How to get High Definition TV with Videotron

This post is embarrassing to write because I have to admit to having been something less than a rocket scientist when it comes to HDTV. It’s true that HDTV is a quagmire of formats, conflicting opinions, hype, and commercial madness. No mere mortal can be expected to understand it without doing an awful lot of reading. But still, what I’m about to describe is just lame and stupid, but I’m not sure if I was the lame and stupid one. (Read on, then you decide.)

If you are a Videotron HDTV subscriber, please
take the poll at the bottom of this post.

I first saw HDTV in 1997, at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) annual trade show in Las Vegas. It was playing on a 32-inch, 16:9 ratio CRT television. The video showed a Japanese woman in a little boat drifting through a pond full of waterlilies. I was blown away by the clarity (plus I had never seen a 16:9 television before). It was billed as a technology “in development,” soon to be available in Japan, and then it would conquer the world.

That was 12 years ago, and the conquest has finally begun.

Late last year, Martine and I decided to splurge on a high definition television for our house. We don’t watch a lot of TV, but when we do watch, we like to be fully immersed. There’s no reason why watching TV shouldn’t be like going to the movies. And speaking of movies, we had grown tired of watching DVDs in low resolution, on a 3:2 boxy screen. Forget that; the prices of HDTVs has been steadily declining, and the new generation of “Full HD” (1080p) TVs had been on the market long enough to also see some drops in price. 1080p was a pretty big leap, and it will be some time before the next standard comes along to replace it, so, we figured, now is the time.

We did the research. Oh, did we read. We read about resolution, refresh rates, progressive scanning, HDMI cables, Blu-ray vs. HD DVD, and anything else we could get our hands on. I signed up for user forums and posted questions and got answers. By early January we had pretty much decided on the model we wanted, and we even found a good price on a TV and disk player (fortunately, we went with Blu-ray).

Nice picture!Before the month was out we had the thing set up and running in our living room. To take advantage of the TV, we also upgraded our Videotron Illico digital TV terminal to the HD version. Everything looked and sounded great.

Well, not everything. Whereas DVDs (whether Blu-ray or regular DVDs) looked spectacularly stunning and cinematic, regular television just didn’t seem that great. It usually wasn’t bad, it just didn’t seem as good as it should, and didn’t look anything like television looked in the TV show rooms.

We called Videotron and made inquiries. They assured us that if we were using the HD Illico terminal, and if we were getting a signal, then we were seeing TV in HD. We called again, on another occasion, and got the same response.

One day a Videotron technician came to the house to replace the Internet modem. Martine took the opportunity to show him the television and to ask him if it looked like HD to him. He looked at the image, shrugged, and said “if you have an HD terminal and you can see the picture, it’s in HD.”

Months passed. The shows we like to watch — many of which are supposed to be in HD — had their season finales. Then, one Saturday in early June, I was in a Dumoulin store, looking at a 42-inch television showing CBC in HD. I noticed that the little watermark in the corner showed the CBC pizza and it had an “HD” next to it. It also showed the five ring Olympics logo, and it was crystal clear.

That evening, we tuned into CBC. The Watermark said just “CBC” and the Olympics logo was fuzzy. Frustrated, Martine picked up the phone and punched in the number for Videotron, again. We got the usual song and dance. The guy even checked something on his end and confirmed that we were getting the HD signal. She asked him why none of the stations had “HD” written on their watermarks, and he did not know why.

Then he said “go to channel 612 and tell me what you see.” Huh? Why channel 612? We’ve been using Videotron digtial TV for years, and we know that the stations start at 2 and run up to around 215 or so. Plus there’s the Video on Demand stuff, and a bunch of radio stations in the 500s, but nothing beyond that (the channels run up to 999). So why the heck is he sending us to 612?

Martine punched in 612. Whoa! (As in, we both went “WHOA!!!”) There was Jay Leno, clearer than in real life. I could count the whiskers on his lip. I could see the flecks in his eyes. WHOA!

That’s when the support guy on the phone said “What? Haven’t you been watching the 600 channels?” [Update: Martine reminded me that the support guy didn’t even know about the 600 channels; he got that information from his supervisor.]

Um.

WHAT FRAKING 600 CHANNELS?

Well, it turns out that if you get an Illico HD terminal, and you have an HD television, the HD channels are way up there in the 600s (i.e, channel 603, 604, 605, etc.). We get about 15 of them. But since nobody told us, how were we to know? All along I had assumed that the terminal would simply spit out the HD signal in the old locations we were used to. After all, why give us CBC in both low res and HD? Just give us the HD version where the regular one used to be!

I suppose there are technical reasons why that isn’t possible, or not preferable from Videotron’s perspective. But you’d think they’d at least tell us!

  • Nobody at the store where we bought the HD terminal told us about the 600 channels.
  • Nothing is written in the HD terminal’s instructions about the 600 channels.
  • Nothing obvious on Videotron’s web site mentions the 600 channels (it’s there if you dig, but we shouldn’t have to dig).
  • Nobody at Videotron, even after repeated questioning, told us about the 600 channels.

So how the blue blazes were we supposed to know about the damn 600 channels?

As a person who writes instructions for a living, I find Videotron’s lack of information, and lack of insight into their customers’ needs, appalling. Surely we’re not the only ones to experience this problem. In fact, I spoke to my brother in law about it just before he got HDTV, and he too was unaware. He saw nothing in the setup about it, and while on the phone with Videotron they told him nothing. Knowing my story, and out of curiosity, he finally asked “do I have to look somewhere special to find the HD channels?” They replied yes, in the 600s. But that’s only because his question pointed to the answer. Our question was “why doesn’t this look like HD?” It takes a bit of lateral thinking to understand the true nature of that question, but not a lot. And especially not under these circumstances.

(Note that if you get your HD from another provider, you probably have a similar situation. For example, Bell Expressvu puts the HD channels in the 800s.)

Are you a Videotron HDTV subscriber living in Quebec?
If so, please take the poll, below.

[poll=3]

A Tale of Two Mice

People sometimes wonder why I’m always slagging Microsoft. No, really. Apparently it’s not obvious to some people.

So here’s an example. I recently changed my computer setups, both at the office and at home, from using wired trackballs to wireless mice. The mouse I installed at the office was from Microsoft. The mouse I installed at home was from Logitech. Both items cost about the same amount of money, and have essentially the same features.

Installing the Microsoft Mouse

  • The packaging on the Microsoft mouse urged me to install the software first. Its dire warnings implied that the fate of the world depended on it. So I installed the software. During the installation, it detected my Logitech trackball software, and refused to proceed unless I uninstalled it. So I uninstalled the trackball (which also uninstalled my Logitech keyboard software), and installed the Microsoft mouse software.
  • I was then prompted to reboot the computer. (Huh? When’s the last time you had to reboot just because you installed a piece of software? What is this, 1996?).
  • After rebooting, I plugged in the mouse and was prompted to configure it, which I did. Then I had to reboot, again. (I don’t think this second reboot is a normal part of the installation, but it simply wouldn’t work until I rebooted again.)
  • Then I had to reinstall the Logitech software in order to get the special features of my keyboard back. I also had to go through it and re-set my keyboard preferences, since they had been lost when I was forced to uninstall it.

Installing the Logitech Mouse

  • I plugged it in, and it worked.
  • I had the option (option) of installing software to enable the special features, which I did. It required no reboot.

There is no rational explanation for this. However, it is entirely consistent with other Microsoft experiences I’ve had, plus things I’ve read about, in which Microsoft doesn’t just want you to have a computer with an operating system and applications; they want everything to be fully integrated and dependent upon each other.

They call this progress. They think that a mouse is only fully a mouse if it is entwined right into the kernel of the operating system. They think your Web browser needs to be woven into your word processor, which needs to be meshed with your email program. They think the average person gets out of bed thanking the Microsoft gods for their ability to embed an Excel spreadsheet into a Word document and to email it without having to open Outlook.

Bull.

Nobody cares about that crap. Sure, people want their applications to be able to talk to each other, but they don’t need them to be interwoven to the point of having to reboot the system every time you add or remove something.

The worse part, and the part that Microsoft seems to have the greatest difficultly understanding (or at least caring about) is that the more interwoven those applications are with the operating system, the more vulnerable the entire system becomes. That’s a big part of why a Windows virus can hide in a Word document or a hidden script can run in an Outlook email that burrows right in and wrecks everything.

No more Microsoft peripherals for me. No way.

Another Facebook Scam: “Secret Crush”

This one with malicious “adware.”

One of the things about Facebook that has most concerned me is the proliferation of “apps” or “widgets,” those sometimes fun, sometimes annoying add-ons like “Scrabblicious,” “Six degrees,” and “Superlatives.”

Specifically, it bothers me that these apps ask you to hand over your entire profile and all its goodies in order for you to run them. Most people just blow through the installation process, blindly saying “yes” to everything in order to get to the app, not noticing that they are agreeing to let the app have unlimited access to all of the information they have ever put into Facebook, and essentially authorizing the app’s creators to do anything they want with that information.

Yesterday it was revealed that running the “Secret Crush” app (and at least a million people have already done so), installs an “adware” widget on your computer. The adware widget tracks your Web browsing (not just your Facebook activity) and launches annoying pop-up windows.

Here’s the story from Wired.

Here are a few excerpts from the Wired story:

According to an advisory from security software vendor Fortinet, the “Secret Crush” application prompts users to install ad-serving software from Zango, a company that was fined $3 million in 2006 by the feds for letting third parties install its adware without user consent.”

…the link to Zango’s software came through a sly iframe, a HTML code often abused by online scammers to attempt to install truly malicious code on people’s computer without their consent or knowledge.

Manky thinks such attacks will become more and more common on social networking sites, as users get accustomed to installing add-ons to their profiles and trust that sites like Facebook are safer than the larger internet.

This is exactly the kind of abuse of (badly-placed) trust that I’ve been complaining about when it comes to Facebook. More information about the Zango adware attack is available here, at ZDNet, in a blog article revealingly titled “The next hacker frontier: Social networking sites.”

To be fair, this is not an attack by Facebook, it is an attack by a company using Facebook as a vehicle. But the fact remains that Facebook was designed (by Facebook) expressly for this kind of thing.

What do I mean by that? I mean that Facebook was designed from the ground up to break down people’s fears and concerns. Instead of encouraging good privacy and online safety practices, it is designed to exploit the (false) sense of security people feel when they are surrounded by friends, and to encourage them to act recklessly. It is social engineering in which a facade of “fun” masks the real purpose, which is to monetize your every thought and move.

More Problems with Facebook

The uproar over Facebook and it’s Beacon advertising platform has died down somewhat, although that doesn’t mean Beacon is any less of a bad idea. But I thought I’d share a few other Facebook tales for those who aren’t following the story too closely.

Flagrant Violation of VPPA

One of Facebook’s Beacon partners is Blockbuster, the movie rental people. As you know, Beacon reports your online shopping activities to your friends, in effect turning you into an unpaid ambassador for the products you buy and the retailers you buy them from. So when you rent “Battlefield Earth” (because you have a secret attraction to loathsome movies), Facebook informs all of your friends that you have done so.

However, something that wasn’t factored into this diabolical scheme is the U.S. Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988 law that prohibits video rental services from disclosing the rental records of its customers unless the customer specifically consents, in writing. Each violation is liable for “civil remedies, including possible punitive damages and attorneys fees, not less than $2500.

Cornell University Law School lists the law under Title 18, Part I, chapter 121,
§ 2710
.

According to New York Law School professor James Grimmelmann, Blockbuster has definitely violated the law, and Facebook has “quite likely” done so. Now that Facebook has made it easier to opt out of Beacon entirely, and has made the opt-in more explicit, it is less clear whether or not the law is still being broken. But for a few weeks, it very clearly was. (Here is Grimmelmann’s post about it at Laboratorium.)

So who’s at fault here, Facebook or Blockbuster? I would say both; Blockbuster bears more liability towards their customers, but Facebook bears liability to Blockbuster. All this begs the question “what were they thinking?” The answer is that they likely were not. Thinking. Or if they were, their thinking was inebriated by the “social networking” intoxicant; the idea that you can pretty much disclose anything about anyone to anyone by simply calling it “social networking.” This intoxicant is predicated on the notion that people will unquestioningly buy into anything that says “online sharing” and as a result, everyone will get rich.

Hogwash.

Problem With Recycled Mobile Numbers

Here’s an odd one. Facebook, along with other social networking sites, are pushing mobile applications in an attempt to essentially have their product follow you around day and night. It’s not enough to have you when you’re sitting in front of the computer; they want you breakfast, lunch, and dinner too, and all times in between.

But a problem can arise when someone cancels their mobile phone after integrating it with a service like Facebook. Before long the number is recycled (brought back into service for a different customer), but the Facebook apps that are tied to it don’t know that the number has a different human attached to it.

Facebook just settled a lawsuit along these exact lines. A woman in Indiana got a new phone from Verizon and immediately started getting text messages that she had to pay for. She couldn’t turn it off because it was tied to a Facebook account that was not her own.

Apparently Facebook agreed to a settlement with the woman and agreed to take measures to allow people to block such messages and to work with mobile providers to try to prevent the problem. They did not, however admit to having done anything wrong.

Perhaps they didn’t. But this brings to the surface some of the potential hazards of just blindly falling into “Facebook app fever” and it highlights the extent to which that fever is pushing half-developed apps that lead people down pit-fall laden roads without any maps.

Now They Want Your Money Info, Too

Given the fact that almost everything Facebook touches turns into a boondoggle or a fiasco, you can imagine how I felt when I read that Facebook is planning to launch an online payment system. It will likely be based on the system behind those retarded “virtual gifts” on Facebook, a system that Nicholas Carson of Valleywag calls “a brilliant Trojan horse strategy: Charge people a token amount for something that costs you nothing, and get their credit-card numbers while you’re at it.”

No thanks. The day I punch my credit card number into any Facebook application is the day you should cart me away to the insane asylum.