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Chromecast etc

Bought a Google Chromecast yesterday. I am travelling a bit recently and while I am independent of in-flight entertainment (thanks to me Nexus 7) I am still dependent on what the hotel TV for when in the hotel. Yes, I could connect my laptop to the TV with an HDMI cable (or connect the Cain to TV with a mini-HDMI to HDMI cable) but feels inelegant. I would prefer using the Nexus 7 if possible – much easier to carry around, charge, navigate etc.

I’ll need to use a SlimPort cable to connect the Nexus 7 to HDMI. I can’t get hold of that at short notice, moreover I am not keen on leaving the Nexus 7 hooked to the TV as there’ll be no way to navigate it then. A Chromecast seemed to be a convenient way of streaming wirelessly from the Nexus 7 to the TV.

The experience hasn’t been entirely pleasant though. For starters, Chromecast in hotel rooms are tricky. This is because (1) hotel WiFi usually requires a hotspot login for Internet access, and the Chromecast has no way of displaying this login page, resulting in it having no Internet access; and (2) hotel WiFi access points usually enable “AP isolation”, a useful security feature wherein devices connected to the access point can’t talk to each other (a good idea coz you wouldn’t want your neighbours laptop snooping onto yours). Since the Chromcast requires Internet access (at least for the initial setup, not sure about after that) and requires communication with your laptop, phone, or tablet to control it, you can’t use the Chromecast on most hotel WiFi.

Didn’t know this before I bought the Chromecast so day 1 of the purchase was spent trying to get it working, Googling, and thinking of solutions. Nothing helped. (Example solutions I tried include spoofing the Chromecast MAC address with the access point. Tried this from my laptop and Nexus 7 but it didn’t work. I could spoof the MAC address but I still couldn’t get the Chromecast to connect to the Internet).

So day 2 – today – involved purchasing a portable WiFi access point. Yeah, that’s a bit far-fetched I know! Getting an access point means you can connect that to the LAN point and hook create your own WiFi network. Connect the Chromecast and other devices to this WiFi network and they can all talk to each other. Moreover, the first device that authenticates with the hotspot is enough to get the access point’s MAC address whitelisted with the access point and thus let through all other devices connected to it without any authentication prompt. Did that today, and now I have a working Chromecast.

(This too wasn’t all straightforward. Initially the Chromecast said it wanted to update and got stuck at 29% update. Then I rebooted it and it wen’t up to 100% and got stuck. Rebooted again and this time it started from scratch and updated itself. Wasn’t sure whether unplugging it while updating will cause any issues. This seems to be a common problem according to the Internet. Many forum posts where the Chromecast is stuck on a reboot-update-reboot loop. Sometimes the update happens. Other times using the laptop app instead of a tablet/ phone app to setup the Chromecast helps. Yet other times casting to it while updating seems to give it a knock on the head and subsequently updates work. Weird, yes!)

Anyways, did all this and the next step is casting movies from the tab to the Chromecast. Isn’t as easy as it sounds. Sure you can cast YouTube and Netflix easily. And there are many apps that support casting, but your mileage might wary. My favorite media player – MX Player – doesn’t have cast support yet. My second favorite player – Dice Player – seems to support, but I can’t find a way of enabling it. My favorite file manager – Solid Explorer – has a plugin that allows casting. That works well and it’s what I am using now, but the problem is that (a) I don’t know if my usual MX Player gestures will work here, and (b) not all audio-video formats are supported by the Chromecast so it’s quite possible you’ll have files that simply don’t cast to the Chromecast. Yeah, bummer! I had a few such, and various casting apps I tried (such as LocalCast, AllCast) failed to cast these. Finally I gave up. It works for the most part, but it isn’t something I can’t blindly depend on. It’s pretty likely some movies on the Nexus 7 that I want to watch simply wont play on the Chromecast.

In this respect the iPad/ iPhone might fare better. Since you have to encode the video for these devices, maybe the format is better supported. Not sure, I don’t have an iPad to try.

Things are better from the laptop. You can cast any Chrome tab to the Chromecast, so all I need to do is drag and drop a video into Chrome and that’s it! Chrome should be able to play all formats thanks to plugins like VLC which are installed if you have VLC Media Player on your system (who hasn’t!). Even more coolly, you can cast the entire screen to the Chromecast, so I could clone my laptop screen and audio to the TV. Wirelessly! With no performance lag. Now that’s super cool!

So that’s it. Been a mixed bag so far, let’s see how much I’ll be able to actually use this device. Maybe there are some cool apps that I haven’t stumbled across yet and which will enrich my experience. This issues with formats seems to be why MX Player doesn’t have support for casting yet. The creator of that app wants to be able to play all MX Player supported formats on the Chromecast, so this means the app should be able to transcode from a format not supported by Chromecast to a format supported by Chromecast – in real time – and that’s why support isn’t available yet. It should be available at some point (that’s what I read somewhere anyways).

[Aside] Quote (from Chef)

In the movie “Chef” Jon Favreau is a chef who loves cooking and quits (or was he fired?) from his restaurant due to creative differences with the owner. His ex-wife suggests he start a food truck so he has creative freedom to cook the way he wants to and connect with his customers. Replace cooking/ food with computers and this is more or less the story of my life! Of course I haven’t resigned to follow my passion, but that’s the matter for another post …

Jon’s movie son joins him in the truck. And there’s this scene where he cooks something that’s slightly burnt. Jon tells him to throw it away but the son is like why not just serve it to the customers? They won’t know the difference, so no harm done. Jon replies with the following:

I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.

I think there was a bit more to the actual dialogue but this is all I could find to copy-paste easily from the Internet. What I loved about this quote is how he knows he hasn’t been a good father, a good husband, maybe even a good person due to his single minded passion for cooking but he isn’t apologetic about it. He knows he hasn’t been good, but that’s how he is, and on this one thing that he is indeed good at he want’s to give his very best and share his pleasure with his customers and son. I found the dialogue and the feeling behind it very powerful, especially coz I feel the same way a lot of times. I am a lousy father and husband coz I am more focused on computers and gadgets than a family life, but like Jon’s character I take my work with computers and gadgets very seriously and try to do my best with it. It’s something I am proud of (or try to be proud of at least).

[Aside] Quote (on God)

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

– Albert Einstein, from “The World as I See It”

Came across the above in a book I am reading (“Ganesha on the Dashboard” by V. Raghunathan & M.A. Eswaran). The book attributes this quote to Bertrand Russell, but the Internet attributes this to Albert Einsten. I’ll go with the Internet.

Reading this quote blew my mind. That’s exactly the argument I too have about God! Each time my wife or parents insist I visit a temple or pray that’s exactly what I go through in my mind. The God I can conceive of does not punish me for my “mistakes” nor is capable of rewarding me for “good deeds” or “prayers”. A “God” who does all these is simply not a God for me. Such an entity might be a demigod or some other force, but definitely not God.

God (or Tao or the force or whatever) made us and everything around us. If we behave a certain way the onus of those decisions are on us. God gave us a brain and thought processes. Right and Wrong are relative and while there are many things that are Wrong for everyone, it is up to each one of us to discover and feel this for ourselves. Simply classifying something as Wrong and/ or not doing Wrong deeds even though we may not agree, but going along with it just coz God said so, is not the right way to do it in my opinion.

All that aside, the last line of the quote is another thing that resonates so well with me. The world is something. WE are something. There’s a beauty in it all, a mystery. The journey is the thing, not the destination. Putting up a God and chasing after what He/ She says isn’t the end goal for me; the end goal is the discovery. Of discovering the world around me and also the world within me. The “growing” I do – of my values, frames of reference, what I find to be right and wrong – that is the important thing.

Of course Einstein conveys all this much better than I do an in fewer words! Amazing!

Disabling Connected Standby

As you know a few days ago I purchased a Notion Ink Cain, a Windows 8.1 tablet-slash-laptop. This is my first Windows tablet so while it doubles as both, I have slightly different expectations and use cases from this.

One of these is the battery life. Whereas I always hibernate my regular laptop, the Cain is just put to sleep once I am done with it. I put it to sleep either via the Power button or the device goes to sleep on its own. This is fine but for two problems – (1) since the device is only sleeping and I usually dock it into the keyboard and use the flap as the cover, any key presses when the device is asleep results in it waking up and thus some battery draining; (2) since the Cain supports Connected Standby (nowadays called InstantGo) the device does not really sleep in the way we usually expect Windows devices to sleep, the sleep here is more like a “light sleep” wherein the device is kind of awake and able to let some background stuff like email and other programs run and do their bit.

I work around the first issue either by rotating the Cain and then docking it, such that the keyboard is behind the device and so keypresses don’t get registered (the Cain requires the docking to be correct for the keyboard to be recognize). I also put the Cain in a pouch without the keyboard. It’s not very elegant but that’s what I was doing until today.

The second was an irritating issue. When I first read about Connected Standby I was very impressed with it. It’s not supposed to drain much battery. The requirement is that when on Connected Standby the device will lose less than 5% of its power over a 16 hour idle period, but that didn’t seem to be the case for me (try a powercfg /sleepstudy to get some results) and I wasn’t happy with the battery drain. Maybe it’s because I had set apps such as email to update in real time and so the device was regularly waking up to check email, I found that it barely lasted 2-3 days even when fully idle. That’s not great, and even putting it in airplane mode only made it slightly better.

To work around this I decided to start hibernating the device. I enabled the hibernation option in the Power menu and also created a shortcut to hibernate in the start menu. But these are manual approaches didn’t seem “neat”. I wanted something where the Cain would automatically hibernate after a period of inactivity. I remembered back in Windows 7 (and even on my Windows 8 laptops) there are options under the Power menu in Control Panel to make the laptop sleep after a certain period and then hibernate. On the Cain though, this option was missing and I wasn’t sure why. I had a suspicion it must be because the Cain uses Connected Standby and so perhaps disabling it will reveal these options. I Google’d a bit to see if there’s a way to disable Connect Standby. Surprisingly I couldn’t find anything until finally some forum post mentioned another forum post that gave a registry key setting which disables Connected Standby. Applied that to the Cain and now I have the option to hibernate after a certain period. Yaay!

Whizzing through airport security checks

Pleased with something today. Thought I’d blog about it.

Everything I know I learnt from the movies. One fine example of that is my approach with airport security checks thanks to the movie “Up In the Air“. An excellent movie (based on a novel of the same name and with an excellent score), it has George Clooney and Vera Farmiga as globe trotting business people, and it has great scenes on how they whiz past security by being prepared and efficient about it. I adapted those techniques in my life and now I too whiz past.

For starters I got a nice little hand bag where I put everything I need during travel. That bag has my spare glasses, headphones, music player, phones, wallets, books – everything! I think most people do this already but where I go a step ahead is that I empty everything most people usually carry in their pockets too into this bag. So once I am in the airport my phone is in this bag, any keys and loose change, my wallet, watch – everything! The only thing on me is my clothing. Further, if it’s a casual trip I either skip the trouser belt or I use a pyjama drawstring as the belt – since this is made of cloth it won’t trigger the sensors, nor do I have to remove and scan separately. If it’s a business trip then I put my belt in the handbag and only wear it once I am done with check-in and security.

Ever since I began doing this I can clear security checks easily. Not only do I have the hassle of taking everything out of my pockets and putting in the tray for security (and then put all these back when done!) I can also walk past the rest of the crowd as they slowly empty pockets or wait for a free tray. It’s amazing when you get to do that while all the others are just hanging in there!

Oh, and I never carry my laptop in the handbag. Some airports ask you to turn on the laptop and show – waste of time! So laptop’s in the main luggage, only tablets & Kindle are in handbag.

Hope this helps.

Unboxing the Cain

I got my Notion Ink Cain tablet day-before. I unboxed it in the car itself! Below are some pics.

Bubble wrap packaging in which I got the Cain

Bubble wrap packaging in which I got the Cain

Out of the bubble wrap. Good quality box.

Out of the bubble wrap. Good quality box.

Close up of the box, showing price and specs

Close up of the box, showing price and specs

Unboxing

Unboxing

A nice touch. The box includes a letter and some mints (not shown).

A nice touch. The box includes a letter and some mints (not shown).

The letter and mints

The letter and mints

The tablet.

The tablet.

Tablet minus the wrapping.

Tablet minus the wrapping.

Tablet in portrait orientation.

Tablet in portrait orientation.

The keyboard-cum-cover. Notice the dock connector in the middle. That's where you dock the tablet.

The keyboard-cum-cover. Notice the dock connector in the middle. That’s where you dock the tablet.

Tablet docked into the keyboard

Tablet docked into the keyboard

Tablet docked and powered on.

Tablet docked and powered on.

Laptop next to my office desktop

Laptop next to my office desktop

Very irritatingly the tablet came with a screen protector. I hate screen protectors. I hate it when they have bubbles, and I hate the way they feel when I touch. One of my first tasks then was to a piece of paper (a good quality paper, one that wouldn’t bend easily) and poke around the screen where there were bubbles between the screen and protector, and slide the paper in to one of these bubbles and thus pry the protector off. Such a relief!

The next step was to set up encryption on the Cain. That’s a bit more detailed so I’ll post it later.

Gotham

I started watching Gotham expecting to be let down by it. Everyone had great reviews about it based on the trailer and pilot, but I figured that was all just hype. After all what could a TV series about Gotham and Jim Gordon really bring to the table? Batman’s the big deal, and Jim Gordon and all the villains are important, but come on – a TV show just about these!? – will that work?

Boy, was I mistaken! Gotham is awesome. I was hooked from the start itself. It gets Bruce Wayne’s parents murder out of the way right at the beginning and then moves on the Jim Gordon and the cesspool that is Gotham. It reminds me of the Batman comics like “The Long Halloween” which is about the Gotham criminal enterprise as Italian mafia and has a dark noir feel to it. Gotham has a similar feel though not too dark noir. And it mixes it all up with how corrupt everyone in the city is, and how Jim Gordon is an honest cop trying to make his way there being badgered by all sides and losing hope but not quite losing it, and it has future Batman villains like the Penguin, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Riddler, and so on strewn through out. And these villains are portrayed wonderfully! The Penguin, for instance, is amazing – evil! – and Catwoman is great, played with the right balance of good vs bad. The Riddler and Poison Ivy don’t have much screen time yet.

Apart from the usual mafia families such as the Falconi and Maroni there is a new character – Fish Mooney – who is so evilly played by Jada Pinkett Smith. I mean she is evil. The character has a strong personality and that’s someone you just don’t want to cross with. And Jada Pinkett Smith brings out all these qualities so well, it’s just a pleasure to watch her and be awed by Fish Mooney.

I am also impressed at how Bruce Wayne isn’t sidelined among all this adult stuff. He is very much in the show and every episode has him developing his character and offering more insights to his self. Am glad about that.

Three episodes down so far! Fourth one was out yesterday, yet to watch it.

[Aside] Indian education system

Read this a while back but didn’t get time to post this until now. An article on the Indian education system, written in the context of Satya Nadella becoming CEO of Microsoft.

As an IITian who hated his educational time at IIT, I loved this paragraph:

The short point: our system is designed to keep people out, not get them in. The true value of an IIT or IIM is not the intellectual capital they produce, but their filtering expertise – which keeps all but the superlisters out of these institutions. When the people entering the institution are the best among the best, they will shine no matter what the quality of faculty or the curriculum.

Very true. All my classmates who had entered via the JEE exams performed well because they were already bright and had spent the last 3-4 years of their life preparing for the entrance exams. The rest of us, who had entered through SAT exams (during my time) or quotas, fared poorly in comparison. That’s sot of expected but what I hated was how the professors never seemed to make an effort to get the rest of us interested or slow down a bit so we too understand what’s going on. As far as they were concerned the onus was on us students to somehow make sense of what’s going on, and if we were finding it difficult to catch up that wasn’t there problem.

Currently Reading: Varanasi

A good book raises you to heights. You resonate with the characters and immerse yourself in their lives, places, and thoughts. After a long time I am reading one such book – Varanasi, by the Malayalam writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair. Coincidentally this is also a long time since I am reading a physical book and I keep half expecting being able to highlight text or long press a word to get its meaning. I am a wee bit excited too; the sensation of holding a physical book and reading from it thrills me for some reason.

This must be the fourth book by M.T. Vasudevan Nair that I have read. The first two were in college, as part of my humanities class, wherein we were supposed to read an author of our choice and present the work in class. If I remember correctly I read Asuravithu (Demon Seed) and Naalukettu and I loved the way M.T. wrote. I think I associated his writing to the way one paints. It’s very visual and I got the feeling of someone drawing his characters with broad strokes and then building them up with detailed strokes. (Before I forget, being a Malayalam author all these works are originally in Malayalam and what I read were the English translations).

The third book I read was Randamoozham (Second Turn). This was a mind-blowing read. It tells the story of Mahabharatha from the point of view of Bhima, the second Pandava. The title was meant to reflect that this is a second look at the Mahbharata and also that this look is from the second son. Bhima is unique in that he is the second son. So he doesn’t get the importance of the first born nor does he get pampered like the third and later borns. Moreover Bhima is usually associated with someone who is all muscle and no emotions, so it’s interesting how M.T. infuses this character with layers of feelings and emotions and retells the whole tale through his eyes.

While on holiday last week, I bought Varanasi and Kaalam. Currently reading Varanasi and it’s been a great experience so far. I love the characters and what they are doing. There isn’t much direction to the story really; it is just about the main character and his experiences, the people he encounters, the women in his life. But I loved the setting – Kashi, Varanasi – so there’s lot of philosophical undercurrents too. The narrative too is very different. M.T. keeps jumping between the past and present, and uses first person, second person, and third person – often even mixing them up! That’s quite daring and in a lesser author’s hands it might have failed and confused the reader, but not with M.T.

About half way done now. Bought the book yesterday so you can see I’ve been avidly reading it. I am reading two other books side-by-side, which I’ll talk about later.

New backup phone: Moto E, G, X, Nexus 5, or Android One

Idle mind, shopping mind!

I need a backup phone. To use when am travelling and such. Previously that role was fulfilled by my iPhone 4S but that phone’s become too slow since iOS 7 and now iOS 8.

I want something not too pricey. It should be micro SIM or regular SIM as these are easy to get everywhere. Dual SIM would be a plus. A good (not necessarily great) camera would be useful for taking pics etc. Also expandable storage would be preferred so I don’t have to worry abt storage.

Am in India currently and the new Android One phones are available here. Initially I thought of buying these. They are quite cheap (about INR 6500 ~ US$ 100) and tempting since they get updates from Google. But… their cameras are lousy, the internal storage is meagre (only 4GB!), and apparently the front facing camera can’t be used for selfies? Three different providers are selling these but all devices have the same specs, just different design and branding.

A comparable alternative to the Android One phones is the Moto E. This has dual SIM support and microSD support for up to 32GB. The internal storage is only 4GB, like the Android One phones, but it has no front facing camera. The back camera is similar to the Android One phones – slightly better maybe. The price of Moto E is comparable to the Android One phones. Just US$ 10 more!

Double the price of these is the Moto G. The Indian version has dual SIM support, an 8MP camera (good but not great), and microSD support for up to 32GB. The screen isn’t that great (but is better than the Android One phones & Moto E). Of course the CPU and other bits are better too, and the phone comes with 8GB or 16GB internal storage. The price doubling is justified and overall this seems to be a great device.

Two other phones I have in mind are last year’s Nexus 5 and this year’s Moto X. The Moto Maker website is amazing – you can design your own device! Of course the price of the Moto X starts at US$ 500, more than double the Moto G and way more than the Moto E and/ or Android One phones. That’s a silly point to make really because the Moto X has way better specs and performance than these phones and a much better camera too, but price is a factor for me as I don’t want to spend too much on the phone. It’s a secondary phone after all.

Three other points against the Moto X for me are that it uses nano SIM, has no microSD support (and the internal storage is only 16GB or 32GB), and no dual SIM support. All these pretty much rule out the Moto X for me.

Last year’s Nexus 5 looks to be a good phone. This year’s Nexus 6 is rumoured to be a pricier device so I won’t probably like that. The Nexus 5 takes a micro SIM but has no dual SIM or microSD support. It’s camera is good and it comes in 16GB or 32GB internal storage capacities. Google has stopped selling it but you can get it from Amazon or Google India (as well as FlipKart etc). The Amazon price is about US$ 400 (nearly double the price of Moto G) while the Indian prices are even more. I could buy the Nexus 5 – and I am tempted because it’s a Google phone and bound to get updates too for a while – but I am feeling stingy and US$ 400 too is high. The price is way better than the Moto X of a similar configuration so the sensible decision would be to get the Nexus 5 but I’d rather get the Moto G for US$ 200 and get a Kindle Voyage with the US$ 200 I will be saving! Too many gadgets to buy, not all of them of regular use for me, so I must economise. :)