07/21/2017: Slippin’ accent

Despite being born in the Seattle area, from around age four to age ten, I lived in the northwestern Missouri area. During that time, I learned to speak and ended up with a bit of an accent. Until I moved back to Washington state, I did not realize I had an accent. But once it was pointed out to me, I started trying to get rid of it.

One thing I started doing is to enunciate in a “metered” cadence. Not too fast, not too slow. This cleared up most of the accent. The next thing I did, was try to not use contractions when speaking. No more, “can’t”, “they’re”, or “don’t”.

Despite only having the accent for six years and trying to get rid of it for over a decade, you’d expect it to be gone. I thought that too, but when I started doing tech support back in 1999, during a stressful call, it was brought to my attention that the accent was still there. I had started speaking quickly and it came out. Even now, almost thirty years later, I still get the occasional comment that people can hear it when I am tired or stressed.

So, why does the accent persist? Well, my theory is that I am still being exposed to it via TV, movies, and music. I assume this, because I’ve caught myself speaking with the accent after hearing someone else use it.

Just to be clear, I am not ashamed of my accent. However, I know that it makes it difficult for people not from that region to understand me. Also, given that I have not lived in the “south” for a long time, it does not represent who I currently am. Again, not ashamed of living in that area, just trying not to give people a misconception of me. Since I have not lived there a decades, I would not be a good reference to what it is currently like there.

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06/26/2017: Satellites

Back in 2007, I was working at Amgen in Seattle. We were in a building that had been built in 2004. In one of the conference rooms, there was a large monitor and camera, so that people in the Seattle office could have a meeting with those in other Amgen locations. The idea was to be able to let everyone meet “face-to-face” without having people physically travel. Unfortunately, because the technology was still “new”, most of management preferred not to use it.

After my department closed with Amgen, I went to work in the internal help desk at Safeco Insurance. To reduce the cost of renting office space, Safeco had set up some employees across the country with computers and internet that they used solely for work. Safeco would be providing a computer for the employee to use if they were in an office, so that cost was already there. So, all that Safeco had to figure out is, would it cost more to rent/furnish office space versus paying for the employee’s internet connection. When I left Safeco, the company was starting to remove the “work-from-home” program, due to concerns that the company could not actively supervise employees to ensure that they were working.

Currently, I work in downtown Seattle. There are a lot of people who work in downtown Seattle. Every day, we all commute to and from work. As Seattle continues to expand, the commute gets longer. Downtown Seattle is has water on three sides, which creates a “bottleneck” into the city from anyone commuting from the west, north, or east. South of Seattle is no better, because it was where most residents have lived the longest. It is also where the two main airports are located (Sea-Tac and Boeing Field). That makes it difficult to find land to build more roads or highways.

Another issue with the expanding downtown Seattle is the surge in housing costs. The cost for either renting or buying close to downtown Seattle has become almost unattainable for most families. In order to find an affordable place to live, workers are moving further and further away, making commuting longer and longer. The Seattle city council is even imposing rent restrictions to try to help, but they should not have to do that. My prediction is that soon, downtown Seattle will see a huge reduction of workers willing to work in restaurants, coffee shops, and stores. And/or, those businesses will need to severely hike up prices, just to keep workers.

Of course, I have a solution to all of this; satellite offices. These are smaller offices that are opened in cities close to Seattle. Places like Kent (south), Everett (north), Redmond (east), and Bremerton (west). They are close enough that if needed, workers can still travel to downtown Seattle for work that day.

As the two stories I wrote at the beginning of this post point out, the technology has existed to make this possible. In fact, I can make a video call from my desk phone to (almost) anyone else in any of our offices. So, why do I physically need to be in a conference room with them? And given that they would still be in an office environment, there should not be a concern that workers would be unsupervised.

As for the benefits, the obvious one would be the reduction in commute times. And, that would also spur the movement of people to move away from downtown Seattle, which would reduce housing costs in that area. It would also increase the revenue of businesses around the satellite offices that offer goods and services, which could then afford to hire more workers. But, the companies that provide the satellite offices would also see a financial benefit.

Along with the cost of housing, the cost of office space in downtown Seattle also is increasing. I’m guessing that the same square footage for office space in the cities I mentioned are a fraction of what it would cost. And, with more and more businesses moving to the satellite office model, just like with housing, the prices would also come down on office space. Of course, as more businesses also move to the satellite model, the office space in those cities will go up, but still would not be as much as downtown Seattle.

Just like with all new ideas, in order for any of this to happen, it would take some stepping back from what businesses have traditionally done. That is the most difficult part, because decision makers often stick with the ideas that have been tried and proven, which is understandable. However, companies that require face-to-face with the general public, like banks/credit unions, insurance companies, and retail companies already follow this model. So, it is not a new concept, just one that has not been fully adopted by all companies.

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06/22/2017: Building my digital library (part 3)

In my previous posts, I have:

  1. Downloaded the necessary software.
  2. Figured out how to obtain the shows I want.
  3. Figured out the naming convention for the shows.
  4. Figured out how to make the shows into a 16:9 resolution.

Now is time to convert and rename the shows.

I start by opening Avidemux. Clicking on the blue folder icon (Open Video), I find and open the .mkv file that kmttg downloaded and converted. Under “Video Output”, I choose “Mpeg4 AVC (x264)”. Under “Audio Output”, I choose “AAC (Faac)”. Under “Output Format”, I choose “Mkv Muxer”. Then, I click on the “Filers” button under the “Video Output” section.

In the “Available Filters” column, I right-click on the “Add Borders” filter and select “Add”. This is the filter that will add the black borders around the picture. Once I have that information in, I click on “OK”.

Scrolling down the “Available Filters” section, I find, right-click, and add the “swsResize” filter. I change the Aspect Ratio Source and Destination to “16:9”. In the “Resize Dimensions” section, I try to get as close to 1280 width and 720 height as it will let me get. It can only resize up to 200%. So, if the video you added the black borders to is 624×351 (16:9 x 39) or lower, you will not be able to reach 1280×720. Don’t worry if you cannot reach, just get as close as you can.

Last filter will be the “Noise” category. Find, right-click on, and add the “Mplayer Denoise 3D HQ” filter. Don’t change any of the settings, just click “OK”. This will smooth out the picture so that it does not appear pixelated or stretched. Close the filter window and go back to the main window.

Using the slide below the video, I get as close to the beginning of the show as I can. Then, using the left and right arrows for more accuracy, I find the right frame. I click on the “A” icon (Set start marker) to mark that spot. Next, I use the slide and arrow keys to find the end of the program. I click on the “B” icon (Set end marker) to mark that spot.

Clicking on the disc icon (Save Video) will open a window that will let you choose what you want to call the video and where you want to save it. I use the naming convention that Plex recommended and save it in the folder where I plan on putting all my videos that I want Plex to play. Depending on the video size and the computer’s processing power, it may take anywhere from ten to ninety minutes to convert.

Once I have at least one video ready, I can add it to Plex. Using these instructions, I create a Library for each TV series. As long as you used the correct naming convention, Plex should be able to recognize the series and the show. If the show is not recognized, I go back and double-check how the file is named.

Now that Plex recognizes the files, I can play them on any of my devices. The only issues I have had are the file sizes are too large or did not convert correctly. I’ve resolved these by using Handbrake to convert the .mkv file to a .mp4 file, using the “Android 720p” pre-set.

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06/21/2017: Building my digital library (part 2)

No matter what the resolution, Plex is able to stream it to any device. The issue is that it is then on the device to figure out how to display the picture. This will often result in stretched or video with part cut-off. It also puts strain on the system to “figure out” how to display the video. So, I would rather just ensure that everything is set correctly at the file level.

Here’s a side note about converting to HD. As I mentioned, some of the shows were in resolutions lower than HD. If you remember, prior to HD, most TV screens (at least in the Unites States) were square. When HD came along, the picture was rectangular. So, any shows that were made prior to HD becoming widely used (around 2003) don’t fit properly on a HD television. Either they are stretched horizontally, zoomed in, or have “black bars” on each side of the picture. A few shows that my daughter likes are from the 90’s. Also, there are channels that broadcast in Standard Definition (SD). The shows are rectangular like HD, but the resolution is not as good.

The first thing I did is make a table of all the different resolutions of 16:9. The 16:9 is the screen ratio for HD. The 16 is the width multiple and the 9 is the height multiple. For example, a 1280×720 (720p HD) screen is a multiple of 80. If you multiply 80 by 16, you get 1280. If you multiply 80 by 9, you get 720.

Width (x16) Height (x9) Multiple
1280 720 80
1200 675 75
1120 630 70
960 540 60
800 450 50
640 360 40
592 333 37
576 324 36
560 315 35
544 306 34
528 297 33

Next, I would check the resolutions of the TV shows that were transferred. Each series usually had one or two different resolutions. For example, one series had a resolution of 528×300 in season 1, but changed to 528×332 in Season 4. Now that I knew that, I could compare the two numbers to match one of the 16:9 resolutions on the table I made. The 528×300 matched 544×306 resolution (16:9 x 34). The 528×332 matched 592×333 resolution (16:9 x 37).
I could just “force” them both into a set resolution, like 16:9 (35): 560×315. But, that would either mean cutting off part of the picture or adding a lot of the black box around the top or bottom of the picture. For example, the shows with the 528×332 resolution would have a total of 17 pixels cut off from the top & bottom. The shows with the 544×300 resolution would require an addition of 15 (total) pixels of black to the top and bottom of the screen.

Now that I know what my goal resolution is, I need to figure out how to get to it. So, I subtract and divide the different resolutions. Here is how I calculated the 528×300 resolution

Width Height .
544 306 Goal resolution
-528 -300 Current resolution
16 6 Difference
÷2 ÷2 Divided by 2
8 3 Padding

The “padding” is how many pixels of black lines I should add to top, bottom, left, & right of the picture to make it the goal resolution. As long as you have a set number of pixels to add that are divisible by 2 with a whole number (no fractions or decimals) remaining, things will be okay. In this case, I need to add 8 pixels of lines to the left and 8 pixels of lines to the right. The amount of pixels of lines I need to add to the top and bottom is an issue, though. The number “3” is not divisible by 2 into a whole number. So, we have to split it in a way that will equal 6, but will not be equal. I choose to put 4 pixels on the bottom and 2 pixels on the top (like the image below).

To be continued…

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06/16/2017: Building my digital library (part 1)

Some time ago, I made two posts about how I have set up my home network for streaming shows from my computer to each TV and mobile device. This post is more in-depth on how I get the content ready to stream.

Currently, most of the content I am streaming is from television. Eventually, I plan on transferring all my DVDs & Blu-Rays, but not yet. I have two TiVo boxes that I am transferring the shows from to my desktop computer. In fact, the shows I am transferring are ones that my daughter likes to watch repeatedly. And because she likes to watch them so much, we cannot delete them from the TiVo, which means there is less and less space to record things my wife and I want to watch. Once they are available on a central location, I can finally delete them.

The first thing I did is try to figure out how I was going to stream everything once it was on my desktop computer. I wanted something that was free and would work with all the devices that I currently had. After a little research, I decided on Plex. When I first started this process, I was running Windows Vista on my computer, which was not currently supported. I ended up downloading a old version of Plex. Once I upgraded to Windows 10, I was able to unlock all the potential the app offered. Therefore, I recommend having the latest OS if you plan on using Plex.

Next, I created a spreadsheet for me to track which shows that I had on the computer. Plex offers documentation on how to name the files, so that it recognizes them as TV shows. You don’t have to follow the naming convention, but if you do, Plex will automatically add in additional information, such as original airing dates, grouping by season, posters, and a brief summary of the show. I incorporated the naming convention into the spreadsheet.

There are a few options to transfer shows off the TiVo. A few are even offered by TiVo. But, I decided to go with a program called, kmttg. Both the setup and use may be a little difficult for a novice, so make certain to fully read and follow the directions. It also helps to have Windows 7 or 10.

Once kmttg is set up, it gives you a list of shows to transfer. Be warned, some shows may not be able to be transferred, due to copy protection. Those shows are usually highlighted in brown. None of the shows I was going to transfer were protected, so I was okay in that aspect. The options I chose were to both have kmttg transfer the show and to have it convert it to a Matroska (.mkv) file. Transferring and converting would take time, so I would set up to have it do a few shows either overnight or while I was not at home.

Now that I had the shows transferred into mkv files, I needed to edit them. For editing, I used Avidemux. The TiVo often would have content leading into and out of the show, so I needed to trim that off. Some of the shows had resolutions less than high definition (HD), so I needed to convert them (more on that later). Lastly, some recordings featured two shows, which needed to be split up. Each edited file was encoded as a mkv file, using H.264 for video and AAC for audio. They were saved using the naming convention off the spreadsheet I created earlier.

This post is becoming too long, so I will continue it on part 2.

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06/13/2017: Last Train to Walla Walla

When I was a pre-teen and teenager, my brother and I spent time commuting from Walla Walla to Seattle to visit our dad. The trip was always made on the Greyhound bus and would take anywhere from 8-9 hours. The only other option would be to fly, but that would cost almost 2-4 times what it cost to take the bus.

I often wondered what it would be like to ride the train to Seattle, but there was no passenger train that made that trip. Once I moved to Seattle (as an adult), I was able to take a train to and from Portland, Oregon, to see my older brother. It still took longer than flying, but I liked it better than taking the bus.

Around the time I visited Japan in 2005, I became interested in “bullet” trains. Like most things, it was a passing curiosity. But then I got to thinking, what if there was a “bullet” train that could run from Walla Walla to Seattle?

As of the writing of this article, the average highest speeds of the trains are between 190-200 miles per hour (mph). According to Google, driving from Walla Walla to Seattle is about 272 miles. It also takes about 4 1/2 hours to drive. If a “bullet” train was to make the same journey, at 190 mph, it would take about 1 1/2 hours. This, of course, is assuming that there are no stops. Flying from Walla Walla to Seattle takes about an hour, but you also have to factor in time spent in pre-flight security and that the plane travels to Sea-Tac airport, not directly to Seattle.

Of course, if a train was traveling from Walla Walla to Seattle, I would expect there to be other stops. Maybe stops in Pasco, Yakima, and Ellensburg. If each stop was 10 minutes or less, it would add would add around 30 minutes to the trip.

Having a quicker way to travel across the state would greatly benefit everyone along the line. More people would be willing to take “day trips” to cities further from Seattle. Imagine getting on the train around 8 am and arrive in Walla Walla around 10 am. You could have breakfast (or brunch) during your ride. Then, you spend 5 hours in Walla Walla, catching the 3 pm train back to Seattle. It would only be 5 pm by the time you get back. Or, maybe you are from Walla Walla and would like to spend the day in Seattle. Instead of spending the 9 hours it took to drive, you would spend over half of that time not behind the wheel. Plus, you don’t have to worry about being too tired to drive.

Tourism aside, it would be faster (and more likely, cheaper) way to transport goods back and forth. And given the time it takes to travel, people may even start commuting from some eastern Washington cities to Seattle. Yakima is a little under 150 miles from Seattle, so it would be less than an hour of commute. The ferry ride to and from Bremerton is longer than that.

For now, I know this just a pipe dream. The costs to get the project started would be very high, especially since all the land the rails would be on would need to be purchased. And, I know from watching the construction of the light rail in the Puget Sound area, it would take a long to build. Because of these things (and some political beliefs), there would be little or no public support. Thus, no legislators would support it. So, the only way it would happen, is if some private investors decided to make it happen. But not me. I may have the vision, unfortunately, I do not have the cash to make it come true.

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06/02/2017: Pick a side, already!

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I consider myself a Liberal. But, I have Conservative leanings on some issues. And, I also have opinions on other issues that do not fall within the Liberal or Conservative side. I know a lot of people like me, who don’t fully agree with one party’s platform.

Unfortunately, in the Unites States, we get “pegged” into being either a Democrat or Republican. And, when the party we are grouped into decides on an issue, it is assumed that we also have the same opinion. Even worse, almost everything is assumed to be an issue and thus, each side decides if they are for or against it. This ends up making every issue a political issue.

I’ve heard the phrases, “living in a vacuum” or “living in a bubble” a lot in the past few months. Simply, it means that someone is not exposed to anything outside of themselves. They only see and hear what they already know, and thus, assume that is everything. Most of us in the United States have become this way.

Remember when I said that every issue is a political issue? Well, some of us don’t like to discuss politics. And, we don’t like to discuss politics, because we don’t like to fight. So, we don’t discuss anything with anyone who we assume would have a different viewpoint. Thus, creating the bubble in which we live.

Part of what makes a great society is being able to have a civil conversation over how that society should work. Conversations over differing viewpoints often lead to new ideas and collaborations, thus moving society forward. It also leads to individuals understanding why certain ideas do not work or how they may be detrimental. When we live in our bubble, we don’t have these conversations.

As you may have guessed by now, in order for our society to move forward, we need to stop making every issue into a political issue. We need to start having conversations with people with differing viewpoints and allow ourselves to understand those viewpoints. As I’ve said many times before, the United States is a giant “melting pot” of cultures. Drawing from all these backgrounds is what made us great before and can make us great again. We just need to stop allowing ourselves to become closed off to anything that the group we are placed into does not agree with.

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