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Comparing Compression

I just did a quick test of different compression options in Debian. The source file is a 1.1G MySQL dump file. The time is user CPU time on a i7-930 running under KVM, the compression programs may have different levels of optimisation for other CPU families.

Facebook people designed the zstd compression system (here’s a page giving an overview of it [1]). It has some interesting new features that can provide real differences at scale (like unusually large windows and pre-defined dictionaries), but I just tested the default mode and the -9 option for more compression. For the SQL file “zstd -9” provides significantly better compression than gzip while taking only slightly less CPU time than “gzip -9” while zstd with the default option (equivalent to “zstd -3”) gives much faster compression than “gzip -9” while also being slightly smaller. For this use case bzip2 is too slow for inline compression of a MySQL dump as the dump process locks tables and can hang clients. The lzma and xz compression algorithms provide significant benefits in size but the time taken is grossly disproportionate.

In a quick check of my collection of files compressed with gzip I was only able to fine 1 fild that got less compression with zstd with default options, and that file got better compression with “zstd -9”. So zstd seems to beat gzip everywhere by every measure.

The bzip2 compression seems to be obsolete, “zstd -9” is much faster and has slightly smaller output.

Both xz and lzma seem to offer a combination of compression and time taken that zstd can’t beat (for this file type at least). The ultra compression mode 22 gives 2% smaller output files but almost 28 minutes of CPU time for compression is a bit ridiculous. There is a threaded mode for zstd that could potentially allow a shorter wall clock time for “zstd --ultra -22” than lzma/xz while also giving better compression.

Compression Time Size
zstd 5.2s 130m
zstd -9 28.4s 114m
gzip -9 33.4s 141m
bzip2 -9 3m51 119m
lzma 6m20 97m
xz 6m36 97m
zstd -19 9m57 99m
zstd --ultra -22 27m46 95m

Conclusion

For distributions like Debian which have large archives of files that are compressed once and transferred a lot the “zstd --ultra -22” compression might be useful with multi-threaded compression. But given that Debian already has xz in use it might not be worth changing until faster CPUs with lots of cores become more commonly available. One could argue that for Debian it doesn’t make sense to change from xz as hard drives seem to be getting larger capacity (and also smaller physical size) faster than the Debian archive is growing. One possible reason for adopting zstd in a distribution like Debian is that there are more tuning options for things like memory use. It would be possible to have packages for an architecture like ARM that tends to have less RAM compressed in a way that decreases memory use on decompression.

For general compression such as compressing log files and making backups it seems that zstd is the clear winner. Even bzip2 is far too slow and in my tests zstd clearly beats gzip for every combination of compression and time taken. There may be some corner cases where gzip can compete on compression time due to CPU features, optimisation for CPUs, etc but I expect that in almost all cases zstd will win for compression size and time. As an aside I once noticed the 32bit of gzip compressing faster than the 64bit version on an Opteron system, the 32bit version had assembly optimisation and the 64bit version didn’t at that time.

To create a tar archive you can run “tar czf” or “tar cJf” to create an archive with gzip or xz compression. To create an archive with zstd compression you have to use “tar --zstd -cf”, that’s 7 extra characters to type. It’s likely that for most casual archive creation (EG for copying files around on a LAN or USB stick) saving 7 characters of typing is more of a benefit than saving a small amount of CPU time and storage space. It would be really good if tar got a single character option for zstd compression.

The external dictionary support in zstd would work really well with rsync for backups. Currently rsync only supports zlib, adding zstd support would be a good project for someone (unfortunately I don’t have enough spare time).

Now I will change my database backup scripts to use zstd.

Update:

The command “tar acvf a.zst filenames” will create a zstd compressed tar archive, the “a” option to GNU tar makes it autodetect the compression type from the file name. Thanks Enrico!

Cruises and Covid19

Problems With Cruises

GQ has an insightful and detailed article about Covid19 and the Diamond Princess [1], I recommend reading it.

FastCompany has a brief article about bookings for cruises in August [2]. There have been many negative comments about this online.

The first thing to note is that the cancellation policies on those cruises are more lenient than usual and the prices are lower. So it’s not unreasonable for someone to put down a deposit on a half price holiday in the hope that Covid19 goes away (as so many prominent people have been saying it will) in the knowledge that they will get it refunded if things don’t work out. Of course if the cruise line goes bankrupt then no-one will get a refund, but I think people are expecting that won’t happen.

The GQ article highlights some serious problems with the way cruise ships operate. They have staff crammed in to small cabins and the working areas allow transmission of disease. These problems can be alleviated, they could allocate more space to staff quarters and have more capable air conditioning systems to put in more fresh air. During the life of a cruise ship significant changes are often made, replacing engines with newer more efficient models, changing the size of various rooms for entertainment, installing new waterslides, and many other changes are routinely made. Changing the staff only areas to have better ventilation and more separate space (maybe capsule-hotel style cabins with fresh air piped in) would not be a difficult change. It would take some money and some dry-dock time which would be a significant expense for cruise companies.

Cruises Are Great

People like social environments, they want to have situations where there are as many people as possible without it becoming impossible to move. Cruise ships are carefully designed for the flow of passengers. Both the layout of the ship and the schedule of events are carefully planned to avoid excessive crowds. In terms of meeting the requirement of having as many people as possible in a small area without being unable to move cruise ships are probably ideal.

Because there is a large number of people in a restricted space there are economies of scale on a cruise ship that aren’t available anywhere else. For example the main items on the menu are made in a production line process, this can only be done when you have hundreds of people sitting down to order at the same time.

The same applies to all forms of entertainment on board, they plan the events based on statistical knowledge of what people want to attend. This makes it more economical to run than land based entertainment where people can decide to go elsewhere. On a ship a certain portion of the passengers will see whatever show is presented each night, regardless of whether it’s singing, dancing, or magic.

One major advantage of cruises is that they are all inclusive. If you are on a regular holiday would you pay to see a singing or dancing show? Probably not, but if it’s included then you might as well do it – and it will be pretty good. This benefit is really appreciated by people taking kids on holidays, if kids do things like refuse to attend a performance that you were going to see or reject food once it’s served then it won’t cost any extra.

People Who Criticise Cruises

For the people who sneer at cruises, do you like going to bars? Do you like going to restaurants? Live music shows? Visiting foreign beaches? A cruise gets you all that and more for a discount price.

If Groupon had a deal that gave you a cheap hotel stay with all meals included, free non-alcoholic drinks at bars, day long entertainment for kids at the kids clubs, and two live performances every evening how many of the people who reject cruises would buy it? A typical cruise is just like a Groupon deal for non-stop entertainment from 8AM to 11PM.

Will Cruises Restart?

The entertainment options that cruises offer are greatly desired by many people. Most cruises are aimed at budget travellers, the price is cheaper than a hotel in a major city. Such cruises greatly depend on economies of scale, if they can’t get the ships filled then they would need to raise prices (thus decreasing demand) to try to make a profit. I think that some older cruise ships will be scrapped in the near future and some of the newer ships will be sold to cruise lines that cater to cheap travel (IE P&O may scrap some ships and some of the older Princess ships may be transferred to them). Overall I predict a decrease in the number of middle-class cruise ships.

For the expensive cruises (where the cheapest cabins cost over $1000US per person per night) I don’t expect any real changes, maybe they will have fewer passengers and higher prices to allow more social distancing or something.

I am certain that cruises will start again, but it’s too early to predict when. Going on a cruise is about as safe as going to a concert or a major sporting event. No-one is predicting that sporting stadiums will be closed forever or live concerts will be cancelled forever, so really no-one should expect that cruises will be cancelled forever. Whether companies that own ships or stadiums go bankrupt in the mean time is yet to be determined.

One thing that’s been happening for years is themed cruises. A group can book out an entire ship or part of a ship for a themed cruise. I expect this to become much more popular when cruises start again as it will make it easier to fill ships. In the past it seems that cruise lines let companies book their ships for events but didn’t take much of an active role in the process. I think that the management of cruise lines will look to aggressively market themed cruises to anyone who might help, for starters they could reach out to every 80s and 90s pop group – those fans are all old enough to be interested in themed cruises and the musicians won’t be asking for too much money.

Conclusion

Humans are social creatures. People want to attend events with many other people. Covid 19 won’t be the last pandemic, and it may not even be eradicated in the near future. The possibility of having a society where no-one leaves home unless they are in a hazmat suit has been explored in science fiction, but I don’t think that’s a plausible scenario for the near future and I don’t think that it’s something that will be caused by Covid 19.

A Good Time to Upgrade PCs

PC hardware just keeps getting cheaper and faster. Now that so many people have been working from home the deficiencies of home PCs are becoming apparent. I’ll give Australian prices and URLs in this post, but I think that similar prices will be available everywhere that people read my blog.

From MSY (parts list PDF ) [1] 120G SATA SSDs are under $50 each. 120G is more than enough for a basic workstation, so you are looking at $42 or so for fast quiet storage or $84 or so for the same with RAID-1. Being quiet is a significant luxury feature and it’s also useful if you are going to be in video conferences.

For more serious storage NVMe starts at around $100 per unit, I think that $124 for a 500G Crucial NVMe is the best low end option (paying $95 for a 250G Kingston device doesn’t seem like enough savings to be worth it). So that’s $248 for 500G of very fast RAID-1 storage. There’s a Samsung 2TB NVMe device for $349 which is good if you need more storage, it’s interesting to note that this is significantly cheaper than the Samsung 2TB SSD which costs $455. I wonder if SATA SSD devices will go away in the future, it might end up being SATA for slow/cheap spinning media and M.2 NVMe for solid state storage. The SATA SSD devices are only good for use in older systems that don’t have M.2 sockets on the motherboard.

It seems that most new motherboards have one M.2 socket on the motherboard with NVMe support, and presumably support for booting from NVMe. But dual M.2 sockets is rare and the price difference is significantly greater than the cost of a PCIe M.2 card to support NVMe which is $14. So for NVMe RAID-1 it seems that the best option is a motherboard with a single NVMe socket (starting at $89 for a AM4 socket motherboard – the current standard for AMD CPUs) and a PCIe M.2 card.

One thing to note about NVMe is that different drivers are required. On Linux this means means building a new initrd before the migration (or afterwards when booted from a recovery image) and on Windows probably means a fresh install from special installation media with NVMe drivers.

All the AM4 motherboards seem to have RADEON Vega graphics built in which is capable of 4K resolution at a stated refresh of around 24Hz. The ones that give detail about the interfaces say that they have HDMI 1.4 which means a maximum of 30Hz at 4K resolution if you have the color encoding that suits text (IE for use other than just video). I covered this issue in detail in my blog post about DisplayPort and 4K resolution [2]. So a basic AM4 motherboard won’t give great 4K display support, but it will probably be good for a cheap start.

$89 for motherboard, $124 for 500G NVMe, $344 for a Ryzen 5 3600 CPU (not the cheapest AM4 but in the middle range and good value for money), and $99 for 16G of RAM (DDR4 RAM is cheaper than DDR3 RAM) gives the core of a very decent system for $656 (assuming you have a working system to upgrade and peripherals to go with it).

Currently Kogan has 4K resolution monitors starting at $329 [3]. They probably won’t be the greatest monitors but my experience of a past cheap 4K monitor from Kogan was that it is quite OK. Samsung 4K monitors started at about $400 last time I could check (Kogan currently has no stock of them and doesn’t display the price), I’d pay an extra $70 for Samsung, but the Kogan branded product is probably good enough for most people. So you are looking at under $1000 for a new system with fast CPU, DDR4 RAM, NVMe storage, and a 4K monitor if you already have the case, PSU, keyboard, mouse, etc.

It seems quite likely that the 4K video hardware on a cheap AM4 motherboard won’t be that great for games and it will definitely be lacking for watching TV documentaries. Whether such deficiencies are worth spending money on a PCIe video card (starting at $50 for a low end card but costing significantly more for 3D gaming at 4K resolution) is a matter of opinion. I probably wouldn’t have spent extra for a PCIe video card if I had 4K video on the motherboard. Not only does using built in video save money it means one less fan running (less background noise) and probably less electricity use too.

My Plans

I currently have a workstation with 2*500G SATA SSDs in a RAID-1 array, 16G of RAM, and a i5-2500 CPU (just under 1/4 the speed of the Ryzen 5 3600). If I had hard drives then I would definitely buy a new system right now. But as I have SSDs that work nicely (quiet and fast enough for most things) and almost all machines I personally use have SSDs (so I can’t get a benefit from moving my current SSDs to another system) I would just get CPU, motherboard, and RAM. So the question is whether to spend $532 for more than 4* the CPU performance. At the moment I’ll wait because I’ll probably get a free system with DDR4 RAM in the near future, while it probably won’t be as fast as a Ryzen 5 3600, it should be at least twice as fast as what I currently have.

IT Asset Management

In my last full-time position I managed the asset tracking database for my employer. It was one of those things that “someone” needed to do, and it seemed that only way that “someone” wouldn’t equate to “no-one” was for me to do it – which was ok. We used Snipe IT [1] to track the assets. I don’t have enough experience with asset tracking to say that Snipe is better or worse than average, but it basically did the job. Asset serial numbers are stored, you can have asset types that allow you to just add one more of the particular item, purchase dates are stored which makes warranty tracking easier, and every asset is associated with a person or listed as available. While I can’t say that Snipe IT is better than other products I can say that it will do the job reasonably well.

One problem that I didn’t discover until way too late was the fact that the finance people weren’t tracking serial numbers and that some assets in the database had the same asset IDs as the finance department and some had different ones. The best advice I can give to anyone who gets involved with asset tracking is to immediately chat to finance about how they track things, you need to know if the same asset IDs are used and if serial numbers are tracked by finance. I was pleased to discover that my colleagues were all honourable people as there was no apparent evaporation of valuable assets even though there was little ability to discover who might have been the last person to use some of the assets.

One problem that I’ve seen at many places is treating small items like keyboards and mice as “assets”. I think that anything that is worth less than 1 hour’s pay at the minimum wage (the price of a typical PC keyboard or mouse) isn’t worth tracking, treat it as a disposable item. If you hire a programmer who requests an unusually expensive keyboard or mouse (as some do) it still won’t be a lot of money when compared to their salary. Some of the older keyboards and mice that companies have are nasty, months of people eating lunch over them leaves them greasy and sticky. I think that the best thing to do with the keyboards and mice is to give them away when people leave and when new people join the company buy new hardware for them. If a company can’t spend $25 on a new keyboard and mouse for each new employee then they either have a massive problem of staff turnover or a lack of priority on morale.

About Reopening Businesses

Currently there is political debate about when businesses should be reopened after the Covid19 quarantine.

Small Businesses

One argument for reopening things is for the benefit of small businesses. The first thing to note is that the protests in the US say “I need a haircut” not “I need to cut people’s hair”. Small businesses won’t benefit from reopening sooner.

For every business there is a certain minimum number of customers needed to be profitable. There are many comments from small business owners that want it to remain shutdown. When the government has declared a shutdown and paused rent payments and provided social security to employees who aren’t working the small business can avoid bankruptcy. If they suddenly have to pay salaries or make redundancy payouts and have to pay rent while they can’t make a profit due to customers staying home they will go bankrupt.

Many restaurants and cafes make little or no profit at most times of the week (I used to be 1/3 owner of an Internet cafe and know this well). For such a company to be viable you have to be open most of the time so customers can expect you to be open. Generally you don’t keep a cafe open at 3PM to make money at 3PM, you keep it open so people can rely on there being a cafe open there, someone who buys a can of soda at 3PM one day might come back for lunch at 1:30PM the next day because they know you are open. A large portion of the opening hours of a most retail companies can be considered as either advertising for trade at the profitable hours or as loss making times that you can’t close because you can’t send an employee home for an hour.

If you have seating for 28 people (as my cafe did) then for about half the opening hours you will probably have 2 or fewer customers in there at any time, for about a quarter the opening hours you probably won’t cover the salary of the one person on duty. The weekend is when you make the real money, especially Friday and Saturday nights when you sometimes get all the seats full and people coming in for takeaway coffee and snacks. On Friday and Saturday nights the 60 seat restaurant next door to my cafe used to tell customers that my cafe made better coffee. It wasn’t economical for them to have a table full for an hour while they sell a few cups of coffee, they wanted customers to leave after dessert and free the table for someone who wants a meal with wine (alcohol is the real profit for many restaurants).

The plans of reopening with social distancing means that a 28 seat cafe can only have 14 chairs or less (some plans have 25% capacity which would mean 7 people maximum). That means decreasing the revenue of the most profitable times by 50% to 75% while also not decreasing the operating costs much. A small cafe has 2-3 staff when it’s crowded so there’s no possibility of reducing staff by 75% when reducing the revenue by 75%.

My Internet cafe would have closed immediately if forced to operate in the proposed social distancing model. It would have been 1/4 of the trade and about 1/8 of the profit at the most profitable times, even if enough customers are prepared to visit – and social distancing would kill the atmosphere. Most small businesses are barely profitable anyway, most small businesses don’t last 4 years in normal economic circumstances.

This reopen movement is about cutting unemployment benefits not about helping small business owners. Destroying small businesses is also good for big corporations, kill the small cafes and restaurants and McDonald’s and Starbucks will win. I think this is part of the motivation behind the astroturf campaign for reopening businesses.

Forbes has an article about this [1].

Psychological Issues

Some people claim that we should reopen businesses to help people who have psychological problems from isolation, to help victims of domestic violence who are trapped at home, to stop older people being unemployed for the rest of their lives, etc.

Here is one article with advice for policy makers from domestic violence experts [2]. One thing it mentions is that the primary US federal government program to deal with family violence had a budget of $130M in 2013. The main thing that should be done about family violence is to make it a priority at all times (not just when it can be a reason for avoiding other issues) and allocate some serious budget to it. An agency that deals with problems that affect families and only has a budget of $1 per family per year isn’t going to be able to do much.

There are ongoing issues of people stuck at home for various reasons. We could work on better public transport to help people who can’t drive. We could work on better healthcare to help some of the people who can’t leave home due to health problems. We could have more budget for carers to help people who can’t leave home without assistance. Wanting to reopen restaurants because some people feel isolated is ignoring the fact that social isolation is a long term ongoing issue for many people, and that many of the people who are affected can’t even afford to eat at a restaurant!

Employment discrimination against people in the 50+ age range is an ongoing thing, many people in that age range know that if they lose their job and can’t immediately find another they will be unemployed for the rest of their lives. Reopening small businesses won’t help that, businesses running at low capacity will have to lay people off and it will probably be the older people. Also the unemployment system doesn’t deal well with part time work. The Australian system (which I think is similar to most systems in this regard) reduces the unemployment benefits by $0.50 for every dollar that is earned in part time work, that effectively puts people who are doing part time work because they can’t get a full-time job in the highest tax bracket! If someone is going to pay for transport to get to work, work a few hours, then get half the money they earned deducted from unemployment benefits it hardly makes it worthwhile to work. While the exact health impacts of Covid19 aren’t well known at this stage it seems very clear that older people are disproportionately affected, so forcing older people to go back to work before there is a vaccine isn’t going to help them.

When it comes to these discussions I think we should be very suspicious of people who raise issues they haven’t previously shown interest in. If the discussion of reopening businesses seems to be someone’s first interest in the issues of mental health, social security, etc then they probably aren’t that concerned about such issues.

I believe that we should have a Universal Basic Income [3]. I believe that we need to provide better mental health care and challenge the gender ideas that hurt men and cause men to hurt women [4]. I believe that we have significant ongoing problems with inequality not small short term issues [5]. I don’t think that any of these issues require specific changes to our approach to preventing the transmission of disease. I also think that we can address multiple issues at the same time, so it is possible for the government to devote more resources to addressing unemployment, family violence, etc while also dealing with a pandemic.

Links March 2020

Rolling Stone has an insightful article about why the Christian Right supports Trump and won’t stop supporting him no matter what he does [1].

Interesting article about Data Oriented Architecture [2].

Quarantine Will normalise WFH and Recession will Denormalise Jobs [3]. I guess we can always hope that after a disaster we can learn to do things better than before.

Tyre wear is worse than exhaust for small particulate matter [4]. We need better tyres and legal controls over such things.

Scott Santens wrote an insightful article about the need for democracy and unconditional basic income [5]. “In ancient Greece, work was regarded as a curse” is an extreme position but strongly supported by evidence. ‘In his essay “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell wrote “Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”‘

Cory Doctorow wrote an insightful article for Locus titled A Lever Without a Fulcrum Is Just a Stick about expansions to copyright laws [6]. One of his analogies is that giving a bullied kid more lunch money just allows the bullies to steal more money, with artists being bullied kids and lunch money being the rights that are granted under copyright law. The proposed solution includes changes to labor and contract law, presumably Cory will write other articles in future giving the details of his ideas in this regard.

The Register has an amusing article about the trial of a former CIA employee on trial for being the alleged “vault 7 leaker” [7]. Both the prosecution and the defence are building their cases around the defendent being a jerk. The article exposes poor security and poor hiring practices in the CIA.

CNN has an informative article about Finland’s war on fake news [8]. As Finland has long standing disputes with Russia they have had more practice at dealing with fake news than most countries.

The Times of Israel has an interesting article about how the UK used German Jews to spy on German prisoners of war [9].

Cory Doctorow wrote an insightful article “Data is the New Toxic Waste” about how collecting personal data isn’t an asset, it’s a liability [10].

Ulrike Uhlig wrote an insightful article about “Control Freaks”, analysing the different meanings of control, both positive and negative [11].

538 has an informative article about the value of statistical life [12]. It’s about $9M per person in the US, which means a mind-boggling amount of money should be spent to save the millions of lives that will be potentially lost in a natural disaster (like Coronavirus).

NPR has an interesting interview about Crypto AG, the Swiss crypto company owned by the CIA [13]. I first learned of this years ago, it’s not new, but I still learned a lot from this interview.

Coronavirus and Work

Currently the big news issue is all about how to respond to Coronavirus. The summary of the medical situation is that it’s going to spread exponentially (as diseases do) and that it has a period of up to 6 days of someone being infectious without having symptoms. So you can get a lot of infected people in an area without anyone knowing about it. Therefore preventative action needs to be taken before there’s widespread known infection.

Governments seem disinterested in doing anything about the disease before they have proof of widespread infection. They won’t do anything until it’s too late.

I finished my last 9-5 job late last year and hadn’t got a new one since then. Now I’m thinking of just not taking any work that requires much time spend outside home. If you don’t go to a workplace there isn’t a lot you have to do that involves leaving home.

Shopping is one requirement for leaving home, but the two major supermarket chains in my area (Coles and Woolworths) both offer home delivery for a small price so that covers most shopping. Getting groceries delivered means that they will usually come from the store room not the shop floor so wouldn’t have anyone coughing or sneezing on them. If you are really paranoid (which I aren’t at the moment) then you could wear rubber gloves to bring the delivery in and then wash everything before using it. It seems that many people have similar ideas to me, normally Woolworths allows booking next-day delivery, now you have to book at least 5 days (3 business days) in advance.

If anyone needs some Linux work done from remote then let me know. Otherwise I’ll probably spend the next couple of months at home doing Debian coding and watching documentaries on Netflix.

Amazon Prime and Netflix

I’ve been trying both Amazon Prime and Netflix. I signed up for the month free of Amazon Prime to watch “Good Omens” and “Picard”. “Good Omens” is definitely worth the effort of setting up the month free of Amazon Prime and is worth the month’s subscription if you have used your free month in the past and Picard is ok.

Content

Amazon Prime has a medium amount of other content, I’m now paying for a month of Amazon Prime mainly because there’s enough documentaries to take a month. For reference there are plenty of good ones about war and about space exploration. There are also some really rubbish documentaries, for example a 2 part documentary about the Magna Carta where the second part starts with Grover Norquist claiming that the Magna Carta is justification for not having any taxes (the first part seemed ok).

Netflix has a lot of great content. A big problem with Netflix is that there aren’t good ways of searching and organising the content you want to watch. It would be really nice if Netflix could use some machine learning for recommendations and recommend shows based on what I’ve liked and also what I’ve disliked.

On both Netflix and Amazon when you view the details of a show it gives a short list of similar shows which is nice. With Amazon I have no complaints about that. But with Netflix the content library is so great that you get lost in a maze of links. On the Android tablet interface for Netflix it shows 12 similar shows in a grid and on the web interface it’s a row of 20 shows with looped scrolling. Then as you click a different show you get another list of 12/20 shows which will usually have some overlap with the previous one. It would be nice if you could easily swipe left on shows you don’t like to avoid having them repeatedly presented to you.

On Netflix I’ve really enjoyed the “Altered Carbon” series (which is significantly more violent than I anticipated), “Black Mirror” (the episode written by Trent Reznor and starring Miley Cyrus is particularly good), and “Love Death and Robots”. Overall I currently rate “Love Death and Robots” as in many ways the best series I’ve ever watched because the episodes are all short and get straight to the point. One advantage of online video is that they don’t need to pad episodes out or cut them short to fit a TV time slot, they can use as much time as necessary to tell the story.

Watch List

Having a single row of shows to watch is fine for the amount of content that Amazon has, but for the Netflix content you can easily get 100 shows on your watch list and it would be good to be able to search my watch list by genre (it’s a drag to flick through dozens of icons of war documentaries when I’m in the mood for an action movie as the icons are somewhat similar).

As well as a list of shows you selected to watch Netflix has a list of shows that have been recently watched with no way to edit it which is separate from the list of shows selected to watch. So if you watch 5 minutes of a show and decide that it sucks then it stays on the list until you have partially watched 10 other shows recently. For my usage the recently watched list is the most important thing as I’m watching some serial shows and wouldn’t want to go through the 100 shows on my watch list to find them. If I’ve decided that a movie sucked after watching a bit of it I don’t want to be reminded of it by seeing the icon every time I use Netflix for the next month.

Amazon has only a single “watch next” list for shows that you have watched recently and shows that you selected as worth watching. It allows editing the list which is nice, but then Amazon also often keeps shows on the list when you have finished watching them and removed them from the “to watch” setting. Amazon’s watch list is also generally buggy, at one time it decided that a movie was no longer available in my region but didn’t let me remove it from the list.

Quality

Apparently the Netflix web interface on Linux only allows 720p video while the Amazon web interface on all platforms is limited to 720p. In any case my Internet connection is probably only good enough for 1080p at most. I haven’t noticed any quality differences between Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Multiple Users

Netflix allows you to create profiles for multiple users with separate watch lists which is very handy. They also don’t have IP address restrictions so it’s a common practice for people to share a Netflix account with relatives. If you try to use Netflix when the maximum number of sessions for your account is in use it will show a list of what the other people on your account are watching (so if you share with your parents be careful about that).

Amazon doesn’t allow creating multiple profiles, but the content isn’t that great. The trend in video streaming is for proprietary content to force users to subscribe to a service. So sharing an Amazon Prime account with a few people so you want watch the proprietary content would make sense.

Watching Patterns

Sometimes when I’m particularly distracted I can’t focus on one show for any length of time. Both Amazon and Netflix (and probably all other online streaming services) allow me to skip between shows easily. That’s always been a feature of YouTube, but with YouTube you get recommended increasingly viral content until you find yourself watching utter rubbish. At least with Amazon and Netflix there is a minimum quality level even if that is reality TV.

Conclusion

Amazon Prime has a smaller range of content and some really rubbish documentaries. I don’t mind the documentaries about UFOs and other fringe stuff as it’s obvious what it is and you can avoid it. A documentary that has me watching for an hour before it’s revealed to be a promo for Grover Norquist is really bad, did the hour of it that I watched have good content or just rubbish too?

Netflix has a huge range of content and the quality level is generally very high.

If you are going to watch TV then subscribing to Netflix is probably a good idea. It’s reasonably cheap, has a good (not great) interface, and has a lot of content including some great original content.

For Amazon maybe subscribe for 1 month every second year to binge watch the Amazon proprietary content that interests you.

Links February 2020

Truthout has an interesting summary of the US “Wars Without Victory and Weapons Without End” [1]. The Korean war seems mostly a win for the US though.

The Golden Age of White Collar Crime is an informative article about the epidemic of rich criminals in the US that are protected at the highest levels [2]. This disproves the claims about gun ownership preventing crime. AFAIK no-one has shot a corporate criminal in spite of so many deserving it.

Law and Political Economy has an insightful article “Privatizing Sovereignty, Socializing Property: What Economics Doesn’t Teach You About the Corporation” [3]. It makes sense of the corporation law system.

IDR labs has a communism test, I scored 56% [4].

Vice has an interesting article about companies providing free email programs and services and then selling private data [5]. The California Consumer Privacy Act is apparently helping as companies that do business in the US can’t be sure which customers are in CA and need to comply to it for all users. Don’t trust corporations with your private data.

The Atlantic has an interesting article about Coronavirus and the Blindness of Authoritarianism [6]. The usual problem of authoritarianism but with a specific example from China. The US is only just astarting it’s experiment with authoritarianism and they are making the same mistakes.

The Atlantic has an insightful article about Coronavirus and it’s effect on China’s leadership [7]. It won’t change things much.

On The Commons has an insightful article We Now Have a Justice System Just for Corporations [8]. In the US corporations can force people into arbitration for most legal disputes, as they pay the arbitration companies the arbitration almost always gives the company the result they pay for.

Boing Boing has an interesting article about conspiracy theories [9]. Their point is that some people have conspiracy theories (meaning belief in conspiracies that is not based in fact) due to having seen real conspiracies at close range. I think this only applies to a minority of people who believe conspiracy theories, and probably only to people who believe in a very small number of conspiracies. It seems that most people who believe in conspiracy theories believe in many of them.

Douglas Rushkoff wrote a good article about rich people who are making plans to escape after they destroy the environment [10]. Includes the idea of having shock-collars for security guards to stop them going rogue.

Boing Boing has an interesting article on the Brahmin Left and the Merchant Right [11]. It has some good points about the left side of politics representing the middle class more than the working class, especially the major left wing parties that are more centrist nowadays (like Democrats in the US and Labor in Australia).

DisplayPort and 4K

The Problem

Video playback looks better with a higher scan rate. A lot of content that was designed for TV (EG almost all historical documentaries) is going to be 25Hz interlaced (UK and Australia) or 30Hz interlaced (US). If you view that on a low refresh rate progressive scan display (EG a modern display at 30Hz) then my observation is that it looks a bit strange. Things that move seem to jump a bit and it’s distracting.

Getting HDMI to work with 4K resolution at a refresh rate higher than 30Hz seems difficult.

What HDMI Can Do

According to the HDMI Wikipedia page [1], HDMI 1.3–1.4b (introduced in June 2006) supports 30Hz refresh at 4K resolution and if you use 4:2:0 Chroma Subsampling (see the Chroma Subsampling Wikipedia page [2] you can do 60Hz or 75Hz on HDMI 1.3–1.4b. Basically for colour 4:2:0 means half the horizontal and half the vertical resolution while giving the same resolution for monochrome. For video that apparently works well (4:2:0 is standard for Blue Ray) and for games it might be OK, but for text (my primary use of computers) it would suck.

So I need support for HDMI 2.0 (introduced in September 2013) on the video card and monitor to do 4K at 60Hz. Apparently none of the combinations of video card and HDMI cable I use for Linux support that.

HDMI Cables

The Wikipedia page alleges that you need either a “Premium High Speed HDMI Cable” or a “Ultra High Speed HDMI Cable” for 4K resolution at 60Hz refresh rate. My problems probably aren’t related to the cable as my testing has shown that a cheap “High Speed HDMI Cable” can work at 60Hz with 4K resolution with the right combination of video card, monitor, and drivers. A Windows 10 system I maintain has a Samsung 4K monitor and a NVidia GT630 video card running 4K resolution at 60Hz (according to Windows). The NVidia GT630 card is one that I tried on two Linux systems at 4K resolution and causes random system crashes on both, it seems like a nice card for Windows but not for Linux.

Apparently the HDMI devices test the cable quality and use whatever speed seems to work (the cable isn’t identified to the devices). The prices at a local store are $3.98 for “high speed”, $19.88 for “premium high speed”, and $39.78 for “ultra high speed”. It seems that trying a “high speed” cable first before buying an expensive cable would make sense, especially for short cables which are likely to be less susceptible to noise.

What DisplayPort Can Do

According to the DisplayPort Wikipedia page [3] versions 1.2–1.2a (introduced in January 2010) support HBR2 which on a “Standard DisplayPort Cable” (which probably means almost all DisplayPort cables that are in use nowadays) allows 60Hz and 75Hz 4K resolution.

Comparing HDMI and DisplayPort

In summary to get 4K at 60Hz you need 2010 era DisplayPort or 2013 era HDMI. Apparently some video cards that I currently run for 4K (which were all bought new within the last 2 years) are somewhere between a 2010 and 2013 level of technology.

Also my testing (and reading review sites) shows that it’s common for video cards sold in the last 5 years or so to not support HDMI resolutions above FullHD, that means they would be HDMI version 1.1 at the greatest. HDMI 1.2 was introduced in August 2005 and supports 1440p at 30Hz. PCIe was introduced in 2003 so there really shouldn’t be many PCIe video cards that don’t support HDMI 1.2. I have about 8 different PCIe video cards in my spare parts pile that don’t support HDMI resolutions higher than FullHD so it seems that such a limitation is common.

The End Result

For my own workstation I plugged a DisplayPort cable between the monitor and video card and a Linux window appeared (from KDE I think) offering me some choices about what to do, I chose to switch to the “new monitor” on DisplayPort and that defaulted to 60Hz. After that change TV shows on NetFlix and Amazon Prime both look better. So it’s a good result.

As an aside DisplayPort cables are easier to scrounge as the HDMI cables get taken by non-computer people for use with their TV.