What Good Am I, Oklahoma?

The Step Up Oklahoma plan to raise revenues to finally address the dire teacher shortage in Oklahoma failed in February 2018 primarily because the minority House Democrats wanted 5% instead of 4% gross production tax for the first 36 months of a well. The Republicans, heavily influenced by the oil oligarchs, refused to go above 4%.

An experienced oil man told Wayne Greene of the Tulsa World that a 1% increase in that tax would be a like a 30-cent decrease in the price of oil over the life of a well. As Greene wrote, “It’s insignificant. It’s less than the rounding error in the pre-drilling projections, my source tells me.”

A significant majority of the House members embraced the Step Up plan, but we need a ridiculously high 75% supermajority to raise taxes in Oklahoma (but only a simple majority to cut them, which is the reason we are in such dire straits). The failure of both parties to embrace an obvious compromise not only killed a desperately needed teacher pay raise to address the teacher shortage, but actually led to another $22 million cut in public school funding to balance the budget. So yet again the schools took the hit from a state revenue failure, on top of multiple past failures that have devastated their budgets.

Greene wrote:

How strange that the marginal difference between a 4 percent gross production tax over the first three years of production and a 5 percent gross production tax over the first three years could shut down any progress.

Logic says that neither side would be fighting if the cause weren’t significant, right? If the distinction for the oil companies’ bottom line is less than the rounding error and the state revenue numbers are less than 10 percent [of the Step Up plan], why would we go to the mattresses?

The only answer I can find is that it’s not about money, it’s about dominance. In the end, this highly technical debate is at least as much about emotions and politics as it is about revenue and policy.

The compromise neither side would embrace earlier this month is obvious. They should soothe the consciences of the ideologues in both parties and the egos of the oil barons by adopting the rest of the Step Up revenue package but increase the GPT to 4.5% to split the difference between the parties’ positions. I’d suggest dedicating the $35 million from the extra 0.5% to increase state worker salaries, which are also desperately low.

Yes, teachers and state workers deserve MUCH more. But this is about COMPROMISE from ALL sides to get over that ludicrous 75% supermajority hurdle. We must stop the bleeding and bind our state’s self-inflicted wounds. It is past time for our legislators from both parties to get off their high horses and shake hands on a compromise to save our schools. That should be the Oklahoma standard.

The failure of our state legislators to reach a compromise has dire consequences for our schoolchildren and the state’s most vulnerable citizens: the poor and the elderly who depend on state services. I ask the legislators who have been voting no, and the partisans who support them, to think about that.

Bob Dylan put it quite well about 30 years ago:

What Good am I

What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?

What good am I if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you
If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky
What good am I?

What good am I while you softly weep
And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep
And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don’t try
What good am I?

What good am I then to others and me
If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see
If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?

What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8KMKJhHhGs#t=0m20s

I’ve read that about 40% of state workers now qualify for food stamps, which is abominable.

Meanwhile, the grim state of our public schools is illustrated below:

Enough is enough, legislators. You need to embrace the obvious compromise and GET THIS DONE. If you do not, I guarantee you that parents and teachers will be shutting down the schools across our state this April until you do. We shall wait no longer.

Posted in politics | 3 Comments

Bob Cratchit and Bias Bubbles

December 28, 2017

Granger

Facebook helps spread fake news of all sorts, not just liberal or conservative

We hear much these days about “fake news”, a term promoted by President Trump when he wishes to deflect critical coverage of his latest untruth, of which there are many. But he is correct in that there is actual fake news on both sides of the political spectrum. Facebook’s addiction algorithms, designed to keep users clicking and sharing while viewing more ads, helps spread untruths and misinformation in the political bias bubbles it forms around its users.

Based on my own political persuasions, Facebook has formed a liberal bias bubble around my account, although I thankfully have some conservative and libertarian friends there whose posts can penetrate the bubble. The current nonsense spreading in the liberal bubble is a post claiming that the impoverished character of Bob Cratchit in Dickens’ famous novella A Christmas Carol was making far more than our equivalent minimum wage today:

While watching A Christmas Carol tonight, my attention was caught by Bob Cratchit’s salary. He makes “15 bob a week.” I got curious and looked into inflation and conversion to American money, and if A Christmas Carol happened this year, Bob Cratchit would be making $27,574 per year in American money.  If someone works 40 hours a week at the current federal minimum wage, they’ll make $15,080. So Bob Cratchit, the epitome of poverty, makes $12,494 more than minimum wage workers (full time) each year. And yet we have people saying minimum wage is fine where it’s at.

Bob Cratchit and Scrooge

My own liberal bias would lead me to grant too much credence to this claim, since I believe our minimum wage is miserly and know that those earning it do indeed struggle economically. Thankfully, however, I was trained to think critically, so I was immediately skeptical. We all know that Scrooge was a miser paying such a low wage that his clerk Bob Cratchit and his large family struggled with basic needs. Given the point of the novella, would Charles Dickens really have set Cratchit’s annual salary to be equivalent to over $27,000 in America today? That struck me as quite unlikely.

One of my heroes was Carl Sagan, who provided a Baloney Detection Kit in his book The Demon-Haunted World. The first tool in that kit is this:

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”

So, rather than rely upon the unsupported claim in the post spreading on Facebook, I decided to do my own calculation. I realized it would be fraught with difficulties, since:

  • we don’t know the precise year of the story’s setting
  • British currency underwent decimalisation in 1971, altering how it would convert
  • the foreign currency exchange rate from the British pound to the U.S. dollar varies continually
  • one must impose inflation
  • the work week of a clerk in Britain in the 1840s was not the forty-hour standard work week of modern-day America

So I first determined, from the actual text of the novella, that he was paid 15 shillings per week, according to Scrooge. The novella was published in 1843, so I converted 15 shillings in 1840 to British pounds in 2005 using a British government website that handles old money conversions before the 1971 decimalisation. That came out to £33. The Bank of England’s inflation calculator said that would be about £45 today. Google’s currency converter said that the current exchange rate made that about $60 in the United States.

The general consensus is that Bob Cratchit would have worked sixty hours per week. So he was earning the equivalent of $1 per hour in modern U.S. terms, or about one-seventh of  our current minimum wage of $7.25. Even if we assume Cratchit had been working the modern day standard of 40 hours per week, he would have been earning $1.50 per hour, which is about one-fifth of our current minimum wage. So the original post was indeed erroneous. But I saw various well-intentioned folks, including those in the news media, reposting it in their personal Facebook newsfeeds.

My point is neither to criticize nor defend the minimum wage. Instead, I ask you to recognize that everyone, liberals and moderates and conservatives alike, are vulnerable to bias and can be guilty of spreading fake news. We should approach all political posts with a hefty amount of skepticism, and keep Carl’s baloney detection kit in mind. In my case, I now try to ignore most political posts. When I do respond to them or post my own information, I try to stick with verifiable facts, even if I have to verify them myself.

Think before you click. The mind you save may be your own.


2/10/2018 UPDATE: Facebook lost a million users in North America in the fourth quarter of 2017. Managing the district’s Facebook page makes it clear why some folks choose to get away from entirely. Even with that frequently horrible experience, I still find Facebook a net positive, but I have to actively limit my time on it.

Posted in politics, technology | 3 Comments

Listening as one of my digital clouds evaporates

December 22, 2017

The forthcoming demise of Amazon’s Music Storage service, limiting my access on its streaming services to songs it has licensed, prompted me to assess my approach to digital music. The rapid pace of the digital world’s evolution makes it powerful and responsive, but also makes digital services and devices quite ephemeral.

In my experience, there is considerable value in retaining access and control of one’s digital data amidst the churn of devices and services. So the growth of cloud-based storage and streaming services poses a challenge. While they offer distinct advantages over the decades-old reliance on standalone applications and local data files on our personal devices, even the largest cloud services are vulnerable to temporary service outages as well as permanent shuttering, and they seldom play well together.

Downloading vs. streaming music

It is hardly surprising that the demographics for streaming music skew younger than those for downloading it. The fall 2016 AudioCensus by MusicWatch showed that of the people who routinely use on-demand streaming services, 35% are between 13 and 24 years of age. In comparison, only 26% of regular download purchasers are 13 to 24 years of age.

Younger people rely more on streaming music; while older folks rely more on downloading

Now over 50% of all music revenue in the U.S. comes from streaming, and YouTube currently accounts for 25% of all music streaming. Anecdotally, while I turn to YouTube for music merely to access obscure tracks not available on other paid streaming or download services, Wendy uses it routinely.

For the over 15,000 songs in my iTunes Music Library, I paid for every one that I could, via iTunes or Amazon or by ripping them from purchased CDs. The only unpaid tracks in my library are ones that were simply not available for licensed downloading, leading me to extract the audio from a YouTube video or the like to ensure I had a local copy for long-term continuous access and retention.

This increasingly unusual behavior  is a personal habit borne of both necessity and convenience. I have curated my iTunes library and playlists since I bought my first iPod in 2004, when streaming music was impractical. iTunes remains the most convenient way for me to quickly access music on my desktop computer, Apple TV, and iPhone. Plus I never want my music to “disappear” when someone fails to negotiate a licensing deal, shutters a service, or internet service is unavailable. But my method of accessing digital music is increasingly unpopular.

Streaming music is destroying music downloads

One digital cloud evaporated in a year

I am among the 1 in 3 music downloaders who also have music streaming accounts. I pay $10/month for Google Play Music, although I actually just use that account to get the ad-free YouTube Red service. I also subscribe to Amazon Music Unlimited for $79/year to make that large streaming music library available on the Echo devices at Meador Manor. But I never use Google Play Music, and I seldom use the Amazon Music apps in Windows or on my mobile devices, as they are even slower and clunkier than Apple’s deservedly maligned iTunes.

In April 2017 the frustrations with the inadequate music search on the Echo devices led me to pay for Amazon Music Storage for $25/year. I then uploaded over 12,000 of my songs to Amazon so that I could search that smaller library on an Echo, making it much more likely it would play the track I really wanted.

But now that will end after only a year of use, with me unable to renew my Amazon Music Storage subscription when it expires. No doubt Amazon calculated that it was better for its bottom line and its ecosystem of devices and services to kill that service, despite the inconvenience to folks like me.

What next?

I’m used to companies like Google and Amazon shuttering services I rely upon, forcing me to adapt. Apple could one day falter as well. I view this as an unwelcome but inevitable by-product of evolving technologies and free-market competition. But it also reinforces my 13-year habit of buying my music in iTunes, ensuring I have a local copy that should always be accessible.

But now rumors swirl that Apple could stop selling music downloads in 2019. The download model I’ve relied on since 2004 may be doomed. So in another year I may need to re-assess my approach to digital music. While streaming services will no doubt continue to improve in their usability and the extent of their collections, I’m leery of relying on the cloud.

Clouds can be beautiful and comforting, or impressive and terrifying. But in the end they always evaporate.

12/28/2017 UPDATE: Two trustworthy former students, Daniel Quick and Brian Taylor, independently urged me to try using the Plex media server, something I had heard about but only briefly explored a few years ago. Prompted by their recommendations, I’ve now installed its server software on my Windows 10 desktop and have Plex apps installed on my iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV. I splurged on a lifetime subscription to Plex Pass to ensure I would not encounter any limitations. Next I need to link it up with Alexa. Then I get to start building new habits on accessing my media around the manor.

Posted in music, technology | 3 Comments

Demagogues and dopamine

December 15, 2017

Joseph McCarthy, demagogue

In these trying times, I’m thinking of demagogues and dopamine. Back in my grade school days, we learned about civics and history. We saw how Father Coughlin and Senator Joseph McCarthy earlier in the 20th century had created needless strife and suffering. The black-and-white videos of their rants as they raised the rabble seemed dated and quaint. We were reassured that they were eventually discredited and faded away.

Father Coughlin

But history has a way of repeating itself. Instead of the wild lies and accusations of Senator McCarthy, we have a political leader who brazenly and routinely lies about anything and everything. Father Coughlin is long gone, but we have a leader of a Christian university who blames sexual assaults on public schools, of all things.

This brings to mind a vocabulary term which my 9th grade civics teacher, the kindly old Mrs. Bird, taught me:

demagogue (noun): a leader of the rabble; one who attempts to control the multitude by specious or deceitful arts; an unprincipled and factious mob orator or political leader

These days the media, which naturally seeks to engage readers by keeping them riled up, breathlessly and endlessly reports on the lies, outrages, and transgressions of our leading politician. How could such a despicable person rise to such prominence? It’s quite simple: demagogues feed on attention, and it matters not whether that attention is positive or negative.

As Kieran McCarthy put it in his marvelous blog post, “How To (And How Not To) Defeat a Demagogue“:

The first thing to remember when you’re dealing with a demagogue, is that your first instinct is always wrong.

When a demagogue says or does something that offends you, you have to restrain yourself, because the obnoxious and offensive stunts of a demagogue are like a big, juicy worm.

And you, my friend, are the fish.

If you see the worm, become righteously indignant, and take the bait, he’ll have you hooked, and you’ll be right where he wants you.

He further points out:

It’s not just that demagogues say what they say just to get rise out of us. They do, but that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that they’re counting on the righteous indignation of the outgroup to promote the message to the ingroup. Without the righteous indignation of those who oppose the message, the demagogue gets no attention at all, and thus has no influence.

Kieran McCarthy knows how to defeat demagogues

So let us heed the advice from one McCarthy on how to disarm another: to defeat a demagogue we must exercise self-control and restraint. Here are his three ways to NOT defeat a demagogue:

Public Lectures

Lecturing a child doesn’t work. Nor does lecturing one’s political opponents. If the goal is to create a public record of your opinion, then criticizing a demagogue may achieve that goal. But if the genuine goal is to defeat the demagogue, then a public lecture will almost certainly have the opposite effect.

Loud Protests

Protests can be an effective tactic in strategic campaigns against injustice, and have been used at times to great effect. But publicly protesting a demagogue who is not yet in power is a foolish and self-defeating tactic. It only serves to give the demagogue more attention, which is what he needs to increase his influence. Even worse, if handled poorly, it can lead to sympathy for the demagogue, and create converts to a message that wouldn’t likely have cared for it otherwise.

Ad Hominem Attacks

Demagogues succeed because they trigger emotional connections with their followers. Mockery is an awful method of persuasion and does not sever those emotional connections. Rather, it merely strengthens those bonds and further entrenches the followers to their leader.

So what should we do? Kieran McCarthy goes on to encourage us to employ, for demagogues who have not yet risen to power:

The Silent Treatment

Demagogues are like mean, stray dogs. They’re relentless and persistent, and the fact that they are alive and well proves that they have well-honed survival instincts.

But if you stop feeding them, they will go away.

Let Your Actions Do the Talking

Every time we click on a link that talks about a demagogue; every time we post a comment or write an article; every time we whisper or shout their names, we’re doing them a favor.

If you want to defeat a demagogue, you must remain steadfast in your refusal to be a pawn in his game. And that means purging him completely from your information diet.

I am trying to implement that last piece of advice in my own life. Facebook has tracked my every Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, and Angry to construct an addictive rewards system out of my oh-so-personalized News Feed. It has constructed a filter bubble it entices me to live in, wasting my time and energy registering my responses and distorting my perceptions.

Please pay attention to what Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former Vice President for User Growth has to say:

I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew, in the back of our minds…something bad could happen…

It literally is a point now, where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works…

If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it and rein it in. It is a point in time where people need to hard break from some of these tools and the things that you rely on.

The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem…

It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.

Dopamine

How our bodies use dopamine is quite complex, but it is certainly a key component in addiction because one of its many roles is signaling to us what is important. And we have to realize that living and liking in our Facebook bubble is no way to live or learn. So much of what fills our News Feed is NOT important, dopamine be damned. But we’re now acting like Pavlov and his dog, eagerly ringing our own bell with every Like on Facebook, drooling our lives away.

Sure, keeping up with friends and family is great, but what is the point in scanning and clicking a response to yet another link about yet another political outrage? That is not constructive engagement, but soul-sapping entertainment. And why should I care about the provocations of a narrow-minded firebrand who has not risen to power? We can avoid getting burned out by focusing on facts and analysis, rather than outrage and inflammation. We should put our energy into real-world actions and interactions over the ghost world of virtual reality.

So I’m fighting to defeat the demagogues and break the dopamine feedback loop. I’ve deleted most of the political posts on my Facebook page as they are mostly outdated and ephemeral. I will continue to post on political topics, but try to maintain my focus on factual analysis for those wishing to be informed, not inflamed.

And I’m steeling myself to begin ignoring many of the political posts in my News Feed, giving my attention only to ones centered in factual analysis, not click-bait. And I hope to focus more on what is truly emotionally rewarding: the posts which allow me to keep up with friends and family and what’s going on around town.

My goal is to spend less time on Facebook, freeing myself to read a good book and, quite literally, take a hike.

Won’t you join me, Friend?

Posted in politics, random, technology, video, web link | Leave a comment

Bringing a new Harmony to our home theater

November 21, 2017

My purchase of a new OLED television and then a new AV receiver meant it was time to revisit the remote control situation at Meador Manor. And, as usual, that meant spending time and money on a new solution to an an old problem.

The old universal remote control

Logitech Harmony 880 Remote

In 2007  I purchased a $128 Logitech Harmony 880 Remote Control to operate my system. That universal programmable remote, with its programmable display keys, allowed me to just press one button to turn on the television and receiver, along with any other devices, set each to the appropriate inputs, and control the system. Thus it allowed me to avoid relying on five different remote controls, although I still needed a dedicated Voice Remote to use the Amazon Fire TV Stick, since it relied on radio rather than the infrared signals the Harmony 880 could produce. As I changed out devices over the past decade, I would hook the remote up to my old MacBook Air laptop to reprogram it, customizing various options and buttons. I had to replace its rechargeable battery pack once over the years.

Teaching an old dog new tricks

I painstakingly reprogrammed the Harmony 880 when I installed the new television and AV receiver. That meant hooking it via USB to my old MacBook Air, which has the outdated programming software on it, to change out devices and adjust activity settings. I also had to aim the new television remote at one end of the Harmony in order to teach it various command codes, since the old database for that remote no longer kept up with the latest components.

However, no matter how much tweaking I did, I could never get it to reliably power on the devices, set them to the appropriate inputs, and get the sound set the way I wanted. It kept getting one or more of the variables out of sync. The old remote could actually control each device, but it couldn’t reliably track system status and sequencing.

What next?

The new Harmony Companion with its hub

After spending a lot on the new television, receiver, and Apple TV 4K, I wasn’t in the mood to spend a fortune on a really fancy universal remote. But I also couldn’t merely rely on the LG Magic Remote that came with the television. While the HDMI-CEC connection gave it control of the receiver, it still could not control the Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, or Sony VCR.

I found that Logitech now offers, at the same $130 price point as my Harmony 880 in 2007, a two-piece Harmony Companion remote control system. It consists of a powered hub and a handheld unit which, unlike the old single-piece 880, doesn’t have a screen.

I decided that could be a worthwhile tradeoff since that means the Companion’s handheld unit can reportedly can run off its CR 2032 lithium cell for months, since it has no screen to power and only communicates with the plugged-in hub. That sounded nice, compared to having to remember to set the older and bulkier 880 remote into a charging station every week or so. And for some years I’ve had to jiggle and press it to get it to actually connect and charge. So I bought a $130 Companion remote system rather than dropping $300 to get the Harmony Elite, which sports a programmable screen on its handheld unit.

The separate hub plugs into AC power and sits in my cabinet on top of the Blu-Ray player. It blasts IR signals out into the room, which bounce off everything and reflect to control the television, receiver, Blu-Ray player, Apple TV 4K, and old VCR. The system includes a wired IR blaster you can also connect and place strategically if you need to place the hub itself in a closed cabinet.

Setup

The hub also handles WiFi and Bluetooth signals, so I was able to program the system wirelessly with a Harmony app on my iPad, rather than having to connect it via a USB cable to a computer like I had to do with the 880. The Harmony app is available for both iOS and Android tablets and smartphones.

It was simple to plug in the hub and use the iPad app to connect it to WiFi. Programming it to identify my devices was as simple as inputting the manufacturer and model of each one. However, I found that it could not control the old Sony SLV-N81 VCR except to power it on and off. I couldn’t complain too bitterly, since that VCR dates back to 2001. I used the iPad app to manually teach the system the basic commands by selecting a button on the Harmony remote to be programmed and then pressing the matching button on the VCR’s own remote while aiming it at the top of the hub, repeating the process for each command.

So now I had the new remote able to control the television, receiver, Apple TV, Blu-Ray player, and VCR. The next step was to add “activities” like I had with the old 880. You can have plenty of different activities and individual device control via the Harmony app, but the dedicated handheld unit can only support six activities. So I set up:

  • Watching a movie with the TV’s Amazon app
  • Using a different Smart TV app, such as YouTube
  • Watching broadcast television
  • Watching a disc in the Blu-Ray player
  • Using the Apple TV 4K
  • Watching a videotape in the VCR

Harmony 880 vs. the Harmony Companion

Three buttons on the remote trigger the specific activities via short and long presses. I do miss the ability to select a device for manual control while in the midst of an activity, something the 880 could do, but I’ll learn to grab my iPhone or iPad for that when needed. And I was happy to be able to install the Harmony app on Wendy’s iPad, since that will make controlling the system less cryptic for her with its labeled activities.

The Harmony app on an iPad

I was able to set up the various activities, and by adding a few delays and extra commands here and there I was able to get everything to work well. I was gratified to find I again had single-remote control over everything in the system, able to press a single button to begin or end various activities.

There are also six Smart Home buttons on the remote which are labeled for use with Philips Hue bulbs, programmable outlets, and the like. So I could theoretically put some of my Hue bulbs in the living room lamps and have them automatically adjust for various activities, or use a programmable outlet to control a lamp.

Our home automation consists of Amazon Echos in the kitchen, office, and bedroom, one Philips Hue bulb in the lamp on my nightstand, and an old wired programmable thermostat. Wendy has made it clear that she’s reached her limit on home automation, so I haven’t added any more Hue bulbs nor programmable outlets. Consequently, we have no use for the Harmony Companion’s Smart Home features.

The bottom line

If you want to control a system of devices from different manufacturers with a single remote control, the Logitech Harmony Companion will do the job if you also have access to a tablet or smartphone.

Posted in HDTV, technology | Leave a comment

Updating our AV receiver

November 21, 2017

My previous post documented the new OLED television I purchased in October 2017 for $1,600. Since the television is actually one component of a basic home theater system, before completing that purchase I thought about what additional hardware upgrades might be needed. First I considered how to get content onto the set.

  • Broadcast television: We don’t have cable TV, but our chimney-mounted antenna pulls in various HDTV broadcast stations from Tulsa. Of course these signals are only 1080p resolution at best, with no wider color gamut or high dynamic range.
  • Television apps: The set comes with its own YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, Google Play Movies & TV, Hulu, Sling, and LG Channel Plus apps. We already have subscriptions to the first two services.
  • Amazon streaming: The old TV required use of a 1st generation Amazon Fire TV stick and a Voice Remote, which we often used for renting or watching streaming movies via Amazon Prime. We could use it to access Amazon Music Unlimited, although we mostly employ Echo devices around Manor for the latter. The new set’s built-in Amazon video app, which I think will support UHD with HDR 10, rendered the old Fire TV stick  superfluous and didn’t require that we invest in a new Fire TV with 4K Ultra HD.
  • Apple streaming: We weren’t so lucky with the 4th generation Apple TV which Wendy and I use to share YouTube and website videos via Airplay to television, and on which we occasionally rent a movie from iTunes. It still worked fine, of course, but I spent $199 on a just-released Apple TV 4K with 64 GB of storage so that we can enjoy rented iTunes movies with Dolby Vision’s higher dynamic range and wider color gamut.
  • Google streaming: I have 1st and 2nd generation Chromecasts, but wound up never using them even though I pay for Google Play Music. That subscription is just a cheap way to get the ad-free YouTube Red service. Since the television has its own Google Play Movies & TV app and YouTube app, I won’t bother with a new Chromecast Ultra, especially since I can use Amazon or Apple for streaming movies.
  • Optical discWhen I sold off my collection of over 350 CDs back in 2010, I also sold off a few dozen DVDs. But I still have a collection of DVDs and Blu Ray discs, mostly music concerts and oddball television series one cannot reliably access via streaming services, along with favorite movies with added features like commentaries and documentaries not currently available via streaming services. So I considered purchasing a new UHD Blu-Ray player to replace my regular 2008 Sony BDP-S350 player, which cannot support higher dynamic range, wider color gamut, or 4K resolution. But the UHD Blu-Ray product category is immature and the disc options limited, so I’m waiting to see if anything comes along to make that upgrade worthwhile.

So I got off easy on input devices, only choosing to upgrade the Apple TV. The TV also had plenty of HDMI inputs and a great remote control, allowing me to make do with my 2003 Panasonic SA-HE100S audiovisual receiver. But, having upgraded the picture so greatly, I thought it was time to see what I could do to improve the sound without spending too much more.

The old receiver and surround sound speakers

The old Panasonic receiver

Back in 2003 my Panasonic SA-HE100S receiver cost me $300. So it predated the HDMI standard now most commonly used in home theater systems, instead relying on optical audio and RCA stereo inputs and outputs. It was old enough to sport presets for things no longer part of most home theaters, such as a compact disc (CD) player and multiple videocassettee recorders (VCR). However, I still have an old VCR in my system,  which I use on weekday mornings to play aerobic workout tapes I recorded in the mid 1990s.

Back in 2003 I hooked my then-new receiver up to a new $300 Onkyo SKS-HT500 home theater speaker system. The speakers are 5.1, meaning there are left, center, and right speakers along the monitor wall, left and right surround speakers, and a subwoofer that is so large it doubles as a lamp table. The surround speakers are not ideally placed; one sits several feet away on the mantle above your head when you watch a movie on the couch, and the other is on the floor right beside the other end of the couch.

I’m not interested in shifting them to unsightly locations that would provide better sound, and I simply don’t care about overhead sound from Dolby Atmos and similar systems. My old receiver had no automatic calibration to balance the surround speakers nor equalize them for optimum sound. So the few available speaker settings were just manually adjusted back in 2003 and never adjusted again, except for my occasionally tweaking the gain on the subwoofer.

The Onkyo speaker system, unchanged from 2003

 

Making do for awhile

My old receiver actually still worked okay with the new television, despite its antiquated inputs and controls. I initially used the television as the HDMI hub and sent its output audio to the receiver via a digital optical cable.

I did notice that the playback sound for my Apple TV was not in sync with the picture. I had to modify the “AV Sync Adjustment” setting in the Sound menu of the television, by trial and error, to adjust the audio timing to restore synchronization.

However, I noticed that my old receiver was sometimes playing in stereo when I expected it to use its Dolby Pro Logic II or DTS-ES surround sound. And even after reprogramming, my Logitech Harmony 880 universal remote was having trouble getting the television and receiver to both sync up to the correct settings and inputs. Those issues and a passing comment from Wendy on how the receiver seemed dated were enough to prompt to go shopping for a new one.

The new receiver

Given that I wasn’t going to spend the money to replace my basic surround sound speakers, I saw no reason to break the bank on the new receiver. But I did want something that would be fairly easy to use, could serve as the HDMI hub for the Apple TV and Blu-Ray player, supposedly supported pass-through of high dynamic range and wider color gamuts, and could automatically calibrate my surround sound speakers.

After considering the various online reviews and recommendations from CNET and other trusted sites, I opted for a Sony STR-DN 1080 receiver, which cost me $598. I’m chagrined to note that Black Friday sales have currently brought it down to $400. Ouch!

My new receiver is a Sony STR-DN1080

The new receiver sports a minimalist appearance, helping it fade away in the cabinet below the television. Unfortunately, the old silver Sony VCR in there still stands out.

A tangled mess

When the new receiver arrived, I pulled the television cabinet away from the wall, exposing my WiFi router, which was perched atop a tangle of wiring. I actually had fun untangling things and discovering that I was able to eliminate quite a few outmoded cables.

Cables for the long-missing TiVo were removed, and I replaced various older and longer HDMI cables with some short ones I bought which were definitely HDMI 2.0-compliant. Both the television and the receiver had one HDMI port with ARC, which standards for Audio Return Channel. This lets you connect the two with a single HDMI cable and pass sound either way, from the TV to the receiver or vice versa. More importantly, this port supports HDMI-CEC or Consumer Electronics Control, where one device can control the power, volume, and the like of the other.

The wiring of the old receiver

Making our lives more interesting, each manufacturer has its own brand name for HDMI-CEC; LG calls it SimpLink. So I made sure I set the television to “Audio Out (Optical/HDMI ARC)” and navigated its settings menus to enable LG SimpLink. Then I made sure I enabled “HDMI Control” in the receiver. That let me retire all of the digital optical cables plugged into the old receiver.

Pin connectors vs. binding posts

My old surround speakers terminated in stripped speaker wires hooked into pin connectors and some binding posts. I wish I could have instead just used banana plugs to connect the speakers, as that is so much easier and the new receiver had a full set of 5-way binding posts. But I wasn’t about to try and solder banana plugs onto the old wires. Instead I just suffered and painstakingly threaded 14 different wires into various posts, being careful to heed the old labels I had attached to each one 14 years ago to track the + and – terminals on each of the five surround speakers and the two remote speakers in the office. I needed the signals to go to the correct speakers and avoid phasing problems.

Subwoofers, for whatever reason, still use RCA-style connectors, so that was the one speaker that was easy to switch to the new receiver. If you are ever puzzled by the myriad connector types (there are over a dozen different ones on my two receivers), Crutchfield has a nice illustrated guide to them.

Comparing the connections on my new receiver (top) and the old one (bottom)

The new receiver supports up to seven speakers and two subwoofers in various configurations. I’m using a 5.1-2 setup of five surround speakers, a subwoofer, and two remote speakers. But I could give up on the remote speakers and reconfigure those channels for a) two upward-firing Dolby Atmos speakers which would bounce sound off the ceiling, b) two ceiling-mounted speakers, or c) back left and right surround speakers. However, I’m unlikely to ever upgrade the speaker system for any of those options or a second subwoofer.

I hooked in the radio antenna, but I did not bother to hook my old VCR in. There is a 75-ohm coaxial cable going from it to a switchbox that can connect it or the outdoor antenna to the television. I don’t listen to my old aerobics videotapes during my workouts, instead listening to podcasts on Bluetooth headphones connected to my iPad. But if I ever want to listen to a tape, the television can send the audio signal to the receiver for me through the HDMI-ARC cable. The Apple TV 4K and Blu Ray player hooked into the receiver with HDMI, leaving many HDMI ports free on both the receiver and the television for any future devices.

The little calibration microphone

I plugged in the little calibration microphone in the front of the receiver and held it where we sit to watch movies while the system ran a calibration. It didn’t take long, creating a variety of odd sounds to decide how to adjust each surround speaker and the subwoofer. Everything sounds fine to my ears, which are anything but golden.

I completed most of the setup on the receiver, confirming it could playback sound from the various devices and switch video as needed. Both it and the television can pair to Bluetooth headphones, so I can avoid annoying Wendy, whose hearing is far more sensitive than mine.

The receiver also has WiFi, so when either of us turns on AirPlay with our iPads or iPhones, the TV and receiver turn on and tune that in automatically, which seems a tad creepy but is convenient.

After installing the receiver, I did a firmware update that reportedly added Dolby Vision HDR passthrough, something my Apple TV 4K would require. I installed HDMI 2.0-compliant cables and ran the Dolby Vision HDR setup on the Apple TV 4K, but it failed. Tweaking settings on the receiver did not help. So I unhooked the Apple TV 4K from the receiver and plugged it directly into a spare HDMI port on the television. That got Dolby Vision to work. So the only device I’m currently feeding through the receiver to reach the television is the Blu-Ray player.

The bottom line

The new receiver under the new television and atop the old VCR

Everything now seems to be working fine. Upgrading the receiver was another expensive hassle, but now the speakers are supposedly calibrated, and the television and receiver work in perfect harmony in controlling each other.

Speaking of harmony, since 2007 I had used a Logitech Harmony 880 universal remote with my home theater. As various devices came and went, I was able to reprogram it with my old MacBook Air to operate almost everything with one remote, although I still had to use a Voice Remote for the old Amazon Fire TV stick. The new LG television solved that issue, and its Magic Remote is fun to use, but is unable to control the Apple TV 4K or the Blu Ray player, let alone the old Sony VCR. Long tweaking sessions could never get the old Harmony 880 remote to properly set up the inputs and muting on the newer devices for different sources.

So in my next post I’ll detail my experience in replacing the Harmony 880 with a new Harmony Companion universal remote.

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Oh, LED!

November 19, 2017

The Black Friday 2017 shopping season is almost here, and if you’re thinking about a new television, there’s one I can recommend based on recent experience. I splurged on a 55″ LG OLED television last month, which I was able to get at Black Friday-level pricing.

I should note that I can’t boast that Meador Manor has a true home theater. Unlike some rich folks, we don’t have an elaborate home theater room with a big expensive screen, projector, surround sound, fancy seats, or lighting. We just have an entry-level surround sound system in our living room, hooked up to a television that sits on a stand. We mostly stream movies from Amazon or iTunes, share YouTube videos via Airplay, and have a regular Blu-Ray player. But, nonetheless, our new television is pretty impressive.

Currently you can buy the same television for “only” $1,500, but if you’re like me, you need some good reasons to plunk down that sort of cash! So I’ll outline for you what I had before, why I chose this unit, my initial impressions, and the additional forthcoming upgrades it has prompted.

What to look for in a new television

My 40″ Sony LCD TV

In 2010 I upgraded from a 30″ HDTV cathode ray tube television television to a 40″ Sony KDL-40HX701 LCD television that cost $800. I’ve been very happy with that television, but it is considered small by today’s home theater standards, and it can’t support the higher resolution, higher dynamic range, and wider color gamut that have become available for some movies in recent years.

Mind you, Wendy and I rely on our iPads for most of our video watching, only turning on the big system to share a movie or a video clip with each other and for my weekday morning workouts to old aerobics videotapes. Meador Manor has not had cable TV service since 2008, when I switched to internet-only service. While I do have an antenna I mounted on the chimney back in 1995, and it pulls in many HDTV broadcast channels from Tulsa, we almost never tune those in.

So why in the world did I just spring for a new television that cost me $1,600, and is still $1,500 at Black Friday prices? As usual these days, the answers are acronyms: HDR and OLED and DCI P3; but I didn’t buy it for its other major abbreviation: 4K UHD. Below I’ll make some sense of this blizzard of acronyms and their meanings for my older Sony Bravia KDLHX701 and the new LG OLED55B7A television.


Display type (important): LCD vs. OLED

Old Sony set: Its pixels work by having placing a thin-film-transistor liquid-crystal display (LCD) in front of a cold cathode fluorescent lamp. So it creates darker areas, including its attempt to display black, when its liquid crystals are energized and untwist, so that far less light passes through two perpendicular polarizing layers. The color is provided with red, green, and blue filters. Some light always leaks through, so “black” on these sets is a dark gray, limiting its contrast.

oled-and-lcd

New LG set: Its pixels are organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) which directly emit light when energized in what is called electroluminescence. The different colors come from organic compounds in the diodes that produce yellow (i.e. red and green) light or blue light. Color filters allow these to be manipulated to produce red, green, blue, or white light. Since each pixel is self-illuminated, when one is turned off you get a true black with incredible contrast. This creates a much more pleasing image, even though OLEDs cannot reach the highest brightness levels some LCD sets can produce. My new set reaches 1,000 nits of brightness in its highlights, which is quite good.


Dynamic range (important): SDR vs. HDR

Old Sony set: Its backlit LCD produces standard dynamic range (SDR) images, meaning it has a typical brightest-to-darkest ratio for its pixels.

aja-sdr-hdr-chart.jpg

New LG set: Its OLED technology gives it high dynamic range (HDR), so there is a greater difference between its brightest and darkest pixels. It supports both the HDR10 Media Profile and Dolby Vision HDR standards, which are the two most common standards for transmitting high dynamic range information in a video signal. Supporting both standards allows me to not worry about that latest format war.


Color gamut (important): Rec. 709 vs. DCI P3

Color gamut refers to the range of colors a set can produce. Older HD televisions like my Sony set provide the range of colors in the Rec. 709 standard, but newer sets can offer a broader range of colors, which is also called a “wider color gamut”. My new set covers 99% of the larger DCI P3 color space standard for digital movie projection, so that’s good enough. Someday we’ll have sets that cover the even larger “Rec 2020” color space, but there’s no telling when that will be.

17662543dab6fdc0b7


Resolution (unimportant): 1080p HD vs. 4K UHD

Old Sony set: Its 40″ diagonal screen has 1920 x 1080 pixels, which is the top resolution of standard high-definition (HD) television.  As for how it builds up each image and how often that is refreshed, it can show typical high-definition videos with 1080 progressive scan lines with 24 frames per second for most movies (actually displayed at 60 frames per second via a duplication process called 3:2 pull-down) or 60 progressive frames per second for videos, while also supporting the lower-level HD resolution of 720 progressive scan lines and the old-style NTSC television signal’s 480 scan lines which interlaces half of them at 60 frames per second for an effective 30 full frames per second.

UHD-4K-HD-SD-resolution-comparison.png

New LG set: Its 55″ diagonal screen has 3840 x 2160 pixels and can show ultra-high-definition videos with 2160 progressive scan lines. It scales up the older lower-resolution standards as needed.

Whereas switching from standard definition to high definition was important for a sharper picture, this change is NOT.  At a normal viewing distance from any reasonably sized television, our eyes simply cannot perceive the increased resolution. At Meador Manor, we sit eight feet from the screen. So we would have to upgrade to a screen size of 80″ or more to actually perceive a difference between HDTV’s 1080p and UHD’s “4K” resolution of 2160p.

Screen size and viewing distances

So you really shouldn’t buy a television just for 4K resolution and certainly should not ever waste money on an expensive 8K set. Cameras are the same way, where the number of megapixels is now generally so high you don’t need to worry about it. Computers went through this sort of shift long ago: we used to be able to tell a computer would be faster because it had a higher clock frequency (various megahertz and then gigahertz numbers), but that has stalled out and now you have to think about how many cores are in a chip and how a solid state drive is the key to fast performance.

The bottom line? If you already have a large LCD HDTV, don’t upgrade unless you get a set that supports HDR and wider color gamuts, and you should shift from LCD to OLED technology to really get a visual bang-for-your-buck.

The initial experience with our new 55″ LG OLED TV

The big new OLED TV arrived a couple of weeks ago. I knew it would be incredibly thin, except for the lower portion with the electronics, but it was still startling to compare it to the older LCD television. However, since we don’t mount our TV on the wall, the thinness is not a feature we really care about, while the reduced weight was certainly nice for moving it about.

Hooking up the system components was easy, even though my old audio receiver lacked HDMI ports, since I could use optical audio out from the TV to the receiver and the TV itself had plenty of HDMI ports for the Blu-Ray player, Apple TV, and more. It has built-in support for Amazon Prime video, so I didn’t need to plug in my older Amazon Fire TV Stick, and I replaced my 4th-gen Apple TV box with a new Apple TV 4K box for $199 to ensure any iTunes movies we rented would be the best available.

My new 55″ LG OLED TV

Example images from various sources

To try and illustrate the imagery the set can provide, I set a tripod on the couch with my Canon EOS Rebel T6 digital SLR camera and used a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM lens to take some shots during the day with daylight streaming in from open blinds on the left side of the view. The TV actually looks better in person than it does in the shots, since the camera picks up pixellation that is not perceived by the human eye when actually viewing the set, and its own sensor interacts with the incoming light differently from human vision.

My first views were of 4K HDR screensaver videos on the Apple TV 4K, which were stunning for both Wendy and me. The extra resolution doesn’t matter for watching something from the couch, but 4K is so high-res you can get within a couple of feet from the screen and not see any pixels. The high dynamic range and wide color gamut of the OLED set means it finally lives up to the hype about seeming like a window looking out on the world, given the limitations of the human eye.

Apple TV 4K Screensaver

You can try viewing one of the Apple TV 4K screensavers on a computer monitor using YouTube, but you have to be sure to click the settings gear icon at lower right, pick Quality, and select the 2160p 4K version, and of course the monitor or device you watch it on may not actually reach 4K resolution. Notably, the YouTube versions do NOT support high dynamic range.

I loaded up a preview of The Martian on the Apple TV 4K, which claimed to be streaming in both 4K and with HDR. I tried to capture a shot showing how HDR allows for very bright and very dark imagery in the same shot, without blowing out all of the highlights or losing the shadow details. Note that this is an effects shot, so it was NOT actually rendered in 4K resolution.

iTunes preview of The Martian in 4K HDR

Amazon video is built-in to this LG television, so I got a shot from the 4K preview of Wonder Woman from that. However, the video and effects in that film were not true 4K. Again, the banding you’ll see in the shot below is not perceivable when you view it in person.

Amazon Wonder Woman preview in 4K

The TV upscales lower-resolution signals, so I connected the chimney-mounted antenna I erected back in 1995 and pulled in a 1080p HDTV broadcast from a Tulsa station. It looked great.

Over-the-air HDTV broadcast

So what about a simply terrible legacy video source? The unit has to deal with that each weekday morning when I play back an episode of Everyday Workout from one of my quarter-century-old videotapes. From 1993 to 1997 I recorded episodes off the Lifetime cable channel onto VHS tapes, cramming 10 or more episodes onto each tape by using the low-quality EP/SLP mode that recorded six hours of video per tape.

Inputs on the new TV

At first I tried the weird combination dongle that came with the TV to connect my VCR’s composite video cable and RCA stereo audio cables into a single yellow port on the back of the TV. The sound worked, but the video would not show up, no matter what settings I adjusted.

So I gave up and ran a 75-ohm coaxial cable from the VCR’s output into the matching Antenna/Cable In port on the television. That worked great, but I also needed to connect the outside aerial to that same TV input, since my old VCR can’t understand modern broadcast HDTV signals. Using a cheap splitter in reverse to connect both sources into the television yielded a picture, but with terrific interference. A cheap hardware coax A/B isolation switch solved that problem, with me punching one button to connect to the VCR and another to connect to the antenna.

1993 VHS EP/SLP recording playback

As one would expect, the image from the old videotape was extremely soft. After all, when upscaling a VHS tape, the TV is taking an input with an effective resolution of 333 x 480 pixels at best and scaling that up to 3840 x 2160 pixels. In this case things were even worse since the source tape was recorded in the worst-quality mode. So I was impressed by how well the TV plays back marginal legacy sources, and my morning workout videos look better than ever.

Actually using the thing

The webOS 3.5 Smart TV software for selecting content and services is pretty handy and easy to use with the included Magic Remote. The remote is gyroscopic, so you just wave it around to move the cursor, and it supports voice commands. You select sources, from Live TV to a connected device to online streaming services, by pressing a button and picking a blade icon from a scrolling set at the bottom of the screen. There is a promotional video that illustrates the interface.

LG Magic Remote

The remote offers only partial control of the audio receiver and doesn’t control the Blu-Ray player or Apple TV, so if you have a surround sound receiver and other devices, you will either need to use multiple remotes or try using an expensive universal and programmable Harmony remote from Logitech or the like; more on that later.

A button on the remote lets you quickly navigate commonly used settings with the cursor, and of course you can also dive into the setup menus to burrow deeply into various obscure settings. I had to do that to deal with a picture and sound synchronization issue with the Apple TV 4K. My old audio receiver is needed for surround sound, but it lacks any HDMI ports. So I had to feed the Apple TV’s HDMI output to the TV and then send the audio from the TV to the receiver via digital optical cable. That pathway delayed the audio output, so I had to manually adjust a delay setting in the TV menu system, using trial-and-error, to get the picture and sound to synchronize. I was certainly glad the set included the ability to fix this sort of problem.

Our first movie on the new television

The first movie Wendy and I watched on the new television was not a modern 4K HDR movie. Instead, we continued to draw from long lists of movies each of us has compiled, alternating between each others’ lists for our movie nights. This time it was time to pull something from my list. Her list had yielded The Hurt Locker last time, which was pretty violent and intense. So I retaliated by picking the violent but very dated and oddly paced Rollerball, a 1975 Norman Jewison science fiction dystopia that fascinated me in my youth. It certainly wasn’t in 4K or HDR or the like, but I was still surprised on how good it looked on the new television.

We streamed a HD version from iTunes that probably originated from the movie’s Blu-Ray reissue. The picture was so sharp and clear that it looked more like what I associate with television soap operas than the grainy and fuzzy film transfer I recalled from watching it on old broadcast TV and on VHS or DVD. I was startled to see for the first time the wood grain on the ramps in the arena, and the closeups of the garish eye make-up on the females in the movie were disturbingly clear.

1975’s Rollerball

Given my experience with old sources, I’m confident that new movies shot in HDR and wide color gamut will be truly stunning on this set, while 4K resolution won’t really matter much when you sit back to watch, but it is there if you want to get ridiculously close.

Additional upgrades to come

My 2007 Logitech Harmony 880 Remote is outdated

If I tried to use all of the remotes for the various devices in our system, I’d have five of them splayed out on the side table. But since 2007 I’ve used a Logitech Harmony 880 programmable remote control to simplify things. With my old system, I could control almost everything, except the Amazon Fire TV Stick, with the Harmony remote. One button would turn on the television, receiver, and any other needed device and set both the television and the receiver to the appropriate inputs.

Faced with the new television having to serve as the HDMI hub, I pulled out my old MacBook Air laptop and legacy Harmony software to adjust the programming on the Harmony remote, which was updated by plugging it into the laptop with a USB cable. A lot of tweaking got most things to function, but there are still glitches with the audio source and muting when switching functions.

My 2003 Panasonic audio receiver is also outdated

That and the lack of HDMI support in my old audio receiver prompted me to order a newer Harmony Companion remote control and a new Sony audio receiver. I’ll set those up and then report on them in a later post.

The bottom line

If you already have a big LCD HDTV, upgrading to an OLED television like this with HDR and a wider color gamut might be worthwhile, but don’t waste your money on a 4K LCD television that lacks those extra features. And, as always, be aware that upgrading one component in a system of devices may lead you to upgrade additional ones as well.

That’s it for now; I have a new receiver and universal remote to unpack and set up!

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