A Prelude to Genius and a Parenting Lesson

I recall an episode of The Big Theory where genius physicist Sheldon Cooper decides to go through all of his journals from his childhood to see if he already made a Nobel Prize-winning discovery. I have to imagine this is what my mom is going through right now as she cleans out her garage and sorts through the many boxes of stuff and things that were saved from my childhood. Now that I’m a published author, is it possible that at some point in my past I created a work of value? Some piece of home-brewed literature created by a younger more innocent me that hints at the man I’d eventually become?

The answer is, without a doubt, yes! I am proud to present you with two short stories I wrote just days apart in the year 1986. I was 9 years old at the time and clearly I was destined for great things, as evidenced by my literary stylings.

EPSON MFP imageFirst up is Gene and I Discovered Muscle Men – An epic tale of two brothers who travel across the globe to Africa. On the way, they discover a swamp with rubber floating on top of the water. Compelling? Of course it is! Read the full story below or download the PDF to read the actual scanned document.

Gene and I Discovered Muscle Men

On a cold windy day my brother Gene and I went on a journey. We went up and down mountains, through swamps, and through sand storms in the desert. While we were walking on the mountains we saw a big hole filled with water and food.

In the swamps we found rubber on the top of the water, and in the desert we found blue, red, purple, and skin color paint. Once we got to Africa we formed the rubber into little men with big muscles. We painted them with the pink paint. Then we decided to make muscle men part 2. We painted them pink, blue, purple and red.

And that is how we discovered Muscle men part I and part II. THE END

What I find the most compelling about this story is not even the story itself, but my obvious concern for copyright infringement and my foresight to start a publishing company twenty years before I’d publish my first piece of content for public consumption!

musclemenWhen this was written, my step-brother Gene (seven-years older than me) was living with us. We used to ride our bikes up to Independence Mall in Hamilton, NJ to a store called Murphy’s. One day, we came across Muscle Men. They were very inexpensive and apparently I was quite taken with them. Most of them were caucasian flesh-tone but they also came in several bright colors.

EPSON MFP imageThe next story was written just two days later. When you’re on a creative roll, you need to go with it! This story is called The 5 Rich, Talented, and Smart Kids and features the suspense-filled adventures of five best friends as they embark on a mission to get away from their parents to buy castles in Canada and get karate lessons. Read the full story below or download the PDF to read the actual scanned document.

The 5 Rich, Talented, and Smart Kids

One day, 5 kids got mad at their parents. They were Marc S., Mark B., robert R., Cris G., Dylon N. Mark B got his fathers car. Marc S brought food. They went to Canada. Chris said oh No my brother is right behind us. Marc S. got his boozooka. Cris said we blew him to smitherines. Then we stopped at the bank. Dylan N. stole his mothers MAC card. He got 999,999 dollars he split it up with everyone. We stopped at a army store and a music store. At the army store we bought rocket launchers, M-16 Rifles, M-60’s, shotgun, handgun, ninja suits, chinese stars, camoflauge face makeup, grenades, and nunchucks. When we stopped at the music store, we bought lead guitars, bass guitars, tremolo bars, drums, saxophones, and keyboards. We decided to join a band. We made double the money that Dylon got and it was for each of us. We each bought our selves a porsche. When we got to canada we each bought a castle. We had room service for ever. We each got karate lessons. We lived happily ever after with out our parents and made lots more money. THE END

Transformative, no? So apparently, you don’t want to mess with five kids from Jersey who have their sites set on Canada!

A Parenting Lesson
I wanted to share this with you primarily because I thought it was funny. Kind of reminds me of the story of Axe Cop. I imagine we all wrote stuff like this when we were kids, but there’s also a personal lesson to be had. Not necessarily for you, but for me. As a first-time parent, I have to say that I might be a little concerned if my nine-year old was writing things like, “I will kill you!” one day only to follow that up with a detailed description of a million dollar theft and subsequent purchase of very specific weaponry! Not to mention how hurt I’d be if he ever based an entire story around living without his parents. Thinking back, I had a great childhood. There was no shortage of love in my home and all of my needs were met. But in a child’s rebellious mind, parents suck….even when they don’t.

And how about the violence? At the time, I was very much into G.I. Joe and anything related to ninjas and karate. Yes, I glorified violence as a child. But to clarify we’re talking about a child’s interpretation of violence where a bullet to the face is shrugged off because a fist fight just broke out between Scarlet and Lady Jane. My concept of violence at the time was about as innocent as it gets. By today’s standards, a nervous parent might very well subject their child to counseling for writing stories such as these. Did my mom think it was odd? Hell no! She was too busy working her ass off every day to put food on our table and toys under our tree at Christmas.

As a modern parent who can’t help but be affected by the 24-hour news cycle and the constant inundation of bad news and skewed information, this was a bit of a wakeup call for me. While I certainly feel it’s a parents job to observe their children in hopes of identifying areas where we might guide them through life’s journey, I don’t believe in helicopter parenting. And as Mateo gets older, I’m going to keep my early writings in mind as I try to process exactly what’s going on in his little head. I suppose if I were also torturing neighborhood cats and lighting things on fire, my mom might have had something to worry about. But that pre-pubescent “violent” mind eventually evolved into a mostly mentally stable son, husband, and father. I guess the fact that my mom didn’t have the time or luxury of reading too far into her 9-year old’s ramblings worked in her favor. As someone who tends to over-think everything, I can see that this is just on more area where mamma knows best.

Cord-Cutting Update: It’s Official!

As of January 6th, our cord is officially cut. I have a few DirecTV boxes that I’ll be sending back to the company and frankly, it feels good. The truth is, we cut the cord ourselves shortly after the Dec. 11th post. We thought it would be wise to test the water while our DirecTV account was technically still active. Unfortunately, every show we watch went on a holiday break and it wasn’t until this week that we were able to really test out the system. I added some gear too so I thought it would be nice to do a quick progress update. But let me catch you up on a few technical details first.

TV Antenna Install

tv-antennaAs I mentioned previously, we live in an area where the reception is fantastic. Even a small indoor antenna allows us to get most of the network channels we want. A medium-sized passive antenna on the roof gets us every network channel we want, as well as all of the religious and Spanish channels we don’t. But it’s nice to see just how much television is available to folks who don’t care to pay for cable or satellite! The reception is crisp, clear, and pretty much flawless.

The install was incredibly easy as I just repurposed the DirecTV setup, including the mount and cable. Everywhere in the house where we previously had DirecTV via coaxial cable, we now had a clean antenna signal. So any TV in any room can at least get basic programming with nothing more than a cable plugged into the back of the TV.

Tivo to the Rescue

tivocentral3With Tivo boxes in the mix, our new setup is more the same than it is different when compared to our previous setup. Network shows, football, and kids programming are all there waiting for us. But this is where our situation is probably fairly unique. We just happen to have two Tivo Premiers sitting here unused from our cable card days. These are Tivo Premieres each with a lifetime contract. As early adopters, we were able to have our contracts grandfathered in to these new Premiere units, though I’m sure that won’t happen again. Anyone coming into the world of Tivo today will not only pay for the device, but they’ll have to pay an additional $14.99/month for the service or $499 for a lifetime subscription. If the overall goal here is to save money, an additional $14.99/month is a tough pill to swallow. But when compared to a $129/month DirecTV bill, there’s plenty of headroom if one finds the DVR experience to be a must-have. For some, it could make the difference between success and failure in your cord-cutting adventure, especially if you have a spouse who isn’t 100% onboard.

I should mention that the Tivo also allows you to download specific web shows such as content from Revision 3, TWiT, and even The Wood Whisperer. Tivo also have apps for Netflix, Amazon Streaming (not Prime), and Hulu Plus, but the performance is sluggish and clunky. In fact, because we have those same apps on AppleTV and Roku, I never bother with the apps on Tivo.

Redundancy Galore

stream-boxesBecause we have over-the-air content, Tivo, Roku, AppleTV, Chromecast, and a PS4, we have an insane amount of redundancy built-in to the system. Not only do we have similar apps on nearly every device, we have various sources for acquiring the content we can’t get for free. For instance, we wanted to catch the latest episode of American Horror Story last night. We could buy the episode for $1.99 in SD or $2.99 in HD on both AppleTV and Amazon Prime on the Roku. I happened to be in a Roku menu at the time so I made the purchase on Amazon Prime. The episode streamed perfectly. I’m sure at some point, we’ll confront a show that makes it difficult for us to watch in a timely fashion, but those shows will be few and far between. And as time goes on, life for cord-cutters will hopefully become easier rather than harder as more and more people take the plunge.

A Remote to Rule Them All?

harmony-touchOne thing that makes this whole system work is the universal remote. With so many devices and set top boxes connected to one TV, it can be incredibly daunting for folks who aren’t used to switching inputs and using multiple remotes. If you have an audio receiver in the mix, the problem is worse yet. So a decent universal remote is absolutely essential for a setup such as mine. While there are numerous brands to choose from, you’ll find that most people recommend a Logitech Harmony. The remote can be programmed to control just about any device and works in a way that most people can understand, using specific “Activities” such as Watch TV, Watch Movie, etc… The remote then turns on every applicable device and makes sure everything is on the correct input. While setup can be a bit tricky for those not technically-inclined, I’m guessing that if you’ve made it this far into the blog post, that won’t be a problem for you.

What’s Improved/Worse?

Many folks approach cord-cutting as a compromising endeavor. Obviously, to save that much money you MUST have to give something up, right? Well not necessarily. We are already seeing some benefits. Here’s the score card.

Picture Quality – HD broadcasts, in many cases, look better than the HD obtained through DirecTV and cable. Of course, I’m talking about a fairly small difference that the picky eye notices but normal people like my wife and parents would never see. But any improvement at all is a bonus in my book.

While there are gains in quality for network TV, there are potentially some losses to consider as well. Anything that gets streamed from a service like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu typically experiences more compression and an expected loss in picture quality when compared to cable or satellite. But the quality gap is rapidly shrinking and in many cases, I really can’t tell the difference. A good internet connection really stacks the cards in your favor and having your devices connected via ethernet instead of WiFi can make a big difference.

Commercials – When it comes to network TV shows, it’s a wash. Tivo gives us the same DVR experience we’ve always had. Hulu Plus, while a decent service overall, has the most repetitive and annoying commercials on the planet. And because they are in full control of your experience, you can’t fast-forward through them. So if you happen to miss a recording of a network TV show, you’ll actually be forced to endure more commercials than you would from a DVR experience. Looking at the big picture, that’s a small price to pay for the ability to catch up on a show like Almost Human, which I’m a little late to.

Of course, premium shows like American Horror Story, Breaking Bad, etc… are purchased outright with no commercial content at all, which is nice.

Web Content – With all of these connected devices, it’s also pretty easy to catch your favorite web shows and podcasts, though it typically takes a little more effort and knowhow than your typical shows. One thing I love about Tivo is that quite a bit of web content is available in their catalog, including shows from Revision3, TWiT, and even The Wood Whisperer. These shows download and show up in-line with the rest of your recorded content. Best of all, you don’t have to actively seek out the content once subscribed. It simply downloads automatically much the same way it would in iTunes.

PBS Content – There are a few shows that I enjoy on PBS, including a few cooking and woodworking shows. For some reason, our PBS channel via DirecTV never ran the shows I like, including Primal Grill, Barbeque University, and several woodworking shows. But as it turns out, our local PBS station DOES actually run these shows and now I finally have access to them. So oddly enough, I now have several shows made accessible by cutting the cord.

Finding New Shows – Nicole has always been the “show-finder” in the house and that hasn’t changed. She subscribes to Entertainment Weekly and generally uses that as a primary resource for finding out about new shows we might want to watch. I would also recommend you check out TV Guide’s app. You can set up alerts and reminders for your favorite shows across numerous platforms. This is something I’ve only scratched the surface of and I know there are other apps out there that do something similar. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep up with your favorite shows or find new ones if you know where to look.

I guess I can sum up at this point by saying so far, so good! I truly believe that the DVR/over-the-air combo is the key to this system feeling familiar and comfortable. The shift from passively DVR’ing content to actively seeking and subscribing on streaming devices can be too much of a jolt for some people. So if you’re still on the fence, you might find the DVR/over-the-air combo to be the real difference-maker.

Cutting the Cord – Our Plan of Attack

Breaking up is hard to do, or so they say. Frankly a good email should do the trick but I digress.

After being DirecTV subscribers for about 15 years, Nicole and I are finally cutting the cord. As somewhat early adopters in general, we have been watching content via Netflix, AppleTV, Roku, and mobile devices since their initial inception. So why haven’t we switched yet? The primary reason for me was video quality! I happen to be a bit of a stickler for video quality. I haven’t played a Zelda game in years (one of my all time favorite series) simply because I can’t stand outdated graphics. And I absolutely abhor highly-compressed HD video! Thankfully in the last couple of years, the quality of streaming video has increased dramatically. Things that are labeled HD are actually starting to look HD. Not only that, but content availability is getting better by the day.

From what I have seen so far, cord-cutting is definitely not for everyone. If watching TV is one of your favorite pastimes, you’ll probably be frustrated by cord-cutting. It’s less convenient and requires more technical knowledge. You’ll have to cobble together content from various resources and in some cases, you’ll simply have to wait for a particular show to be available in a format you can acquire. While there are a few “must watch” shows in our house and I love watching football, our world doesn’t revolve around the TV. So watching shows a day late or waiting for a series to be released on DVD really isn’t the end of the world. For the monthly savings, it’s totally worth it.

Below you’ll find the gear and services we plan to use as part of our strategy. Hopefully this information will help someone. And if you are an experienced cord-cutter and have a few tips for me, I’d love to hear them.

TV Antenna
hd-antennaIt may come as a surprise to some folks that network television can be viewed in glorious HD for FREE via a simple HD antenna. We have a small TV in our kitchen with a little flat HD antenna from Best Buy that receives about 20 channels. If we can get that kind of reception in our kitchen, imagine what we can get with a full-size antenna on the roof. This antenna will simply use the old DirecTV wiring, sending over-the-air channels throughout the house. So we should be able to get all of our primary network stations without much trouble. Sounds almost too good to be true but I should mention there are a couple of catches.

If you don’t live close enough to the broadcast antennas in your area, you might not be able to get many channels. A great tool to find out ahead of time is AntennaWeb.org. After plugging in my address, I was told that I could potentially receive up to 52 channels from 24 stations.

The second catch is DVR functionality. One of the reasons we don’t have to think about TV all that often is because we know our favorite shows will be waiting for us when we’re ready. While I don’t have any specific recommendations, it does seem like there are some cool technologies available that answer this dilemma. The reason I haven’t delved into it myself is because I have a Tivo unit with a lifetime subscription that I haven’t used in years. I can simply connect that bad boy to the antenna signal and I’ll have full DVR functionality. Other options exist in this space and it seems like there are some cool things in the pipeline, including units that allow viewing throughout the home and on mobile devices and tablets.

Steaming Box – AppleTV
appletvIt’s hard to be a cord-cutter and NOT rely on at least one streaming device. AppleTV and Roku seem to be the most popular but many smart TV’s these days have similar features. AppleTV gives us access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBOGo, YouTube, and most importantly our own video library. We are a Mac family and we have tons of movies in our iTunes library. These movies are all “backups” made from discs so we can move to any platform we want, but the integration between iTunes and AppleTV is so good that we won’t be switching any time soon.

netflixNetflix is a must-have in our house. Even with DirecTV, we spend have of our TV time using AppleTV to stream Netflix content. Netflix streaming service is incredibly cheap ($7.99/month) and gives you access to tons of movies, kids programming, and entire seasons of TV shows. Not to mention, Netflix is now doing their own shows and they are actually pretty damn good! Something to keep in mind is that the video quality of Netflix is not the same on every device. This might just be my personal experience, but the AppleTV consistently looks better than Roku, Playstation 3, and any smart TV app I’ve used. Netflix also has an excellent app for mobile devices.

Hulu is certainly something to consider, especially if you aren’t interested in going with an over-the-air antenna. Just about every sitcom we watch is available on Hulu Plus the day after it airs. They do insert commercials, but when compared to regular network TV it’s minimal. Hulu also has an excellent app for mobile devices.

amazon_primeAmazon Prime is an interesting beast. It started as a service that gets you free expedited shipping all year long. As people who shop on Amazon.com a lot it was no-brainer. Then out of nowhere, Amazon decides to give all Prime members access to their online library of content, which was something of a “Netflix-lite” at the time. Since then, the content library has grown and when Netflix loses a license for a particular show or movie, Amazon Prime might just have it. Amazon has apps for all major devices as well as an app on Roku.

This is usually a big sticking point for cord-cutters. The solution may vary depending on what sport you like to watch since some organizations are more generous with their online offerings than others. I can only speak from experience with reference to the National Football League. First and foremost, over-the-air broadcasts will cover my local Sunday games. It’s not NFL Sunday Ticket, but it does quench my football craving on a weekly basis. If I really need to watch my Giants lose another game, I can always pay $30 for NFL Game Rewind and watch any games I missed the next day.

This past year, the NFL did something unprecedented by allowing people who purchased the Madden NFL game (anniversary edition) to receive access to NFL Sunday Ticket online. So for the first time ever, you could get Sunday Ticket online features without actually having a DirecTV account. That means full access to every NFL game on mobile devices and computers. If you ask me, it sounds like their testing the waters for breaking this feature out into a stand-alone service, something I’d be happy to pay for every year!

Cable Networks and Premium Channels
twdShows that air on channels like Bravo and AMC can be a little tricky to track down. Sometimes you can simply buy the season in iTunes. Sometimes you can watch the shows on Hulu. Sometimes you can even watch the show right on their website after it airs. But it’s really a mixed bag. If there’s a show you really like, be sure to do your homework ahead of time to find out what your options are. Very few shows (at least that I’m aware of) are completely unattainable via legal means.

The Ethically Gray Area
Many networks have apps available for their subscribers to use on mobile devices and set top boxes. For instance, AppleTV alone as ESPN, HBO, Disney, PBS, ABC and a few others. People who have active subscriptions with participating cable/satellite providers can stream content from these networks for free. Yes, that means Game of Thrones and Monday Night Football. In some cases, you can even watch the channel live! This is a really nice bonus feature for subscribers, but it’s useless to the people who really need it: cord-cutters.

guilty-conscienceNow I’m not condoning this but I do feel I should make you aware of the fact that the option exists. If you have a friend or family member who subscribes to cable or satellite and they are willing to share their credentials with you, you can easily activate all of these apps in your own home. Keep in mind this is a violation of their terms of service and I’ll leave it up to you to decide how much risk there really is, but this is one loophole many people are taking advantage of as it fills in some serious gaps in the cord-cutter’s lineup or at the very least, makes things more convenient.

Final Tally
As you can see, the system isn’t perfect. But if you have a solid internet connection and you don’t mind sourcing your content from various places, it’s a great way to go. Here’s a breakdown of the monthly fees and how it compares to what we pay for television from DirecTV.

Hulu Plus – $7.99/month
Netflix Streaming – $7.99/month
Amazon Prime – $79/yr
Our new total is $22.56/month.
Current DirecTV bill is $129/month.
Over the course of a year, that’s a savings of $1277.

Since we already subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Prime, our actual monthly savings is $129/month or $1548/yr.

A few things to note. You don’t need Amazon prime. But if you’re a Prime member already for the shipping savings, it’s a nice additional bonus. Also, you may not even need Hulu if all of your basic TV needs are met by an over-the-air connection. If you really want to slim down, you could be looking at a monthly bill of $7.99!

Now keep in mind, it might be necessary to occasionally supplement your content buy a season of a show from somewhere like iTunes at the rate of $30-$40. But those purchases will be limited as most of the shows we care about are available via other means. And if you don’t mind waiting a while, you can always get the season on DVD via rental services. With a savings of $1548/yr, there’s plenty of buffer for the occasional odd purchase.

Mateo’s Laugh Song

I am fortunate to have some incredibly creative and talented friends. I challenged my buddy Hawkito to see if he could take Mateo’s chipmunk laugh and turn it into a song. Well, he made it happen! So put your dancing shoes on, or whatever it is you crazy kids do these days, and enjoy Mateo’s Laugh Song.

If you enjoy electronic music, support a good friend of mine by buying his album in iTunes!

Download the MP3