Camelot Greed

I’ve become increasingly disenfranchised with Camelot, the operator currently given the license to run the National Lottery in the UK.

Just over a year ago they doubled the price of the basic “Lotto” offering, and by increasing the number of balls in the draw have reduced the odds of wining the Jackpot from something like 14 million to one to 45 million to one.   At the same time parallel changes have been made to increase the chances of winning a prize.  Many of my friends and family agreed that we’d be doing LESS lines on the National Lottery as a result, or at the very least spending the same sum on lottery tickets, but doing 50% of the lines.  The evidence of this failure is clear to see.  Gone are the £6-8m jackpots at a weekend with no rollover.  Instead we’re lucky if the jackpot reaches £4m without a rollover, and the number of sequential rollovers is clearly increasing.

The latest Camelot ploy has annoyed me further still, and to me points at a company that is loosing public support.  The paying public are voting with their feet, and not backing the National Lottery as they once did.  Not only are Camelot loosing out, but the extent of the Lottery funds channelled to good causes and charities is similarly shrinking.

At this time of year, there are normally multiple different seasonal scratch cards on sale.  These are usually a mix of £1, £2, £5, and £10 scratch cards with a Christmas theme.  The £1 scratch cards are often in the form of tags, so they can be used to label a present “from” and “to” an individual.

However it would seem that there are no £1 Christmas scratch cards on sale anywhere this year!  The list of Scratch cards in circulation most definitely doesn’t include a Christmas specific one for only £1 this year.

Many people (myself included) use these as part of our Christmas gift giving, using them as Stocking fillers or to boost presents, and it seems likely that Camelot expect everyone to just buy £2 cards instead.

I wonder if Camelot will retain it’s license at the next review?  Based on current performance, I sincerely hope not!

How not to do Security!

So I’ve been having some problems over the last couple of days. And by the looks of the Google search results, I’m not alone.

Our Chinese Spammer friends have found a new and really bloody annoying way of getting in our faces.

For anyone with an iCloud account (including just about anyone with an iPhone, iMac, iPad, etc) they are sending bogus event invitations to your iCloud e-mail address. These are mass sent events, and all you can do is respond with “accept”, “maybe”, or “decline”.

Screencap!

These events will pop up in your calendar, and depending on your reminder settings will disruptively pop up on your Phone or iPad.  Unfortunately ALL of these responses will send a trigger back to the sender, so he/she knows that the e-mail address is active, which anyone with a grain of common sense will know is the last thing you want to do, because they will then send a load more junk to the e-mail address if they know it’s active.

The only temporary bodge “fix” seems to be to create a new calendar called “Spam”, move the spam events in to it, and then delete the calendar.  I’ve not managed to get that to work as yet on any of my iDevices.

This is a poor show by Apple;  There seems to be no way you can restrict the receipt of event invitations to people in your contacts list, or to report an e-mail address for sending spam.

So thanks for this Apple.  Sort it out, please!!

Here’s hoping for an “update” soon that will give some better options!

6 months in…

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

c220

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! 🙂

http://sbrcentre.co.uk/pages/3031/1/Check_Your_Password.html

A new discovery!

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

rl

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.

cb2

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.

cpuid

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.

tv1

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.