dark Tower trilogy. It was a different sort of story than his usual stuff. A fantasy adventure in a strange world. A twisted Wizard of Oz with "cowboys" and magic doors.
I loved it!

Indirectly, my love of the Dark Tower "trilogy" was forever preserved in my high school yearbook caption, as I (the foolish young nerd) wrote an obscure reference to an RPG character (NERD!) that I had named after Roland (NERRRRRRRDDDDDDDD!)

If you're not familiar with the series, I'm not going to explain it to you very well. I couldn't do it justice. But it's basically the story of the journey of Roland, the Gunslinger, toward.. uh.. The Dark Tower.. which is as mysterious as it sounds. Along the way he is joined by a group (a ka-tet) of traveling companions, mostly from "our world". The story is very metaphysical and self-referential, sometimes weird with strange monsters, magic, and science.. and so hard to explain without giving away some spoilers about the nature of the Tower and ka.

But the ending of the third book.. is so... infuriatingly dangling. Acknowledged by King himself, it was just the place he decided to stop.
Those of you who have not yet read the books (and you should!) do not have to wait the excruciating 5-7 years to resolve the cliffhanger at the end of The Waste Lands. Like binge-watching an old series on Netflix, consider yourself lucky in this regard.

That being said, when the fourth book -- Wizard and Glass -- came out in my college years, I tried to read it. I really did. But... I just couldn't. I dunno why. It starts with a semi-satisfying resolution to the cliffhanger, but is mostly told as a flashback with character background that I didn't appreciate at the time. I wanted to know what happened next, after all this time waiting; not hear about what makes Roland tick!

So I went more than 15 years without picking it back up again. During that time, the 7-book series was concluded (mostly) and I have even spent my fair share of time logged in to a server named after a mystical word that's a central part of the last book. ;)

Just recently, in my wise old years, I decided to start listening to audiobooks to encourage more exercise.
And "just to see how things go", I decided to start this ordeal by listening to the whole Dark Tower series, from the beginning. The first 3-and-change books would be familiar enough that I could sort out the technical details while not having to pay 100% attention to the narrative.

The first book was actually significantly revised when the 5th/6th/7th came out on the scene, to put it more in line with some of the later ideas (but I have a theory about that too. See the spoilery part below). So there were parts where I said "huh. I specifically don't remember this part that I would have remembered." as I listened.
But I made it through the first 3 books again.. and the 4th book which was much easier to tolerate and appreciate this time around. (Still slightly dissatisfying that most of the book was such a tangent to the "current action", but at least I hadn't waited 5 years between books this time, and didn't have to wait another 7 for the conclusion).

And then I heard all-new-to-me parts of the story .. from book 5 onward it definitely gets... weird .... in lots of ways, some which would require a spoiler just to use a single word on how weird it gets. But it's amazing.
And the way the story ends.. I am satisfied with it.

There's apparently a new book that takes place between books 4 and 5, a couple of short stories, and a series of comics, and I might even check these all out.
Also, due to the.. multiversal .. nature of the story, there are lots of other works by King that tie into The Dark Tower, subtlely or not. I don't know if I'd count those in a completionist sense, but it's cool to know those references are there.

I definitely recommend this series, and I kind of regret not keeping up with it as it was being released.
On a general arbitrary review scale, I rate this series a GRRRRR!

Blogger's "spoiler tag CSS" didn't work properly -- sorry if you saw it already. But I've just moved my spoilery comments to a Google Doc. If you're interested in some minor spoiler-ridden commentary, go take a look here: Spoily thoughts!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Xbox Watch TV!

So I wasn't sure I was even going to try this, but I was impressed by the Kinect so far and I had some extra time last night to fiddle around:
I plugged my cable box into the HDMI port on the Xbox One, and went through the full setup process.

I am ... undecided on whether to keep it this way, and I'll be looking for feedback from my wife (and to a lesser extent, my son) on how it makes things easier or harder.

The Pros:

  • Even more video stuff that can be done without changing the TV or Receiver input. (Not quite 100% there yet, but mostly because the Chromecast is so convenient for pushing youtube to the big screen).
  • The Kinect indeed does its magic to pass (a limited number of*) IR codes to the cable box without an IR blaster.
  • Voice commands (when they work*) are pretty living-in-the-future neat. It recognizes pretty much any channel by name.*
  • While watching On Demand video* (or, probably, if you have DVR functionality and are watching live tv, but we don't), the "playback control" commands (pause/play/etc) work too.
  • The OneGuide integration puts everything available to watch in one place. And there's even a "mini-guide" that can pop up during TV-watching.
  • There is no degradation to video or sound that I can see, even though it adds an extra "hop" in the chain for TV. I had read about some concerns about support for surround-sound, but the option was there (maybe it was a more-recent system update?) and I am satisfied there.
  • You can, of course, switch between watching TV and doing other Xbox stuff without necessarily even picking up a controller or remote.
  • If you need something that isn't covered by the Xbox interface, you are still able to control the cable box normally.
  • In theory, I could ditch the cable box entirely, use this functionality with a cheap Digital Converter Box just to get the basic channels, and use the FiOS App for the paid channels, and it's still somewhat integrated and saves us $10/month.
    • But then we lose On Demand functionality which we still kind of need for some channels' content because we don't have a DVR and would rather not do anything illegal.
      • But we could use the web and Chromecast, or Amazon Prime, for the "on-demand-esque" content that isn't accessible from some other app.
        • Don't you wish the IE browser on the Xbox supported Flash, or these streaming sites supported non-Flash? That would have been another solution
          • With all of this nesting back-and-forth, maybe I should move on to the Cons.
The Cons

  • Did I say "when they work" with the Voice Commands? Yeah. Xbox, I said "Watch BBC America", not "BET"!
  • The only cable-TV-related commands that are passed through the Xbox are channels by name; you can not specify a channel number, nor is there channel up/down functionality.
    • Lack of channel up/down kind of makes sense, since the Xbox is using IR and not CEC. It is completely blind to the current state of the cable box. But it would still be nice.
    • With a proper Universal Remote (like we do happen to have), you can still fake it with a physical remote and pass certain buttons through to the cable box. But you shouldn't have to do that! And in my specific case, I don't quite have enough Universal buttons left to do everything. Because....
  • ...You also don't have control over things like On Demand. You can use the actual cable remote (or the aforementioned Universal Remote) but this can get terribly confusing and almost defeats the purpose. Especially if you want to send the up/down arrow keys, or "Back", or "Menu", etc to the cable box to navigate menus, while sending the same keys to the Xbox is for entirely different functionality that you don't want to override.
    • And if you get things out of sync in an unexpected way (for example, accidentally leaving the cable box in a menu and then saying "Xbox Watch NBC"), the Xbox voice commands can end up putting your cable box in a funky state.
  • In order to do anything with the cable box, the Xbox needs to be fully 100% powered-on. This is not exactly happy for the electricity bill.
    • It would have been nice if the HDMI passthrough was actually a passthrough when the Xbox was off. But no.
  • Relatedly, if you really want the fully-integrated immersive experience without having to hit any special buttons, you really need to have your cable box turned 100% on while the Xbox is turned on all the time. Due to Kinect magic, you can pair their power-states (and this kind of thing works well so far in my experience) but you shouldn't have to.
  • This would all be much nicer and simpler if the Xbox could just use a damn CableCard! Or at least if the US could support DVB. Please?
I'm sure there's more, but that's a long enough rant to get us started.
Leave further questions in the comments, or come find me elsewhere!

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Xbox On!

As promised in my previous post, after receiving my $50 store credit, I immediately placed an order for Kinect.

I took it out of the box, and set it up in the location that I thought would be perfect: Just on top of our Center speaker.
But from there, even at the lowest angle I could adjust it to, Setup complained that it couldn't see my floor.

So, physically, it has ended up in one of the most dangerous places in the room: Right in front of the TV, on the stand, right in the path of oncoming flung dog toys, visiting toddlers, or other disasters.
But for now, it's fine.

At first, it was a little difficult to get used to the gestures, and to get it to hear us just right (still getting used to that).

The free dance game ("Dance Central Spotlight") that comes with the Kinect unfortunately has a major bug: Apparently if you play with 2 players, and both players receive an Achievement notification, the whole thing locks up. So it can only be played with Notifications disabled. That's a bit disappointing.
But we did end up downloading Just Dance 2015... which works a bit better, but is also disappointing in a way (or at least we haven't discovered all the settings yet): In previous Just Dance games, at least on the Wii, you were able to have separate "Dancer Cards" for each person, which kept track of time played, calories burned, personal bests, etc. This seems to only allow you to play one at a time, and assign random names to you while dancing (so, instead of "OssianGrr" and "Eli" and "Talita" dancing, we are forced to be named "Crazy", "Happy", and "Sunny" or whatever). Meh.
Other than that, I do see the benefit of getting exercise out of this, and the dance games are obviously less-forgiving than the Wii ones, since the Kinect is actually watching how you move and not just guessing from a few Wiimote gestures.

Incidentally, when we were setting all of this up, there also happened to be a known Xbox Live Outage, which made some things a little difficult.

Now, gestures:
Gestures in the main UI are kind of silly, but I'm getting used to it. I guess there's a point to being able to switch tasks and scroll with "grabs", but I think mostly I will default to the controller.

User recognition:
It's almost perfect. The Kinect camera sometimes needs some coercing to recognize me, Eli, or Talita. But it's only been a few days, and I think it's training itself whenever we click the complaint button. And it hasn't had any false positives. Only nondetection.
That being said, it's a (theoretically) super-convenient feature.

Voice controls:
Just like some other rants I've given, this suffers from a few problems.
When it works, it works awesomely! Nice that I can say the name of a game and it goes there, and stuff like that.
And "Xbox On" is a nice touch when it's in half-powered-down state.

But: Anyone in the room can shout commands which can lead to some master trolling (taken to an extreme, see here: ) and I presume that if someone said "Xbox Sign Out" in a netflix show or something, it would pop up the interface just like when "A Serious Problem" in my audiobook was interpreted as "Hey Siri!".
Recognition of the voice of the primarily-logged-in user would be an amazing feature (Android does this! It's possible!), or at least customization of the trigger word.. but at least since this isn't a mobile device, there is slightly less chance of it overlapping with someone else's device.

Controlling other stuff with the Kinect:
This is a bit of scary voodoo.
I was under the impression, all along, that if I wanted the Kinect to control my TV or other components, I'd have to have some sort of hydra of IR blasters sticking out of the xbox. It doesn't support CEC control, and it's just basically Infrared passthrough.
But no...
The Kinect is facing outward. Away from everything.
And magically, it "just works" to turn my TV on and off, control volume on the receiver, etc etc.
This means it must be blasting out quite a bit of infrared light, enough to maintain a signal after bouncing off of non-reflective surfaces. I wonder if that's healthy.
That being said, I don't care if it's healthy. It's impressive!

Right now, I have it set up so that when I turn the Xbox on, it turns my TV on (apparently my TV has unique "on" and "off" IR codes! Another great discovery!), and I can use my voice to control volume/muting on the receiver. Pretty amazing.
When the xbox turns off, I don't turn anything else off yet. That kind of changes the setup a bit more than expected, but I might still play around with it.
And, as well as this is going, I might even try out the HDMI-passthrough from cable box after all. I've heard some negative things about this interface -- and I'm not 100% keen on needing both the xbox and cable box on at full power every time I want to watch certain content -- but there's only one way to find out if it works for us.

The poor PS3 will probably not be powered on any time soon for much; ironically it has now been *downgraded* to a games-only machine.
The Wii will likewise probably get *less* usage, but not *none*.
The Chromecast is still the best way to fling youtube (and some other occasional content) at the TV.

All of these have to be taken into account, though. when I decide how much power and control to hand over to Xbone.
And of course I'm not the only one who has to use all of this ;)

More commentary coming.. There's definitely a lot more to say about Xbox than there is about the iphone or other "new gadgets" I've mentioned...

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Xbox Adventures.. Phase 1

So... yes! I am a proud new owner of an Xbox One, and we've spent the last week or so with it.
It came with Halo: Master Chief Collection, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Assassin's Creed Unity (which didn't arrive for a few more days).
And somehow I was convinced to get a game Eli would play, so we got another Batman game: Lego Batman 3.
Plenty of games, and it wasn't even intended as a "gaming machine".
I have played a bit of Halo (I never actually played any of them before) and some of the others... only reinforcing my bad reflexes and sense of direction and how bad I am at consoles :)
I haven't even bothered to sign up for my free trial of Xbox Live Gold yet, but if you want to be my Xbox Buddy, I am OssianGrr

As for the media stuff.. overall, great.
The FiOS app works well, and integrates with the "OneGuide" which is an interesting side effect. (This is the thing that's meant to work with HDMI-passthrough IR-blastthrough cable boxes, which I'll get back to in a moment).
Netflix, Amazon, all the usual media apps..
Unfortunately I didn't make the connection until after logging in to all of these accounts that the SmartGlass app can use your phone's keyboard, and therefore LastPass, instead of needing to use a controller to navigate an on-screen keyboard to type my random jumble. Oh well, useful for the future anyway.

We created 3 separate accounts on the system: One for me (really the "primary" account), one for Talita, and a "Kids" account for Eli with limited privileges.
Oddly annoyingly, even the "PBSKids" media app locks out 75% of its features when a 7-year-old tries to use it, but that's not really that bad.

There are some media apps that seem to be missing on the Xbox One, but are allegedly on the 360, so maybe they'll catch up soon.

And unfortunately, our receiver's "universal remote" didn't work over IR with the Xbox, so I ordered a new cheap universal remote (this one), which works absolutely great with all of our components. Despite being a little clunky to program, I recommend it as a cheap alternative to Harmony remotes.

We've experienced a couple of strange glitches, like starting up to a dark screen -- or in the middle of a Netflix movie, the screen turning into vertical lines -- but they haven't happened often enough for me to be worried.

It's definitely quieter than the PS3, and that on its own is a benefit.

One other media-related thing, which is silly and inconsequential: long ago, I bought a Region 2 DVD set of a UK-only Red Dwarf release (The Bodysnatcher Collection, note the amazon UK address). And I could play it fine on my PC with VLC, or I could watch the ripped videos, but I like the preservation of menu structures and subtitles, bonus features and such.
I tried ripping and re-burning the DVDs to make them regionless, but the PS3 still didn't like the fact that they were PAL format.  Well, good old Xbox can play the burned copies. Yeah.. really silly for something I'm probably never going to actually watch again.

So, now that we're getting used to the interface, I've got a $50 Microsoft Store credit which I'm going to apply to buying a Kinect at some point. That will change everything.. again.
So, expect a new blog post about that when it arrives.

And then  I find out that in a few months, they're revamping the entire UI of the home screen.. so it will be another learning curve.
Hopefully stable after that.

Oh.. and speaking of HDMI-passthrough cable boxes?
After we get the Kinect, which is needed for the whole IR-blaster setup, I might look into this. The article is about using a digital tuner box to get OTA channels on the Xbox interface, but allegedly it also works with cable-from-the-wall if you're paying for service. If that does work, then we could theoretically ditch the cable box, save on monthly cost, and truly have all* of our mediastuff going through the Xbox itself.

Overall I am not disappointed.
I'm very happy with my purchase!

* Except for the Chromecast, which is still useful and convenient for pushing certain types of content. And with missing "apps", and no Flash in the Xbox IE browser, Chromecast is still a convenient way to legally, freely, stream certain content to the TV without a cable box.