More thoughts on computer piracy in Romania

In 2009, I wrote a post entitled “Is it any wonder there’s computer piracy in Romania“. In 2011, after a couple more years in the country, I wrote another post entitled “Rampant piracy in Romania“. The end of 2017 is practically here, I’ve been in the country for nine years and I can now say that my view on the subject has gotten more nuanced. I’ll explain.

Yes, computer piracy is rampant in Romania. When most Romanians think of “getting” a movie, TV show or a popular album, they don’t mean “buy it” online, they mean “get the torrent” for it. Judging by this, the situation isn’t good. And yet it’s not as simple as that.

It’s easy for an expat from the US to look at this in a binary way, but as I’ve lived in the country all these years and have had to conduct business here, I’ve encountered all sorts of barriers that are still in place and do not make it easy for Romanians to go the legal route when acquiring media.

Did you know that when you switch your credit card in iTunes from an American credit card to a Romanian bank card, there are no more movies and TV shows for you to purchase or rent? That’s right, those sections of the iTunes store disappear altogether. You still have music, so I suppose that’s something, but to think that Apple still hasn’t worked out the logistics of providing movies and TV shows to their Romanian customers after all these years is ridiculous.

Even more ridiculous, did you know that already purchased TV shows and movies, ones purchased in the US, also disappear from iTunes when you switch to Romania? So if you haven’t downloaded them to your computer, they’re gone.

Oh, but you have downloaded them? Good, then even though you can’t access them from your Apple TV anymore, you can still open them in Quicktime and Airplay them to your Apple TV, right? Wrong. Can’t do that anymore. The Airplay button doesn’t show up anymore. You can still copy them back into iTunes and from there (and only from there) Airplay them to your Apple TV.

Also bonkers is the fact that the software purchased from the App Store with a US credit card can no longer be upgraded or downloaded once you’ve switched to a Romanian bank card. First you’ll get a message saying that you’ll be switched to the Romanian Store.

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Then you’ll get a message saying the software isn’t available for download anymore.

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You can go through the song and dance of signing out, signing back in, deauthorizing and reauthorizing your devices, but you still won’t be able to download your software until you switch back to a US credit card.

At this point you’re probably saying, “This is all fine and good Raoul, but these last few things you’re talking about seem to apply only to expats. Boo-hoo for you, but what about the general Romanian population?” Well, they still can’t buy movies and TV shows from the iTunes Store, remember?

Now, some of you may know that three online streaming services have launched in Romania in 2017: Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Go. This is a great step in the right direction, but it comes with its own set of problems.

The Romanian versions of these services have nowhere near the number of titles available in the US. You get somewhere around 50% of the titles (maybe 60-70%), for about the same price that you pay in the US. You have to keep in mind the average monthly wage in Romania is about $485 (see this), while in the US the average monthly wage is $3396 (see this). That’s a huge difference, and yet Romanians are expected to pay the same prices as the Americans. That sort of ridiculous expectation is found across the board in Romania, for all sorts of products that people need and use.

netflix

Netflix Romania costs me 9.99 Euros a month for HD streaming. There’s also another plan that costs 11.99 Euros a month if you want Ultra HD. And yet the amount of titles available to me are roughly half of those available in the US. I know, because I was able to enjoy the US titles for a number of years after moving to Romania, before Netflix decided to close that access. Now it won’t even work via VPN and I’m stuck having to use their Romanian offering. So in essence, I’m paying double what I’d be paying in the US and most of the stuff I want to watch isn’t available to me. What a great deal they’ve worked out for Romanians, right?

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HBO Go Romania costs half of what Netflix charges, 19,99 lei a month (that’s 4.29 Euros) but once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. I was able to browse through only a few hundred on their site, while the US site says they have more than 4000 titles. Plus, their service doesn’t work on my Apple TV. It also doesn’t work on my iMac. I get a strange error message when I attempt to play most titles on their website: “failed to load license”. When I contacted their tech support, they told me HBO Go Romania isn’t supported on Apple TVs. It also does not work on my iPad or my iPhone, so I can’t connect them directly to my TV either. (It works just fine on these devices in the US, but when you open these apps in Romania, you get an error saying the service is unavailable.) I was advised to use a browser other than Safari, which once again means I can’t Airplay titles to my Apple TV and am stuck watching them at my desk, which I’m not interested in doing. They suggested I try to Chromecast to my Apple TV. Sure… I’m going to fiddle with workarounds because you couldn’t be bothered to do a proper product launch in Romania…

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Amazon Prime Video costs 2.99 Euros a month for the first six months and 5.99 Euros a month after that. It’s the most affordable streaming service and it’s got several shows I like to watch. But once again, they don’t list all of the titles available in the US. However, it works perfectly on my Apple TV and on my computer, so out of the three, I’m happiest with it.

One way both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video (but mostly Netflix) thought they’d make up for the scarcity of titles in their Romanian offering was to scatter their catalogs with Bollywood movies. Because obviously Romanians like watching Bollywood movies. We’re right next to India and historically speaking, our cultures are pretty much identical… WTH, Netflix and Amazon? We’re in Europe! There are a ton of English, French, Italian and German titles you could have added to your services but you give us Bollywood? And oh, let’s not forget Turkish shows… Because there aren’t enough of them on Romanian TV, and because Romanians just love to watch TV programming from a nation that has invaded them over and over and over, has abducted their children to be used as indentured servants and soldiers, raped their women, pillaged their towns and villages, and installed their own puppet regimes to suck most of the wealth out of the country. This wasn’t too long ago, mind you. Romania gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the war of 1877-78 (see this) after hundreds of years of occupation, and they also had to fight them again in WWI.

Let’s look at retail stores now, online or brick and mortar. Say you want to go and buy a movie on Blu-Ray, so you can see it at a proper 1080p resolution. Most of the titles you’ll find in stores are on DVD (that’s 480p resolution) and they cost between 30-50 lei. Who the heck would want to buy DVDs anymore? You can’t even buy a non-HD TV anymore. The cheapest ones you’ll find are at least 720p, so who would buy a 480p movie?

Do you begin to see why piracy is still rampant in Romania? The fastest and easiest way to get an HD movie or TV show in Romania is to download it via a torrent, and not for a lack of trying to get it legally, mind you.

Idiosyncracies at Apple

Why is iTunes being used as the sync hub for all media and mobile apps?

Do you remember iSync? It was the app that Apple made specifically for syncing devices to their computers. It worked pretty nicely to sync contacts and calendars from the Mac to a mobile phone (this was before the iPhone came out). I used it to sync my Nokia E63 and N95 to my iMac and MacBook Pro.

I wrote about this back in 2011 as well. The problem is still there. Why are we syncing contacts, calendars, movies, TV shows and mobile apps, through an app designed for music and named for music? Why not have an app that’s properly named, where we sync everything we want, through a brand new interface?

What name should we pick for it? The clue is right there in the name for a product recently launched: Apple Music. The central app should be called Apple and it should be available on both desktops and mobile devices. It shouldn’t even have a name, it should just be the Apple icon. We’ll click on it to connect with Apple and sync our devices, purchase apps, music, movies, hardware, etc. That’s right, I’m talking about a unified interface with a single, seamless web presence where we can buy and sync everything Apple and everything made or coded for Apple, which is accessible through an Apple icon from our computers or mobile devices. No more iTunes Store and App Store and a separate Apple Store!

iTunes can remain but it’ll need to be renamed to something else, since we play both movies and music in it. Apple Media perhaps? How about Apple Player?

Why are there two apps for messaging?

We have FaceTime and Messages. What happened to iChat? Let’s put these two apps together again. Apple lost so much ground when someone else (WhatsApp and others) made a unified app that keeps text, media sharing and video chat together. Why would we need two apps (two places we need to check and open up) when one can do the job?

They should marry these two apps and call the new app… Apple Talk. It makes sense and Apple already owns the trademark on it.

 

Tablets not quite ready for mainstream computing

The new tablet from Apple, the iPad Pro, which comes in two sizes as of this year, is quite impressive. I’m sure they’re fast, and the addition of a stylus for more precise control is an interesting and fitting choice (which also hearkens back to the first tablets Microsoft made, years and years ago).

Apple’s push to market them as mainstream computing devices, as replacements for laptops and desktops is also interesting and worthwhile (and it also mirrors Microsoft’s past efforts in this area).

Yet I have to say that the time hasn’t yet come for it. Oh, we’re close — we’re very close — but trying to do all of one’s computing on a tablet is still an exercise in frustration, and it will continue to be so until tablets are robust enough to handle serious computing and more importantly, mobile apps evolve to the point where they offer all of the options of desktop apps. That will involve a concerted effort from both hardware and software makers of all shapes and sizes.

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I’m glad that Apple’s picked up the ball on this and is running with it, but in my book, they haven’t won the game yet. Tablets are still a niche market when it comes to laptop and desktop replacement and let’s face it, most people use them to go on Facebook, YouTube or Netflix (hardly something that qualifies as work).

I’ve tried repeatedly to use an iPad as a desktop replacement, and while it works quite well for dawdling on the websites mentioned in the previous paragraph, even there the options offered by the mobile apps are limited.

For example, the Facebook Pages app doesn’t let me manage my pages the way the desktop version of Facebook lets me do it, because it doesn’t give me all of the options available to me there. So I still have to remember what I can’t do on my tablet and go back to my desktop to do those things. The YouTube app won’t let me access all of my comments and block offensive commenters. So when I’m traveling without access to my desktop, that’s a frustration. But some of you will say, “Why don’t you access those websites through the mobile browser and take care of things that way?” Because I’m automatically directed to mobile versions of those sites and I still don’t have access to the options I need.

I tried editing short videos on my iPad, and while the performance of iMovie app was pretty good, my tablet got pretty warm and ran through the battery as I edited simple clips, making me wonder what would happen if I tried to edit multiple camera angles and longer videos on it. Oh, wait, I can’t do that, because in the mobile iMovie app, there are no such options and of course there isn’t a mobile Final Cut Pro app. There’s no sound to video synchronization, the options for cutting soundtracks in and out are very limited, and the list goes on and on.

But surely you can work on a book on an iPad, right? Well, my wife tried to do that on one of her new books and she couldn’t. It’s just a text file at this point, somewhere between 100-200 pages. The iPad should have been able to work on it just fine but nope, it kept choking on it. The cursor would barely chug along as she typed, forcing her to take frequent breaks and allow it to catch up. The diacritics were all screwed up. After about half an hour of this nonsense, she gave up and went back to her laptop, which is an aged, mostly toothless beast, an 8-year old MacBook Pro with all the speed of a constipated sloth, but it still fares better than a tablet when it comes to editing books.

Well, what about the Photos app? Surely you can at least edit photos on it? Well, I downloaded photos from one of my DSLRs on my iPad (with the aid of this little gadget), and it got hot and ran through half the battery just importing them and generating previews. As I started to browse through them, it would take 5-7 seconds just to let me see a crisp version of each photo. Granted, these were raw files and I have an iPad Air, not an iPad Pro, but I can’t imagine things being too different on the newest, shiniest Pro tablet. I’ll give credit to the Photos app when it comes to editing photos taken with the iPad or the iPhone. It’s plenty fast on those. But the idea of replacing the notebook or a desktop means you’ll be editing photos taken with other cameras as well. And it’s just not there yet.

So where are we? Simply put, tablets are great for fiddling around on the internet but they just aren’t up to par when it comes to replacing notebooks and desktops, at least in my own experience.

That’s not to say I don’t yearn for the day when that happens! I’d love to only have to carry a tablet and a portable keyboard with me as I travel. Even at home there’d be huge benefits in terms of energy use (we’re talking tens of times less than notebooks or desktops), carbon footprint and other aspects. I do hope Apple (and others) continue to push the envelope on this. I particularly want to see mobile apps become full-fledged working apps for power users. Once that happens, hardware is bound to catch up with the needs of the software and we’ll be in business.

Truly sustainable computing

Plenty could be written about this subject. I just want to call for change in two areas, because I believe they’d have the greatest impact here and now:

  1. Desktop computers should have a projected life span of 20 years.
  2. Laptops and mobile phones should have a projected life span of 10 years.

Why 10 years for laptops and mobile phones? Because they’re portable, they get banged up more and chances are they’re not going to look that good after 8-10 years, but they should be made to last that long nonetheless. Even if you won’t want to use them after a few years, you can sell them and someone else with a smaller budget will be happy to use them for as long as they last.

This means internal circuitry, which is most often the culprit in computing, should be made to last a looooong time. This is doable. There are cars and planes in use today with circuits made 15-20 years ago, which are still functioning properly. I think hardware meant for personal computing is purposely made to stop working after a few years, because computers are always upgraded and hardware manufacturers plan for obsolescence from the get-go.

There is a better way. Enclosures for all computing devices should be solidly made and finished. They should be stunningly beautiful and their design should stand the test of time. They should be easy to open and the innards serviced. And internal components should be made in such a way that they stand the rigors of heavy use through two decades, even if they become obsolete, market-wise. I think we’ve gotten to the point in computing where even if a computer is no longer desirable by someone who wants a fast machine, it’s still good enough for daily use by someone who does basic computing tasks.

I may live to eat the words in this paragraph, but surely USB 3.0, Thunderbolt, PCIe, 4K resolution and other goodies that are currently available should suffice for a while. I can’t imagine word processing applications or web applications requiring more than this, even 10 years from now. And if they do, a solid, serviceable enclosure and upgradeable hardware with backward compatibility for widely accepted standards and protocols should be enough to keep a computer going… and going… and going…

And once we pass that 20-year mark, why not make our next goal even bigger? Let’s plan for 100-year computers and let’s start doing it right now. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have machines made in 2015-2016 still in daily use in 2115-2116?

If you work in hardware, I’m sure you can think of plenty of reasons why this isn’t doable. It’s pretty easy to find reasons not to do something, and this applies to just about anything. But I want to challenge you to find ways to make this work, because it’s what we need to do in order to survive in the future. We can’t go on trashing the planet and taking from it indefinitely. We need to start conserving and giving back to it. We should focus on making it clean and beautiful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of phones I have to throw away after 2-3 years because they turn into unusable crap. I’m sick and tired of computers and external hardware that start to break down after 3 years, some of them right after their warranty expires. And if would see what a mess we’ve made of this world, with destructive mining for rare earth minerals used in our electronics and with mountains of electronic trash polluting the ground and water tables in many places around the world, you’d be sick and tired of this as well.

There are much better ways of doing things. FairPhone is pointing the way for mobile phones. iFixit is helping too, with online service manuals and parts. But the bulk of the work still hasn’t been done. I still don’t see 20-year computers and 10-year laptops in stores. Where are they? Who’s making them? I’d like to buy one.

How to create a Fusion Drive on a mid-2011 iMac

Yes, you can enable Fusion Drive on older Macs. I’m not sure how this method will work with Macs older than 2011, but I know for sure that it works on mid-2011 iMacs, and quite possibly on other Macs made since then. I have just completed this process for my iMac and I thought it would help you if I detailed it here.

I like Fusion Drive because it’s simple and automated, like Time Machine. Some geekier Mac users will likely prefer to install an SSD and manually separate the system and app files from the user files which take up the most space, which is something that gives them more control over what works faster and what doesn’t, but that’s a more involved process. Fusion Drive works automatically once you set it up, moving the files that are used more often onto the SSD and keeping the ones that are accessed less often on the hard drive. This results in a big performance increase without having to fiddle with bash commands too much.

The hardware

My machine is a 27″ mid-2011 iMac with a 3.4 GHz processor and 16GB of RAM. I bought it with a 1TB hard drive, which I recently considered upgrading to a 3TB hard drive but decided against, given the fan control issues with the temperature sensor and the special connector used on the factory drive.

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I purchased a 128GB Vertex4 SSD from OCZ. It’s a SATA III (6 Gbps) drive and when I look in System Info, my iMac sees it as such and is able to communicate with it at 6 Gbps, which is really nice.

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The hardware installation is somewhat involved, as you will need to not only open the iMac but also remove most of the connections and also unseat the motherboard so you can get at the SATA III connector on its back. You will also need a special SATA wire, which is sold as a kit from both OWC and iFixit. The kit includes the suction cups used to remove the screen (held into place with magnets) and a screwdriver set.

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You can choose to do the installation yourself if you are so inclined, but realize that you may void the warranty on the original hard drive if something goes wrong, and this is according to Apple Tech Support, with whom I checked prior to ordering the kit. Here are a couple of videos that show you how to do this:

In my case, it just so happened that my iMac needed to go in for service (the video card, SuperDrive and display went bad) and while I had it in there, I asked the technicians to install the SSD behind the optical drive for me. This way, my warranty stayed intact. When I got my iMac back home, all I had to do was to format both the original hard drive and the SSD and proceed with enabling the Fusion Drive (make sure to back up thoroughly first). You can opt to do the same, or you can send your computer into OWC for their Turnkey Program, where you can elect to soup it up even more.

The software

Once I had backed up everything thoroughly through Time Machine, I used the instructions in this Macworld article to proceed. There are other articles that describe the same method, and the first man to realize this was doable and blog about it was Patrick Stein, so he definitely deserves a hat tip. I’ll reproduce the steps I used here; feel free to also consult the original articles.

1. Create a Mountain Lion (10.8.2) bootup disk. Use an 8GB or 16GB stick for this, it will allow you to reformat everything on the computer, just to clean things up. Otherwise you may end up with two recovery partitions when you’re done. I used the instructions in this Cult of Mac post to do so. The process involves re-downloading 10.8.2 from the Apple Store (if you haven’t bought it yet, now is the time to do so) and an app called Lion Diskmaker.

2. Format both the original HD and the SSD, just to make sure they’re clean and ready to go. Use Disk Utility to do this, or if you’re more comfortable with the command line, you can also do that (just be aware you can blow away active partitions with it if you’re not careful).

2. List the drives so you can get their correct names. In my case, they were /dev/disk1 and /dev/disk2.

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3. Create the Fusion Drive logical volume group. When this completes, you’ll get something called a Core Storage LGV UUID. Copy that number, you’ll need it for the following step.

diskutil coreStorage create myFusionDrive /dev/disk1 /dev/disk2

4. Create the Fusion Drive logical volume. I used the following command:

diskutil coreStorage createVolume paste-lgv-uuid-here jhfs+ "Macintosh HD" 100%

5. Quit Terminal and begin a fresh install of Mountain Lion onto the new disk called “Macintosh HD”.

6. Restore your apps, files and system settings from the Time Machine backup using the Migration Assistant once you’ve booted up. Here’s an article that shows you how to do that. When that completes, you’re done!

The result

Was it worth it? Yes. The boot-up time went from 45-60 seconds to 15 seconds, right away. And over time, the apps and files I use most often will be moved onto the SSD, thus decreasing the amount of time it’ll take to open and save them.

At some point, I expect Apple to issue a utility, like Boot Camp, that will allow us to do this more easily and automatically. Until then, that’s how I set up Fusion Drive on my iMac, and I hope it’s been helpful to you!

A way to make Shuffle better in iTunes and on iPhones and iPods

iTunes

I don’t know about you but I’ve listened to all of the songs in my iTunes library. Repeatedly. Over and over and over. I keep buying new ones but inevitably, the play counts add up. And the ones I didn’t want to listen to, I skipped over. Repeatedly. Over and over and over. And therein lies the answer to making Shuffle better, both in iTunes and on our iPhones, iPods and iPads.

Apple, please tweak the Shuffle algorithm so that if a song is skipped over more than once, it won’t play it during Shuffle mode at all, at least not for a while. The auto-skip period can be tweaked in the settings (in iTunes and on our portable devices). And we should also be able to decide whether we want these songs to sync to our devices at all, sort of like putting them in hibernation. Maybe even create a special section in the Library where a smart list will display these pariah songs when needed.

Some of the songs I bought have started to annoy me so much that I deleted them altogether. I suppose you can’t help that with music. You like it, then you don’t. You need a break from it. But when your iPod or iPhone keeps shoving it in your face, particularly when you’re driving and you don’t want to be bothered with skipping over songs, then that song begins to annoy you enough so that you get home and delete it from your iTunes library, just so you won’t hear it again.

And Apple, please don’t do this only in iTunes. Make sure you do it for iPhones and iPods as well, and for the older models, too. I still have a 1st gen iPod Touch that I use from time to time, and its software hasn’t been updated in years. It’d be nice to get some extra life out of it once the new Shuffle is brought out.

Thanks in advance!

A couple of suggestions for Waze

Waze

I’ve been using Waze for over a month and I love it. If you haven’t tried it yet, you should. It’s surprisingly accurate, even in a country where you wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of users, like Romania.

The traffic updates can get a little overwhelming in large urban areas like Bucharest and sometimes it doesn’t find an address I need, but overall, it’s a wonderful app and the idea of a user-driven (and updated) map is awesome. Live traffic alerts and automatic calculation of the best route based on current traffic conditions are awesome options (these used to cost a pretty penny with GPS devices and weren’t very good nor up-to-date).

Here’s a way to make Waze better: use the accelerometer in our iPhones to automatically determine if the road is unsafe, based on braking, swerving, stopping and yes, even driving (or falling) through potholes. I love being able to report a road incident but when I’m swerving through potholes and recently dug up roads (like the one between Medias and Sighisoara), I don’t have the time nor the multitasking brain cycles to tap on my phone and report a hole in the road. So doing this automatically and reporting it to the users would be a wonderful new addition to Waze. I’d love to get an alert on my phone as I’m driving through fog or rain, when the visibility isn’t great, telling me there’s a pothole ahead. And by the way, Waze, have you thought about hooking up weather info to the traffic reports?

One thing that always annoyed me with GPS devices is the constant repetition of stuff like “take the 2nd exit” or “turn left”. The new version of Waze seems to be doing the same thing. I’d love an option in the settings where I could specify that I’d like to be reminded about such things a maximum of two times (not 3 or 4 times…)

A big thanks to the Waze team for the awesome work!