Which TV?

Well, the other day I found myself shopping for televisions. I had a set budget of $500 (plus tax) to spend thanks to some credit card rewards points but I didn’t want to spend beyond that in the least. A few quick minutes of research brought up a plethora of quality displays that were under consideration. I hate choices. I needed to narrow it down so I went on a research binge. With me, these are drastic, involved, all-consuming things, so I made sure to set some deadlines in order to prevent permanent decision-making incapacitation. By the last day of my available time I had dropped the contenders down to two basic options. Not doing well narrowing it down that last bit, I took to the lazyweb to answer my quandry, and posted this:


Yep. A Twitter poll. What was I thinking. That shows my two final potentials, and the results were pretty clear, right? Nope.

I ended up going with the loser of that poll. I’m guessing the vast majority of you don’t care in the least, but some of the opinions were pretty strong that I should go with the larger display, so I might catch a little flak. Here’s my reasoning:

I’ve always been a proponent of spending money on the important things, rather than just getting whatever. With TV’s that’s always been picture. With my old 27″ CRT, I researched the snot out of the thing until I found the best possible value. With my one and only LED/LCD screen, I made sure to find a quality panel, but ignored any of the smart apps since they didn’t offer any added value to me. This time around, it’s become obvious that TV manufacturers aren’t bothering to put quality panels into non-smart TVs, so that was no longer a cost saving option. With these two TVs, I had the choice between a larger display at identical resolution, or a comparably sized display at the new hotness 4K resolution. The majority of people were suggesting to me that bigger was definitely better. In the end though, you know what else I found?

Better is also better.

Spec wise, the 43″ M-series display was a tremendously better TV than the entry level E-series. 2 more HDMI ports, more than double the local dimming zones on the backlight array, and obviously 4 times as many pixels. There really wasn’t much comparison between the two. however visiting the store in person is what sold me. Seeing the two TVs side by side, obviously the dedicated 4K stuff was incredible. It really was leaps and bounds above anything I’ve seen in “standard” High Def. The real telling aspect however was actually seeing the in-store standard promo loop, which I was told was only 720p. Seeing this footage side by side on both the Economy displays and the Midrange 4K screens showed much better upconversion on the M-series. The exact same “low-res” footage looked crisper and better on the nicer panel. This is important to me since I end up watching a fair amount still in those lower resolutions.

As it stands, right now there aren’t many 4K streaming sources available, and I don’t own ANY 4K local content devices, but judging by the popularity of 4K displays, those sources aren’t going to stay that limited for long. I fully expect a plethora of content to become available over the next few years. Since I don’t want to keep buying more tech so often, the more future-proof display seems smarter to me in the long run. I know there may still be some format disputes in that arena, but with the increasing fragmentation of ever-faster technological innovation, that seems inevitable no matter when you jump in.

Gamer Girls

Once again I’m seeing a lot of interesting commentary on girls in gaming. This time around it seems centered around news that just surfaced about the new Assasins Creed game. Now, I don’t follow those games at all. In fact, I haven’t even played a single one. I’m just going to use it to talk for a moment about that highly touchy subject. I don’t have any idea what kind of fuses this might touch off, but I hope for it to be nothing but an opportunity for civil discussion.

Lately there has been a huge number of controversies about the roles of women in games. “There aren’t enough female characters in games!” is the usual battle cry. Often it is countered by someone citing specific minor examples that don’t really signify any major change for the industry as a whole. Female skins overlying an existing male-oriented storyline don’t go over well (duh), and this new example of a playable female character (but only 25% of the time) aren’t going to do much better. The problem here that I see lies deeper.

I suspect the vast majority of people playing the games that are the center of these compaints, are male. The developers are simply catering to the lion’s share of their audience. I probably won’t be winning a lot of fans saying that, but I suspect it to be true. Also, women’s poor representation in games likely stems from the also male dominated game development industry. These men can’t empathize with what girls are looking for as far as equal representation in a game simply because they have too many Y chromosomes, and not enough X’s.

Where the problem genuinely stems, is that game development industry. More women gamers need to up their game and become developers, either for major studios, or simply as indie companies. They would inherently identify more with the female market and likely produce awesome games that feature girls in roles where they genuinely shine, rather than just supplement. In the mean time, other games (probably still a majority) will continue to be developed similarly to present, that cater to the male demographic that is probably also a majority.

Don’t take me wrong. I am not against gamer girls in the least. On the contrary, I want to foster and grow that precious resource as much as possible. I have 3 girls of my own of very formative ages, and much as I try, I can barely interest them in gaming at all. It has been far easier to hold the attention of my 2 boys at the same or younger ages. I hope in time I’ll figure out the recipe for success with them, but I suspect that I’m simply not using games that resonate with their interests. Once again, I suspect that’s where good female developers come in.

Coding for Dummies

I really want to learn to code. Seriously. I always have too. It’s not just one of those things that just cropped up withing the last few years as the worldwide push for coders gained momentum. I remember copying BASIC out of our TI 99/4A books and loving the fact that those words made real things happen. I just never got around to internalizing any of it. Fast forward to today and I still wish I knew what I was doing inside any number of programming languages, but now that I have the comprehension level to handle it, I don’t have the time.

Coding isn’t natural for me, at least not yet. It takes me banging my head against the keyboard an inordinate amount of time before I finally dawn on the far more elegant solutions for things. Because of that, I’m usually stuck learning syntax and never actually knowing anything. 5 kids and a full time job tend to keep me so busy that I only get free time to try and learn new things in 5 minute increments. I can’t build up a full head of learning steam in that short amount of time, so I simply regress to finding some quick way to decompress like browsing Twitter or researching a wishful-thinking purchase.

None of this surprises anyone who knows me, but what often does is the reason I want to learn. Most people who know me for my hobbies (most currently laymanslights.com) assume I want to learn how to make websites, or at least make them better. Wrong.

I want to make video games.

Stop laughing.

When I was copying BASIC programs, I only copied the games. When I was experimenting with HyperCard on a Mac Classic, I was trying to make point and click adventure games. I sketched levels for imaginary top-down tank sim games and adventure maps all through my school years. I just never knew where to start to gain the knowledge to make them realities. Plus I didn’t have the attention span. Some things never change.

Even today. I have scribbled notes all over my house and computers that detail at least half a dozen different game ideas. Who knows. Maybe someday I’ll figure out how to turn these sketches into some kind of reality. At least now I know where to find the tools, I just don’t know where to find the time.

Just know that if i ever manage to make anything worthwhile, it’ll be at least 30 years in the making.

Oh Captain my Captain

Today I am deeply saddened by the news of the loss of one of the most entertaining actors Hollywood has ever produced. It was announced yesterday that Robin Williams has passed away, apparently from suicide. This is a true tragedy. Here was a man that was capable of so much. From children’s films to serious, heavy roles. To learn that he struggled with depression to the point where he thought this was the path of least resistance is a terrible revelation.

I personally understand this struggle in all to real a way. This has been my life as well for many years. Honestly, it is simply my faith, my family, and my friends that have buoyed me up on a daily basis. It pains me to think that Mr. Williams did not apparently have enough of these things to prevent this from occurring. To lose all hope and see death as the only possible recourse against the pain of continued existence is a terrible place to be.

At this point though, my fear is that Mr. Williams did not gain anything by his actions. The desire to commit suicide is the desire to end all pain. The desire to cease to exist. To embrace nothingness and simply no longer be. Unfortunately, this is not the case. To quote a uniquely relevant Yoda, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” We are not this body, nor this life. We are an eternal soul, and we simply currently possess this body and inhabit this life. Death is not the end of our existence, and that means we have to choose our path carefully while we can. My prayer is that Mr. Williams did just that. I hope with all of my might that he began a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and trusted Him to forgive his sins.

The Bible clearly states, “No one is righteous, no not one.” “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that, the judgment.” God is purely holy, and cannot allow anything but pure holiness into Heaven. The good news is that Jesus Christ, God’s own son was made fully man, and yet remained pure and undefiled by remaining fully God. This allowed him to voluntarily take on our sin and it’s punishment and thereby impute His holiness to us. If we place our trust in Him, when God looks at us on Judgment Day, he will only see the holiness of Jesus.

People who commit suicide don’t do so because they want to die. They only want to escape the pain and hopelessness that every living day brings. My greatest fear today is that Mr. Williams may not have escaped pain, but may possibly have entered into an eternal, unendurable judgment. I hope and pray that is not the case, and that he did choose to dedicate his life to Jesus before he reached this decision.

Either way, his death can be a wake up call to many. At least, this is one more example that depression is a serious disease that needs to be brought out in the open to be treated, and not simply stuffed down inside where it can fester. At most, I hope his death will get more people contemplating eternity and the enormity of existence beyond the transitional grave. My prayers go out to Mr. Williams’ family, in hope that they might be comforted after this loss.

The world has lost a real someone. Robin Williams brought laughter and happiness to many through his art. We are better off having known him.

Oh, Captain, my Captain.


Another book review: The Hunger Games

I wanted to like this book. I needed to like this book. Ever since I read the Harry Potter series for the umpteenth time, I have been in search of another immersive, epic length adventure and the rising star popularity that had been afforded this trilogy seemed to fit the bill. Throw in the strong hints of near future, post apocalyptic Sci-Fi, and this was sure to be a winner. Right?


The first book genuinely drew me in. I was reading what I hoped would turn out to be a brilliant commentary on the social and moral ills that would bring us to the point that gladiatorial combat between children could in any possible way be considered entertainment. That subject, by the way, is one that I find completely appalling and was in no way an actual point that drew me to these stories. Instead, the further I got into the books, especially book 2 and 3, the more incredible the story became. I mean that word in the most literal sense as well. Not. Credible. I am all for a suspension of disbelief when it comes to a good story, but it has to make some kind of sense in the end. You can get me to ignore the laws of physics, or the constraints of human endurance. I can look the other way for the existence of fictitious creatures, even magic, but common sense still needs to prevail. That didn’t happen with these books.

I admit, throughout the entire first book I still believed myself to be on the path to greatness. There was some signs of future character growth. The relationship/alliance with Rue was probably the authors most brilliant move in a desire to make you believe in Katniss’ purpose. That however was extremely short lived, and once again we were back to square one. Katniss vs. herself. Sure she wins the games, but how much of that did she really do herself?

This is where my suspension of disbelief starts to really play in. After staging such an enormous and drastically evil event such as the games in book 1, what is the direction played out in book 2? I assumed it would be political turmoil leading to revolt and overthrow. I was a little right, but first we have to hold another, nearly identical games, with nearly identical obstacles to overcome. Hey, it worked the first time right? Why not have another go. It’s got to be just as popular the second time around. I genuinely can’t believe that she tried writing essentially the same book, but this time she made Katniss even more helpless than before.

“What?” You say. “Doesn’t she take more charge this time around? Do more things on her own? Not really. No. She is made to believe she’s doing stuff, because the rebellion that I was hoping for is being organized right under her nose. She doesn’t find out about it until too late however because everybody else knows that she’s too weak and fragile to not break down, chicken out, or give the whole thing away before it comes to fruition. Let’s not forget though that the whole plot hinges on a series of random chances that couldn’t possibly be counted on to happen. I won’t ruin those for you, mostly for the sake of brevity, but it made things significantly less believable for me.

Book 3 however really falls apart. The hoped for rebellion has happened and everything is working spectacularly…or terribly depending on the scene. Katniss has become a figurehead to lead the rebellion, but when push comes to shove, she’s made a front line foot soldier. Oh yeah, let’s not give her any of the modern technology guns we have, let’s rig up a special bow and arrows that is capable of taking down future fighter planes because it looks more like her image from the games. Then of course, the pivotal second half of the book, a major invasion army to take the Capitol and finish the war. Guess what though, the city has been rigged with crazy cartoon death traps just like the games were. Never mind the less expensive, more effective, easily deployed in a pinch wherever you actually need them explosives. Nope, we’re going with giant meat grinders in the subway system where an army might wander through. Also, let’s not forget genetically engineered lizard monkeys that smell like a particular scent designed to insult one particular person. Ridiculous.

Katniss Everdeen was touted as finally a strong female lead in an action/adventure novel with cross gender appeal. I’m going to argue that is complete bunk. Starting in the first book if you are looking for it, but further into book 2 and 3 we find that she is anything BUT strong. She is just a stereotypical scared little girl who wants nothing more than to hide in a corner and cry her eyes out, whilst everyone else in the story who occupies any sort of protagonist role is tasked with saving her life, either emotionally or physically. And hide and cry she does. A lot.

In the end, The Hunger Games isn’t a commentary on social injustice and moral decay housed in an action adventure story, but rather it uses a little of those elements to forward the real narrative. The Hunger Games is actually a sappy teenage romance. The constant love triangle between Katniss, Peeta (the baker is named after pita bread? Really?), and Gale is always in the forefront. “Do I love him? Or him? Or anyone?”

If you’re looking for an unbelievable sappy teenage romance that tries to compete with Twilight, then you’re in luck. If you wanted to enjoy these books at face value, then head on down the line. Suffice it to say I was not amused. By the end I was only still reading out of spite.

And don’t even get me started on the movies, that’s a writeup for a different time.

Video Jukebox

Several people have been asking me lately about the specifics of my home entertainment setup. I’ve been fairly vocal about all the steps I’ve used to get to where I am, but it’s never been recorded in one place.


Spoiler Inside SelectShow


My path began several years ago when I saw huge 300 disc DVD changers for sale. I thought that it would be pretty cool to be able to just grab a remote control and watch whatever movie you want without bothering to juggle discs. Later, when I ripped my entire CD collection to my hard drive and stopped using discs altogether, I assumed there was a similar solution available for movies as well. This was over 10 years ago and it has taken me until now to finally get all the pieces in place.

The problem is two-fold. First, I discovered that DVDs have inherent copy protection on each disc that CDs don’t possess. It’s not even always the same copy protection either. What works for one disc will not always work for another. The second, and greater, hurdle was how to adequately render files ripped from the DVDs on my television. I wanted this aspect to look decent. I didn’t want to have a mouse and keyboard connected to a computer sitting next to my TV. I could see myself firing up an old Linux box, navigating filesystems, being presented with nothing but a list of file names with ugly underscores and file extensions in order to choose a movie. The thought appalled me. I needed a simpler, more elegant solution.

I’ll cut to the chase here. After experimenting with DLNA/UPnP, a number of transcode options, and connecting my TV as a 2nd monitor among other things, I landed with a setup that seems to fit all my current needs.

Ripping DVDs has gotten incredibly easy. I found that I prefer .iso image files as my ideal destination because then the entire disc is one single container, rather than a hierarchy of folders that runs a greater risk (in my mind) of getting corrupted or portions getting lost. I am still tied to the Windows ecosystem, despite my best efforts to depart, so I use a program called DVDfab Passkey for removal of copy protection, and ripping to image. It’s a relatively simple process. It just sits in the system tray, and when the disc is inserted I just wait a few extra seconds for it to process before the disc is available. At that point I right click the program and say “Rip to Image”. It remembers my recent save path, so I just verify the filename and send it on its way. Most discs take about 20 minutes to rip entirely so it has been happily spinning in the background for a few days now.

I’ve been saving my files to a shared NTFS drive that I’ve got on a headless Ubuntu server. I chose NTFS simply because I will be interacting with it so frequently from my main Windows machine. I’m pretty sure that some other Linux-based format would be preferred by the next step, but this works out fairly well. This machine also has other uses than simply file system (read: Minecraft servers), or I would be running a more standard NAS software than a full server install.

Playback is the real pièce de résistance. I’m using a Raspberry Pi running RaspBMC software (An XBMC install that encompasses the entire OS) connected to my TV via HDMI. I had to buy the extra Mpeg-2 codec for the RasPi, but that’s only an extra $3 or so. With this setup, I have a beautiful interface that allows me to browse my DVD’s and other video files categorized into Movies and TV shows and sorted by Title, Genre, etc. It adds movie posters, TV promo images, and fan-art to improve the visual experience. It replaces clunky filenames with simple titles and even adds plot summaries and synopsis to each episode. It keeps track of which shows I’ve already seen so I can more easily keep my place in a series. Best of all, now that I’m ripping every DVD to an image, it opens that image as if you just put a DVD in the tray of a conventional player. Instead of playing strictly the main title like it would if I were transcoding everything, it includes the full menu structure and even extra features. The best part is, I’m using my actual TV remote control through to control RaspBMC through built in CEC in my Television (my LG calls it “SimpLINK”). There’s even an XBMC remote control app for my phone that will allow either direct input controls (up, down, left, right, enter, etc.) or allow me to browse through my library and queue files in whatever order I feel like viewing them.

This is way more functionality than my original concept of a ginormous 300 disc changer, and the only thing connected directly to my TV is a tiny computer the size of a deck of cards strapped to the back of my entertainment center with the rest of the power bricks and cords.

Of course, now that I’ve gotten this far, there’s no way I can stay stagnant forever. I’m already looking at potential improvements to this setup. Plex could be an interesting option, software-wise, whereas in addition to a more efficient server/NAS, both the Chromecast, and Roku might be potential directions for hardware. I’m also looking for a way to better automate the .iso creation, and see if I can compress the files at all for more compact storage.

Why carry a knife?

I’ve got a new site in the works, but before its ready for public consumption, I whipped up my thoughts on that most ancient of everyday carry items, the pocketknife. It may need more polish before hitting the mainstream, but for what it’s worth, these are my thoughts.

Why carry a knife?

Just about anyone who boasts a preparedness mindset will tell you that a knife is potentially the single most important EDC item. Why is this? What reason could there possibly be to require a knife on a daily basis? I’ve heard these questions before and they always indicate only one thing: The asker has never tried it.

I was maybe 12 or 13 when my father presented me, without ceremony or occasion, with a small pocketknife. I remember him saying something along the lines of “Here, you may need this.” Without thinking much of it at the time, I slipped it into my pocket and continued throughout my day. This knife was nothing special. It was a small folder with one, non-locking blade that was maybe an inch and a half long. There wasn’t a brand name to be found. I didn’t know it at the time, but that day my life changed forever. From then forward, I was a knife carrier. A member of an elite crowd that has taken the first steps toward perpetual preparedness.

Most of the time, it was and is used on simple everyday tasks that. These things usually can be accomplished without a blade, but are made indescribably easier with one. Opening packages or letters is probably foremost on its usage list. I work in a production environment so cutting paper or tape is a frequent task. Personally, I tend to clean and disinfect my knife frequently, so it has seen duty in everything from personal hygiene to food preparation. Friends, family, and coworkers have all come to expect a blade to be handy whenever I am around, so it is constantly being loaned to those less prepared. Quite a few of them have actually become converts after a few uses and bought knives of their own for perpetual duty.

Even if a blade never sees more use than this, it is already fulfilling a need. It is, beyond that, a comfort to know that if it were to come down to a true emergency, or even the unthinkable full societal breakdown, a knife is probably the most useful survival tool available to man. From hunting and killing, to harvesting and preparing, to building and crafting, a knife is a prerequisite for most survival tasks.

Over the years my daily carry tool has seen a number of upgrades, through multitools and various folders. Its current iteration is a simple lockblade folder called the Kershaw Blur with a half serrated blade (model 1670RDST). I’ve been carrying this particular knife for 10+ years now and am still extremely pleased with it. The short serrated portion gives me peace of mind that I will easily be able to saw my way out of a locked seatbelt or trim paracord in an emergency even if the main blade has become a little dull over time. Its assisted opening with a thumbstud (different from a switchblade in small, but crucial ways) makes one hand deployment a breeze, and its not-too-aggressive profile minimizes the number of people who immediately assume it to be primarily a weapon out of fear. This is a tool, through and through, though it does possess the potential to be used as a weapon. At the same time, so does a hammer.

There are many major brands making quality knives today for all kinds of different aesthetics and intended uses. Kershaw, Benchmade, and Spyderco are just scratching the surface. Even lower end brands like Gerber and Buck make good, reliable products. The real key is that the only good knife in a pinch is the one you actually have with you.

If you’re still wondering what possible use carrying a blade could be, all I can say is “Try it.” Consider this your own “Here, you may need this” moment. Give yourself two weeks of intentionally carrying a knife every day, even a small one, and just see if it changes your life as well.

Two Thousand Fourteen

Lose weight. Make more money. Do more things. New Years Resolutions are generally destined to fail. Most likely because they are so vague. Instead of vague resolutions, I instead propose the following series of measurable goals for the upcoming year. Will these be the only goals I have, no. I fully expect to add to the list over the year, but they are the ones I’m making today.

1. Lose 15 pounds. I’m currently 190, and I want to get back to the 175 where I was more comfortable. I’ll make it happen.
2. Create 1 new revenue stream. I want more income, but I would like to start becoming less dependent on simple salary to deliver it. I have a few ideas where this could go, but I don’t know for sure. This will be an adventure.
3. Write 52 new blog posts. Essentially at least one post per week. I won’t limit it to strictly this blog, nor to laymanslights.com, but across all my blogs I want at least 52 new articles by the close of the year.

There we go. Step 1, put your goals in writing. Check.

Thoughts on the fiscals of a “dream job”

I am fed up with day-jobbery. I don’t know why this is, nor when it started, but I do know that I really would like to find some method to support my family running solo. Something where my own efforts equate directly to my income level, and the daily work is something I find myself looking forward to on a regular basis.

Today, however I have been finding myself looking at what that really means, fiscally. Lets say I were to create a blog where people are paying an exorbitant fee (in my mind at least) of $250 per month for advertising. Forget the blog content at the moment. I’m going to simply go on the presupposition that I can magically create content that will drive enough visitors to the site.

If my goal is a moderate $50,000/year salary (enough more than what I make now to warrant the switch, but not so much to be simply fantasy) I would need to sell 16-17 ad spaces every month in order to come close to that. That’s 16-17 companies that see enough value in ~5,000 pixels of space to rent them out from me for that much money.

This doesn’t sound so easy any more.

Well, what about other forms of content creation. Something that is marketed more at the direct consumer, and in much lower purchase points? Smartphone apps and ebooks are both selling for $.99 these days on a fairly regular basis. Seems like plenty of people are making the real big bucks with those (Angry Birds, for instance). In order to meet that same goal, once administrative fees are factored in I would need to sell almost 6,000 electronic widgets a month. That’s nearly 200 of them per day!

200 new actual human beings that want shell out a buck for my thingamabob. Every. Single. Day.

That’s intimidating.

I still don’t see this as an insurmountable wall, but I definitely see the obstacles more clearly now. Obviously these things aren’t impossible, or nobody would be doing them. Obviously some people are, because these “professions” exist.

I need to get busy.

My completely unedited and impromptu thoughts on Harry Potter

I am completely unapologetic about the fact that I am once again reading the Harry Potter series for the umpteenth time. I actually lost count around time number seven. I absolutely love these books. It is one of the most interesting and entertaining stories I’ve yet come across. We get to watch the three main characters grow from innocent and blissfully unaware 11 year old children into full grown (albeit only 17 year old) adults. J. K. Rowling has crafted a world that is both entirely believable, and simultaneously silly and fantastic. I am continuously surprised when I find little nuggets of foreshadowing starting all the way in the first book, pointing down the line as far as the conclusion. Her sense of continuity is spectacular. In the end you are left with an amazingly satisfactory wrapup that only leaves you wishing for more time in this magical world.