Category Archives: Observations

Can 4K TVs help bring back family time?

Although I don’t have one myself, I’m pretty excited about the explosion of 4K / Ultra HD televisions in the market.

Why am I excited? There’s almost no programming available in 4K right now, and for what little programming you can find in 4K, it’s difficult for the human eye to detect the difference between Full HD/1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels) and 4K / Ultra HD (3840 x 2160 pixels) from across the room unless the TV is really big…like 80″ or more. And there’s no way my fiancée and I will be getting a TV that big for our townhome apartment.

But I’m still excited about 4K, because a 4K screen can be divided up into four smaller screens, each of them at 1080p.

Because TV sizes are measured diagonally, that means a 50″ 4K TV (like this one, currently $498 at Amazon) can be divided into four sections, each of them equivalent to a 25″ 1080p TV…just slightly larger than the 24″ 1080p TV I have in the office upstairs.

Love, marriage and separate screens

Aside from using the 24″ TV as a PC monitor, I often find myself using it to watch something different from what my better half is watching downstairs. As much as I enjoy her company, the Venn Diagram of our tastes in TV and movies does not overlap much. (She recently introduced me to Happy Valley, a rare show we can enjoy together as soon as I catch up to her.)

We’re not alone either: about 1 in 4 couples spends at least three evenings per week in separate rooms because they want to watch different things on television.

Sometimes we do take turns for the sake of togetherness. I’ve seen enough episodes of Switched at Birth to be familiar with the characters and plot, and she has sat through some CSI: Miami and House of Cards episodes with me. (This is all on Netflix.) But research shows this might not be the best solution for our relationship in the long run either.

But what if we could both watch what we wanted to on the same screen at the same time from the same couch? That’s what 4K can offer.

What about audio?

In the 1989 movie Back to the Future: Part II, Marty McFly, Jr. used voice commands to tell his 2015 TV to display six different channels on the screen at once. (See the section of this clip starting at the 2:10 mark.)

One thing that struck me about this was that the McFlys’ TV set was also playing audio from all six channels at the same time, leading to incoherent noise. I don’t know how Marty Jr. understood anything he was watching!

Presumably, if my bride and I were sharing a screen and a sofa while watching different shows, one thing that wouldn’t make sense to share is the audio from our disparate programs. Of course, one or both of us could wear headphones, but that would at least make it hard for our time together to be all that much of an improvement over our time apart.

Monaural Bluetooth headsets would be an improvement so we’d each at least have one ear free, but I’m not sure if the new 4K sets are sophisticated enough to split the audio from each screen to different sources. Closed captioning could work, depending on the program. Switched at Birth would be a prime candidate for this since so much of it is in subtitled American Sign Language anyway. News and sporting events could be shown with closed captioning too without much sacrifice on my part — after all, if you walk into a sports bar, most if not all of the TVs are on mute.

And then there’s this:

Use the tech you already have

Since we don’t have a 4K TV, and all of our extra money is going into our wedding fund right now, we can use the technology we already have to achieve a similar goal. Each of us has a laptop with Netflix access. So, rather than splitting up a big 4K TV screen, one of us could use our living room TV while the other one watches from the same sofa on a laptop screen with a headset or on mute with closed captioning. Tablets and even smart phones can work for this purpose as well, although you might find yourself squinting at the smaller screens.

Unless a show or movie is about to be dropped, Netflix is not particularly time-sensitive. I can watch my reruns of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit whenever I choose. But last fall, her Downton Abbey episodes conflicted with my Sunday Night Football games. Sporting events are meant to be watched live, and Downton Abbey was one of those shows that could be considered water-cooler television the next day, so we both wanted to watch our shows live, over the air. And this meant being in separate rooms.

Downton Abbey is now over, of course, and there’s nothing scheduled to be on the air on Sunday evenings this fall that has piqued her interest. In hindsight, I have a USB TV tuner that has been sitting in a drawer for a while…I could have plugged this into my laptop along with a little antenna to watch football on mute while she watched Downton Abbey. If such a situation resurfaces, I may have to try that.

Although I have precious little space remaining on my laptop’s SSD, I could even use a little of that space for a free download of MythTV to turn my laptop into a DVR and send the actual recordings to the larger hard drive attached to my Pogoplug.

We’ll have to do a little experimenting to make this work, but I think it can be done. I don’t want television to keep us apart, but I certainly don’t long for 1955, when the entire family had to gather around a single TV with three channels to choose from…and no reruns.

Just turn it off sometimes

Of course, I don’t want to overlook an even lower-tech solution to our problem: turning the TV off altogether and doing something else for real quality time. And we certainly do this sometimes as well…we might go for a walk in the park (weather permitting), play a game, or just go out on a date. Watching too much television — with or without your partner — is obviously not a good thing. But watching TV with your partner by your side is usually better than watching TV alone. And that’s where 4K televisions could make a real difference.









Stupid made-up holidays

You’ve probably heard of the “Hallmark Holiday” — a special calendar day, week or month concocted for the purpose of selling something. (For what it’s worth, Hallmark Cards, Inc. denies creating any holiday.)

One of the most notorious of these is Sweetest Day, which was created not by Hallmark but by Cleveland confectioners wanting to sell more candy in October. There’s also National Boss Day, Administrative Professionals’ Day, Grandparents’ Day and the like. If you still have a printed calendar in this day and age, it won’t take you long to find a holiday designed solely for the purpose of making money. (Never mind Halloween and Christmas, which generate plenty of sales despite having more historical significance.)

But look out — marketers are getting more shameless and desperate by the minute. November 5 is Bank Transfer Day. March 26 is Make Up Your Own Holiday Day: a made up holiday devoted to made up holidays.

It gets worse. Did you know March is National Frozen Food Month? Or that September is Life Insurance Awareness Month? It’s not enough to have a day on the calendar devoted to selling your product…now you have to have an entire month?

Why do marketers keep doing this stuff? Because it works. Because we as consumers allow it to work. Think about it: a made-up holiday is a marketer’s dream…they simply find a period during the year when sales tend to slip and then inject an artificial sense of urgency by making up some reason to care about their product right now.

So just remember, the next time you feel an urge to buy frozen food in March, life insurance in September or a Boss’s Day card, remember that someone cooked all of this up just to make you part with more of your hard-earned money.

Have you driven a Mercury lately? Neither has anybody else…

There have been many unfortunate casualties of the recent economic downturn. Companies have folded. People have lost their jobs and their homes in appalling numbers.

So in the midst of all that, it’s hard for me to be wistful about the demise of Mercury. For those of you who aren’t quite as attuned to all things automobile, Mercury is a not only a planet and an element, but also a brand of car under the umbrella of Ford Motor Company.

You can be forgiven for not knowing that because somewhere along the way, the Mercury brand became irrelevant to Ford in much the same way that Oldsmobile became irrelevant to General Motors and Plymouth became irrelevant to Chrysler.

Quite simply, a Mercury Milan is a Ford Fusion with a Mercury badge. A Mercury Sable is essentially a Ford Taurus. A Mercury Mariner is mechanically identical to a Ford Escape.

Mercury used to stand for something. It used to be Ford’s slightly more refined (but not pretentious) cousin. It used to be to Ford Motor Company what Buick was to General Motors…nicer than a Chevrolet but not quite a Cadillac. It had its place.

But then the weird economics of the automobile industry took over, and brands ceased to have meaning. Ford repackaged its Pinto as the Mercury Bobcat: an affront to the upmarket image Mercury was made to convey. Chrysler rebadged the low-rent Dodge Omni (I have firsthand experience with this horrible car) as the Plymouth Horizon. GM secretly swapped out the Oldsmobile engine for a Chevy power plant in the 1977 Delta 88 and ruffled the feathers of more than a few loyal Oldsmobile customers – after they had purchased the Delta 88.

The most egregious example I have seen in recent years is the Pontiac G3: a rebadged Chevrolet Aveo that offers not the tiniest shred of “driving excitement.” The only reason this car existed was so Pontiac dealers could have a “value leader” vehicle, regardless of how meaningless it made the Pontiac arrow.

For the nostalgic car people out there, the end of Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Mercury may be painful to watch, but the mourning should have started a few decades ago when their parent companies started committing slow brand suicide.

Check your ego at the office door

I’m going to start this off by acknowledging one of my more significant flaws. I am not particularly good at being “self aware.” That is, there are a lot of things I do that I don’t even realize I do.

Additionally, I often make decisions without regard for the specific people involved. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t have regard for others or I dislike the people involved…merely that I don’t differentiate much between one person and another when making decisions.) I’m going to go about my business and do what is right, regardless of what people will think.

This is far less impressive than it first sounds. After all, most of our decisions are not big moral judgments but small, mundane tasks. For example, today I sent what I thought was a perfectly polite e-mail full of pleases and thank-yous asking for feedback from a manager of a different department (his name is Mark). I was on a tight deadline, so I added, “please respond ASAP.” It seemed reasonable enough to me, especially for a simple request. This was related to a conversation I had just had with my manager Cathy (who actually sits at the opposite end of the building from me), so I copied her on the message.

Within one minute, my phone rang. It was Cathy. Now Cathy is very polite and easygoing, but she was calling in a less-than-giddy tone to tell me that my message had the tendency to go over like a lead balloon. I must admit, I was puzzled.

Apparently, the request to “please respond ASAP” made the message sound like the recipient worked for me when really the relationship is the other way around and I was asking for a favor. He could have sent me that message in perfect decorum, but not the other way around.

I don’t have any evidence that Mark was actually offended, but Cathy said that I needed to be more careful for the future because I could have unintentionally damaged the relationship between our two departments. I don’t think this was a major problem, but I would like to avoid even the minor ones if I can…they add up.

I must admit this is not the first time I have been caught making this type of faux pas, but I honestly didn’t see it coming. I can’t imagine myself being offended if the roles were reversed, but I am not Mark. I cannot project myself because I am not like a lot of people in the business world. For one thing, you have to try pretty hard to bruise my ego. I don’t know of anyone who has offended me by accident. I plan to get a Ph.D. some day, but I refuse to be one of those people who gets angry when someone calls him “mister” instead of “doctor.”

That makes it all the more critical that I make every word I communicate at work as deliberate and careful as possible. Life can be a minefield that way.

If the Gores can’t make it work, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Former Vice President Albert Gore Jr. and his wife Mary Elizabeth (you know her as Tipper) are separating after 40 years of marriage. This from the couple who exchanged one of the most public and memorable kisses in American history.

I haven’t really seen any information as to what prompted the couple to split up, but I can’t imagine that after 40 years they suddenly came to the realization that they didn’t realize what they had gotten into. This marriage survived a long political career and even a heartbreakingly narrow defeat for the presidency. That amount of pressure and pain would weigh heavily on even the best of marriages.

It had to be something else.

I doubt it was because the Gores were broke either – in 2007, Al’s net worth was valued in excess of $100 million. (He was “only” worth $2 million at best in 2000 so he has made most of the money since leaving Washington.) I mean if the Gores were just having a marital spat they could just flee on private jets to their separate mansions until things cooled off.

So that leaves us to speculate about other factors. Did they simply grow apart? Was there an extramarital affair a la John Edwards? (Side note: Many marriages survive affairs…just ask the Clintons.) Did one of them meet someone else to grow old with? Did one of them change so radically that the other couldn’t live with it anymore?

Marriages are not easy things to preserve. I recently experienced a divorce after six years of marriage. There were warning signs early on in my case, even before the wedding that I stubbornly ignored, so you can chalk that one up to hubris and holding on too long.

Yet I recently saw an old friend and met his second wife – since I had seen him last, he and his first wife of 31 years had been divorced. They were able to keep it together for decades, so you would imagine they learned how to resolve disputes at some point. I can’t imagine what the breaking point was, but it must have been really painful.

Maybe it’s the whole concept of marriage that isn’t working. I’m not saying it never works…my parents are still married after 31 years. But it fails often enough that we should question it. Is any of us really prepared to look into a crystal ball and make that kind of lifelong commitment (particularly when we are just starting out in life)? Are humans really built to be monogamous for life when our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are quite promiscuous?

P.S. Note to Tipper: your husband is not only fabulously wealthy and politically influential, but he has also won an Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize…all without a hint of scandal. He was a two-term Vice President and a few hundred Floridian votes away from being the President of the United States – he actually won the popular vote. Do you honestly think you can do better?

Finding my voice without speaking

It has been suggested to me that I should start writing more. (You may or may not agree after reading this.) Writing is my outlet, it is my passion, it is my foundation, it is what I do. Unfortunately I haven’t been doing very much of it lately.

So what would keep me from the very thing that defines me? Actually I’ve been asking myself the same question.

Is it my schedule? Well, it’s true that there have been a lot of changes in my life lately. I went through a divorce. I found a terrific woman. I started graduate school part time. I got a new job. I moved. So you would expect me to be busy…but if I am honest with myself I have to admit that’s not the reason.

Is it my mental state? It’s true that, despite the above developments (many of them positive), I still feel as if I am not in a good place. And, what’s worse, I still don’t have the vocabulary to figure out what a good place looks like. When I am talking about something that makes me uncomfortable I literally swallow air before I can get the words out. Asking me to explain out loud what I’ve been feeling is like asking one of my mother’s second graders to explain Chaucer.

This might explain why I’m not much of a social animal — at parties I can often be mistaken for a design in the wallpaper or a lifelike statue — but I do have a voice when I sit down to type something out.

Yet for some reason I haven’t felt the creative juices flowing through my fingers for a long time. The well was bone dry. It was as if I had lost my ability to communicate altogether.

And yet today I visited a loved one in the hospital who was trying to talk to me but, due to a medical condition, could not speak. Her voice had been taken away from her. But then I looked down from her face and saw something that made me even sadder — her hand restrained to the bed to prevent her from pulling out a tube or disconnecting a critical line of medication. She could not even write a note to communicate how she was feeling or if she needed something. It made my writer’s block seem inconsequential.

I cursed my fate because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.

Author Unknown

There may come a time in my life when I will not be able to speak. That might not change a whole lot. But if there comes a time when I become physically unable to write, I will be truly impaired.

Technology can be part of the problem — or part of the solution

There’s a new public service announcement out that warns teens about the dangers of texting while driving.

As you can probably tell, calling it graphic is an understatement. It’s gruesome but definitely a bitter pill of much-needed reality. I have to admit I have done this on a few occasions, but I must stop.

Of course, the fact that some people stupidly text while driving doesn’t mean that everybody who texts does so dangerously. The ability to send text messages via cell phone is a boon and can even be life saving in certain situations, as evidenced by the advent of text 911. Texting is a technological advancement that can be used for good.

But, better yet, there are some additional technological advancements now that enable people to send and receive text messages much more safely through car stereo systems via Bluetooth. Of course Bluetooth headsets are used more commonly, but these new car stereo systems (which are also available aftermarket for older cars) can really save lives.

So before all of the Luddites out there go blaming the abundance of technology for many of society’s ills, they should remember that technological tools can really improve people’s lives as well.