Sling TV: Not Bad.

Sling TV logo

A review of Sling TV. Executive summary: not bad at all, hope the 2.0 version of this idea is better.

In case you haven't heard of Sling TV before, let me explain. The service is a product of Dish TV, but it comes over the Internet, not through a dish. For $20 a month, you get a little over twenty channels—not nearly as many as a dish or cable subscription, but many of the most popular channels are there, including ESPN. Note that it does not include major networks, which is not a problem for me because I can get local channels over the air. Also, there are specialized add-on packages of extra channels for $5 extra each. For example, there are sports and children's packages.

Sling TV can be watched on PCs, Macs, iPhones and Android phones, most television stream hardware, and the XBox One (but not any other gaming consoles). The quality of the images is nice most of the time but there are definite quality hiccups. It's a little disappointing that live streaming, in general, still has these problems when I rarely have any problems with Netflix streaming.

I've watched Sling TV on my PC and through an Amazon Fire TV stick. The PC app, unfortunately, is useless. In many video playback applications, when you are playing fullscreen and move the mouse or otherwise interact with the device you are using, video controls come up on the bottom, like we see here:


The problem is that on the Sling TV app on the PC, these controls keep reappearing, every ten seconds or so, even though you aren't doing anything to cause that. It's very distracting and annoying. Although this doesn't happen to every Sling TV customer, it is, apparently, a widespread problem withthe PC app, a problem that that has been happening since the service was introduced.

The Sling TV app on the Amazon Fire Stick works much better.

But let me back up. The reason I got rid of cable television was that between Netflix discs & rentals, we just weren't watching that much. I've been happy with this decision, but I have really missed one thing: live TV. And by live TV, I mean sports. Actually, I mean football. Really, I just mean college football. In prior seasons, to watch college football I would take whatever ESPN would offer to non-ESPN subscribers on their WatchESPN app. For most games, the best I could do was watch the game the next day, which wasn't great. In other cases, WatchESPN would have the live game, but only the Skycam view available, with no commentary, just crowd noise, which was kind of fun. Sometimes, for bigger games, they would have the regular game footage but with Spanish commentary.


The best part of Sling TV for me, then, is full access to ESPN content on the WatchESPN app, which is available on even more platforms than Sling TV itself. The ESPN app runs great on my XBox 360 and has some nice features like split screen watching. For anything on ESPN channels, I would recommend the WatchESPN app and not Sling TV. I should point out that you need the Sling TV "sports" tier to get channels like ESPNU and the SEC network, which includes access to that content on the WatchESPN app. All this suggests that I am paying $25 a month mainly for access to sports content, which seems a bit much when I put it to myself that way. However, Sling TV has no contracts, which means that in theory I can drop it after football season and pick up again next fall.

So that's Sling TV for me. Some additional info that may be helpful for others: you can only play one stream at a time. If two people in your family want to be able to watch two different streams on two devices at once, you'd need two subscriptions. Also, I should mention that HBO is also available as a $15 surcharge. Since I am apparently the last holdout in the nation not following Game of Thrones in any way, I don't care about HBO, but it does suggest that perhaps we are finally moving away from the old cable mega-bundle-plus-premium model of television, which I think is a good thing.

In short, Sling TV is not great, but for many customers in situations like mine, I think it provides a useful and fairly-priced service. If you sign up thinking you are getting cable, but cheaper, and no contract, you'll be disappointed, but if you go in knowing you are getting a weaker product, you may find it covers almost all everything you would really want.

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Tales from the Spraulsonian: The New Mutants

In doing some cleaning and straightening up in my basement, I've come across a number of cultural artifacts that I want to share with the world. I call this collection the Spraulsonian. Some of these items are valuable, some are not, but all of them have a story to tell.

The first artifact is pictured below.


The official Spraulsonian catalog entry for this item: [The New Mutants. Issue #1. Comic Book, Marvel Comics. 1983.]

So what's this comic book about? Apparently the X-Men were getting too old and maybe too heavy for some of the readership (e.g., the "Dark Phoenix Saga" that had concluded a couple of years prior). Marvel tried to introduce a new, younger set of mutant heroes to augment the X-Men. Oddly, Professor Xavier (he's the ghost head on the cover there) specifically rejects the notion that these youngsters are some kind of new X-Men, but this is undercut by having them wear X-Men uniforms.

As you can see from the cover, Marvel was clearly trying to cover a lot of diversity bases with the team: Native American, Latino, Asian, Kentuckian, and, um, Werewolf. To be fair, Marvel does a better job here at making real people than the Superfriends did when they introduced heroes like Apache Chief and El Dorado.

I have the first four issues of this title. To be honest, I don't remember if I  liked it or not. To see what I missed after these four issues, I did a quick skim of Wikipedia. Here's a bit of plot summary that I love:

The entity known as the Beyonder encounters the New Mutants, and in his curiosity, he kills them. They are resurrected by the Beyonder soon after, but this trauma leaves the team deeply shaken.

Yes, I can well imagine it might.

According to an online price guide, this comic might be worth a whopping $12 in mint condition. I don't think my copy is anywhere near mint. To be honest, it's probably not worth much more than the cover price of 60 cents.

On the back of the comic is a great ad for an Atari 2600 game:


Super Cobra is the name. I had forgotten that Parker Brothers made Atari games. This is a home version of an arcade game of the same name, made by Konami, who also made the very similar game Scramble, into which I dropped many tokens back in the day. If any grammarians read the ad copy, they will note that Parker Brothers writes UFO's when they mean UFOs. The small print on the ad is a nice reminder of two fun facts from the Early Age of Video Games: 1) The Atari 2600 was called the Atari Video Computer System for much of its run. 2) It was also sold as the Sears Video Arcade. When was the last time someone thought: I want to check out the latest and greatest video games...time to get to Sears?

Up next from the Spraulsonian: A mesmerizing movie soundtrack.


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The True Story of Random Numbers

My latest book, How Software Works, covers a lot of the most interesting secrets behind the software we use every day. Even so, there were a lot of cool topics that I wasn't able to include. So I've decided to "showcase" my "animation skills" (have I downplayed that enough?) by making videos to cover them instead. The first of these is about random numbers. Few people know how many types of programs depend upon random numbers—or that it's impossible for a program to create them. Sound like a paradox?


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Coming Soon: How Software Works

HSW CoverI'm  excited to announce that the imminent release of my new book, How Software Works. Whereas Think Like a Programmer was written for programmers-to-be, How Software Works is for everyone who is curious about what goes on behind a computer screen, whether they have any interest in programming or not.

I suppose I've been interested in technology my whole life, but one thing that's a little unfortunate about the dominance of software is that you can't learn how it works by watching it. When I was a boy, I used to love playing records on my parent's big console stereo, which had an automatic record changer. I remember once my dad had the panel off to fix it, and then I could get an idea of what it was actually doing. Taking the case off a computer, though, doesn't help you understand what it's doing at all.

So my fear was that we're heading into a world where many of the tools we rely on are just "black boxes" we'll have to accept and not understand. And that's sad, not just because we shouldn't have to live in a world we can't comprehend, but also because the secrets that make software go are really cool--maybe even cooler than the mechanism of an automatic record changer.

I've made a little overview video...check it out:

I'll talk more about the book as we get closer to release. I should point out that you can actually buy the book now under my publisher's early access program. You'll get a discount, and be sent the "beta" version of the e-text now, then get the final e-text and a printed copy when they are ready.


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Here's to You, Bart Starr


I've been saddened to read of the ongoing health troubles for football legend Bart Starr. In the great divide of college football in Alabama, I'm an Auburn Tigers fan, but unlike some, I've never thought that rooting for one team meant rooting against the other. I mean, it's not like Venus Williams talks smack about Serena, although presumably she would like nothing than to crush her sister when they meet on the court. So there's lots of people involved with U of Alabama football that I greatly admire (at the top of the list is Gene Stallings, one of the last coaches who dressed like a man who took his job seriously. Bill Belichick, please take notes.)

On several occasions, I've run into Starr at the local Taco Bell, which saddens me. Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking Taco Bell. After all, I eat there, too. But then, I'm not a two-time Super Bowl MVP. I'd like to think that when Bart Starr is sitting on his couch and gets a craving for some Tex-Mex, he could just clap his hands and announce, "Fajitas!", at which point someone in an impeccable white chef's coat would start grinding some pepper on a skirt steak. Instead Starr is schlepping off for a Nachos Bel Grande like the rest of us.

I've also run into him at Panera Bread, but somehow that's not the same.

Anyway, even though I've stood right behind him at the drink fountain several times, I've never said anything to him, partly because I figure he's had his fill of random people saying hello, and partly because it would feel awkward to begin the conversation with anything other than, "Roll Tide," which I don't know that I could deliver with full conviction. And now when I can't expect to see him at the Taco Bell again any time soon, I'm sad because of something I've often wanted to tell him, which is: thanks.

Thanks, because when I was a boy, Starr's book Quarterbacking provided my first real instruction in football. Let's face it, football is a complicated game, and like many young fans, I understood most of the rules, but couldn't perceive the high-speed chess match that takes place during a play. Despite the name, Starr's book was about far more than his position. It introduced me to the world of football strategy, offensive and defensive alignments, player responsibilities, reads and keys, route trees, the whole thing. I started seeing the game in a different light after reading that book, and I'm not sure I would still be a football fan today if Starr hadn't revealed the depth of the game.

Others may think of Starr as a great quarterback, a class act, and a guy with one of the coolest names ever, and rightly so. But let it also be said he's been a fine teacher and ambassador of the game. So here's to you, Mr. Starr. Get well soon.

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