Saturday, 10 January 2015

Tweaking The WiFi For Wii U

We got a Wii U for Christmas, lovely piece of kit (if you like Nintendo, obviously) and one of the nice touches is a big gamepad with its own high resolution screen that you can actually play most of the games on without having to hog the TV to yourself.

This apparently works using some proprietary technology over a standard 802.11an 5.8GHz WiFi link back to the main console (lots more detail/guessing is here in this excellent Digital Foundry article:

This was working really well up until the other afternoon when I was working on my laptop (a Mid 2009 MacBook Pro) and Tom (my son) was trying to play Mario Kart. He kept complaining that the screen on the gamepad kept going "all zig-zaggy", but whenever I closed the lid on my laptop and went to look it played perfectly. I guessed it may be something to do with interference from my laptop, as it also uses 802.11an to connect to our Airport Extreme access point. I confirmed that my iPhone 5S was also causing the same interference and, in some instances, causing the gamepad to completely disconnect from the console!

There's no way to change any of the settings for the gamepad on the Wii U. I've no idea if it even scans the local spectrum to choose what channel to use or just plumps for the same one all the time as it's not visible with a normal WiFi network scanner (I'm sure a proper radio spectrum radio analyser would be able to see it, though, and I may borrow one from work next week). My only option was to try and change the settings on the access point to alleviate the problem.

First off, however, I moved the access point. It was initially right next to the Wii U and this could easily have been affecting the Wii U's operation. I've managed to put about 18" between them now, but space is limited around my TV cabinet. Next, I delved into the radio settings on the Airport Extreme. At some point in the past I'd had some issues with neighbours running aggressive wireless networks that caused drop outs for me and I'd manually pegged all my radio settings. This, of course, gives the AP no opportunity to reassess the state of the radio spectrum and change its channels or the protocols used. I changed the 2.4GHz and 5GHz channels back to "automatic" and also changed the radio mode back from "802.11a/n - 802.11b/g" to "802.11a/n - 802.11b/g/n (Automatic)". Top tip: if you have an Airport Extreme, doing alt-click on the Radio Mode button gives you a lot more options for how you can run the radios in your AP. You shouldn't need to, but it's there if necessary.

(I must admit to not fully understanding these settings and need to have a chat with the guys at work who look after our wireless to get up to speed. I believe 802.11n denotes use of MIMO for higher speeds, and 802.11a means it uses 5.8GHz, allowing up to 300Mb/s. 802.11b/g are the older 2.4GHz modes that allowed up to 54Mb/s speeds but I'm not sure what 802.11b/g/n entails)

The only 802.11b/g devices I have in the house now are the Wii U (for it's Internet connection; it has no wired interface), our 3DS handhelds and a TP-Link wireless extender for the laser printer. Everything else (TV, PS3, WDTV, amplifier and PVR) is connected to the gigabit wired network.

Anyways, the 2.4GHz radio has now moved itself to channel 1 and the 5.8GHz is happily up on channel 100 with no interference from the neighbours. I've tried hammering the wireless (doing a Time Machine backup over the 5.8GHz is always good for that) and playing Mario Kart with no ill effects, so it looks like it's sorted now.

I'm sure this will all break horribly again at some point in the future, but that's just the joy of (home) IT...

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Of Netflix, VPNs and "Piracy"...

If you're a Netflix subscriber (or maybe even if you're not; this may be one reason why you don't subscribe) you're probably aware that the TV shows and movies available through their streaming service vary significantly from territory to territory. A lot of the big name TV shows appear on the North American service before they're available in Europe (and some considerable time before the Antipodes gets them, often up to six months). There are technological ways around this, some of which Netflix have started blocking in earnest this week. I'm going to talk about how this state of affairs came to be and try to offer an opinion of the legal aspects. Standard disclaimers apply: IANAL and I'm not going to get into a right vs. wrong, information wants to be free argument here.

Licensing and distribution deals done between Netflix and the content providers (the movie and TV studios) form part of the trickle-down of content from provider to consumer that used to be simply cinema->home video->TV for movies or TV->home video for TV. We've got more ways to consume visual media than ever before today and the media companies want to maximise the amount of money they can make from each vector, be that cinema, pay per view (there's still a lot of money in hotel and airline TV), subscription TV channels (HBO being the obvious example), digital rental and purchase (e.g. iTunes), streaming services (such as Netflix and Amazon), public broadcast TV and physical media sales such as DVD and Bluray. The media companies stage the release of content to each "tier" so they can generate as much revenue as possible. If you, as a consumer, are desperate enough to want to watch the new episode of Game of Thrones you'll pony up the cash and get an HBO or Sky Atlantic subscription. If not (or if you're somewhere where neither of these options is viable) you'll have to wait for to be able to stream it or buy the DVD boxed set. There's a also market forces at work around the world; some areas are willing to pay a higher price for content than others, so a media company may want to start physical sales of a popular show or movie in the areas where the market will sustain a higher ticket before it sells to cheaper areas. (This is the main reason we still see region locking of physical video media such as DVD and Bluray and video games).

The advent of high-quality, realiable, streaming video over The Internet (as with so many other things accessible over that medium, for good or bad) knocked the traditional distribution models out of whack. The Internet wants to be stateless, it doesn't care what country you live and, despite what CSI: Blackpool may want you to believe, it's actually quite difficult to pin down someone's physical location from an IP address. Once a show has finished airing on it's primary medium (for the sake of argument: a subscription cable channel like HBO) a media company will usually want to sell it on to foreign markets (again, for argument's sake, let say Sky). Sky funds it's purchases of these shows not only through it's subscription fees, but also through the advertising revenues from selling slots in those shows (that likely have a lot of viewers). Sky won't be happy if the show they paid a lot of money for is also available to watch (with no adverts, always preferable for most viewers) online from some subscription service. So, the media companies stage their releases and companies like Netflix have to try and geo-block their content, providing different libraries in different territories. This way Netflix subscribers in the UK can't watch that show Sky paid a lot of money for until Sky has finished broadcasting it and had all those adverts squirted into eyeballs.

Now, back to my bit about CSI: Blackpool and IP addresses: Netflix currently tries to restrict what you can access, as a subscriber, by guessing what country you're in based on your IP address and steering you to a particular content library. That library's content is based on the complex deals they have in place with the different distributors and that staged release system I talked about above. The amount of money Netflix pays the media companies to provide access to a show in a given territory is often based on the number of subscribers they have in that territory (although Netflix is notoriously secretive about it's viewing figures and everyone in Big Media is traditionally cagey about rights fees). As a Netflix UK subscriber you're part of the UK's headcount when it comes to licensing shows from a media company and your subs go towards funding the shows you can watch while in the UK.

This is where it gets a bit murky. Netflix don't dictate what you can watch based on where you live, but where you are located when you sign in to their service. This is why UK citizens holidaying in the US with their iPad or laptop will suddenly find themselves able to access the US Netflix library. Netflix licensed those shows to be able to be viewed by subscribers in the US, not by US citizens exclusively. A Netflix sub is a Netflix sub is a Netflix sub; there's no obvious distinction between subscriptions (albeit maybe slight variations in price) from one country to another and this leads a lot of people to question why they can't just watch everything Netflix has to offer, across the globe.  Netflix don't have country specific accounts/subscriptions because it's a lot easier to restrict access to their services based on where you are on The Internet than the postal address of your subscription or credit card holder's address, both of which are trivial to spoof.

People figured out pretty quickly that if you were in the UK and somehow managed to appear to have a US IP address you could access all the US content. This is commonly done using a VPN or proxy server (the technical detail of these is beyond the scope of this article, get thee to Wikipedia) that's hosted in the country whose content library you want access to. A number of companies sprang up specialising in selling VPN services for accessing geo-blocked content. Unfortunately for them (and their users) the nature of The Internet's IP addressing system makes it easy to associate a block of addresses with these types of services and block access to your services from them; this is what's started happening this last week and Netflix subscribers around the world are finding their access to the US library blocked. Many people feel this is at the behest of the media companies who negotiate the distribution deals.

Are you breaking the law by using one of these services? Again, it's murky and it varies from country to country. Netflix pays money and signs legal contracts with studios to provide their content for different fees in different territories. The studios produce the content, they own it and they get to decide who consumes it, when, where and how much they charge the distributors (in this case Netflix) to get their piece of the action. By watching a show online that isn't licensed in your region you're certainly making life difficult for Netflix as they're struggling to uphold their end of the licensing deal they made with the media company. If, where you live, it's also illegal to attempt to circumvent digital media protection (such as region coding of games and DVDs) you may also be breaking the law by using a VPN or proxy to side-step Netflix's geo-blocking. Can you say "anti-trust"? Yes, you certainly can, but good luck finding a Judge who shares your point of view.

I argued recently that accessing content that's not legally available in your territory is essentially the same as piracy. Piracy (in this context, not the somewhat scarier "give me all your valuables or I'll shoot your wife and children" type) is usually concerned with downloading digital media you've not paid for. I argue that consuming content that's not been made legally available to you is essentially the same. The consumer is getting something they haven't paid for not because it was available and they made a decision not to pay for it but because it simply isn't available to them at that time or place. And at the end of the day it's the owner of that content who gets to decide the where and when, and reap the subsequent financial benefits of that decision.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Why 1080p Internet TV Is A Scam

While on our work Christmas night out yesterday (yummy beer at Das Kino and Brewdog and yummier food at Tarn Thai in Nottingham) the subject of streaming Internet TV services came up in conversation and I tried (not helped by 3 or 4 pints of Vedett IPA) to explain why 1080p is a scam from most streaming providers such as Netflix. My poor alcohol addled brain wasn't up to the maths so I re-did some "back of a fag packet" calculations today to make it clearer (as much for my own benefit as anyone else's).

If you display an SD (of the sake of argument, 704x576) stream on most modern big screens it will look very blocky (unless you've got a good set with a decent upscaler). As such most online video services now offer 720p streams that look almost as good as broadcast DVB-T2 (although not a patch off what you'll see on a well authored Bluray, which can go up to 40Mb/s video rates, ten times what you'll see on most Internet streamed video). The real deciding factor in picture quality isn't just the resolution, but the bitrate, or how much data there is available to describe the changes in the image over a period of time. The two go hand in hand and, unfortunately, when you move up to 1080p the data requirements are *huge*. If you don't give the stream enough bitrate the compressor will drop detail and "flatten" out the image to make up for it.

The streaming companies just can't afford to do 1080p at the same picture quality, let alone better, than 720p. Netflix already account for around 34% of North American Internet traffic and they're having all sorts of problems with Net Neutrality and their data transmitting ISPs to their customers.

Let's do some quick maths examples to better illustrate this:

A 720p image is actually 1280x720 pixels, making for a total of 921,600 pixels
A 1080p image is 1920x1080 pixels, a total of 2,073,600 pixels

That means a 1080p image has 2.25 times more pixels in every frame than a 720p image (and a whopping 5.11 times more than a 576p SD frame!).

A typical streamed TV show in 720p may have a video bitrate of around 3.8Mb/s, that is: there are an average 3.8 Megabits of information available to describe all the changes in the image on screen each second (typically accounting for 50 frames in the UK, or 60 in the US). So what happens if we up the resolution to 1080p, multiplying the number of pixels by around 2.25? Do we double the bitrate, too? You'd like to think so, wouldn't you?

Let's look at my "typical" show again, this time the 1080p version. The streaming service has encoded it with a video bitrate of 4.8Mb/s. Great! More bits per second, more picture quality! Not quite...we've gone from around nine hundred and twenty thousand to over two million pixels per frame increasing by a factor of 2.25, but we've only upped the bitrate by a measly factor of 1.26

You're hopefully way ahead of me at this point, but let's use some more spurious maths and try to illustrate this with a made up value of "bits per pixel per second":
3800000 / (1280 x 720)   = 4.12
4800000 / (1920 x 1080) = 2.31

It should be pretty obvious from the above that, taking into account the spatial resolution of the frame, a 3.8Mb/s 720p stream has a lot more (1.78 times more) data available to it than a comparable 4.8Mb/s stream at 1080p.

If you have a 1080p TV set I'd *strongly* suggest setting your maximum streaming resolution to 720p if you can. Trust me, it'll look much better *and* you'll actually use less data (useful if you're on a capped connection).

(NB. apologies to anyone who actually understands colour spaces, frame rates, key frames and how MPEG encoding really works. This article was meant as a blunt instrument to illustrate a point, not as a lecture on the nuts and bolts of broadcast TV encoding).

Monday, 8 December 2014

Music Review of the Year and Top 10 Albums

My 2014 Top Artists Cloud - and
My 2014 Top Artists Cloud - and

As is by now entirely predictable, almost tediously so, it's time for a look back over the music releases of the year and for me to decide which were my favourites.

Let's get two things out of the way first, though: if you pay attention to me on or twitter you won't be surprised that a) Pink Floyd aren't in this list and b) Taylor Swift is. I'll say no more about either release and leave the comments to those of you who care to participate.


Still with me? Good!

There was a lot of good "rock" music released this year but I'm disappointed by the lack of electronica and dance in my list.

Opeth finally fulfilled their destiny and went for the full prog-jazz with Pale Communion. A ballsy release but, unfortunately, their live show in support of it didn't reflect that same brave attitude.

Anathema released a great album in Distant Satellites (making up for the disappointing Weather Systems) with some really "progressive" touches in the electronic elements introduced to their sound, then promptly disappeared up their own rear-ends by announcing a "cathedral tour". Really, get over yourselves guys.

Jane Weaver and Amplifier make a good showing for the consistently vibrant Manchester music scene. Speaking of Manchester: I'm really looking forward to hearing new material from Sara Lowes, Cyril Snear and whatever the new Mike Vennart/Steve Durose/Gambler/Denzel project gets called.

Big thanks to Bruce and Scott (the NZ massive) for introducing me to Jakob, James Blackshaw and Rhian Sheehan. Post Rock is alive and Mogwai aren't the only ones pushing boundaries and changing the sound.

Okay, onwards and in alphabetical order (because that's how iTunes lists them when I search for albums from 2014, no other reason):

  • Abel Ganz - Abel Ganz

  • Alcest - Shelter

  • Anathema - Distant Satellites

  • iamthemorning - Belighted

  • Jakob - Sines

  • Jane Weaver - The Silver Globe

  • Mogwai - Rave Tapes

  • Opeth - Pale Communion

  • Taylor Swift - 1989

  • The War On Drugs - Lost In The Dream

A Top 10 really isn't enough to summarise the year in music for me, so here are the also rans:

  • Jennie Abrahamson - Gemini Gemini
  • Lamb - Backspace Unwind
  • The Rentals - Lost In Alphaville
  • Se Delan - The Fall
  • The Dowling Poole - Bleak Strategies
  • Steve Rothery - The Ghost of Pripyat
  • Amplifier - Residue
  • Amplifier - Mystoria
  • Flying Colors - Second Nature
  • Steve Hackett - Genesis Revisited, Live At The Albert Hall
  • Aphex Twin - Syro
  • Devin Townsend Project - Z²
  • Matt Stevens - Lucid
  • Queen - Live At The Rainbow
  • James Blackshaw - Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat

Inaugural Blog Post

Well, I've finally decided that G+ is not the place for long-form posts (although I still refuse to give up on G+!). I've started this blog for holding longer pieces, don't expect anything too regular, though...