Chromecast: First impressions

I got a Chromecast recently, and it’s worth writing about because I feel it’s part of an important step in how we enjoy media (television, movies, music) and will do in the future.

So, on to my observations.

My general misunderstanding of what they did

Before getting one I never properly understood how they actually worked and what they did. I did understand that videos weren’t streamed to the Chromecast via your client device, and that instead the Chromecast directly fetched the video to stream.

What I didn’t understand was that the number of things you could stream on it were endless, and limited only by the vast array of apps on the Chrome Web Store, Play Store (Android) or App Store (iOS) which chose to take advantage of it (and that anyone could develop such an app of their own).  I assumed that it was limited to a small set of high-profile apps: Netflix, YouTube, Play Movies & TV, Play Music, and probably a handful of other things Google will have deemed worthy of building into the device.

In reality, the Chromecast device itself has no “apps” built into it, well, apart from the thing that sets up its wifi connection and the thing that shows wallpapers as a sort of screensaver when it’s idle.  The “apps” all run on the client device and control it from there, whether that is your Android device, your Chrome web browser on a computer, or an iOS device, and anyone can write an app for any of those three devices that can control it.

The device can basically stream a bunch of different video or audio formats or display pictures, which it downloads from whichever server the app specifies.  The app you are using tells it what address and protocol to fetch video, audio or pictures from, and how to show it on screen.  Once you start a video streaming, you can kill the app and it’ll keep streaming on the Chromecast, but because it has no inherent controls or intelligence itself, that’s all it will do – you can’t pause, restart, or change anything unless you are still using the app and the app is still connected to it.

Issues I’ve found

Even though I wouldn’t say I’m elderly, looking down at my phone, then back up at the screen, repeatedly, strains the eyes a bit.  Once you get a video or music started, you don’t really need to do this much I guess.

Once you’ve been watching a show for a little while and you want to pause it because the baby is crying or something, it’s not a case of finding just one pause button on your remote: because it’s your Android device, it has probably gone to sleep.  So you wake up its screen first.  The app you were controlling the Chromecast with may have a pause control on the lock screen, but if so the button will be small so you actually have to focus on the screen a bit to see where the button is a press it carefully to pause.  But occasionally the app may have closed so you have to unlock your device and find the app again in your home screen or app drawer.  Sometimes the app may have even disassociated itself with the Chromecast, in which case you have completely lost control over it; the only way to stop it is to go back in to the app, re-connect with the Chromecast, choose the Chromecast device from the menu, then hope it brings up what was playing – and if not, you may even have to search for what you were watching all over again. This is obviously more an issue with the individual app than with the Chromecast model in general.  If the app that was in control of the Chromecast stayed running always, and always had lock screen controls working and visible, this would minimise some of these problems.

I started a YouTube “mix” of 50 videos and for some unknown reason the Chromecast stopped playing after only 4 videos.  Waking up my phone showed that the YouTube app was no longer running but opening it up again showed that it did still know it was connected to the Chromecast, it just wasn’t playing anything for some reason.  I don’t know what to blame this glitch on.

I watched a TV episode using the Stan app (I have free subscription to Stan) and with 2 minutes remaining it mysteriously stopped playing and again I looked at my phone to find no sign of the Stan app running.  Going back in, I found that it had disassociated itself from the Chromecast and didn’t remember where I was in the episode: sharing to Chromecast and pressing play again sent me to the start.  Again, more an issue with the individual app than the Chromecast or that model in general.

The free and non-free Creative Commons licenses

  • Some Creative Commons licenses are ‘free’ in the sense that open source software is free.
  • Other Creative Commons licenses are ‘not free’ in the sense that they restrict use of the material in ways that is counter to ‘freedom’ as defined by the Free Software Foundation or the Open Source Initiative, to draw a parallel with software licenses.

In this article I just wanted to clarify the difference for those using a CC license, so that they are not inadvertently preventing others from using their work with an unnecessarily restrictive license.

Thankfully, the website now has a useful “Approved for Free Cultural Works” icon and colour scheme, to help you tell them apart.  For example:

Defining freedom has chosen to adopt the meaning of ‘freedom’ as defined by, a definition which is basically equivalent to that used for open source software.  It states that for a work to be considered a free cultural work, it must have the following four freedoms:

  • The freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it
  • The freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  • The freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  • The freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works

Freedom applies to everyone

For these freedoms to be valid, they must  be unconditional and apply to everyone, regardless of who they are or what they intend to use the work for.  This means that any license with a non-commercial clause is not free in the sense that any business wanting to use the work commercially would have to make a separate arrangement with the author.  One of the basic rules of open source software is that businesses are allowed to use it in order to profit from it; if what they could do with it was restricted, open source software would be avoided by commercial enterprises.  Companies wouldn’t be installing Linux on their clients’ systems, for example.

The same applies to non-software cultural works: allowing anyone the freedom to use the work, regardless of whether they intend to profit, enables businesses to assist the proliferation of the work.

Freedom includes freedom to make changes

These freedoms also include the freedom to make changes and improvements.  If a license does not allow derivative works, it is another example of restricting users’ ability to do whatever they like with the work.  The ability to modify the work is seen as advantageous for the community because it allows the work to be improved by others, without a separate arrangement being made with the original author.  To draw a comparison with open source software again, if businesses were not allowed to modify Linux and provide their own version of it, many businesses would not be able to exist, and the behaviour of Linux would be entirely under the control of a single entity.  Allowing others to modify your work allows businesses to exist that support the work through improving it.

Some restrictions are still acceptable

Requiring copyright notices to be preserved, or requiring any derivative works to be given the same license (a share-alike clause) are still considered acceptable restrictions by the free software movement and free cultural works.  It’s just that any restrictions beyond this, such as preventing commercial uses and preventing any modifications, are not.

Quick guide to choosing a Creative Commons license

There is nothing wrong with choosing a non-free license for your work: It is the creator’s right not to license their work, or to apply any restrictions they desire.  If you are considering releasing something under a Creative Commons license, you should consider which rights you want to retain.  One reason for retaining a right would be if you want to make money from it.

So, here’s a quick guide on how to choose between the licenses:

  • Including a non-commercial clause allows you to retain the sole right to make money from distributing the work.  If allowing others freedom to use the work is more important to you than making money, then don’t include a non-commercial clause.
  • Not allowing derivative works allows you to retain the sole right to alter the work, which allows you to reserve the right to charge money for or prevent alterations.  If allowing others to use and improve the work is more important to you that making money from or preventing alterations, then make sure you allow derivative works.
  • If you do not care about money, or controlling who is allowed to do what with the work (save put a copyright notice on it), but you do care that the work is free for all to use and modify how they see fit, then make sure the Creative Commons license you choose is a green one, with the ‘Approved for Free Cultural Works’ icon.  This will ensure that your work receives the best chance of being re-used and shared by as many people as possible.

Evaluating Photoshop Lightroom and ACDSee Pro Photo Manager

I tried out the trial versions of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and ACDSee Pro Photo Manager recently.  I was particularly interested in seeing how they would work for a photography workflow, such as basic image adjustments to curves, sharpening, dodging and burning, fixing minor problems and cropping.  For more serious manipulation I can always use Photoshop or the GIMP, but I kind of like the non-destructive process on these two new products I’m trying out below.

Last time I used ACDSee there was no such thing as ACDSee Pro Photo Manager.  Of course, there was also no such thing as Photoshop Lightroom.

Problems with Photoshop Lightroom:

  • The user interface is annoying slow and unresponsive.  It’s not ridiculously bad, but it is jerky enought to annoy.  I can tolerate that all the calculations required to apply filters to an image take time and processing power, but any significant delay or slowness in simply expanding, collapsing, or resizing panes or windows is quite unnecessary.  Is it due to their use of non-native widgets (ie, skinning)?  Probably, though that doesn’t mean an interface needs to be slow – take recent versions of Firefox on Windows for example.
  • It lacks the ability to correct for barrel/pincushion distortion, and to do perspective correction.  I need to do barrel/pincushion distortion correction fairly often – for example on any photos containing buildings or straight lines.  This means it would be necessary to bring images into Photoshop a lot of the time for what should be a basic correction, even though more advanced corrections like primary colour adjustments and chromatic aberration correction, which I would probably need less often, are included.  Note that I couldn’t find this feature in ACDSee either, but based on price I had higher expectations of the Adobe product.
  • The noise removal was not too useful to me.  On a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is no noise removal and 100 is maximum, 0 is not enough and even 1 is too much – especially for chroma.  There is no setting in between 0 and 1.  Then again, noise removal was not too good on ACDSee either, but in a different way.
  • Using Lightroom to simply browse photos on the hard drive was not very intuitive to me.  I usually prefer browsing my existing file heirarchy, and there seemed to be no way to do that – I had to ‘import’ images into ‘albums’ or similar, where albums didn’t necessarily correspond to their locations on their hard drive.  It’s an extra layer of confusion and it means I can’t be sure that I’m grabbing the right images if I go back into an Explorer window and just drag and drop.

Problems with ACDSee:

  • In any other colour mode than sRGB, everything seems about ten times as slow.  Instead of dragging a slider and seeing the colour on the image change as the slider is dragged, now you start dragging the slider and wonder why the program seems to have stopped responding for ages.  Then a few seconds after you’ve let go of the slider and are starting to click randomly on the screen to see if anything you are doing is having any effect, the colour finally changes in the preview.  This means that practically, it’s not possible to do any adjustments with a colour space other than sRGB loaded.  No problem, that’s fine – except that it’s a bit of a hassle.  If you forget and leave it loaded, and make further adjustments, it goes all slow again.  It’s also slightly disappointing that a piece of software for professionals would assume its users will all be using sRGB.  Notwithstanding the whole sRGB vs colour management debate, there are a lot of photographers that do value wider gamut colour spaces.
  • The sharpening feature is decent, but not as good as in Lightroom.  The sharpening radius is only selectable as a whole number of pixels, so sharpening using a radius of 0.6 is not possible.  Furthermore, there is a ‘threshold’ for sharpening detail, but it represents a sudden cutoff – unlike Lightroom’s ‘detail’ slider which allows a smooth transition between the sharpening applied to high contrast edges vs smoother surfaces.  As a result, sharpening an image with lots of grain cannot look nearly as good.

Of the two, it is still hard to choose.  Lightroom has better sharpening and smoothing so for quality it would win for me, but I prefer the  file selection approach of ACDSee.  Then again, the ACDSee product is not really usable when doing adjustments using colour spaces other than sRGB; while I don’t expect to be doing this often, I might want to eventually.  And yet, the ACDSee product is still cheaper.

When tech companies team with repressive governments

New legislation may impose penalties for U.S. companies that help foreign governments to commit human rights abuses, according to this report at ZDnet.  It says that representatives from Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco were recently ‘drilled’ by congress for ‘several hours’ on their cooperation with the Chinese government.

In a high profile case, Yahoo has previously come under fire from its shareholders for providing the Chinese government with the identities of pro-democracy dissidents, leading to their ‘arrest’.

One of the bits I don’t like about human rights abuse is the part where people are arrested and taken from their homes and locked up for no good reason and with no fair trial.  I’m also not a fan of torture, or of seizing people’s homes without fair compensation.  Anything that ends in humans suffering.  One would have thought that helping a foreign government do this sort of thing to its citizens, either by providing intelligence or with funding, would be against the law – whether you’re a spy for the Chinese government or a technology company like Yahoo.

When human suffering is involved, providing information to foreign governments goes beyond being an ethical compromise and becomes a world problem.

The other way to be anonymous online

Ever been embarrassed by the sorts of things people could find out about you just by using Google?  I guess I had thought it was a problem affecting most people who use the web a bit, or whose friends do, until it occurred to me that for some particular people this isn’t a problem.

These are the people with names so common that it is impossible to tell them from the thousands of other web kiddies with the same name.  My name, my real name, is fairly unique.

What if you have a really unusual name?  Well, you could use a psuedonym that’s really innane, like James Connor.  Or Peter Smith.   Or you could anglicise your name: use the more common English name that is similar to yours.