How Did I Get Here?


Yeah, well. When you find yourself wedged head down in a narrow, cobweb-filled space between ceiling and roof tiles, you do tend to take stock of your life.

I was laying a cable to the satellite dish; a second one, so that we could record one channel while viewing another. But the original run had been put in when the house was far from finished. All is buried now behind stud partitions and under layers of insulation. My only choice was to to squeeze into the little triangular storage space at the side of the attic room, crawl along its length until I reach a gap that slopes down to the eaves, through that to where the slates meet the top of the stone wall…

Except the sloping part is way too tight. I probably could worm my way down it, but worming back up in reverse might be a different story altogether. One with the headline “Skeleton Discovered”.

Luckily though, I see a literal way out. Light shines dimly in through a knothole in the fascia board. Thanks to a slight stiffness in the cable, from where I’m lodged I can maybe feed it through – and from there run it along the front of the house, hidden by the gutter. It’s a matter of a few feet, but in the claustrophobic location it feels as tricky as in-flight refuelling.

Why all this death-defying effort? It’s not like there’s so much good on television you need two channels of it at once. Ludicrously perhaps, it’s mostly because I came across a decent satellite card that was almost too cheap not to buy, about a quarter the price of my original one. Admittedly, that was a much nicer job. It can pick up Saorview, and comes with a fully-featured Windows remote control. The remote (and software) with the cheap card are more novel than useful, but that didn’t matter. It picks up satellite channels – even HD ones – perfectly well, and can be controlled seamlessly by Windows Media Center. (Or MythTV if you like.) The result is just an easy-to-use entertainment system, one that doesn’t intimidate parents or children. All the cleverness happens behind a pretty blue interface that anyone can use to surf, record, and pause TV.

I hope Microsoft aren’t in the process of quietly dropping Media Center. In Windows 8 it’s an extra you have to buy, and even then you can’t boot directly into its television-friendly interface but still have to go via the screen of tiles. Yes, when Microsoft has an idea nothing gets in the way. Your phone, your tablet, your desktop PC has to have a touch interface. Even your television on the other fucking side of the room has to have a touch interface. That’s vision taken to the point of obsession. But it would be a terrible shame if they gave up on Windows Media Center just because its face no longer fits. In its quiet way it’s one of the best things they’ve done, with possibly the nicest EPG of any satellite/cable/PVR device. It takes a bit of trouble and/or experience to set it up just right, but you can get all the channels you actually want into one manageable menu, and banish all the porn and religion to the outer darkness.

Perhaps the worst-designed part is arranging the order of your channels, which has to be done painstakingly with the arrow keys of the remote. Here is where a touch interface – or just drag and drop – would be a good idea. But no, this is a home entertainment or “10-foot” interface, so everything has to be done via the remote.

I think we’re zoning in on the problem here, aren’t we? It’s not bad interface design per se. Microsoft make some great interfaces, and probably research human-machine interaction more than anyone else in the world. It’s when a design orthodoxy takes over. This one is for remote controls. This one is about touch and touch only. As if letting us plug in a mouse or boot straight to the desktop would mean abject failure. It must be PURE. And so we actual users have to find ways to get around all the convenience they invented for their ideal users.

Why not have devices designed to be used from whatever distance, by whatever means, that we want to use them?

Doing The Digital Switchover

Photo of the RTÉ News Studio
RTÉ trying to look cool

We decided to make the switchover to digital TV, a year ahead of the deadline. Not, let’s be honest, for the many wonders this new technology brings. Nor for the early-adopter cool. No, it was mainly because of stuff in the attic.

You see up until now broadcast TV in Ireland has been on both UHF and VHF.

No? My God, do I have to draw diagrams? That means you need two aerials¹. And because our attic is small these are too close together, bouncing signals off each other. So any time you move one it buggers up reception on the other. In short, trying to get a good picture on all channels was about as much fun as being repeatedly stabbed.

So after we moved the aerials to get the attic insulated, I decided it wasn’t worth going through all that again, and that we should skip straight to the new technology. It’s not expensive. You may have heard you need a new ‘digital’ aerial. In fact you just need a UHF one, so if you’re already getting TV3 or TG4 you’ve probably OK. A very nice bonus is that the all-or-nothing nature of digital makes it a hell of a lot less sensitive about position. Even though ours is so off-beam it renders analogue channels in snowy monochrome, we still get a crisp digital picture.

Nor do you need a new TV, you can buy a digital tuner to connect to your existing set for less than €100. And if you rent one, then it’s the rental company’s problem. Ours was more than happy to swap our 21″ analogue CRT for a fairly nifty 26″ flatscreen at the same rent. (It has so many inputs!!!)

 In short then, approximate cost and hassle of switching to digital = Sweet FA.

So should you rush to join me on Saorview?² Yes if you have a bad picture, in which case the switch could make an amazing difference. Otherwise, nah. For one, it’s not guaranteed to work yet. You may find it ups and disappears on you randomly. (Though if it does, you should still be able to tune in the old analogue signal.) While HD is nice and all it’s not exactly a viewing revolution, and only Network 2 is being broadcast in HD yet. There’s 3e if you’re not getting that already, which justifies its existence by showing Futurama, and RTÉ’s new digital channels, which no one remembers asking for. And that’s about it – so far anyway.

Except that this may be your first brush with owning a widescreen TV – or at least, one with a widescreen signal to match. I’d like to say this makes sense of the whole thing, but it’s still a mess. You were used to films being letterboxed on your old 4:3 TV. Now you have to choose between programmes being cropped, stretched, or pillarboxed. And you must choose, because not everything looks best the same way. And you must not choose stretched. Goddamit people are fat enough these days.

Any other cons? Well on this set at least there’s a very noticeable delay when you change channel. Maybe you get used to that. And you’ll need a new Saorview-compatible DVD player to record from the digital signal, so factor that in when calculating… well, calculating the expense the government is putting you to for as yet no very clear reason.

  1. You may prefer to call them antennas.
  2. We call it Saorview, from the Irish Saor, meaning ‘Free’, and the English View, meaning ‘Radharc’.