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!”

Bourke/Spencer tram stop not fit for purpose

If ever you want to see what the priorities really are, look at the resources they’re given.

At this tram stop — Bourke/Spencer Street westbound — the few in cars have clearly been prioritised by the many in trams. While passengers are squashed into a narrow pathway, motor vehicles (if any turn up) are given two spacious lanes.

Bourke St/Spencer St tram stop

Who on earth designed this tram stop? And who approved the design?

It opened in 2007, with Yarra Trams (under its previous operating company) saying at the time:

The new platform stops comply with Disability Discrimination Act requirements and include ramps for wheelchair and pram access, as well as passenger shelters, lighting and real-time tram information.

“We want to ensure that reliable, accessible and sustainable transport options are available across Melbourne”

That said I expect it would have been a collaboration between the tram company, the Department, VicRoads and the City of Melbourne.

Bourke St/Spencer St tram stop

Fast forward to 2016, and it’s clear the stop isn’t fit for purpose. Yet they knew it would be a busy stop, because it’s been designed to be two full tram lengths wide. (Connect Melbourne’s busiest tram line with a huge busy station serving almost every suburban line, all the regional trains and coaches, and the Skybus — of course it was going to be busy!)

The width of the platform isn’t ideal, but the real problem is the main exit ramp, towards Southern Cross station, as well as the sequencing of the traffic lights.

As you can see from the video below, crowds coming off trams get caught on the ramp. This clears so slowly that often not all the people can exit during the green phase of the traffic lights.

Once people have crossed the road to leave the stop, the majority of them have to wait for another green phase to cross Spencer Street to enter the station.

If you sit through the entire clip (yes it’s a bit monotonous; that’s what alighting tram passengers get every day) you’ll see numerous people are tempted by the design to jaywalk.

Or jump to 3:30, where you’ll see a large number of people walk across against the light. A few seconds late you’ll see some people try to cross parallel with the westbound green phase, risking being hit by turning cars.

It’s not the only super stop with these types of problems. But clearly in this case design is flawed.

A wider platform (at the expense of a car lane) would help. So would better traffic light sequencing — perhaps a pedestrian scramble so people get a green sequence to cross directly into the station.

With the trams getting ever busier, it can’t stay the way it is.

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, 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.

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.

The Montague Street bridge strikes again

It used to be that the fashionable bridge for high vehicles to crash into was the Spencer/Flinders Street rail overpass — eleven hits in five years.

But it’s been usurped by the Montague Street tram bridge.

At lunchtime on Tuesday I went down to have a look.

Certainly no shortage of warnings signs. In this view alone I count four, plus the stripy guard barrier in front of the bridge:
Montague St bridge, looking south

What you may not realise is that it’s actually two parallel bridges. One takes tram route 109; the other has spare tracks used for tram storage, as part of the nearby Southbank depot. (Originally one was the Port Melbourne line; I’m guessing the other was freight tracks or sidings.)
Montague St bridge, looking north

Similar to train bridges, there are signs indicating you should ring Yarra Trams straight away if a vehicle hits the bridge. Presumably that phone number has been rung a few times recently.
Sign on Montague St bridge

I was only there for about ten minutes, but unbelievably, another vehicle hit the bridge while I was there. This truck’s exhaust pipe hit the barrier. The pipe bent markedly, but stayed on. The truck driver stopped momentarily, then just kept going.
Truck damages exhaust, Montague St bridge

Not a serious collision of course, but amazing that despite all the signage and all the publicity, it still happens so often — this was the day after it had been hit twice.

And thankfully the vehicles are really hitting the super-tough guard barrier, so damage to the bridge itself (which would cause untold delays for many tram services and passengers) has so far been avoided.