A Night With The Chromecast

When Google announced the Chromecast during their breakfast, the star of the show was not Android 4.3 or the new Nexus 7 but the small, seemingly trivial piece of technology no bigger than a USB thumb drive. One year after the Nexus Q was announced, put on hold, and ultimately retired before officially launching, Google is back in our living rooms with another device. Friendlier than Google TV, far cheaper than the $299 Nexus Q, the $35 Chromecast widget may be their Apple TV: easy and cheap enough for anyone to add to their living room. For under $40, including tax, seeing that units were in stock at the local BestBuy, I figured it was worth checking out in person.

 

The Chromecast takes a lot of the usability ideas behind the Nexus Q and applies them better to an improved product. Like the Q, media isn’t streamed from your phone or computer, that device acts as a remote control, and the Chromecast does the job from there. So if you open Netflix on your phone and select a show, there is a small TV icon to “cast” the content onto your big screen. While watching a show on your TV, the Netflix app is now a remote control, handling the play and pause functions and the ability to scroll through the timeline. YouTube works the same way, and you can add to your queue from the app, building a playlist that will keep running, uninterrupted. As you would expect, Google’s Play Movies & TV and Play Music apps take advantage of this control scheme as well.

On the Nexus Q, all of this sharing and selecting was entirely done though the phone interface. All you saw on the screen was the result: the music or movie you were playing (and there was no Netflix capability, only Google and YouTube media properties). Adding on-screen controls and information makes the user experience a hundred times better. This is how the Nexus Q should have worked. The idea of our phones and tablets taking over the television as a remote control is a good one, but it needs to be done in a way that makes sense in the television world, and that means on-screen messages and interactions.

With the Chromecast plugged into my TV, this is the first time I have ever considered buying media from a company other than Apple. Even though I’ve been an Android user since joining the smartphone world, I’ve had Macs for a decade. While music files have evolved from being tied to iTunes, movies and shows purchased from the iTunes store are still firmly in the Apple universe. Apple TV is $99 dollars and worst case scenario, I can watch on my Mac and make my own video output solution. In this copyright-burdened world we live in, iTunes, backed by a company very likely to stay in the content delivery business and continue to support accessing that content on a plethora of  (their own) devices has seemed like the safest choice. Maybe “owning” digital content is a fad, but if something isn’t available on Netflix and the rental fee is $3.99 or $4.99, “buying” a digital movie for $9.99, if you may ever watch it again, is still a tempting offer. And this is where Google pulls their final rabbit out of the hat: tab casting.

By installing the Google Cast extension on your computer’s Chrome browser, any tab you have open on your computer can be shared to the TV. I’m writing this on the TV right now. Amazon Prime video? Sure, just cast the tab and you’re watching that video on your television. The quirk with tab casting is that tabs are not Chromecast apps. You can share a tab playing Amazon content, but the video continues to play on your computer, albeit without sound. Going to fullscreen means that you can’t do anything else on the computer. If Amazon adds Chromecast functionality to their smartphone and tablet apps, this won’t be an issue. You may not want to have a movie night watching content on the TV inside a browser window, but it’s still on a big screen with more real estate than a laptop, so if you just want to make use of a second screen, it’ll do.

Unfortunately, one of the benefits announced at launch, three free months of Netflix, for current and new users alike, has already been discontinued. That savings effectively reduced the price of the Chromecast to $11. It’s puzzling that Google was prepared to sell so many devices but limit the Netflix perk to only the earliest of early adopters. At least without more clear messaging from the start that it was a very limited time offer.

On day one though, the Chromecast is a home run. We’re starting to see the differentiation between Android (Google TV) and Chrome, which, as Gina Trapani put it on This Week in Google boils down to “Android in an operating system” and “Chrome is a platform.” This definition doesn’t quite cover the Chromebooks, especially the higher-end Pixel, but it does work well to define the interaction between users and devices.

With all apologies to Xfinity, it’s Chromecastic.

 

Happy Birthday Nomar!

Since Nomar Garciaparra and I share a birthday, I always imagine that he hit those three home runs on this date in 2002 for all the important people born on the 23rd of July.

According to @highheatstats, this is a unique feat: 

Did the Phillies Learn the Wrong Lesson from Boston?

 From 2006 to 2011 the Philadelphia Phillies won more games each season than the season previous, raising their win total from a modest 85 to an outstanding 102. 

Their front office built a starting rotation headed by a trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels that teams and fans around the sport would drool over. The Phillies finished first in the NL East in five consecutive seasons from 2007 to 2011. 

But like a character in a sitcom who is living “the life of Riley” until the show needs a ratings boost and they draw the short straw, the Phillies began to realize that the good times would not last forever

Posting a .500 record last year and on pace to lose more games than they win for the first time since 2002 this season, reality has arrived in Philadelphia. The time to rebuild their once championship-caliber core may be at hand.

GM Ruben Amaro, however, is taking his time adjusting to the lean years. Looking at a roster that includes names like Lee, Papelbon, Hamels, Rollins, Utley, and Howard, the Phillies executive remains bullish on his club. 

Speaking with CSNPhilly.com in June, Amaro argued his team could duplicate the turnaround of the Boston Red Sox, a last place team in 2012 currently leading the AL East as the All-Star break approaches. 

Amaro expanded on this idea, saying, “There’s no blowing up. There might come a time when we make changes to improve for the future, but we don’t have reason to blow it up. Boston didn’t blow it up last year. They retooled.” 

Since then the GM has backed off his denials that the team could become a seller before the trade deadline, but his point stands: if the Red Sox could return to respectability in an offseason, why can’t the Phillies? It’s not quite that simple.

In Ben Cherington first year as general manager for the Boston Red Sox, the team fell on its face. 

One year after being heralded as the best team in baseball, only to miss the playoffs in embarrassing fashion, the Red Sox made a series of lesser free agent signings: Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, and Koji Uehara. 

Rather than go after Zack Greinke or Josh Hamilton, Boston moved down a tier in their acquisitions and filled in gaps with players who had some question marks. 

Napoli and Victorino were coming off down years, Gomes had succeeded mainly as a platoon player, Dempster was moving to the DH league, Ross was only a backup catcher, and Uehara had been a very good relief pitcher who, as he neared 40, was scaling back his workload. 

Yet, the Red Sox are among the best in baseball, one season after losing more than 90 games.

Ruben Amaro would seem to be correct: the Phillies were a .500 team in 2012 and are just a bit off that pace this year, why can’t they stick with a their already-signed core (Lee, Hamels, Howard, Papelbon, and now, Dominic Brown) and match the Red Sox, adding a few complimentary free agents and return to the top of the NL East? 

Phillies fans, if you are starting to get excited, don’t hold your breath.

The Red Sox didn’t just retool, a storm of signings, health, and a miniature fire sale worked in concert to make the 2013 roster possible. Starting with The Trade, we know that the Red Sox didn’t just dump spare parts onto the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

They parted ways with Adrian Gonzalez, their starting first baseman who was acquired for a package of prospects just shy of two seasons prior. The Dodgers took on nearly all of the remaining 6 years and $127 million left on his contract. Gonzalez was a player the Sox did not want to trade. He was the result of a multi-year search for a new franchise first baseman. 

But the team did so to sweeten the rest of the trade: five years of Carl Crawford’s at approximately $85 million dollars and the remainder of Josh Beckett’s deal, worth approximately $31.4 million over two years. 

While Beckett pitched well down the stretch in 2012, his 2013 was disappointing before he succumbed to season-ending surgery. Crawford, battling injury himself, is on his way to a bounce back season hitting .284/.343/.443 with five home runs and nine steals when he’s been able to take the field. 

Adrian Gonzalez too has rebounded from his disappointing 2012 hitting nearly .300 with some decent power (13 homers, 19 doubles) in the first half. The Dodgers got a lot of talent for a number of years from the Red Sox in exchange for pitching prospect Allen Webster and and young pitcher Rubby De La Rosa, who was making his return from Tommy John surgery.

The 2012 Red Sox were not in last place simply because of a trade: the team was without Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, John Lackey, and Andrew Bailey for much of the season, all of whom have returned to the field and, with the exception of Bailey, performed above expectations in 2013. 

The Phillies are missing Roy Halladay, who struggled in 2012, dropped down another peg in 2013, and is now recovering from surgery. But other than that, the Phillies have their team on the field. And it’s performing like an aging roster is expected to: not that well.

The version of the Red Sox story that Ruben Amaro is telling is one of offseason additions. Roy Halladay, even if healthy, is a free agent at the end of this season. He is not signed for the future the way John Lackey was during his lost year. This is important to remember because Lackey has been a force for Boston out of the rotation when his contribution was expected to be minimal.

For the Phillies to duplicate the revival of Boston they need to free salary, move valuable assets (Lee, Papelbon, pending free agent Chase Utley) with a bad contract like Ryan Howard’s. Hopefully they can acquire some prospects in the exchange and then use the money freed up from the veteran players to do what the Red Sox did and fill in their lineup with fresh, new, players. 

The Red Sox did all three of these things, not just the last bit about signing free agents in the offseason after a down year that Amaro is pointing to as the retooling rather than rebuilding.

There is a lesson to be learned in what the Red Sox have accomplished: big market teams working with other big market teams, can unload contracts, grab a few prospects, and trade a slice of their competitive window for a temporary step back. 

The Red Sox were still at .500 on August 6, 2012, and just six games under .500 when the trade with the Dodgers occurred. Without the trade they might have avoided last place in the AL East, but would not have had the financial or roster flexibility to do what they did in the offseason. 

There is no reason the Phillies can’t take some dead money, tie it to a few valuable players who can bring back a solid return in terms of prospects, and have plenty of room to spend in the offseason, reallocating a couple big deals into several small ones.

Baseball Confession Time

It’s become something of a punching bag for the media, analysts, fantasy sports folks, and more recently but I like the All-Star Game. Is it perfect? No. Is it the game my dad watched as a kid (well, one of two ASGs back in the day apparently), no. But it’s still fun to see a living fantasy team take the field. 

The voting system isn’t perfect – not the fan voting or the player voting – the roster use can be a mess, and the game isn’t played like it counts, despite holding what can be a decent advantage for the winning league, home field for the World Series. 

Our Father, who art in Calgary, Bobsled be thy name. Thy kingdom come, gold medals won, on Earth as it is in Turn Seven. With Liberty and Justice for Jamaica and Haile Selassie. Amen. – Irving Blitzer

Without getting too into it, what would I change to improve an event I already enjoy?  

First, either go all-in on “it counts” and run the game like a real game or return it to the exhibition it was in the past. Just picking one of these eliminates a number of issues because if the game doesn’t count for anything, who actually plays doesn’t matter as much.

Second, change up the selection system. Take the two MVPs from the previous season and make them captains. Each chooses a starting 9. The fans get to vote on the bench and the starting pitcher. The manager gets to assemble a bullpen and choose the “final vote” candidates so that a Bryce Harper or Yasiel Puig can get on the team because everyone wants to see them play. 

Third, eliminate the rule requiring every team to get an All-Star representative. Back when Joe Torre loaded every team with Yankees this seemed like a logical move to prevent too many teams from being left out, but today the manager doesn’t have as much control and with online voting, fans can make their voices heard in a more powerful way than ever before.

And that would be it. Shake up the game, mess with the rules, and have fun. Oh, and each All-Star Game format would last say, five years, and then shake it up again. The game should be fun but it should be a game.

San Diego Padres: A Team on Friar

On May 1, the San Diego Padres were 10-17, good enough for last place in the National League West. They had allowed a NL worst 129 runs while scoring just 103. The team’s run differential of -26 was the second worst in the National League, ahead of only the Miami Marlins. 

Since losing that night to the Chicago Cubs, the Padres have gone 30-23 (15-11 in June, as of Friday night’s victory over the Marlins) and sit just three games back of the Arizona Diamondbacks for the division lead, tied with the Colorado Rockies, and ahead of the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

How is a team that finished 76-86 last season looking like a competitor? There must be a reason why Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan picked the Padres to win the NL West when no one else did. What did he see?

At first guess, you’d probably figure the Padres third baseman, Chase Headley, who finished fifth in MVP voting last season was the one leading the team back to respectability. But, not so much. Headley has, to this point, put up his worst numbers since he became a full time player at the Major League level. His .227/.325/.355 line is a far cry from last year’s .286/.376/.498 mark and the nearly identical, aside from slugging, numbers he put up in 2011: .289/.374/.399.

One Padres player, Everth Cabrera, is hitting .300. Unfortunately, he’s also on the disabled list right now. Regardless, Cabrera has been a revelation for the Friars. At 26, in his fifth season in the majors, the shortstop was in the midst of a breakout before subcuming to injury. His entire triple slash line, .305/.382/.418, would represent career highs by at least 58 points per category. Just 69 games into the season, Cabrera already hit more triples (4) than in any year since his rookie season in 2009 when he recorded eight three-baggers. 

His four home runs are already a career high, while his 24 RBI ties his 2012 production. Did I mention Cabrera can run? Even with a week on the DL, he’s leading the senior circuit in steals (31) and is on pace to shatter last year’s league-leading 44 stolen bases. Typically, you imagine a player having a breakout and “carrying” his team to be a slugger, but for the Padres, it has been their table setter.

The Padres aren’t without other offensive sources. Carlos Quentin, who was hitting just .169 with two home runs on May 8, has rebounded for a .319/.412/.534 line with six homers since his nadir. The slugging outfielder has a 22:15 strikeout to walk ratio over this stretch and has exposed himself to four hit by pitches. When the Padres signed Quentin to an extension rather than looking to move him in a trade, it raised a few eyebrows, but in a tight division, having another good player on the roster is looking pretty smart.

Quentin is joined in this journey with a revitalized Kyle Blanks. Injury and ineffectiveness have diminished Blanks’ stock over the last year, and the outfielder/first baseman was a non-entity entering this season. But, when called on, Blanks has come through.

In his first big league experience in 2009, Blanks launched ten home runs in 54 games. Through 56 games this season, he has 8 home runs. The similarity between the two seasons, separated by three lost years, is shocking. Runs: 24 in 2009, 25 in 2013. Doubles: 9 in each season. Walks: 18 in 2009, 16 in 2013. Strikeouts: 55 in 2009, and just 47 in 2013. His triple slash was .250/.355/.514 in 2009 and stands this year at .278/.350/.472 through approximately the same number of games this year. This is the guy who looked like a slugger whose power would play anywhere, even Petco Park, and San Diego fans are finally seeing him perform.

And that’s what’s amazing about this Padres team: the offense is where the talent lies. The rotation is the promising flamethrower Andrew Cashner and castoffs from the Island of Misfit Toys. Eric Stults, Jason Marquis, Edinson Volquez, and Clayton Richard round out a rotation without a big name.

While there are rumors of a trade with the Cubs for Matt Garza, so far the Friars have put together a run without anyone even approaching an ace to lead the rotation. Which take us to the last point: the Padres run isn’t a mirage built upon a weak schedule. They’ve won seven of their last nine games against teams with records over .500 and are performing against winning teams better than they have in either of the past two seasons.

In a division with a flawed Dodgers team, a Giants rotation that isn’t what it has been the last few years, and a Rockies club without Troy Tulowitzki, the Padres can’t be counted out.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post