6 months in…

So, on 20th May this year, I received my latest shiny new car, a Mercedes C220 Sport Estate in Palladium Silver.


Unfortunately, just under two weeks and just over 500 miles later I had the misfortune to be #3 in a 4 car sandwich while driving home from visiting a site in Surrey.

I made light of it at the time, with jests like “I wanted to see what it looked like with a Vauxhall Corsa hood ornament”, and “see if I could fit a Mercedes CLK in the nice big boot”.  The car wasn’t written off, although the repairs did cost in the region of £12k for parts alone, as advised by the repairing garage.  Fortunately I got it back as good as new after four weeks of hell driving a Peugeot 208 courtesy car.  Now, just over 6 months later I can say without reservation that I’m really glad I chose the C-class over the other options available to me.

After years of driving Ford and Vauxhall vehicles, I had never really appreciated the difference a premium car brand like Mercedes might make.  Gone are the little rattles and creaks from the dashboard and console, replaced with a silent refined atmosphere which disguises the speed and power of the engine.  I get better fuel economy out of this 2015 2.1 litre diesel Blutec engine than I did from the 2.0 diesel in the 2011 Insignia that preceded it!

There are also many small refinements which drive home just how carefully this car has been thought thru.  For example, after about five weeks of driving the car I realised that the little black strip visible on the ceiling from the drivers central mirror also contained a set of LED’s which showed proximity to other objects while reversing.  This being in addition to the usual beeps and the reversing camera that came as standard with this model. My failure to notice this before came from a combination of not needing them due to the Camera and beeping noises, and the angle at which I had the mirror set.  I initially thought the concealed illuminations “down” under the doors and mirrors were a silly affectation, but having been getting in to the car in dark car parks since the clocks changed, my mind has been changed here too.

I wonder if I’ll still love the car as much in another 3 years time?  :)

A useful link! – Check password strength

I got a reasonable score for my day to day password! :)


A new discovery!

Today I’ve made a new discovery. Oasis Mighty Drops Raspberry Lemonade


I will be buying more from Tesco!!!  That is all.

vt-x problems with MSI ClickBios II and VMWare Workstation

Having decided to have a play with Cisco’s VIRL solution, I’d intended to set it up on an old Laptop that I had laying around, but the requirement for a minimum of 4 CPU Cores, vt-x support (for Hardware assisted Virtualisation) and no less than FIVE Network Interfaces, I decided that I’d be better off using VMWare Workstation instead.  VIRL doesn’t run under VirtualBox so VMware it is.. One license purchase later, and I’m merrily installing it on my Core i7 3820 machine, with plenty of RAM, Disk space, under 64-bit Windows 8.1, no problem!  or so I thought!

I vaguely remember having issues with VirtualBox and the hosting of 64-bit Guest OS’es before, but since my need at the time wasn’t too specific, I didn’t really spend the time trying to resolve it, but I was surprised to find once installed, that VMWare Workstation 11 was nagging me that a 64-bit guest OS was not supported on my machine.  I’d checked the pre-requisites quite carefully.

Of course I Googled, quite extensively, and didn’t find much that described my exact issue.  and yes, I checked in my BIOS that the Hardware Virtualisation settings were enabled (they were!);  I was definitely running a 64-bit OS, so why would it not work.  My CPU, an i7 3820 definitely supported the Virtualisation extensions, but the Intel Processor Identification Utility stubbornly disagreed!  My rig is a 2-3 year old custom build from Mesh Computers, based on an MSI X79A-GD45 main board.  There should have been no issue with Virtualisation, and there was certainly no issue with running 64-bit Windows on it!

After much research, I stumbled on an article from VMWare dated December 2008 that suggested that VT-X was often unavailable to normal software if “trusted execution” was enabled.   That sent me off in to the ClickBIOS once more as I recalled seeing a setting for an “Execute Disabled Bit” which was ON, so I decided to try turning it off and see what happened.  I’ve attached the in-windows screenshot of the BIOS simply because it’s easiest to capture, but the setting was found in the same place at boot time.


It was tucked away under Overclocking Settings, and CPU Features, just before the Intel Virtualisation Tech and VT-D Tech options.  Sure enough, disabling this caused VMWare to be quite happy with a 64-bit guest OS, and the Intel CPUID tool also now claimed that I was capable of Virtualisation.


PROBLEM #1 Solved!

Next step will be downloading and installing VIRL itself within a Virtual Machine.  That’s a story for another day!

6 Months Later…

Okay, so I’m not very good about keeping my promises to post on here more often!! Hopefully that’s about to change, and more about that in a few minutes.

Quite a bit has happened since I last posted. Most particularly of note would be the delivery of my nice shiny new car on 20th May, closely followed by me and it being #3 in a 4 car sandwich no less than 20 days and 1046 miles later. As I write this post, the car is still with the repairers, and I’ve now been driving the courtesy car for as many days as I’ve driven the Mercedes!  I haven’t gotten around to taking some nice pictures of the new car yet either.

My PLEX Library is now up to over 480 films, and more than 2000 episodes of 110 different TV Series’.  I’m working my way through my DVD’s slowly, but I’ve not found a way to Rip them that’s totally to my liking as yet; my current process is fairly slow, and results in files that are rather larger than I would like!

Anyway, I’ve decided to try and re-boot my technical interest once again. I made the decision some years ago that I’d allow myself to be drawn in to the world of Management rather than being a tecchie, and while I don’t necessarily regret that decision, I have found of late that I feel as though I’m loosing some of the technical skills which allow me to add my particular value in the role that I currently hold, so I’ve signed up for a year’s licence for Cisco’s VIRL programme, so that I can play with, and brush up on some of the newer solutions that I’ve missed out on in recent years, including NX-OS, and IOS-XE, as well as allowing me to play with F5’s, and Palo Alto firewalls in their virtual flavours.  I’ll endeavour to report back here on my findings, and any useful technical blurb that I find, in the hope that at some point, someone might find it useful.

So, following hot on the heels of this post will be my first technical issue, identified while preparing to set up VIRL under VMWare Workstation for the first time.

Virtualised CE – The Next Generation?

I’ve been doing more musing than usual recently on where I think technology evolution in the Network arena is heading over the next few years, and the concept of a Virtualised CE Router keeps popping in to my head.  This entire post is a bit of blue-sky thinking, but it’s not that far away from where we are today.

I think of the idea as a logical next step in the Hybridisation of Virtualisation and Network Function Virtualisation with that of Software Defined Networking.

Virtualisation has already taken over the Data centre, with VMWare and others having the capabilities to provide logically discrete Virtual Switching, Routing, and Firewall instances within the cloud infrastructure, so why not take it to the next step and start to consider Virtualisation for some of the additional services we might want to use?  Indeed the IETF has a draft considering exactly this for MPLS VPN’s.

Current WAN networks follow a fairly traditional delivery model in that the edge of the carrier network is terminated on to a local piece of Customer Premise Equipment (CPE), which in turn is connected to a “Customer Edge” (CE) device usually provided by the Network Operator.   Domestic DSL services follow a similar model.

My vision of a Virtual CE device fits both the conventional WAN solution, and in particular MPLS type deliveries, and a consumer grade DSL service.

Ethernet is increasingly becoming the bearer of choice for MPLS and Enterprise WAN services, either using Copper or Fibre, and terminating on an RJ-45 Ethernet port on the CPE.  Since this is literally an Ethernet service delivery, why not shift the “intelligence” back to the other end of the circuit?  Enabling the Service provider to virtualise the physical and provide a logical instance delivered from a shared hardware platform.  This reduces the equipment that could “go wrong” on a customer site, reducing (but not totally eliminating) the potential need for engineer visits, break/fix maintenance, and ultimately to save costs.  The carrier can also standardise the services that the customer takes, and capitalise on investment in centralised CE equipment.  It would still be possible to use tagged Ethernet to deliver traffic to different Networks/VLAN’s for the more sophisticated requirements, and doesn’t really change the scope for screwups which could cause traffic to be delivered in to the wrong logical networks due to mis-patching, (although I do know of a solution that might help there too! :) )

Extending  this line of thought in to the Consumer market, I think that It has massive potential there too.  It may still be necessary to have an intelligent black box of a sort as a CPE to provide a Layer 2 connection back to the intelligence in the Virtualised CE environment, (using something like L2TP over DSL to the virtual CE router?).  Of course local WiFi breakout services will also still be required (Cisco already have the Meraki Cloud-managed Access Point range) but nevertheless similar benefits around centralisation, management, and economy of scale could apply.  Consumers could still manage their own CE device via a browser, but the carrier could have a far greater degree of influence/control over the make/model of CE device the customer uses enabling standardisation as well as opening the door to many more value-added services that the carrier could provide.  Some possibilities include:

  • Central, Redundant, Backed up Network Attached Storage
  • Media Centre/TV and related services (XBMC/Netflix/Plex/Sky Plus/Virgin TIVO etc)
  • Remote Access/VPN
  • Firewall & Security
  • Shared Access (Data Sharing, Gaming, etc)
  • Content Filtering

Taking those points in order:

Network Attached Storage:   How many high-tech families (read: geeks) have sophisticated home networks with Network Attached Storage capabilities, used to backup Photos/Music/Documents, or other locally stored Data?  This type of virtualisation could allow the carrier to provide (sell!) Exchange or Data-centre based NAS/SAN capacity.

Media Centre:  What about those people using Media Server(s) running on a NAS or dedicated server Hardware?  iTunes or Airplay servers to stream music to a SONOS or similar?   Centralised access to subscription based TV services such as Netflix or Amazon Prime Video, or even inbound access to your Sky Plus or Virgin TIVO?  Local storage (maybe on NAS?) of your own movies using Plex or XMBC?

Remote Access/VPN: I can only predict this area will grow and grow.  I currently have the capability to establish a private VPN connection to my Home Network in order to access data stored on my NAS etc.  As the trend towards the “internet of things” accelerates, I predict that this trend will only increase over time as we access additional home based solutions including Lighting, Home Security, Central Heating, Electric/Gas meters, even Cookers and Freezers etc going forward.

Firewall & Security: We all hear about the latest and greatest zero-day exploit and such, wouldn’t it be great if we could sit back secure in the knowledge that our service provider was protecting us against these threats centrally.  Integrating this measure of control behind an easy to use UI to facilitate:

Shared Access: Already we find the younger generations gaming together within the same house on their respective games consoles with LAN enabled gaming, and of course MMORPG’s are extremely popular too! Why not have the neighbourhood kids playing Minecraft together on a private server that only they can get to?  This is about the ability to selectively extend parts of the Network between entities (on a selective and controlled basis of course).  Want to access that particular music track at home while you’re visiting a friend?  no problem!

Content Filtering: How about being able to deliver different levels of filtering, maybe to different Wifi SSID’s or LAN ports on the black box locally?  How about separate SSID’s for “Adults”, “Teenagers”, and “Children” each with differing levels of content filtering, maybe even logging applied.

And of course that’s before we start entertaining the ideas of Desktop-as-a-service, or the shift of compute workloads to the cloud.  I’m pretty sure it’s only a matter of time before we shift the work behind our games consoles away from black boxes in the home, and just use a virtual-screen display type solution for it all! (nVidia SHIELD?)

I know that much of this can be done today, but it requires a particularly persistant technical person to make it all work, and even then it’s not yet as seamless as we’d all like!   I think that the idea of Virtualising the CE takes us a step towards my vision, and is a potentially lucrative area for the carriers to invesigate.

What do you think?

3½ Years already?

Amazingly, it’s been 3½ years since I wrote about the arrival of my Insignia, and it’s time for me to be ordering my next vehicle.  I’ve got a bit more of an interesting choice to make this time around, with some more luxurious vehicles in the running.

Realistically, the choice is between these:

  • BMW 320d EfficientDynamics (163Bhp)
  • Mercedes C220 CDI Bluetec SE (170Bhp)
  • Audi A4 2.0TDIe SE (136Bhp)

Or, I could drop back a band and choose from the following (and get a bit of cash back)

  • Vauxhall Insignia 2.0CDTi Tech Line (140Bhp)
  • Ford Mondeo 1.6TDCi Eco Titanium (115Bhp)

The Insignia/Mondeo option is a bit of a last resort if I can’t find one of the first three that I like;  I’m nervous about the Insignia because I currently drive a fully loaded “Elite” and know I’ll miss the whistles and bells if I drop down to the “Tech Line”.  The Mondeo I didn’t like when I test drove it 3½ years ago, and not sure the smaller engine would do it any favours!

So I’ve been out and tried all three of them on for size.

Given that I’m looking for the estate version to help carry around a certain daft greyhound, that means the Audi “Avant” model, the BMW “Tourer” model, or the Merc “Estate”.  I’ve been able to rule out the Audi already as I simply couldn’t fit in the drivers door.  It wasn’t even a question of my being on the large side;  I put the seat back as far as it would go and sat my posterior down on the seat, and promptly banged my head as I tried to get in.  My knees were around my chin trying, so I gave up pretty quickly!

I could fit quite comfortably in both the 3-series and the C220.  The 3-series felt rather dated inside, and the fit-out is nowhere near as nice as the C220, so I think I know where this is leading!

I’d like to retain the heated seats, and definitely have gotten used to having parking sensors at the front and rear, so I’m hoping I can upgrade the trim to the “Sport” version on the C220, even if that does mean it comes with a Satnav system which I don’t particularly want!

So it rather feels as though the decision is made already!

You Plexy Thing!

Late last year I purchased an Amazon Fire TV

I wanted it to facilitate my watching Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video without needing to turn on my Xbox, which was rather noisy and convoluted to get to the applications, not to mention a little noisier and clunkier than I would have chosen.

The Fire TV box looked to be ideal, and with the changes Amazon made to Prime in the latter half of the year, it became an easy decision.

What I didn’t count upon was discovering Plex and the Plex Media Server.

There is a Plex app which can be installed on the AFTV, which enables a connection via the Network to a Plex Media Server which can run on a PC (Windows, Linux or FreeBSD) or Mac, or if you’re fairly lucky, a NAS. My 3 year old QNAP NAS allows me to install it, but just doesn’t have the CPU or Memory to successful run the Media Server, let alone handle the Transcoding workloads it generates, so I might just have to consider a NAS upgrade in the future. In the meantime, running the PMS on a Windows Desktop PC and creating links to mapped drives containing the content that sits on the NAS seems to work well enough!

So then I started to dabble a bit in to creating the content to feed it. Now anyone that’s been to my place will know I’m something of a quality fiend, enjoying High Definition picture quality from Blu-ray, and 5.1 or higher surround sound, so I didn’t really want to loose any of that when streaming, but if I could achieve an acceptable balance of quality against size, it would mean that I didn’t have to keep reaching for physical media when I wanted to watch something, which would be fantastic!

After a fair bit of trial and error, and extensively searching t’interweb, I’ve settled on a two stage process. Firstly, I use MakeMKV to “Rip” a Blu-ray disc. This generates a lossless source copy of between 20-25gb (depending of course on the source). This is a legal action in the UK now since 1st June, assuming of course that you legitimately own the source media and aren’t ripping borrowed or loaned media. This follows the Hargreaves Review, see here and here for details. It takes me between 20 and 30 minutes to generate this source file on a fairly well specified (but two year old) Haswell i7 (3820) CPU. There is a trick to using MakeMKV, and that’s to make sure you choose the correct Soundtrack that you want to keep (eg English/DTS) and if you’re like me you’ll only want to rip the Movie itself, and not bother with the other extras on the Blu-ray disc.

I then take this rather large .mkv file, and run it through Handbrake, having set the video to an RF value of about 20 for Blu-ray source media, and in another 25-30 mins I’ll re-encode the .mkv in to an H.264 .mp4 file, which is usually between 6 and 10gb in size, depending on the length and quality of the source file, and would therefore allow me to store between 200 and 300 files on a 2Tb HDD.

Then it’s just a question of setting up Libraries on the Plex Media Server for the type of content. This isn’t difficult, but requires a little thought and planning. I created separate libraries for Film and TV Series’ because Plex allowed me to separate them. This makes sense given the Media Enrichment capabilities Plex has, where it will try and identify the media from the filename, and will then download from IMDB and/or elsewhere extra information about the cast/crew, posters and/or thumbnails etc and generally make it look very sexy on the screen. For TV programmes, it will allow drill-down by Series too, so you can choose Series -> Season -> Episode.

Plex Media Server

Above is the view you get from a PC or MAC running Google Chrome and browsing to the Plex Media Server.  The above shows all of the Movies I’ve got stored in my Library.

If I click on any of these, I’ll get a further display with details of the cast, crew, and a synopsis of the plot, all enriched with background images taken from the movie, and where Plex can find it, the theme music too.

The same process happens for TV programmes, with the added step of choosing a Season if possible too for the TV programme.

The User Interface from the AFTV itself is remarkably similar, with the same enrichment capabilities, and the whole process just works so very well.

In fact on the AFTV, it will also tell me the quality of the Video and Sound too!  If you look in the bottom/left of the photo below, you’ll see an example showing the 1080p, H.264 and dts 5.1 sound.


So, my project has become to further expand my library, and transfer as much of my blu-ray library on to Plex as I reasonably can.  This will doubtless take me years given the rate that I accumulate them, but I’ve already started doing this with “new” media as it lands, so I can watch it without media at my leisure.

One post per year?

Each year, I promise myself to make more regular entries on my blog, and every year I fail miserably. 2014 was no exception, with naught but a single public post in 2014.

I once regularly found things to talk about on a regular basis, although admittedly they were fairly trivial, but now it’s less so.

I’d like to think that it’s a side effect of the stage of life I find myself in; I’m now the wrong side of 40, and have been in a stable relationship for in excess of 3 years now. I guess many of the things that I might have blogged about have become the province of conversations with my other half. Much of the crap I’ve put up with in relationships before this is now a distant memory, and generally I can see those events in a completely different light now.

So, once again I will promise myself that I will try to make more regular comments here; indeed I’d like to think that people may read them, find them of interest and comment from time to time!

I’ve not lost my desire for undertaking little “projects”, so that might well provide some fodder for blog entries, time will tell.

In the meantime, I’ll just settle for wishing my friends and family a Happy New Year, and wish that for all of us, 2015 will be a better year than 2014 proved to be.

Reboots Rebooted!

I’ve mentioned this previously, but it never ceases to frustrate and annoy me how our Film and Television Studios insist on “rebooting” or re-imagining an existing film franchise. I am of course focussing my thoughts on the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres, since that’s where my tastes lie.

Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Judge Dredd, Godzilla, Star Trek, Robocop, Flash Gordon, Total Recall, Conan, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, The Tomorrow People, V, Dune, – all of which have been rebooted or re imagined to varying degrees of success. Usually with a change in some or all of the principal cast, often with Cameo appearances from earlier incarnations, but most of the time with a re-imagining of the original storyline.

This frustrates me for two reasons. Firstly, as someone who is feeling distinctly middle aged, I usually grew up with the original incarnation of the film or TV programme, and seeing it re-written and produced afresh with new actors undermines the originals I feel.

I don’t mind so much where the storyline picks up later on, or where the original left off, or even before the original (eg Star Wars Eps 1-3). Finding a way to solve a cliffhanger from the last episode or incarnation is where some of the story lines come in to their own, and is not a foreign skill to Scriptwriters, or Storytellers.

However even then, the new storytellers have a dangerous tendency to step away from Canon, and play fast and loose with the old history because they think we won’t remember; Take Doctor Who for instance, which in the new post-Ecclestone era seems to have developed a tendency to ignore much of what went before. The Cybermen were originally from Mondas, and in the later series they re-originated from a parallel universe and were supposedly created by John Lumic from CyBus industries. While the two story lines weren’t totally incompatible, there was really no good reason why a new origin and back story was created.

My Second frustration is that there is no end of Fiction out there which is crying out for transition to Film or TV, which I wish the Screenwriters and Authors would turn their attention to. Some of the best TV in recent years has come from this route, and includes the acclaimed “Game of Thrones” – adapted from George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire“.

Here’s just a few of the candidates that come to mind:
– The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne & Todd McCaffrey
– The Magician series, by Raymond E. Feist
– The Assassin / Fool series’ by Robin Hobb
– The Honor Harrington series by David Webber
– The Troy Rising series by John Ringo
– The Kris Longknife series by Mike Shepherd
– The RAMA series by Arthur C. Clarke
– The Foundation series by Isaac Asimov

There are of course hundreds more. I understand of course that there is an implicit cost to obtaining rights to materials, and some authors may not be so keen to allow their content to be transitioned, based on the experiences of people like Ursula K. LeGuin with her Earthsea series, where she was exceedingly unhappy with the transition to screen.

Of course, not every attempt succeeds, and there are a number of critically acclaimed hits, and an equally extensive list of misses.

I’d point at a number of successes, including:
– The Colour of Magic / Going Postal / The Hogfather produced by Sky
Enders Game – the 2013/2014 film
Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau, A Scanner Darkly; All based on novels by Philip K. Dick
I am Legend, and  I Robot – adapted from books and starring Will Smith

Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America, etc – The Marvel Machine is doing a great job of making the most of their intellectual property and transitioning one story after the other to the big (and the small!) screen.

Some of the also-ran’s include:

John Carter – the attempt to transition the “… of Mars” series by Edgar Rice Burrows didn’t wow audiences, although it was an entertaining enough film in it’s own right.
Oblivion – starring Tom Cruise, but based on a book by Joseph Kosinski, it didn’t really draw the crowds at the box office.
Battlefield Earth – based on a book by renowned Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard, this one had strong potential, but the links including the Star John Travolta to the Church of Scientology contributed to low popularity.
Red Planet – an all star cast including Val Kilmer, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Terence Stamp wasn’t enough to drag this one up the charts.
Lost in Space – the remake starring Heather Graham, William Hurt, and Matt Le Blanc, failed to engage audiences, despite being an entertaining and well executed update.

Often these films fail because they don’t stick closely enough to the book to satisfy the die-hard fans.

Unfortunately the number of reboots far outweighs the number of original Films & Serials.

So this is a heartfelt plea, to the Film & Television industry. Please PLEASE PLEASE, enough with the Reboots and Remakes, how about putting some effort and time in to some original Scifi and Fantasy?

Do you agree?