RIP TiVo 1?

Tonight, we noticed that our TiVo hadn't been dialing in for programming updates in almost a week. At first I thought it might be the phone cord; we have two rabbits who occasionally get under the TV and chew through the phone cord (but only the phone cord; they've never gone for power cords or the cable TV cable or the audio cables). A quick check revealed no chew marks. I unplugged and replugged the cord at both ends, hoping it was a bad connection, but no dice. Finally, I dragged out The World's Longest Phone Cord and plugged the TiVo into a different outlet in another room. This confirmed our worst fear—the modem is futzed.

We had a bad lightning storm some time last week. One flash of lightning came with immediate thunder, and the smoke alarms in our house went off. (They're the kind that are wired together.) I suspected at the time that the house was hit, or at least suffered a near miss. Now, I'm more convinced, since we seem to have a casualty on our hands.

We've been TiVo users for nearly 6 years. The prospect of facing television without it is a little scary. The clock is ticking; we have less than a week of program information remaining. After that, the box reverts to a glorified VCR.

Three options have come to mind:

  1. Someone we know has a Series 1 of vintage similar to ours. The hard drive in that one has failed, but as far as I know the modem still works. They can't use it because they no longer have a landline. We may try to beg, borrow, barter, or buy it and transplant the hard drive from ours into it.
  2. Repair kits are available; Google for "tivo modem repair". I don't know how long it would take for one to arrive, and they seem to involve soldering surface mount components (in other words, really really small electronic parts). I can probably handle that (because Daddy can fix anything) but my eyesight isn't what it used to be. You can get a replacement modem that doesn't require cracking the box, but it costs almost as much as a new TiVo (see below).
  3. We bite the bullet and buy a new Series 2. The good news is that they can be had for around $100, which is a lot less than I paid for the Series 1 six years ago.

In the meantime, please think happy thoughts for our TiVo.

On Piracy

No, not the RIAA kind. In fact, Angela is buying songs from the iTunes Music Store while I type this.

I'm talking about the real thing. One of the books I'm currently reading is Pirates of Pensacola by Keith Thomson. It's not To Kill a Mockingbird by any stretch of the imagination, but if anything qualifies as "light-hearted romp", this is it—and it's a damn sight better than the last book set in the Caribbean that I read. There's just something about the premise—that pirates are alive and well and flourishing, sort of, in the Caribbean— that tickles my fancy.

Then, tonight we were at PetSmart buying rabbit litter when we stopped to look at the birds. I suddenly had this revelation that it would be cool to get a parrot and teach it to talk like a pirate.

That's all. Back to your regularly scheduled lives, already in progress.


Back in the RSS, or how to lose a customer

I have fired up an RSS reader again, for the first time in months. I had to give it up last time because I was trying to read between 100 and 200 feeds every day (I don't remember how many, and I can't recreate the list if I wanted to—but more about that later), two of which were Boing Boing and Engadget. If you've ever read either, you know they're each good for twenty or so posts a day.

Well, there was a second reason. I probably could have mustered the self-control to prune my feed list. After all, I did pull the plug. More on that second reason later.

This time around, I'm keeping it small. I'm currently subscribed to 20 feeds, but three of them I own or contribute to (however poorly or infrequently), and a couple others came by default with the newsreader I'm using, looked interesting for the time being, but may be dropped later. My motivation this time was keeping up with my blog buddy. (Ooh. That reminds me of another friend's blog. Up my count to 21.)

It turns out that one's newsreader can have a profound impact on one's enthusiasm for news feeds. Come to think of it, that probably goes for just about every computing activity, at least as far as I'm concerned. I'm that sad, sad combination of code gnome and Macintosh user. I'm regularly awash in aesthetics, and I know from experience how hard it is to write a good, usable application—so I have zero tolerance for third-rate cack that looks like it was cobbled together by some bozo with Visual Basic and freshly-cracked copy of Visual Basic for Dummies. (Oh. Sweet. Buddha. I had to click on two different products at Amazon to find that link. It's going to affect my recommendations, I know it.) I'm spinning off on a tangent. Time to reel it back in.

The first two newsreaders I tried way back when were NetNewsWire and PulpFiction. NetNewsWire seems to be a favorite in the Macintosh community, but it never did it for me. It may have been the interface (I seem to remember it looked so 1999, and I freely admin that I'm an Aqua tramp); or it may have been because it came stocked with a zillion feeds, only three of which held any interest.

PulpFiction, on the other hand, was like that person you lusted after all through high school—pretty to look at, but when you got to know it better, the experience was so excruciating that you wondered what the hell you'd been thinking. In the case of PulpFiction, it was chock-full of Cocoa eye candy, but it was slow. I'd say it was as slow as molasses, but that would be unfair to the sorghum industry. It made me regret every second I spent trying to do anything with it. Come to think of it, there were a few people in high school who probably said the same thing about me.

NewsFire—now that was like... no, I'm not naming names. Let's just say I'm too young for Christie Brinkley and too old for Christy Carlson Romano. Now imagine she lives next door. And she thinks you're cool. NewsFire was like that. I'd call it love at first sight, but I'm pretty sure that's illegal in Kansas.

NewsFire is almost everything a Mac OS X application should be. It's slick, but not gaudy. The interface is simple, but highly functional: a column of feed names, with the count of how many posts you haven't read, on the left, and a pane on the right. Click on a feed name, and the right pane shows a list of all the posts for that feed. Click on a feed, and the right pane is filled with the text of the post. There are handy buttons for moving to the next post (or previous post). As you read posts, or as new ones come in, the feed names swoosh around in their column like screen names in iChat. (Why did I feel the need to explain that? If you're a Mac OS X user, you already know what I'm talking about. If you're not, you wrote me off as a Mac weenie and stopped reading a long time ago. I have learned that a great way to get out of annoying conversations is to say "This one time, on my Macintosh...".) I can't do it justice in words. Go look for yourself.

Okay, so you're thinking, if NewsFire is all that, why do you keep referring to it in the past tense? It turns out that NewsFire decided I was that person it didn't want to be around.

I jumped on the NewsFire bandwagon when it was still in beta—I forget how early, but it was a pretty small number. Every once in a while—fairly often, in fact; David Watanabe was doing a great job of fixing bugs and adding features—it would pop a box saying that a new version was available and I should download it. Fine, I said, download away. And install away. Who doesn't like new versions?

Then, one day, immediately after installing a new version, NewsFire popped a new box—the old "pay up and I'll go away" nag dialog. Fine, David always said it wouldn't be free forever, and I'm in favor of paying for software if it's sweet, sweet software. Which NewsFire was. Except that it wouldn't allow me to add more feeds, at least not until I deleted all but 10 of the ones I already had. (I told you I had a compulsion.) And it kept popping the nag dialog. Every. Thirty. Minutes.

That alone probably wouldn't have made me stop using NewsFire—that took an intervention of one—but it made it easier. I recall that David caught several windstorms-worth of crap via email over this, which he attempted to rationalize in his blog:

It has been noted that NewsFire has “unexpectedly” made the transition from “freeware” to shareware. I put “freeware” in quotes because it never was freeware, and I never said it was freeware - it was in a public beta release. Its eventual transition to shareware was always planned and this plan has always been public knowledge. I put “unexpected” in quotes because this was publicly known since NewsFire version 0.1 in August 2004.

I can't speak for everyone else who complained; I for one knew it was not freeware. My quibble is that he should have put "eventual" in quotes. Or perhaps "transition". Or perhaps "publicly known". "Unexpectedly" certainly does not belong in quotes. I don't recall any kind of warning like, "hey folks, come version 1.0 you're going to need to start paying". Instead, it was "here's a new version", then bang, you're locked out of your feed list and you're being nagged. Every. Thirty. Minutes.

Still, like some daytime talk show reject, I came back for more this go-round. Maybe it's different, I thought.

Wrong. It still looks good enough to eat, but now it has deleted all but maybe 10 of my feeds (with, I assume, no hope of recovery, which is not necessarily a bad thing, since I had so many, but that should be my choice to make, shouldn't it?) and it still nags. Every. Thirty. Minutes. I even set the refresh interval to once per day—I really shouldn't be refreshing more than that; I have a compulsion, remember?—but it still nags. Every. Thirty. Minutes.

So, NewsFire gets left by the curb, without cab fare even. And in waltzes....


It looks as good as I remember, but boy howdy, has the performance improved. It even comes in a less-featureful free version that is, well, less featureful, but at least it doesn't get in your face all the time and beg to be appreciated. Sure, it doesn't have all the bells and whistles that NewsFire does, and I have no doubt that every once in a while we're going to quarrel. But you know what? I think it's going to be okay. It's just good enough that I'll probably use it every day.

And here's the lesson for David Watanabe, which I hope he'll see when he Googles himself and NewsFire and clicks through nineteen pages of other results to find this, because my PageRank is undoubtedly crap:

It's just good enough that I'll probably pay for the full version.


Daddy can fix anything

At least, that's the running joke in our family. I don't recall how it started—possibly it was our daughter's response to my fixing some malfunctioning toy by replacing the batteries.

While I won't suggest that it's a factual statement, there is some truth to it. My father used to do all the work on his own cars (even things like replacing clutches), and somewhere along the way I must have picked up some skills via osmosis. I can't do as much of my own work as I'd like—it rankles me a little to have to pay someone else to change my oil, but it's just too blasted difficult to get to the oil filter on my Honda Civic, and I'd still have to go to someone to dispose of the used oil—but I can do things like replace air filters, light bulbs, and spark plugs. I have even done brake jobs (but not anymore—the safety of my wife and daughter is not worth saving a few bucks).

Yesterday afternoon, the Saturn wouldn't start. You'd turn the key and the dash lights would come on and the starter solenoid would click, but the engine wouldn't turn over. My first thought was that the starter was shot, and since that's way out of my league, we'd have to pay to have it towed to the dealer. (Aside: The Saturn L200 is a nice little car, most of the time. We've had trouble with the fuel pump since day one, but the dealer claims they can't find the problem, so we've just learned to not let the gas level drop lower than 1/4 full, and not to park on hills when it does. There have been a few other problems with it which escape my recollection at the moment, but every time I've said to myself, "my Civic is ten years older, and it's never had this problem.")

The more I thought about it, the more liked the idea that it was much simpler than the starter—like the battery. I decided to take a flyer, bought a new battery, and installed it. (Which was much harder than it should have been. Saturn is now second on my list of "cars which are much harder to work on than they should be", behind Ford. I had to Google for how to remove the battery. For the sake of posterity: To remove the battery from a 2002 Saturn L200 sedan, remove the little black box in front of the battery, and you'll find a bolt holding down a clamp that holds down the battery.) Presto! It starts now.

Nothing like saving who-knows-how-much on a tow to the dealer, plus at least $75 in labor alone, to brighten your day a little.