Review: Hacking MythTV

I hate trashing books, really–another reason I don’t review them often, but below is a review of a book on MythTV that I wrote for Amazon.

I used to write a lot of reviews for Amazon. I was, at one brief point, in the top 500. I was in the top 1000 for a long time, which is pretty good for someone who just did it casually for the weird niche products. (Lots of folks are seriously hardcore.) But I noticed when doing a review for the dreadful “Heroes of Might and Magic 4” that the review didn’t appear. Multiple times I wrote that review and it went into the bit bucket.

That kind of pissed me off. No explanation or nothin’. (Actually, I was just reading…Amba?…where she had a sort of mini-Jihad because her review had been rejected for nebulous readings.) So I stopped writing reviews for ‘em. But I figure with the blog, I’ll just put the reviews here along with the Amazon ones, and add stuff that Amazon won’t let me add, like if I know a particular author is a real *****CONNECTION LOST~~~~~~


Also, I should note that you may not know what MythTV is. MythTV is a software package (a set of computer programs) that turn your computer into a super-powered PVR–like TiVo on steroids.

Like TiVo, you can time shift, set up complex recording schemes, and do things like rewind “live"TV”. Unlike TiVo, you can archive those recordings. You can also rip, play and archive DVDs. (None of my DVDs last very long, so this is a big deal for me.) And you can fairly casually extend the disk storage.

It also does a shedload of other things, like play music, allow you to watch streaming TV (there’s not much worth watching yet, though), record one (or more) things while watching another, provide you with weather reports, play video games, etc. etc. etc.

It’s amazing. But it ain’t easy to set up. And it’s not really cheap. (I mean, it can be. You could probably run a non-high-def edition on $50 worth of hardware + a hundred or so more in tuners. But you’re going to want more storage, and probably high-def, and so on.) And if anything goes wrong, you need to be somewhat high tech to deal with that.

This book would purportedly help you setting up MythTV but I didn’t find it helpful.

Look, I’m not going to say that these guys didn’t try, or that this is a cynically written attempt to cash in on something, but this book is as close to worthless as I can imagine.

Now, again, this is not entirely the authors’ fault. MythTV is highly dynamic. What’s true today isn’t true tomorrow. I’m a journeyman MythTV builder, and a lot of what I’ve learned in the painful progress I’ve made simply does not apply any more.

That said, a lot of stuff =hasn’t= changed, and it’s here where the book falls apart. They should have started with the basics of content flow, i.e., where is the media coming from? Because that’s the first thing you need to know before you even decide if MythTV is right for you. (Over the air content, for example, is easily handled by Myth, while controlling a set-top box from a cable, satellite or fiber optic company is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.)

While support has been added since this book was written, the stuff mentioned is not well covered. For example, to set up your MythTV backend, you have to select from various capture card types. There are V4L, MPEG2, DVB, etc.–how about explaining what these are? No explanations is the norm, and when there is an explanation it’s often simply restating the on-screen text without actually clarifying.

Six months of having this book and I’ve never once found an answer to a question I had. Now, I don’t go looking for product specific stuff, because (as I said) there’s no way they could cover that, but just basic joints and cogs and so on.

See, the thing about MythTV is that if you have just the right hardware and a simple enough setup, it might take you fifteen minutes to set up. If you don’t, it could take you weeks to set up, or you might never be able to do it.

To be useful, this book really should have explored =how= to troubleshoot. They couldn’t do the actual troubleshooting for you–there are too many things that can go wrong–but they could tell you about the utlities and hardware settings that allow you see where your problems lie.

Maybe they just didn’t have the space. But, as I say above, it makes the book almost completely worthless.

Why Didn’t I Hate Wall-E?

I saw Wall-E again, and was wondering to myself why I didn’t hate it. (This actually triggered a long rant on the nature of multiple viewings, but it’s such a mess I can’t bring myself to publish it.)

Anyway, conceptually, this Pixar movie contains pretty much all the elements of the crappy enviro-dystopic children’s “entertainment” of my youth, which may have something to do with my current hobby of deconstructing post-apocalyptic scenarios.

I mean, look at it: Wall-E posits a future–just 100 years away, mind you–where we’ve consumed and disposed of so much that we’ve actually destroyed the planet, and covered it with so much trash that we have to keep it in the cities that we lived in. And there’s enough to make cities with itself.

People have no sense of the scale of this planet, it’s just too big for people to grasp. We throw trash on the ground and weep like a fake Indian, but the impact is personal and aesthetic. (Likewise, the planet cares not whether it’s warmer or colder.) It is not “global”.

At the same time, we have an alternate utopic dystopia, if that makes sense, on board the Axiom. All human needs are taken care of, to the extent that humans themselves are totally incompetent. Yet despite this, the market structure seems to be unchanged. In other words, in a world where robots do all the work, people are still “buying” stuff somehow, and there’s an implication of exploitation, even though there’s nothing to actually exploit.

Meanwhile, the ship itself jettisons massive amounts of garbage out of itself–but from where is all the raw material for this garbage coming? Given that energy seems to be no problem, why wouldn’t this solution have worked on earth?

We won’t even talk about the whole babies thing. None of the people seemed to actually have ever had any physical contact with each other, and there are no children on the ship, only adults and babies. This suggests that the babies are gestated in some mechanical fashion and raised by machines until adult. I’m pretty sure this would create psychopaths.

Did I mention that a group of humans who were so physically underdeveloped and so conditioned to a trouble-free life would have zero chance of fixing anything? I mean, seriously, they’d have no hip sockets! (I bet you didn’t know that we’re not born with hip sockets, we make them by crawling and walking!)

Actually, they’d also be insane. If you’ve never noticed this, as society removes more and more real survival problems from people’s lives, they get crazier and crazier. Did you ever hear of a neurotic barbarian? Neuroses are a luxury of civilization.

Nope, Wall-E makes no sense, structurally. On top of that, it’s a story about robots with feelings, and there are few premises I find more annoying.

So, why didn’t I hate it?

First, it’s Pixar. Which means that it was executed at the highest level of artistic quality. You don’t hear talk of Lasseter retiring Pixar into the Disney brand; I think it’s clear that “Pixar” is going to maintain the premium brand.

Second, it’s Pixar, which means that there is a whole ‘nother movie’s worth of interesting, entertaining and funny details.

Third, it’s a kid’s movie. Director Stanton (A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo) makes kiddie movies, and he does so very well, by simplifying and streamlining things. Wall-E reverses the trend of kiddie movies getting longer and longer, so we can forgive him not showing the electro-re-programming machines that turn angry, psychotic teens into passive consumers. (Compare this to Brad Bird of Ratatouille, The Incredibles and Iron Giant, whose work tends to have a hard edge.)

Fourth, it’s very gentle, steering strongly away from the misanthropy that usually characterizes such films. The theme isn’t “evil humans destroyed the earth” so much as “we got kind of carried away and let things go, but it’s up to us to fix it”. The former message is a pretty crappy trick to play on kids, the latter a reminder to look at the real world once in a while, and to take care of it.

Finally, and this became apparent on a second viewing, Wall-E is first and foremost a love story. Like a Charlie Chaplin movie, the social commentary frames the story without changing it from boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl.

The two robots are the most human characters in the movie. And again, I have to fall back on the “Well, it’s Pixar!” thing again. These are the guys that make you care about toys, bugs, rats, and a freakin’ lamp. There’s the triumph of animation that can bring life to everything–and indeed, we find all the robots have personalities, even the poor, doomed security robots, this movie’s “stormtroopers”.

It would be odd to tihnk of the robots as not real, living beings.

So, I guess, on the scale of things, while it’s a message movie, the message is way more abstract than, say, Toy Story 2, which basically told your kids they were soul-destroying monsters for giving away their toys.

And I love Toy Story 2, too.

Random Linkage

I haven’t watched this comedy clip yet. I hear it’s funny.

On an Althouse thread about Obama’s fondness for the heavy-handed Dylan song Maggie’s Farm, there’s some discussion about whether the narrator is supposed to be viewed as heroic or noble. My feeling is that one analyzes Dylan lyrics at one’s own peril.

This led Theo Boehm (indirectly) to post some stuff from a blog called Maggie’s Farm about the clavichord and piano. Theo and Palladian’s taste in (and attitudes toward) music is frighteningly similar to my own. (I say “frightening” because I went through college without finding anyone who shared my more peculiar tastes.)

I’ve been reading
through Anne G’s 2.5 part abortion essay on Ambivablog. I’m thinking, after three years, she’s never going to finish part III, but what’s there is a lot. She actually does what I suggest: tries to change people’s minds. (Normally, that’s something a Church would do.) But she can offer insight that I can’t, having gone from what might be called the accepted liberal view on abortion to a firm believer in its wrongness, by virtue of having had one.

This is not a little bit gutsy, I think, to take the position that something you, yourself, have done is terribly wrong. The reflexive left might call it hypocrisy, but I think it’s experience. Pastor Jeff linked to study on repeat abortions, but I think it’s telling that 50% of the women who have an abortion don’t have another one. I doubt these women are going to be wearing tees.

And the ones who repeat tend to be minorities. Which is why I always get that Sanger-esque eugenics/genocide vibe off pro-choice organizations.

And again, I remind you, I am pro-choice.

Out Of Touch

I’ve mentioned before that I’m out of touch when it comes to pop music. Truth be told, when I know of a pop song, it’s almost always because I’ve heard in a movie. I’ve never been able to listen to the radio for two reasons: 1) I hate commercials. It’s bad enough when they’re on TV and you can mute them. But when you’re aurally focussed on something you’re enjoying and then something as obnoxious as a radio commercial comes on, it’s far, far worse; 2) It always seemed like I could use my listening time better by playing my own selection of music.

So when those “greatest hits of the XXs” album commercials play on TV, a lot of times that’s often the first time I’m hearing that song, even though I was around at the time. (And even in decades when I was the target audience.)

I had one album by The Who (“Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy”) and I had seen Tommy as well as read some sheet music with their music on it. But I heard “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the first time in this version. (I can’t really make out John Williams guitar work on this recording, which was very cool on the recording I have.)

As is traditional for me, I played it without a capo and entirely using bar chords. Seeing it now for the first time, I realize they’re not working half as hard as I was. (That happens to me a lot.) Their guitars have lighter, lower strings, too. Oh, well.

I suggested performing it once to a friend of mine, and he indicated it was pretty tired, kind of all played out. Cliché even. (That also happens to me a lot, a consequence of not listening to the radio, etc.) My response is generally, “Huh”.

True story: Because every time I played anything with fingerwork someone would say, “Is that "Stairway To Heaven”?“ I had my guitar teacher teach me "Stairway to Heaven” so I could say, “No, this is "Stairway To Hevaen”!“ I knew how to play that song years before I had ever heard it.

I’m An Idiot

but I have a lot of company.

A few weeks ago I took up with Montana Urban Legend over at Althouse. I don’t even recall what it was, but I was suckered in by his assertion that he wasn’t a partisan hack. Many frustrating posts later it was clear that, well, no, he didn’t think he was a partisan hack, he just believed the exact same things that every leftist partisan hack believed.

Troop vouches for him, and that’s good enough for me.

But I ain’t wasting my carpal tunnels on “serious” debate with him.

My G-G-G-G-eneration

The Kids Are Alright is on TCM now.

I love The Who.

But I don’t really relate to them. There’s never been much about pop music that I actually relate to, though I enjoy a lot of it. (Theo Boehm made a good comment on the tiredness of politicians “relating” to music and why can’t just one talk about Bach and The Art of Fugue?)

Every time I see Keith Moon, I think of Spinal Tap.

I also think of Bill Maher’s dumb-ass assertion that his music collection wasn’t hurt by drugs. (Even if it’s not entirely appropriate in Keith Moon’s case.)

Anyway, good show.

Reality Shows Up

I looked at buying a house in the early ‘90s and couldn’t even think about affording one.

Then in the mid-’90s during the tech bubble, I had a lot more money and prices had come down drastically, so I bought one. My credit was bad due to some hospital bills, so I got an adjustable 11-point-something%. It seemed high, but I remember my mom buying a house with a 17% mortgage.

The house I bought was well under what I could afford, according to various calculations. It cost about what I was making in a year at the time. After three years of payments, I refinanced at 7% and now I’m at 5.65%, looking at sub-5% on a shorter term loan, if possible. (Think I missed the window on that, unfortunately, as it was a race between rates and declining property values.)

Anyway, after about 10 years, the house had gone up to where it was appraised at nearly 4x what I had paid for it. But, I thought (and think), who can possibly afford that? Certainly not me. Over the first ten years my income dropped to–well, first to 0%, then to 40% (bye-bye tech bubble), and now I’m at about 2/3rds of what it was at its height.

(I’ve been poor and I’ve been slightly less poor, and slightly less poor is better.)

But my humble little home is still “worth” over 2.5x. I don’t see how that can stand. I make more than most, though granted single income and innumerable offspring cost heavily. Even so, a house should be a matter of security and an asset, not a crushing liability.

Real Estate in Southern California is like the changing tides. Or maybe like a grunion run. It’s actually kind of funny. At least three times in my life, I’ve seen real estate runs. Everyone you know starts working in real estate, whether it’s becoming an appraiser, a loan broker or an agent. Everyone starts talking the lingo.

I remember being in a traffic school class and using the phrase “single family dwelling” (a street with 50% SFDs is legal to u-turn on) and the sheriff teaching asked if I was an RE agent. I didn’t say what I should have, which is that I’m a Southern Californian, and we know real estate.

Of course, we don’t really. What we know is that there’s tons of money being thrown around and we want in, so we quit our day jobs (if we’re really, really, em, “optimistic”) or go to night school, and start trying to cash in. Because one thing we know for sure? It’s going to last forever.

When I pointed out on many, many occasions over the past five years, that the market was going to crash, my father, a usually sensible man, would actually say “Well, not necessarily.” He’s not the real estate type, mind you, so he didn’t chase after this gold rush. Nonetheless, it was a conversation killer. What can you say to that?

But my point, over and over again, was “Who can afford that?” My father’s reasoning seemed to be that people were buying houses and therefore they were driving up the demand, and why should that change?

Perfectly sensible, I suppose. As an ignoramus, I just looked at the pattern and said, “I don’t know what causes it, really. I just know it’s something that happens over and over again.” What seems to happen is that the premise of “prices will rise forever” is used to justify stupid investments. The same thing that seems to fuel every bubble, whether in the RE market, the tech market, or the freakin’ crash of ’29.

This, by the way, makes me think we might just see an oil price crash. Ultimately this kind of price pressure has to result in new oil sources opening up. I know I wouldn’t invest in oil future right now.

But for houses, I just can’t see how people can afford even the current houses. I mean, assuming you come up with 5-20% of the down, you’re still looking at $2K-$2.5/month mortgages, or about $25K per year, plus another, say, $5K for property taxes and that’s $30K. The median income for the area is $50K.

Even with $50K household not paying income taxes, that’s an unmanageable chunk. (If you’re renting that house, it’ll run you $18K-24K/year, but you don’t have to directly pay for any big maintenance, or come up with a down-payment.) Even at $75K/year, that’s too big, if not completely unmanageable. But drop that down to $200K, you’ve halved everything, including the taxes, and you’re only looking at about $12.5K.

Of course, these are numbers that I’m more comfortable with, and I try to live as though I might suddenly quit my job and go into full-time banjo busking.

And then, what will happen, at those rates, is that the demand will start building again, and the prices will start climbing, and your plumber will start working on his RE license again….

It’s sort of the circle of life in SoCal.

But when I bought this house, there was a castle for sale not far from here that was $600K. It wasn’t huge, mind you, but it was a castle on a nice piece of land overlooking the nearby serfs. Those sorts of prices strike me as a much better opportunity for people (even ones who already own property) than the one where we all pretended we were rich because a toolshed with a tin roof was going for $450,000.