Why you should worry about WRC-15

Over on The Register I’ve written about why WRC-15 matters. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s a conference where decisions are made about the frequencies that countries can use for broadcasting and other purposes.

And one of the agenda items for WRC-15, which takes place in November next year, could spell the end for Freeview in the UK, giving up the frequencies to mobile phone companies.

If you, or people you know, rely on Freeview, then you should read the article, and respond to the Ofcom consultation, to let them know that you think it’s important we still have a viable free to air digital TV service.

Without Freeview, many of the less well off in the UK would have no option other than to replace their equipment with satellite for Freesat, or to pay either a broadband or subscription TV company for access to services that, for now, they can enjoy without an additional monthly fee.

Read the article here

 
 

Netflix on Roku – is it hanging for you?

Since I’ve had it, my Roku 2XS has generally been very stable; I can use it for hours a day watching Netflix, in high definition, without any problems. For the last ten days, however, it’s been nothing but trouble, Netflix support has been useless, and I’ve had to resort to spending the evening watching old Laserdiscs – until with the help of other Roku users on Twitter, we worked out a solution, which seems so far to have eluded Netflix themselves.

The problem

The problem has manifested in a straightforward way – when I select the Netflix channel on the Roku box, it hangs at the splash screen. Other channels on the box work fine. On one occassion, I got in, watched a show, and at the end was dumped to the Roku menu, and unable to get back in again.

Tweeting about it brought absolutely no response from Netflix for over a week, though their various accounts seemed quite happy to gush to people who were asking questions about what shows were coming – leaving me pretty frustrated.

It stopped working on a Saturday; Sunday and Monday didn’t work either, despite rebooting the box, uninstalling the channel, reinstalling it, updating firmware. And then it sprang back into life; at this stage, my box had firmware 5.5 build 320, and Netflix 3.1 on it. Since I only noticed versions after the updates, I can’t say at which point things broke, unfortunately.

All was looking good – until the following weekend, when it broke again. Again, to a deafening silence from the Netflix twitter accounts. By now, various other users had contacted me on Twitter to say they were having exactly the same problem. One of them had even been told by Netflix Customer Service that it was a known issue on Roku that was being looked into. A shame they didn’t see fit to share that with other customers; I’d have been considerably less disappointed if they’d simply tweeted “we know about this; we’re working on it” instead of ignoring every comment.

Matters weren’t helped by calling the customer service line, prompted by an eventual response to one of my tweets, which suggested I did so. The rep I spoke to agreed I’d done all the right things, and called up my account details, and told me she’d have to put me on hold for a minute while she spoke to the engineers about it. A minute turned into more than three quarters of an hour, after which I hung up because there’s only so much plinky plonky guitar hold music a man can stand.

Tracking it down

Fortunately, the other users of twitter were much more helpful when it comes to solving this, and Julie Brandon (@geekycow) wondered if it was a DNS problem. Even better, she did A/B testing, and discovered that Netflix would reliably hang if her network was configured to use the Google DNS servers, rather than her ISPs.

She then set up a DNS proxy to capture the traffic and see what was doing on, and you can see the results here. In short, when using Google DNS, the box never gets as far as the content delivery network; exactly why is unclear, but in the working trace, redirects-eu.nccp.netflix.com and api-eu.netflix.com are never looked up, so perhaps there’s something odd going on there – and certainly it’s only EU customers who have mentioned this problem to me. I checked the settings on the router that my Roku’s connected to and discovered that I had two DNS servers configured in it, one on my ISP, and one Google one that I’d put in for backup. I removed the Google server, restarted the router and the Roku, and everything’s back to normal.

What to do

If you’re suffering from the Netflix app hanging when it starts, first make sure that you have up to date firmware on your Roku (and see update 2 below, too); earlier versions ignored what your router told them about DNS, as this exchange explains:

Then, check your router for the DNS settings it uses; it may pick them up from your ISP, which is probably going to be fine, but if there is an entry that says either 8.8.8.8 or 8.8.4.4, then you’re using a Google DNS server. (Update: soe have also reported this problem using OpenDNS servers, which are 208.67.220.220 and 208.67.222.222). Remove any entries that match the ones I’ve listed, and either leave it blank (and hope the router gets info from your ISP) or change it to the address of your ISPs own servers. Restart the router, and power off the Roku too. When it starts up, it should get the new DNS severs, and hopefully you’ll be back to normal; in my case, I noticed that the app starts much faster too, fetching the catalogue a lot sooner than it had been doing recently.

(One other tweak, suggested to my colleague Bob Dormon at The Register, is to disable network ping; I’ve not had to do this, but you can turn it off on the Roku via the service menu; to reach that press Home five times, followed by FF, Play, RW, Play, FF, *. That menu also allows you to reboot from the comfort of your armchair, incidentally.

So far, so good. It’s only a while since I did the tweak, and last week the service was up and down anyway – but hopefully this will turn out to resolve the problem for other Netflix & Roku users, in which case many thanks to Julie for tracking it down, a task that she did far, far better than Netflix Customer Service, whose sole contribution appears to have been to keep me on the phone for 50 minutes, and deduct a paltry £1.50 from my next bill.

Update: some ISP DNS servers may have problems too, it seems. Here’s info about finding alternatives:

Update 2: there’s now a new update to the Netflix app on Roku which apparently fixes this issue too. Thanks to Roku forum user craigski for pointing me to this, and no thanks, as ever, to Netflix Customer Support, who still haven’t got back to me.

The new version of Netflix, confusingly, still identifies itself as Version 3.1 12th July in the screens you normally see on the Roku, but it should if you go into the software update option, it should update itself and, hopefully, get you back up and running, whatever your DNS settings. I won’t speculate on whether it’s laziness or a desire to pretend this never happened that has it calling itself a 12th July update, when it was released almost a week later.

You can find out exactly which version you have via the Roku’s secret list of installed software. Press Home three times, Up twice, then Left, Right, Left, Right, Left. The first ‘July 12th’ Netflix update is build 6036, while the new working one is build 6037.

 
 

Android apps with Basic4Android

For the last year or so, I’ve been doing more coding than writing, and a lot of that coding has been in various dialects of BASIC, using first Real Studio (now Xojo) to build cross platform apps for Mac and Windows, and latterly Basic4Android. I wanted to code for Android, but never having bothered with Java (and my degree in computing science, back in the late 80s didn’t cover C), I didn’t really fancy getting into that.

Basic4Android, it turns out, is a great way to get into Android app development; thanks to a huge number of libraries, it’s very easy to build up your app using lots of great looking graphical elements, or things like web services and databases, and it’s both relatively low cost and has no royalties on any of the apps that you create with it.

On sale May 29th

On sale May 29th

Earlier this year, I was commissioned to write a MagBook about it, and that will be on sale on the 29th of May, titled “Build your own Android App.” It starts with an introduction to what you need to know about programming for Android, and a look at Basic4Android, then takes you through various stages from the very simplest to building a complete game and distributing it on the Play Store.

I hope that even those who don’t want to create a game will find it useful – we cover some of the important libraries available, graphics technicals, thinking about user interaction, how to store and retrieve data, and more, most of which are applicable to just about every sort of app.

I’ve created a dedicated website for the magbook, which includes a list of the contents and many of the code samples, plus complete downloadable code for the app we create. And you can find the game, called Type Attack, in the Play Store.

I hope people find it useful.

 
 

Supply and demand

A digression from the usual subject matter here into politics; I’ve seen a lot of near-racist drivel (and some outright racist drivel too) floating around about Subway, and now The Sun is trying to stir up more much with their story about Halal chicken in Pizza Express, which is not news, and not the exclusive they think it to be, considering it’s something the company made clear a long time ago.

Idiots online are bemoaning Subway, claiming that the sandwich chain has “banned pork to avoid offending Muslims.” It’s the usual typical nonsense, that goes hand in hand with the stories about Christmas being banned for the same reason. Making up these stories – and yes, they are made up – helps feed a tide of xenophobia and make divisions in our society. It tries to set aside one group of people as something other than the rest.

The original inflammatory story about Subway was, as far as I can gather, in the Mail, and referred to “Muslim demands” that the store sell only Halal meat. And, of course, using “demands” in a headline makes it sound like there were angry Muslims, and pickets, and threats.

But that’s not what happened. What happened was something the Mail usually quite likes – market forces, or the law of supply and demand. The story talked of 185 branches of Subway selling Halal-only meat. That sounds like quite a lot, doesn’t it? We must be practically taken over by these nasty Muslim-friendly branches (actually, franchises) of Subway. Except we’re not. There are over 1500 outlets across the UK and Ireland (2012 figures, from the Subway website); the company has an intention to increase that to 2,000 by 2015. So we’re talking 10% of branches.

Contrary to what some hysterical people have been claiming, those branches do have window stickers to let people know meat is Halal; if you want to avoid it, you can. If, say, you have a principled objection to the method of slaughter, rather than an unprincipled objection to Muslims, because you think they’re nasty and just not British. But in that case, I’d expect you to avoid Kosher products too, and probably battery hens, and many other things with dubious welfare standards. Unless you just want to pick on one aspect, that happens to fit nicely around your other prejudices, so you can dress up a bit of good old Muslim bashing with a cloak of “but what about the poor animals.”

Let’s try a little thought experiment which, I think, pretty accurately sums up what has happened at Subway:

• Someone buys a bar in a nice sunny part of Spain. It sells all sorts of things, including lovely local tapas

• Lots of English people keep coming to the bar, and instead of wanting tapas, they ask for English food

• Eventually, there are so many people doing that, that the bar owner, realising he can make money, gets lots of it in stock

• Hardly anyone ever goes there for tapas any more

• In the end, the few bits of tapas in the fridge never get used, so the bar owner stops selling it

Not really a big deal, is it? Unless you love tapas. But even if you loved tapas, wouldn’t you think “that’s just supply and demand”? It’s how the market is supposed to work.

Wouldn’t it be a bit of a leap of the imagination to say “Expat demands make bar stop selling tapas” ? Especially if you knew that doing so would give ammunition to plenty of people telling folk that the English should go back home, or learn to eat the same way the Spanish do.

All that’s happened here is that – in around 10% of Subway stores – the franchisee has decided that they’ll do better business by selling Halal meat. (While in other countries, they have Halal stores, and Kosher stores, and some for other dietary rules). And in the other 90% of stores, nothing’s changed. Nothing’s been “banned because of Muslims”, nothing’s being forced on people who don’t want it. Some stores are selling things that their customers have asked for. You want bacon, then why don’t you go into a sandwich shop and ask for it? Don’t just moan that a store you don’t go to, and probably never will, has decided to listen to  requests from customers who do visit.

This isn’t “Sharia law” coming to Britain. It’s not something being banned because of Muslims. It’s a big business tweaking the product lineup in some areas to sell more of the things that make them and their franchisees money.

But that, of course, isn’t anywhere near as good a story.

 
 

Ditching the clutter on Facebook

Facebook’s new look manages to squeeze the stuff I care about into a small central section of the page, with navigation down the left and a stream of promoted junk at the right.

Here’s how you can make it a bit more tolerable, if you’re a Firefox user. First grab the Stylish Add On for the browser. You’ll need to restart when it’s been installed.

Next head to Facebook and your main news feed page. Click the S drop down added by Stylish, and choose “Write new style” followed by “For facebook.com” You’ll see a window like this appear.

Give it a name, like FB Tidyup, and add some custom CSS. This is a quick and dirty fix, but I don’t care about that right hand column, which handily has the ID rightCol, and so can be hidden with this code:

#rightCol {
 display:none;
}

The main part of the page can be widened; I chose 800pixels, as it’s a little nicer, though of course not everything scales perfectly. Use this css

#contentArea {
 width: 800px !important;
}

Put that all in the box and the results should be like this:

Click Preview to check you like the results, and then Save if you’re happy. The end result is your news feed looking something like this:

FBtidied

Like I say, this is quick and dirty, but an improvement, I think.

 

 
 

Social vs Communal – or why TV makers are wasting time with Twitter

This morning, fellow journo Steve May tweeted about the new range of Sony TV sets; one of the things he asked about was Sony’s new transparent Twitter bar:

 

I honestly can’t say that I’m a great fan either, and as I said, I think Twitter is very much something people want on a second screen, like a tablet or their mobile phone, rather than on the main screen. The TV companies seem to think because Twitter is popular, and people use it a lot when watching TV, then since their sets have internet connectivity, they should build it in. And honestly, I think they’re really missing the point. What they’re trying to do is to turn a social experience into a communal one. Very often those are different things.

So, I thought I’d try and set down my thoughts on why. This isn’t specifically aimed at Sony; other TV makers have tried to do Twitter too, with some bizarre results – Panasonic’s 2011 Twitter implementation was full screen, so you couldn’t watch a program at the same time!

At least in that respect, the new Sony overlay is an improvement. But what if you’re watching a programme that has subtitles, or a ticker at the bottom of the screen? Perhaps you can move it, I don’t know; but it’s certainly going to be irksome. And unless Sony has figured out a way of composing a tweet easily, that problem too remains to be solved.

I don’t know, either, if you are forced to have your whole timeline scrolling past, or if you can select a specific hash tag to follow – without that, a lot of people will find this pretty annoying. Not just because you won’t be able to focus on the tweets specific to the programme you’re watching, but because you might end up with something spoiled too; what if you’re recording something on another channel, and you don’t want to see twitter spoilers? You might be out of luck.

But for me, I think the biggest problem is this confusion of social and communal. Yes, of course there are a lot of single person households, and they won’t face this issue as much, but a lot of people do still watch TV in groups. Even single people have been known to have parties for the Eurovision Song Contest.

And will everyone watching at the same time want the distraction of an on-screen twitter feed?

In my experience (perhaps I’m just weird), I very probably won’t want someone watching while I laboriously compose a message using the TV remote. I’d far rather my witty repartee appears, fully formed, so that everyone can smile in wry amusement at the same time. Using the TV to do that is a bit like having to stand at a blackboard and write your joke out laboriously, hoping that some smart-alec at the back isn’t going to shout out the punchline before you finish.

I’m also pretty sure that I’m not the only person who may have more than one twitter account, used for different things. In my case, one of them is definitely smuttier than the other, but I might well be using both at the same time. The lewder comments about hotties in the song contest will go to one account, the more innocent to another. And just because I’m in the same room as someone doesn’t necessarily mean that I want them to see everything that I view on twitter.

Putting the feed on the screen like this is like putting it up on a noticeboard; everyone can read it. They can see whom you follow, or interact with. And yes, unless you have a private account, they could go on the web and do the same – but they’d have to make a conscious effort, and they probably won’t actually bother, because they have better things to do.

On the TV, though? The fact you’ve just interacted with a porn star is floating past, right in front of their eyes. It may be a perfectly innocent comment about the Bulgarian entry, but even so… Some things might not be secrets, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re things you choose to share with everyone in your living room.

Your phone or tablet can manage all this much better; you can easily switch between accounts, follow hash tags, mute particular topics, and tailor the experience in ways that a TV simply isn’t going to offer, unless the interface becomes even more complex. There’s certainly a place for social media in TV – but it’s really about people interacting about or with the shows. Not about using the TV screen to replace your phone or tablet, when it’s already busy with showing you the programme.

Social media isn’t, generally, a private experience. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a wholly public one, either. It seems to me that by putting it on the TV screen, and making it communal, TV makers are just showing they don’t really understand the difference.

 
 

First generation Freeview kit is on the way out

It’s not really that long since Digital Switchover completed in the UK, but on the 16th of January 2014 we saw the beginning of the end for the first generation of the Freeview platform.

What’s happened? Al Jazeera Arabic. In itself, that might seem fairly unremarkable; it’s not the first non-english service, as there are already channels on the platform that cater to Welsh and Gaelic speakers. But this is the first standard definition broadcast channel that won’t be available to people who have original Freeview kit. And I’m willing to bet that it won’t be the last, either.

When Freeview originally launched, it used the DVB-T transmission standard, and the MPEG2 picture encoding. Both were the obvious choice at the time, and it’s still very easy to buy a TV – even one claiming to be ‘HD Ready’ – that is capable of receiving nothing else. There is a lot of this kit in UK homes, some of it bought specifically because switchover was coming.

Meanwhile, technology marched on, and Freeview HD launched, using the more modern and efficient DVB-T2 for transmission and MPEG4/H.264 for encoding. By and large, unless you wanted HD pictures, you didn’t need to worry about that – and the HD that’s available is a simulcast of existing SD services. By not having equipment that copes with the newer standards, you’re not missing out on any actual programmes, just better picture quality. Or at least, you weren’t, until this month.

The new channel is running on one of the new ‘temporary’ multiplexes that were set up last year. These have so far been used to provide extra HD services, like BBC Four HD, and Al Jazeera’s main news service in HD. I wrote in February last year that these were a stalking horse for, effectively, a second digital switchover.

Ofcom is keen (like the government in general) to sell anything it can. And that includes the spectrum presently used for TV broadcasting. The extra HD channels aren’t just because they’re feeling kind and fluffy. They’re because they want us all to have equipment that is capable of receiving DVB-T2/H.264, because ultimately, when they take away some of the spectrum that’s used for TV now, and sell it to spivs running mobile networks, the only way Freeview can maintain the level of service that it has – let alone add anything more – is by a wholesale switch to those newer standards, including for standard definition channels.

The only people who will be able to watch Al Jazeera Arabic on Freeview are those who have HD capable receivers, with DVB-T2 and H.264, even though it’s an SD only channel. Given the minority interest, most people probably won’t bat an eyelid at this. But make no mistake, this is the beginning of the end for your first generation Freeview kit.

That kit may not be as old as you think, either: a quick look at some online retailers today shows a fair bit of kit, especially at the smaller screen sizes, that still lacks a Freeview HD tuner, which means that it won’t pick up Al Jazeera Arabic, or any later channels using the same technology. More than ever, if you’re buying new kit, if you want to continue to receive terrestrial broadcasts in the UK, it’s essential it’s able to receive Freeview HD, because you’ll increasingly need the same technology for SD channels too.