Spot the production error

I’ve started publishing Singapore trip posts, backdated to the day they happened. Click here to see them.

I found this amusing, way back in the day.

This is a scene from an old episode of The Bill: “Bad Company”, from 1989, repeated on the ABC recently.

Can you spot the production error? How many views did it take you?

The Old Bill

I used to love The Bill, way back when it was a cop show with a sense of realism, rather than a full-on soapie.

The episodes I enjoyed the most, season 4 (from 1988) are currently airing on the ABC, in the middle of the day (around 3pm, and again the next morning around 5am). I’ve got my PVR recording them and I’m checking to see if any memorable episodes pop-up that I want to watch again.

Being a long-running series with a lot of minor once-of characters, many now well-known British actors appeared on the show in guest rolls. The other day there was an episode (“Conflict”) with Alex Kingston as a doctor — no, not Elizabeth Corday or River Song.
Alex Kingston and Nick Reding in The Bill (1988)

Of course it’s also a bit of a time-capsule from the 1980s. A week or two ago one great episode (“Hold Fire”) featured Bob Cryer trying write a report on an actual typewriter…
Bob Cryer (Eric Richard) in The Bill (1988)

…while Jim Carver and Viv Martella were undercover in a pub, playing Gorf and driving game Out Run while they wait for a suspect.
Carver and Martella in The Bill (1988)

Carver: “Oh my God!”

Martella: “What?”

Carver: “I just hit a windsurfer!”

Multi-room music (and Star Wars)

Star Wars episode seven is officially out today on DVD and Blu-ray, but I managed to buy it yesterday — some shops with a name starting with Big and ending in W jumped the gun, as did some with the initials J and B, apparently, though the large W establishment is selling it for $23 (on Blu-ray), which seemed like a pretty good price.

It had been available on iTunes and other digital services for some days, but I wanted the higher picture and sound quality of Blu-Rey. (iTunes can give me HD via my old iPad Mini, but I’ve found it actually drops frames during playback. Not so good.)

It sounds mucho-impressive on the Yamaha surround sound setup that I got in 2014, which I’m very very happy with. This unit does an awesome job with movies and TV, which was always the priority for me — that’s basically why I didn’t go with Sonos at the time; the cost for 5.1 would be about three times what I paid (thus unaffordable for me) and it is limited; for instance it doesn’t support DTS.

Back to the music

But this post is mostly about music.

The Yamaha unit can play my music collection via the network or just off a USB plugged into the front, and it sounds great. It also does online radio (via the vTuner service), which is very neat. I bought a separate Pure Flow One radio (digital/FM) for the kitchen, which also does online radio. Yay, BBC 6 Music!

The only thing my equipment doesn’t do is multi-room music, which systems like Sonos excel at. Yes, I can play BBC 6 in both rooms, but it’s not in sync, which would be handy in a smallish house where the living areas are all within earshot.

So yes, I still have Sonos envy. I regularly see it in action at M+J’s house, and recently I was over at another friend’s house and they have it too. Very nice.

What’s interesting is the emergence of the Google Chromecast Audio, a cousin to the original Google Chromecast (which is used for TVs). GCA, as I’ll call it for short, costs A$59 and brings Sonos-like features to old (active) speakers, and as of a December software update, this includes multi-room capabilities.

So GCA is a bit like a poor man’s Sonos Connect, which retails for A$549, providing much of the functionality at about a tenth the price… well, kind of, sort of.

But there are also other systems now available — more jumping on the Sonos bandwagon every few months it seems. So comparing them, we have (and I’m particularly interested in how much it costs to connect to older equipment):

  • Sonos — the one to beat. Pricey, but very mature technology; they’ve been in this game longer than anybody else. Connection (Sonos Connect): $549, speakers from $299.
  • Pure Jongo — cheaper than Sonos, but more obscure in Australia. Their technology is called “Caskeid” (pronounced Cascade) and apparently Onkyo has licenced it. Connection (Jongo A2) $149, speakers from $199.
  • Denon’s Heos — same price range as Sonos, but the controller app gets poor reviews. Connection (Heos Link) $599 (it’s an amplifier as well, so more of an equivalent to the $749 Sonos Connect Amp), speakers from $379.
  • Yamaha’s MusicCast — compatible with latest model Yamaha receivers, but not mine. Limited range of products otherwise, from $349. Interestingly, this review implies all of the components can connect to old equipment, but looking more deeply, it appears this means only if that equipment supports Bluetooth, which my 2-year-old receiver doesn’t. The newer version of the same receiver (RX-V479) has MusicCast built in.
  • Samsung Sound — has a connection to old equipment called the “Multiroom Link mate” for $449, speakers from $299.
  • Panasonic has equipment using the Qualcomm Allplay standard, which theoretically other manufacturers can all use… but Panasonic seem to be the only ones available in Australia, apart from the near-no-name brand Laser (which I’ve seen in Officeworks of all places) and one Medion product (sold by Aldi… occasionally). Panasonic’sConnection $279, speakers from $379.
  • Harmon Kardon Omni+ — connector $229, speakers from $329. Seems to be getting poor reviews.
  • Bose Soundtouch. The only connection option is the $799 amplifier (similar to the Sonos Connect Amp). Speakers from $299.

Cheapie wireless speakers

But here’s the interesting thing: some brands support Google Cast:

The catch? Google Cast on third party speakers doesn’t yet support multi-room. Google says:

We are working on adding Multi-room group playback support to all of our existing and upcoming audio devices with Google Cast built-in. This will allow you to group your Chromecast Audio devices and Google Cast speakers from different brands into one seamless experience. This feature will be rolled out to all Google Cast speakers throughout 2016.

I’d hate to fall victim to vapourware, so I think I’ll believe this when I see it.

Let’s face it, the technically best solution still seems to be Sonos. They’ve been in the game a long time, their tech is mature, and they’ve got a proven record for selling equipment that lasts, and is upgradeable over many years. If I want multi-room music, I could get a Sonos Connect and then gradually get a bunch of Sonos speakers for around the rest of the house. Cost for Connect plus a speaker is from about $850…

Or I could get a GCA for the Yamaha, another for the Pure Radio in the kitchen, costing $120, and then speakers with Google Cast for other rooms, if the promised upgrade comes through. Cost from about $370.

I’d also need to figure out where to serve local music from. I should check if my router has is NAS capable – some can happily serve up files on a USB stick plugged into the back.

GCA does have a possible flaw: it has problems with gapless music played from some sources… it seems MP3 or AAC format is okay but WAV or FLAC isn’t. (What’s gapless music? Playing consecutive tracks with no gap between them, so that songs that lead into one another like on side B of Abbey Road don’t have short silences between them. Wait, did I just say side B? Showing my age…)

Multi-room music is perhaps the ultimate in extravagant unnecessary lifestyle products for my home. I think I’ll hold off and see if Sonos decide to get a bit more price-competitive and bring the Connect down in price in response to Google Cast and/or see if Google Cast gets a firmware upgrade to properly handle gapless music, and to handle multi-room music on third-party speakers.

Has anybody gone down this road before me? What did you find?

Video shops are dead – but streaming video ain’t perfect

Let’s see if I can go a whole week without writing a blog post about level crossings.

Video shops are dead. For a while there was one (or more) in every suburb. Where I live now in Bentleigh there were at least two. Even Glenhuntly, where I lived in the late-90s, had two.

They were close enough that mostly, I could walk to them. M’s house in Footscray was the exception — the video shops around there dealt with the local migrant populations, and you had to go further afield to find English language movies (or even movies with English subtitles).

Over time the video shops ditched VHS and morphed into DVD shops. But in the last few years, almost all of them have closed, disappeared along with CRT non-widescreen analogue TVs. As with many industries, the internet is taking over.

Ye olde CRT TV (November 2004)

Blockbuster was one of the biggest video shop chains — they now seem to have only four stores left in Melbourne. I’m not sure about Video Ezy — if the White Pages is accurate, they still have about a dozen stores. Any number of individual stores have vanished.

(From my observations, a surprising number of old video shops seem to have turned into fitness centres. Some kind of transformation from couch potato to gym junkie.)

For a while, DVDs by snail mail was the thing. It never caught on at my house. It’s just not the way we watch movies. Usually the decision to rent something is spontaneous. You need to go to a physical shop, or stream it. The other option I’ve tried is renting on iTunes. Unfortunately this isn’t streaming – downloading a movie in HD first can take ages – far longer than it would take to find one of the few remaining video shops.

Streaming video is good, the technology and infrastructure around it has matured, but none of the services are perfect — I’ve now sampled most them.

I used Presto ($9.99 per month for TV or movies, $14.99 for both) for about 6 months. It had a good range, but no HD, and is more expensive than the others if you want TV and movies.

Then I moved onto Netflix ($11.99 for HD). Good range, terrific apps (virtually every platform you can think of) and hooray for HD.

Then I tried Stan ($10, including HD). Good range, slightly clunky iPod app which looks like it should be able to use a cable to your TV, but can’t.

I haven’t tried Quickflix.

The problem with all of these is that the range is good but not brilliant. There were just far too many times I would think of a random movie, go looking for it, and discover it wasn’t available. Ditto with TV.

In a great discussion on the Talking Headways podcast from late 2014 (I’m working my way through the earlier episodes) they talk a bit about Netflix and other streaming services vs the old video shops, and come to the same conclusion: the range isn’t great. It’s probably more restricted than at many of the old video shops.

And even today, the biggest range of TV and movies is at your local JB Hifi store… as long as you’re prepared to buy, not rent.

At the moment I am without a streaming service — we’ve got a few of those old-fashioned DVDs to watch. But I have slowed down DVD/Blu-ray purchases. Barring Star Wars: Force Awakens (out on Wednesday), I’m not planning to splurge on any more discs for now, so I may get back to streaming again soon.

Which one? Depends what I want to watch. I have found these web sites which let you search their databases to see what’s available, without being a member:

These are useful tools, but I’m amused that Finder’s intro text talks about Game Of Thrones, which isn’t available on any of the services they compare.

It seems the streaming rights to that are locked up by HBO for their streaming service… which is only available in the USA. Sigh. Given the range of programming they’ve got, I reckon if they were to launch in Australia, they’d get a lot of happy subscribers.

That’s perhaps the biggest problem with the current streaming services — the content owners have much greater control over what each service can offer, so unlike those old video shops, whole ranges of movies from particular studios are just completely missing. “The long tail” was meant to solve this, but other factors have come into play.

Ten years ago: the Games

Ten years ago this month Melbourne was in the grip of the Commonwealth Games.

As I noted at the time, it was a good excuse to Blame The Games for any delay or anything else going wrong. (Including crowded trains.)

Blame the Games

But it was also a lot of fun. These photos are from the baton relay as it went down my mum’s street.
Commonwealth Games Baton Relay, Melbourne, March 2006
Commonwealth Games baton relay

Here’s a short video… note the lack of lots of bystanders holding up phones, taking photos/video. Ah, those were the days, pre-smartphone. (Mobile phones did have cameras, but they weren’t very good.)

These are from our day at the athletics.
Commonwealth Games Melbourne, March 2006
Commonwealth Games Melbourne, March 2006

Crowds at Richmond Station on the way home — an enlightened policy of no car parking at venues, and public transport included in Games tickets, as well as extra services, meant things actually flowed pretty well. Plus everyone seemed to be in a good mood.
Commonwealth Games Melbourne, March 2006

To get official vehicles around quickly, they had “Games Lanes”. See, it is possible to provide on-road priority… now, why can’t we do more for trams and buses?
Commonwealth Games "Games Lane" Melbourne, March 2006

Finally, a non-Games photo: I must have found this old pre-privatisation (1999) map at a station somewhere. Looks like it might have been South Yarra.
Met rail map, outdated but still on display, 2006