Friday, January 19, 2018

Recording The Cloud

When you chord cut you really don’t miss the ability to schedule recordings since pretty much everything is available on demand within a few hours.

Everything except sports, that is. BT Sports takes the best part of a month to get full games up online, Now TV doesn’t provide any catch up at all for sports.

As the rugby season gets into full swing I therefore find myself missing games, since rights are spread over several services (BBC, BT, Sky).

So, I set about seeng if I could set up a cloud recorder.

The first step was to find a way of grabbing a stream. This proved pretty simple using a box intended to record video gameplay. Plug in the HDMI input from my Roku 3 and the output to the TV and boot up in the right order. The box even comes with the ability to schedule recordings. I was able to record any content off the Roku and Fire TV stick (I have yet to get Chromecast to work, but I’m convinced it’s possible).

The next stage was to be able to control all of this when I’m away from the house.

The solution was to use Logitech’s Harmony system to remotely control all the devices (I have it set up with Alexa so that it understands voice commands). You’re able to concoct recipes such as “turn on Roku, the TV on input 3 and the sound bar and go to iPlayer”.

The next step will be to add some visual control, probably by VPNing into a PC in my home network. An alternative would be to use a security camera to see the TV screen.

So, finally, I can do everything that you can on a traditional TV STB, but using the cloud.

It just remains to debate whether this is legal. (The setup does nothing that a VHS did thirty years ago and that any STB will do now. I pay for all the services I’m recording and I only use the recordings for consumption in my home.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Talking To My TV

After installing a Logitech Harmony hub and linking it to Alexa I’ve found myself talking to my TV.

It switches the TV on and off and starts up services like Roku (although it did start playing “We Will Rock You” by Queen the first time I tried...). It also pauses and restart the telly on DVR and OTT.

This means that we can use Alexa (or can just use our mobiles or iPads) instead of five remotes and around twelve apps. Magic!

(As an aside, I’ve recently installed BT Whole Home mesh, which is utterly brilliant. We have nearly forty connected devices already to in our house - five Sonos, three Nest, seven PCs and Macs, four connected TVs, three Roku boxes, six tablets, a Fire TV stick, a transcoder and the Harmony remote and hub. Oh, and two or three mobile phones and some security devices to protect all of the above! (Plus, of course, a microwave operating at the same frequency as our wifi). A single router just couldn’t cope - now all the devices are getting at least 60Mbs, even down at the dock at the end of the garden it’s 25Mbs. Yes, for the first time on this blog I’m praising BT!)

You can also control and manage the devices remotely from anywhere in the world using the Harmony on your mobile, since it’s cloud enabled (easier than explaining how they work to your mum when she comes to stay - and a great way of entertaining the cat).

The next step, I guess, is to give programme makers and service operators instant feedback from Alexa. Forget Gogglebox, welcome to Alexabox...

Seriously, it does open up many new possibilities - playing along to game shows by voicing an answer (Pointless will never be the same again, and as for University Challenge...), even ordering items from commercials or calling up a web page. Imagine skipping through channels or UIs and telling your TV to ‘save for later’.

It also highlights how useless current remotes and their endless buttons are.

Forget 8K and curved screens, what TV manufacturers need to do is to integrate voice commands into their devices. It’s probably too late for them to develop their own, so expect Alexa or Google on your next TV.

And yet again, Apple are left behind. Siri remain a joke. Ask it the time and your garage door will open. It has not once ever understood a voice command for dialling or directions I have given it.

Until Microsoft release some cheaper products, the company whose business focus under Ballmer was to ‘own your living room’ are much better focused on their business and cloud computing efforts. Their voice assistant, Cortana, is a side show, although still much better than Siri in my experience.

Now that we’re rigged up, I’m pretty convinced that voice commands are the way to go for TV viewing, but it remains to be seen how Alexa will respond to my expletive viewing of rugby games at weekends.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

No IP in EU

You would think that the very first and most straightforward thing that the EU could have done was to introduce a unified approach to IP, patents and rights. Fifty years on they are hawking sticky plasters. Above is a map of the transferrability of IP rights - purple is good, red is bad, yellow is so so.

A ‘unified’ IP approach does not include Europe’s biggest pirates, Spain. It does include the country with most counterfeiting, Italy and the two biggest consumers of IP, Germany and the UK are only half ‘in’.

What a mess. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Is This The Real Y2K ?

Do you remember all the boo ha around Y2K and the 'millennium bug' ? Pretty much nothing happened yet it commanded miles of newsprint and endless headlines.

But now we have a real Y2K scenario and it just doesn't seem to be taken seriously.

The two bugs found in pretty much every computer chip in every mobile phone, PC, Mac and server are a serious issue for a number of reasons:

1) Patches have been issued for the Meltdown bug, but there is none available at present for Spectre according to reports. The trouble with patches is that they often need to be patched themselves: this sounds like a very complex low level problem and I'd suggest that the chances of further issues arising are very high.

2) The patches involve restarting machines - we've been seeing Microsoft automatically restarting many of our cloud machines overnight. (We remain unsure if our inability to deploy new CPUs and VMs over the past few days was related to this). Restarting machines can have unexpected consequences.

3) Obviously, this is going to lead to disruption.

4) But the real issue are those machines that don't get patched - a network is only as strong as its most vulnerable node. It doesn't sound like anyone has yet exploited these vulnerabilities, but you can bet your bottom dollar that in bedrooms and bunkers around the world there are some very bright - and misused- minds trying their darnedest to do so.

5) Finally, we're told that there will be a performance hit after patching. Well that's all well and good, but performance = price in the cloud and a 10% degradation in performance is the same as a 10% price hike. Consequences of this are likely to include a class action suite against Intel, ARM and other chip manufacturers in the US and all the unpredictability this brings. It’s interesting to note that ARM sold itself at the end of last year and that the Intel CEO sold mist of his stock at the same time.

So, what should you do ?

If you don't already have a list of all the devices you use (and all the devices your employees use if you're a company), then prepare the list. Remember to include your thermometer, car, sound system, etc.. Your router is a good place to find a list of all the devices connected or capable of connecting to the internet.

Alternatively just restart your devices - this will usually prompt a patch or upgrade.

If there is no patch yet, then do not use that device or system for anything you don't mind being stolen.

Expect a lot of disruption online - in addition to our issues with Azure I was experiencing issues accessing my online banking today. It probably means that your service provider is working behind the scenes to secure their systems, so it's not a bad thing.

It's striking that this information has been around for a couple of months and we're only just hearing about it. Here's some more information.

This could well be bigger than the Y2K bug...

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

When The Cloud Isn’t Scalable

Back to work and we run immediately into a problem with the Azure cloud.

Our technology scales to thousands of CPUs for tasks like encoding video and calculating big data availabilities reports for rights (which easily runs into tens of millions of simultaneous calculations for a single query).

We’re trying to test our new availabilities engine and we’ve found that Azure has run out of CPUs! Rather than the 200 default we’re being rationed to just 16, and most of these are dedicated to other services.

Microsoft assure us that this situation is ‘temporary’ due to ‘unprecedented demand’ but it’s worrying that they cannot fulfil the basic promise of the cloud - unlimited scalability on demand.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

After Net Neutrality, Playing Out The New World Order

So, let’s play out the consequences of doing away with net neutrality.

It allows internet service providers to, essentially, charge carriage fees. So they can charge anyone from Facebook to the local dog grooming service for delivering web content to their customers.

But the market is complex. If you bought a broadband package and found that Google or Facebook weren’t available, you may well use an alternative service (if available, and therein lies the second problem), so that gives Big Internet huge barganing power that small websites totally lack.

Even if tolls are charged (yes, a Republican adminustration just vited for tolls on irdinary Americans), ISPs might charge all providers a pound a month for access, which is affordable for the likes of Google or Facebook but devastating to your dog groomer.

Essentially, in cyberspace, the FCC has replaced a high street with a WalMart, a plurality and open market with a closed make  and minopoly. The US government has done for cyberspace what their predecessors did for real world retailing. As we know, thanks to the Supreme Court’s moronic interpritations if the constitution (corporations have the right to free speech but charities do not...) America loves its monopolies and oligopolies. After all, they pay the politicians to get elected and come up with these corrupt laws.

But there may be unexpected consequences, if I was Google or Facebook I would be looking for vertical integration and to launch my own ISP. AT&T and Comcast may have the ta ks of Big Internet on their lawns....

For ordinary people and small businesses, if you live in urban areas there will be more competition for your business, so the cost and choice will go down and you are unlikely to have to pay more for internet access (although your websites may have to pay more).

In rural areas such as the Trump supporting Midwest, you’re well and truly fucked. The cost of internet, if available at all, will go up tremendously.

I’ve seen the consequence of not having broadband in my native Wales, where businesses and workers have left the country in droves due to the poor broadband provision and even house prices have fallen. So the consequence will be that Trump supporters will gravitate to urban areas, where their influence will be diluted, and rural areas will become more impoverished.

I’m trying to understand who the FCC thinks it is helping (it is a Federal body and, technically mandated to improve the lives of American people, but it is clearly not doing this).

Even companies that stand to benefit massively from these new regulations, such as Verizon, Comcast and AT&T (already amongst the most unpopular companies in America) seem embarrassed by the riches being thrust upon them and unsure how to react.

The only reason seems to be a Randian/fascist belief in ‘free markets’ (or free regulated markets, as I call them), something that simply doesn’t exist.

Indeed the provisions of these new laws are so outlandish that, in reality, nothing will happen: Al Gore crafted one of the cleverest pieces of modern legislation seen anywhere in the world in the DMCA, and almost everyone involved in the industry understand its weight and importance.

One thin is certain, we certainly live in interesting times.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Abracadabra Shazam!

I remember encountering Shazam sometime in the early naughties. They’d already been around for a while (I’ve read their setup date as variously 1999 and 2004 in the mainstream media, who still don’t seem able to check a fact but will itherwise provide opinions on anything and everything).

But who cares? The reality is that they are a British company with genuinely bleeding edge technology with little commercial application that has swallowed up tens if not hundreds of millions of funding over 15 years or more and have now exited at a valuation that would make a US startup laugh and which has probably washed out all but the most recent investors.

A British company selling itself for $400m to Apple might seem like a massive result. The reality is that this was a score draw...

A Bad Day For Internet And TV

Today is a day like no other. I have been involved in the internet since its inception and helped establish the delivery of video over the internet.

Today, two occurrences have fundamentally changed the world I work in.

First of all, the FCC, the regulatory body for telecoms in the US, did away with the concept of net neutrality (essentially saying that your ISP can now prioritise traffic over their networks, presumably for commercial reasons). The results are difficult to predict, but I’d now expect Facebook and Google to become ISPs in the US, otherwise they are likely to be taxed for delivery by the likes of AT&T and Comcast. This is a huge, massive win for the guys who own the pipes into Americans’ homes.

But it may not be as easy as that. If your ISP switches off YouTube or Netflix, chances are that you will, if you can, switch to an ISP who will still deliver them.

The scenario is very similar to the cinema industry in the 1930s when studios ended up buying up cinema chains.

The second occurrence is the acquisition of much of Fox’s TV and film assets by Disney. This is a massive change of strategy by the octogenarian Rupert Murdoch who seems to be doubling down on news and sports at the expense of entertainment. It works well for Disney, who belatedly saw the threat from Netflix and have decided to launch their own service (they also get a big stake in Hulu).

The consequences of this are even more perplexing. Murdoch seems to be focused in rolling up his news operations, online and offline whilst dumping his bid to roll up the European Sky network, whilst reaping the profits of his dubious Fox News network, which many Europeans makes him too irresponsible to own any news outlet. Or is this a double bluff aimed at leaving son Lachlan running News International and son James running Sky Europe...?

Trying to figure out why these events have unfolded, let alone the consequences, is trying.

I presume that Murdoch has decided that he cannot compete with the likes of Netflix and that entertainment is not for him. Like Hearst before him, he loves the influence that news, truth or lies, brings him. 

But news is an area of marginal interest to most people and sports provides paltry returns as the salaries paid to sportsmen run out of control. If you take out the value of entertainment, a service like Sky or Now TV are useless.

The consequences of repealing net neutrality could simply result in nothing happening, but is likely to have a massive effect on the internet. Slowly and insidiously, it will allow big companies and rich political benefactors to control the internet in the US, in my opinion. Now Comcast can charge any company sending data to their customers, or block them if they refuse to pay. Livingg in America will be little different to living in Russia or China in media terms.

Overall, the above, along with the manipulation of the internet wreaked by state sponsored online terrorists such as Russia and North Korea (and similarly even by our own governments in the UK and US), the hegemony of very bad corporations such as Facebook and Google make me believe that we have just entered the second era of the internet where it is no longer benign, but another weapon to be used against ordinary people.