Television

Cutting the Cable

I’ve been hearing from so many friends and acquaintances that they do just fine without cable TV.  Who are these insane people who get by without a Tivo or DVR?  How do they get HBO?  How do they watch sports?

Marta and I have become one of these households.  Our 2-year contract with Comcast ended and they wouldn’t budge on the bill without another commitment, so we cut the cable.  No Dish, either!  And no, we aren’t downloading TV illegally.  We’re too old for such shenanigans.  So how are we coping since we cut off cable in November?

  1. We buy shows we really like.  I have 2 guilty pleasures in Discovery Channel shows Moonshiners and Gold Rush.  I purchase those online for $3 each in HD.  I’m going to be buying a few shows from cable networks.  Among those are Longmire, Justified.  I prefer the Amazon Instant Watch service to purchase these TV shows as I like their ecosystem the best, however many friends prefer to use iTunes.  Either one works great.  After I buy the show, it’s mine forever.  I don’t have to find shelf space for a set of Blurays or DVDs, I don’t have to worry about freeing up space on my DVR’s hard drive.  It’s just there whenever I want it.  Shows that just took up time are now abandoned.  Sorry to The Walking Dead and Mad Men.  You just weren’t good enough to justify the 42 minutes to watch and $3 per episode.  I’m just not that into you.
  2. Lots of shows are available free online through legitimate services.  I have a full-blown windows PC which uses our TV as a monitor.  We have a wireless keyboard and mouse setup to control it, so we can stream anything that is available on your PC.  I do have to watch lots of commercials now, whereas before I just flipped through them with my remote.  However I can put up with a few commercials for $100/month savings. Free sites include big names like ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, PBS, and FOX.
  3. Marta and I watched Netflix original shows for a little while and particularly enjoyed House of Cards with the lovably naughty Kevin Spacey, but we’ve discontinued that service as the original programming is pretty limited and much of it doesn’t appeal to us.
  4. We watch quite a bit of content free through Amazon’s streaming service.  Since we already subscribe to the Prime service, this is pretty much free entertainment for us.  Our current favorite is their original show Alpha House with the amazing John Goodman playing a right-wing Senator from North Carolina who shares a house in DC with 3 other similarly quirky Republican colleagues, which is our after work Friday TV treat.  There’s lots of other content there, too.
  5. The pies de la resistance is a bit of a surprise to me.  I thought Hulu Plus was a complete waste of money.  After all, aren’t they just selling the same content that you get for free on your PC?  Nope.  They have a plethora of shows, mostly from the UK, which I’d never heard of that are stellar.  In fact, I’d never have heard of them if I didn’t cut cable.  I can’t recommend Moone Boy highly enough.  It’s the story of a 6th grader who has an imaginary adult friend, and reminds me of an Irish Calvin and Hobbes.  Watch it now.  But we’ve also found Pramface, The Wrong Mans, The Thick of It, and Braquo.  I bet that if you have cable you haven’t heard of many/any of these titles.  And they are spectacular.  And if these don’t appeal to you, they seem to have shows that appeal to many demographics besides mine.  There are other competing services out there that we haven’t explored like Crackle and Vudu that I’m sure we’ll get around to soon enough.

I do miss a few shows.  I enjoyed Pawn Stars, but I can’t justify $3 for a 22-minute episode.  So maybe I’ll wait for the episodes to get older and catch up on them when they’re on a streaming service or the whole season is on sale at Amazon.  I finally got into Game of Thrones during season 3, and now I’m going to be out in the cold when season 4 airs.  However I can wait a few months for the whole fourth season to be released at once.  I’m not going to die if I don’t see them exactly when they come out.  That gives me more time for other things like reading, video games, walking the dog, or maybe I’ll go absolutely crazy and exercise or something.

But what about sports, John?  I must admit that I’m not too into sports and I get an out here by cheating.  The only thing I really ever watch is University of Tennessee football (Go Vols!).  Since I live in Washington State, outside the normal viewing fanbase of the Tennessee Volunteers, I can see most of the games for free online.  Those that I can’t are going to be the big ones that I can go to my local watering hole and watch while enjoying my favorite libations.  Or I can visit a friend’s house.  Surprisingly there are lots of SEC refugees up here in the Seattle area, and unsurprisingly they are hospitable.

We do have high speed internet through the telephone company, and that’s no pleasure.  The internet is slower than Comcast.  While there are times when our speed goes down to a crawl, it hasn’t died during wind & snow storms like our cable did.  Of course it’s just been 2 months, so I’ll withhold judgment on that front.  But we pay less than $40/month with taxes and modem rental, and I really like that price difference.  That is a promotional rate for 12 months, so at the end of that we’ll see what options are available to us.  But it beats the $70/month + fees that Comcast would charge us without the modem rental.

This has been an enjoyable experiment.  Comcast did make parting company easier by calling me a half dozen times after I’d cancelled my service to ask for cable boxes I’d already returned.  It feels good to take back a little power and go around Comcast for my content.  It’s a shame that our politicians don’t reintroduce competition to the marketplace and break up the old cable monopoly.  In the meantime, this is what I’m doing and it is great fun.

-John

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Games

My Top PC & Console Games of 2013

Listening to gaming podcasts I am reminded that there is a diversity of opinions about the games of 2013.  I played quite a few and was pleasantly surprised that the year was so innovative.  I’m of the opinion that one should get to know critics and then figure out when you agree with them and when you don’t.  A few that I follow pretty closely are Justin McElroy, Jeff Cannata, and John Davison.  With all that said, here’s my list.

The List:

These games aren’t in any particular order, other than the one I thought of them.  I find that ranking games is subjective and akin to comparing your vanilla and chocolate, so I’m not going to do that.  These are the experiences I’d wholeheartedly recommend to just about anyone who isn’t turned off by their particular flavor.

Papers, Please

I lived in Poland for a year and experienced the country about 10 years after the iron curtain fell.  This game evoked the height of the cold war, and the experience of living in a totalitarian state.  The art style brought me back to days long gone when I stared at a green screen with a matte cover to prevent glare, and I am cool with the limited graphical style.  Where this game separated itself is story.  I reveled in being able to participate in corruption or revolution or repression and in the arcane idiotic rules surrounding the minutia of entry visas.  I work a bit with this a bit in my professional capacity and I think this game does get at some of the idiocy I’ve seen the US post-9/11 and that commentary really works for me.

Gone Home

I went to college in the 90’s and I must admit was a bit of a homophobe at the time.  This game takes me back to that time in the role of a sibling coming home from time abroad.  That’s something I can personally relate to on many levels.  I won’t say much about the story other than that it’s quite strong.  There is a bit of a puzzle mechanic in figuring out your family secrets, but really this is a narrative game where you’re getting to know your parents and sister as human beings.  The music in this game is superb.  I read Marisha Pessl’s novel Night Flim this year and was struck by the great list of media referenced in the work.  This game is able to produce at least the songs that it references and it’s just a joy.  Gone Home gave me hope for games as a media to give an experience just as rich as a novel, if not quite as deep.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

I had very low expectations going into this experience.  I really enjoyed several of the other games in this series, and this is very much in the “more of the same” camp.  The mechanic with the pirate ship brought in elements that reminded me of the classic C64 game that was remade about 10 years ago, Sid Meier’s Pirates.  The ship-to-ship combat is quite satisfying, and there is an enjoyable mechanic that compels one to explore the world in search of collectibles.  This game received lots of exposure, and likely you know if you like it or not from reading this.  Perhaps what I enjoyed most about this game though was that it was when I fell in love with the PS4’s controller.  Everything else here was played on the PC using either mouse or an Xbox 360 controller.  It was hard for me to go back as that PS4 controller is something else, so that may have reflected well on Assassin’s Creed 4.

The Wolf Among Us, Episode 1

I didn’t think that Telltale could improve on the formula they introduced in The Walking Dead.  They learned lessons from some of the problematic “game” elements of that success, and fixed them here.  The next episode is reportedly coming out this month, and I can’t wait.  The story in this dark fairy tale is compelling and rich.  I can’t wait to see where this investigation takes our hero Bigby, and you’re missing out if you don’t give this one a chance.

Xcom: Enemy Within

I loved Xcom: Enemy Unknown.  Truth time: I was in the chess club in elementary school.  I played Battle Chess on my Apple IIgs as a kid.  Enemy Unknown is a combination of chess and playing with those little green army men with aliens thrown in.  What’s not to love, right?!  Enemy Within brought this to the next level and added increased complexity and plot twists to this experience.  I love that I’ll be able to replay that story and enjoy that strategic experience again and again.  Animation and mechanics are strong and stakes are quite high as your troops, whom you develop from recruits to officers, sometimes need to be sacrificed.  And they’re dead.  Forever.  Some sadistic sods on the internet have named their Xcom soldiers after friends and family.  You can even alter the appearance of your troops to make them look like them.  But in Enemy Within, you’re going to need to cut off some of their arms and legs so they can be meldings of Man & machine.  I just can’t do that to Mom.  Anyway, this is a superb experience.

Shadowrun Returns

This is another turn-based game, but it has stronger character progression (so-called “RPG”) mechanics.  It’s kind of a sci-fi Dungeons and Dragons style experience.  I didn’t think they made games like this any more.  Well, I guess I was right, but then this came around on Kickstarter and I was on board.  I was reminded of Icewind Dale or Planescape: Torment when playing through this gem.  It wasn’t quite as deep or polished, but it brought me back to a genre that I am excited to see more of in the new year.  The upcoming Berlin expansion and Wasteland 2 have me stoked for more indie retro experiences in 2014.

Backlog of things I really need to play:

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon

Defense Technica

Kentucky Route Zero

Civilization V: Brave New World

Sleeping Dogs

Shelter

Steamworld Dig

Much to my embarrassment, I own all of these games except Steamworld Dig.

-John

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