All posts by Martyn

Windows 10: Virtualisation Hell

I made my employer buy a couple of full copies of Windows 8.1 so that I can test our SquirrelSave backup software against a variety of situations, including upgrading to Windows 10 (which works, BTW 0 I had no problems with SquirrelSave under Windows 10 – either as a new install or an upgrade from Windows 8.1).

Bloody hell – what a horrific mess Microsoft has made of the free upgrade and the use of product keys / identifying machine hardware.

Firstly, I’m running anything Windows related under virtualisation because for the past 10+ years I’ve been a staunch Mac user.   Ever since I was introduced to OS X back in my days  within visual effects by a VFX producer who had asked me to look at her machine, I’ve been a big fan of OS X – despite fairly recent versions being a little buggier than usual.

I only have to upgrade my Mac hardware every three to four years (which is reasonable, I’d say) to receive unlimited free minor and major upgrades to my OS.  There is no product key, there is no fuss.  It Just Works(tm).

I’m currently trialing VMWare Fusion 8 Pro  (I gave up on Parallels after not getting a response from their support department for several days regarding a subscription/activation issue).

Fusion 8 Pro is a lovely product which fixes a long standing problem (I’ve been a Fusion license owner since version 1, but gave up after version 3 thanks to this bug) in which UK Apple keyboards were not mapping the @ symbol (and other characters) properly.  Fusion 8 fixes this.  As such, I’ll hopefully be able to convince work to buy a full license of Fusion 8 Pro .  ’tis a tad pricey for my personal use.

Anyway..

Upgrading Windows 8.1 to Windows 10 is simple enough.  I can revert to Windows 8.1 from Windows 10, or do a fresh reinstall which fires up the Windows 10 system recovery.  But God help me if I want to do a completely and utterly fresh install of Windows 10 because it absolutely wants a Windows 10 (not a Windows 8.1) product key.  It doesn’t try to identify the virtual hardware.

I’ve been through the horrific (and it is absolutely horrific) Microsoft product voice activation system twice when tinkering with my Windows 8.1/Windows 10 virtual machines because Microsoft are relying on your hardware to determine eligibility.  Which is complete and utter nonsense if you’re running Windows under virtualisation.

Clearly charging for a consumer OS still seems to be profitable for Microsoft which is why they’re not giving away fresh installs for free – but I think this is a big mistake.  We did pay £99 for a new Windows 10 license only to discover that Windows 10 – at launch – was far too buggy to be of any use and got a refund.  Trying to go through the upgrade route is better, but an enormous pain in the arse just trying to save money.

It’s no wonder many organisations are ditching PCs and Microsoft technology and heading towards Macs, Chromebooks or Linux along with Google Apps, some other SaaS (software as a service), or self-hosted open source products.  Microsoft does not represent good value in a crowded marketplace.

We ditched Windows for the most part in VFX because (a) we saved an enormous amount of money in Windows licenses on the desktop and server, and (b) the VFX industry has Unix-based roots, and much of that is in part thanks to SGI and the IRIX operating system.  That said, the Arri film recorder software had to run under Windows NT.

*shudder*

Don’t get me started as to how much I hate Microsoft’s Windows Server products.  All I will do is to leave this image here.  Trust me when I say that I should NOT have to reboot a Windows Server as often as I do, and especially not to upgrade a backup component because of the way the Windows driver ecosystem works.

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Open all hours: Stamping out micromanagement

Today I really needed some stamps.  Book of first class stamps.  Shouldn’t be any trouble, right?  Particularly from the local branch of WH Smith at Guildford train station.

They took my money and gave my no stamps. Or a receipt.
They took my money and gave my no stamps. Or a receipt.

There was a bit of a queue this morning, but that’s to be expected because it’s a Monday and Monday’s are generally very busy.   But the queue was going down pretty quickly and I asked for a book of 12 first class stamps from the cashier.  My debit card was charged (contactless) and while I didn’t receive a receipt, I was presented with WH Smith’s usual voucher for something or another.

ALAS!

No stamps in the cash register.

The cashier goes off to look for some stamps – can’t find any.  So he goes and texts his manager.   That’s right folks – no senior or supervisory staff on duty!  At a peak time for travellers going through Guildford Station!

I wait 10 minutes while the cashier serves other customers (as well as liaising with a delivery man who is stocking up the drinks fridge).

After 10 minutes I ask for a refund as I have to get to work.

ALAS!

He can’t issue refunds without the manager, and the manager won’t be in until 8:45am.  The current time is 7am.  I ask for a receipt so that if I come back later, I can at least prove payment.

ALAS!

He can’t retrieve a receipt once another sale has gone through – at least..

.. not without the manager.

At this point I take down the manager’s name, and as well as the cashier’s.  To be fair to the cashier, it’s not his fault:  his manager is absent and has been left alone at a peak period without any form of supervisory privilege to deal with problems like this.    It is a stupid situation to put an inexperienced employee in (I was told that this was the second day he was left unsupervised).

I’ll be heading back over to WH Smith after work to get my stamps, or a refund.  And rest assured I’ll be asking the manager why this chap doesn’t have relevant privileges to deal with situations like this himself.  Or at least have another member of staff on hand who does.

Will I get my stamps?  Will I get a refund?  Will I have to complain to my bank to get that money back?  Stay tuned!

Update: I got my stamps.  No fuss either.

Beware of the iCloud, my son! The errors that bite, the restorations you’ll do!

More woes with Apple’s iCloud services.

Decided, unwisely, to give iCloud Photo Library another chance.  Enabled the service in the Photos app.  Was immediately prompted by the system to upgrade my iCloud space to 200Gb (£2.99).  Done.

I let the Mac upload the photos.  Shut down the Mac overnight (powernap mode) and woke the machine in the morning to discover that all 8,006 photos had uploaded.  That was quick – especially for a broadband connection that can manage a maximum of 10Mbs upload (total data: ~52Gb).

ALAS!

Despite the iCloud System Preferences widget telling me 52Gb was being used in Photos, the overall amount of iCloud space free was 191Gb.  Something wasn’t adding up.

Looking at the Photos section of icloud.com revealed that while most photos were there, many had errors.

Disabling and deleting the stuff already uploading, then attempting to upload again resulted in iCloud downloading and wiping out the original photos on the Mac.

ARGHHHH!

So I disabled ALL the iCloud options for Photos and then restored from a working Time Machine backup from a few days earlier.

ALAS!

Photos moaned that it wasn’t able to open the library.  Command-Option while double clicking Photos app got me to the repair mode, but that failed too.  Something had seriously gone wrong with the integrity of the library at some point, and now I couldn’t easily repair it.

So I went a few days back in time via the Time Machine backup.  Still knackered, but a repair job DID fix the problem.

I will not touch iCloud Photos again for a very long time (Photo Stream is okay, thank goodness).  And given that another attempt at using Apple Music resulted in seriously mucked up iTunes library again (another Time Machine backup job), I’ll avoid the iCloud Music Library for a long time too.

Let’s just avoid much iCloud services for the time being until we get to see some effort put into making them trustworthy again.  My biggest issue is that iCloud does not come with any form of guarantee or SLA.

I do still rather like Apple at the moment, but my goodness is my patience (and trust) with them shot to pieces.

Welcome to the UK – where everything’s illegal!

This is enough to make me leave this country for one not ruled by people who aren’t technically illiterate cretins, like the lot we have now (I’m looking at you, Cameron and Co).

UK High Court ruling effectively outlaws ripping CDs into iTunes, Time Machine, iTunes Match and Apple Music

This also makes online backup services illegal, Amazon’s physical media + free MP3 downloads illegal, and Sky’s Buy & Keep illegal.

We’ve had this problem for decades.

We’ve probably all owned a twin tape recorder at some point (and one that had a radio tuner which could be used to record stuff off the radio direct to tape – you’d be lying if you’re of a certain age and not taped something from the radio at some point).

Things got a lot more interesting with the VHS recorder (and Amstrad bought out a double decker version) and taping TV shows, and so on.

Just when we thought that UK law finally got it right – the ruling was overturned in favour of a bunch of industry people who are probably stuck in the dark ages, trying to watch movies on their microwaves, and “bopping” away to cylindrical discs.

I’m all for paying a fair rate for all the things I enjoy, but the law is utterly ridiculous and would, anyway, involve highly expensive and controversial lawsuits against infringers which would not do much favours, PR-wise, for the people bringing the lawsuit.  I’d imagine that it would probably result in substantial DDoS attacks at the companies and organisations involved, along with threats and other nasties.  We’ve seen what has happened to big organisations when the internet has deemed them to be acting unfairly.

To my knowledge, nobody has yet to be sued for ripping CDs into iTunes.  Or that the organisations and people that got the fair use law overturned haven’t yet asked the UK Government to ban Apple products and services in the UK.

But the law MUST be changed back to allow fair use for transcoding and backup, otherwise culturally not only could we lose out, but the situation will become so  ridiculous in comparison to other countries, we’ll start to lose creative talent too.

 

My God, it’s full of pixels!

It’s not the size that counts!  (Oh, who are you kidding?)

After around six/seven years of using a “dumb” 40″ television – a step up from not having a television back in 2008 because when I was working in film and TV helping to make the stuff, it had the opposite effect when I came home – I couldn’t bare to watch it.

So I’ve upgraded.

I’ve upgraded size (it’s now a 60″) and resolution (Ultra HD – or “4K”, but technically Ultra HD falls a little short of the cinema 4K[1] resolution) and have gone for an LG mid-range model.

This little puppy has got to last me as long as the previous one (which has been repurposed for the bedroom) – and thankfully John Lewis provides a decent warranty with all their electricals.

4K or not 4K, that is the question!

This new TV is capable of playing back Ultra HD content from Netflix and Amazon Instant Video.  Netflix’s Ultra HD selection is small but decent, and the streaming quality is decent.  4K certainly makes all those lovely pixels work their little socks off.   The Wachowski’s Sense8 in particular makes good use of UHD cinematography.   Better Call Saul is also lovely in UHD too – as is Breaking Bad (with some caveats).

Amazon’s Instant Video Ultra HD selection is tiny, expensive if it’s not included with one’s Prime selection – and doesn’t work very well at all.  I noticed that when streaming Orphan Black S1, it started off in UHD (which confirmed it was streaming in UHD when paused), then dropped down to regular HD.  Never seen the UHD symbol during pause since.  It *looks* UHD, but I’d like to see confirmation because I’m paranoid.  Just because I have a 152Mbs downstream connection (via ethernet, direct to the TV) doesn’t necessarily mean I’m getting a constant stable high bandwidth stream from the streaming provider.  The thing that makes UHD streaming worthwhile is if you stream with a decent enough high bitrate.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to Ultra HD adoption was in the codec – the algorithm in which video is encoded at one end, streamed and decoded at the other end.   Early 4K/UHD TV sets used an entirely different codec and are not capable of streaming from the likes of Amazon, Netflix, etc.   But a standard called HEVC was devised and is now widely adopted.

ALAS!

Money, money, money, it’s a rich man’s world!

There is a new guy in town.  The HEVC Advance group.  This is made up companies who own the patents found in the HEVC/H.265 codecs.  And they want money (which is fair enough, they must have spent a fair amount in research and development).

But the problem is in the how, how much and when payment is required.   In essence, the terms could lead to companies such as Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, and goodness – maybe the BBC – having to spend an extra $100 million a year just to license and use the technology.  This includes the TV manufacturers that include HEVC decoding kit.

My beef is:  Could HEVC Advance royalty fees hamper further Ultra HD adoption?  It’s taken a looooooong time to get Ultra HD out the door, and now it looks like the fees being charged could do serious damage to the whole adoption of Ultra HD/4K.

I recommend a really good documentary called Rewind This! – about the halcyon days of VHS video.  Of the format wars (Betamax versus VHS), the cheaper format won.   Furthermore, it doesn’t look as if the format suffered from the same kind of licensing nightmare that the HEVC Advance group proposes.  It’s because of simple licensing that the VHS format took off and became as popular as it did.

Rewind This! is a real eye opener, and the HEVC Advance group could do well to pay heed that if they price themselves out the market, they’ll be no more money for them.  Manufacturers will look elsewhere; consumers will be mightily pissed.

That would mean in the short term a big yield in royalty payments.  But in the longer term that yield will start to shrivel up as companies and consumers abandon HEVC and move to possible alternatives (which may be cheaper or even free).

BTW, Ultra HD Blu-Ray is affected by the HEVC Advance licensing fees too since it uses the same HEVC codec.   Expect players to be extortionately expensive when they come out on the market.  Who wants to bet that the Ultra HD Blu-Ray format will die out faster than anticipated due to expense ?

I love my new TV, but I’m concerned that the Ultra HD capabilities may have shorter lifespan than I originally hoped.. all because of patents and royalty payments.


[1] Digital cinema still projects, if I recall, at a whopping 2K – only slighter higher than normal HD.