Sunday, September 19, 2010

Netflix on the Wii

After 5 months with Netflix's Instant Streaming disc for the Wii, I've got some observations to share.

The Good
For one thing, the disc is free! All you need is a Netflix account and a Wii. Order the disc, and it'll come in the mail in 1-2 business days. Pop it in your Wii, connect your Wii to your account, and you're good to go with your queue and everything.

For me, it's made Netflix's instant streaming usable again. I've used their PC client a few times, but it only supported Internet Explorer on Windows (blegh), and it's just too much of an investment to pull it up and sit at the computer for the hour or two it takes to watch a movie. You could also use a video-out cable to watch it on your TV, but it's a pain to set up every time; there are too many issues and quirks and popups for it to be a comfortable movie-watching experience

I haven't had any experience with Netflix's streaming on other platforms, like Xbox and PS3, but I'm sure they're a pretty similar experience, or better. I imagine the Wiimote might be more convenient than other systems' controllers, but it doesn't sound like a big issue either way. Lots of people complain that the Wii can't produce 1080p video output, which both other systems can. I don't have a big high-def TV and it doesn't bother me in the least, but if you care about that sort of thing you might want to try the Roku player instead, which has an HD version.

Finally, it's just great having something up and ready to go in your living room. It makes it less of an investment to watch something light while you're doing chores, and opens all kinds of watching options that just wouldn't be worth sitting down to otherwise. I've never had a DVR or pay-per-view or even cable, so it impresses me, but maybe it's nothing new for most other people.

The Bad
I do have a few gripes:

  • The player makes you wait more than it should. Even if you just want to rewind it 2 seconds to hear something you missed, you have to wait the standard download time (10-30 sec. for me).
  • There's absolutely no subtitle support.
  • It always cuts off the last 2 seconds of audio, and that's surprisingly annoying on a lot of the content.
  • There's no search for new titles. They have a lot of navigation categories that normally get the job done: a dozen or so of your typical genres, new arrivals for movies and TV shows, and lists of titles similar to each of 3 recently watched ones.
  • You can rate titles and manage an "instant queue" straight from the player, but you can't reorder your queue, and it doesn't let you see or modify anything about your DVD queue. True, that's beyond the scope of a "streaming" disc, but it would be nice.
  • No trailers. You just have to start watching the movie and see if you like it.
  • It's a shame that it has to take up your disc slot, instead of just being a built-in "Netflix Channel". Every once in a while it gets to be a pain switching out discs to do something else. There's a video on how to use it disc-less, but I haven't gotten around to trying it yet.
Edit: I just got an email: "You no longer need the instant streaming disc to instantly watch with your Wii™ console. Simply download the Netflix channel from the Wii Shop Channel on your Wii™ console and follow the on-screen instructions." Nice!
Edit 2: And reading the press release, I noticed they've also enhanced the UI to support searching for content by name and viewing the subtitles and alternate audio they have available so far! My list of gripes is dwindling...
    The Experience
    Some things are better to watch on the Wii than others. The streaming selection is a bit limited: you're odds are better of finding it if it's independent or a few years old. There are supposedly about 28,000 titles available to watch instantly (as of Sept. 2010), and it keeps growing. I've heard Netflix's big challenge in getting more content is that they don't play the content providers' games to lock down the content; the film studios and TV stations prefer to deal with Hulu and others that let them micromanage the licensing, e.g., restricting your permissions to only play on a standard computer, and not other devices like game systems without an extra cost. But I digress...

    The Wii player is great for watching documentaries, especially nature documentaries (or reality shows, if that's what you're into), in the background during the day. It's excellent for watching series, because it tracks your progress and lets you resume on the next episode. It got me to finally watch Firefly, which I would recommend without qualification to anyone, and which redefined my standard for great television. We've pulled our subscription down to one-movie-at-a-time and been watching a lot more on the Wii.

    A side note: avoid anything with subtitles! They do sometimes have subtitles burned into the video stream, but more often they just have dubbed versions, and you don't get to pick. I would really like to watch some of the less well-known anime series they have available, but every one I've checked is dubbed, and since they're mostly not the award-winning international successes, all the dubbing I've heard is horrible. YMMV.

    Another thing it's great for, in principle, is young children's shows. Kids like to watch the same movies over and over, and sometimes you need to keep them quiet for a little while so you can get housework done or just regain your sanity. You have all your selection right there on your Wii, with no commercials on the TV shows. My baby girl likes to watch Backyardigans and Pingu, and sometimes Arthur (which is an excellent, excellent children's show, by the way). I say it's great "in principle" because their selection still kinda sucks. No Disney classics, no Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers, no educational titles like Baby Einstein and Here Come the ABC's. So it's convenient for what's available, but it's hard to find much variety that's not horribly annoying and not trash.

    It's a little hard to keep track of what new titles are being added. There is an RSS feed, but the listing on the Wii player of new titles doesn't seem to show everything and doesn't show them in newest-first order. And, annoyingly, I've noticed some titles that have been pulled off of the streaming list: An American Tail, WALL-E, and soon Fried Green Tomatoes will be.

    Now it might sound like I'm watching TV all the time now. Especially with putting the baby in front of the TV, you might think it's unnatural or unhealthy. I think there's a huge difference between TV with annoying, oppressive advertising, that just runs from one show to the next until you don't know where your day went; and commercial-less shows that play one-at-a-time and ask you explicitly if you want to watch something else. You can see your viewing history online, so you have some idea when you're watching too much TV. And I especially like having some of the cartoons we all enjoy, so we can sit down as a family and get snuggle time with the baby.

    Overall, it's been really nice having Netflix streaming to the Wii, and I'm still hoping they'll keep making it better and beefing up their selection.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010

    New Directions

    Joshu asked Nansen, "What is the Way?"
    "Ordinary mind is the Way," Nansen replied.—Kōan 19, Mumonkan

    I'm thinking about mixing it up a bit and having more blog posts that don't require their own footnotes and citations. I thought about creating a separate blog for that, but a) then I'd have two blogs that rarely get updated, and b) I think this blog is too stuffy and could stand some fresh air once in a while. That will mean shorter posts, more variety, more content about me and my personal life, and quite possibly a little tech talk (seeing as I'm a software developer by day).

    Feedback is welcome.

    Souls, Pt. 2

    The fire washes my soul clean
    And what remains is a mouthful
    of ashes
    —"Asche zu Asche", Rammstein (translated)

    I've laid out in my previous post some of the reasons I'm not completely satisfied ruling out the idea of an immaterial soul. Now I want to paint a picture of why I'm not comfortable accepting the idea of souls wholesale. But first, I need to flesh things out a bit more...

    If there must be something special called a soul, why would that be? I had said I just had a vague lingering doubt as to whether a perfect copy (and I mean perfect copy) would actually be me in every meaningful sense. I have a sense that I am, and have always been, one unique, individual, continuous consciousness, and my concern would be that that consciousness would be somehow interrupted in the copying process: either that it might be destroyed (and leave some sort of "zombie" behind that only appeared to be me), or that it might be replaced with some new thread of consciousness. So for me, invoking the idea of a soul would validate my experience of an individual consciousness, and give me a vehicle to reason about what would become of that consciousness in my "perfect copy" scenario.

    It's not clear to me that a human built from scratch should "experience" anything, any more than a rock should. If he's wired up correctly, he should laugh, cry, respond appropriately to pain, be inspired by art, have unique individual tastes, even contemplate his own reality. From a behaviorist standpoint, there would be no reason to expect any difference whatsoever from a natural-born human, but I see no reason to expect that he would be "phenomenally conscious" (if such a concept even makes sense), or for that matter that any human would. (And how sure are we that conscious experience stops at the moment of death?) But I still can't completely shake the feeling that I am conscious in some special sense.

    As a determinist, I believe any perfect physical copy of me would act identically to the original, that you could teleport them into separate identical universes (instead of destroying the original), and they would make exactly the same choices in every instance. Therefore, if the original expresses a deep conviction of subjective experience, the copy would, too. Therefore, either the copy has a "soul", the original doesn't, or souls can't explain any phenomena, not even my writing this blog post or any of the opinions I expressed in it! So determinism isn't compatible with the idea that you can make sense of consciousness by positing an immaterial soul.

    One more alternative would be that it's fundamentally impossible to make a truly perfect copy of a human being for some special reason. That would resolve all the dilemmas I've mentioned and leave me with just the problem of how phenomenal consciousness, if it exists, could arise from entirely physical brains. But it seems kind of cheesy to me...

    Here's a recap of all the possible ways I've come up with to make sense of my conscious experience:
    • The sense of phenomenal consciousness is a persistent illusion
    • The universe is not deterministic: there are non-physical conditions that affect the physical universe
    • A perfect reconstruction of a human being is not possible; there can be no copy good enough to be endowed with the same conscious mind as the original

    Saturday, September 11, 2010

    Souls, Pt. 1

    "Water, 35 litres. Carbon, 20kg. Ammonia, 4 litres. Lime, 1.5kg. Phosphorus, 800g. Salt, 250 g. Salt Peter, 100g. Sulphur, 80g. Fluorine, 7.5g. Iron, 5g. Silicon 3g. And trace amounts of fifteen other elements. Those are the elements to make an average adult human body. You can buy these elemental ingredients at the market with the pocket money of a child."—Fullmetal Alchemist

    I've been thinking a lot about souls lately. I lean towards thinking there is no non-physical soul, but I don't think I would call my bluff by consenting to be disintegrated and rebuilt from exactly the same matter in exactly the same configuration. What am I worried about losing?

    I don't think memory or personality would be in question. The mechanisms of memory are still a little mysterious, but nothing about storing and recalling memories suggests anything metaphysical to me. I also don't think there's any reason to suspect that we'd intrinsically know the difference between a "real" memory and a "false" memory, as you might intuitively expect at first. As for personality, I think pharmaceuticals and basic neurology show pretty clearly that most, if not all, personality comes from physical brain states. And your personality wouldn't even have to be identical, because people go through mood changes all the time, and personality changes as you get older, and you still identify yourself as the same person.

    So with identical memories and the same basic personality, there's no reason to expect that this copy would feel like an imposter, or be in any way emotionally detached from their "original" self. But would there be something fundamentally, drastically different in the copy? Would they be a "philosophical zombie" going through the motions of being "truly human", but lacking any kind of subjective experience or consciousness of their own?

    I'd probably say "no, there would be nothing lacking", but I'm uncomfortable ruling the possibility out entirely (hence, I wouldn't consent to be disintegrated and rebuilt).

    I'm still not sure where that leaves me, but there's plenty more confusion to come at a later date!