I Build A DVR

I get into things. I don’t mean I get into things, but I get into things. Like, I hate the Department of Water and Power. They provide plenty of service, but I always feel like I’m being overcharged, and it bugs the crap out of me that I can’t go anywhere else. (If I could go somewhere else, I’d switch and then start hating my new provider.)

My things usually involve feeling coerced into something, like having to buy something from one source when there’s no good technological reason for it.

Like DVRs.

We all made it through the ‘80s and ’90s with VCRs. It wasn’t such a big deal: You selected your device—made by any one of dozens of manufacturers, with the features you wanted, from your desired price range—and you hooked it up to your TV. Voila! You could record whatever you wanted.

Of course, the content creators hated that, and challenged the entire concept. The Supreme Court decided otherwise in the Betamax case. As result of losing that case, entertainment moguls made billions of dollars by selling videos in the new market.

They’ve never forgiven the world that injustice.

In the case of the DVR, whose function is identical to the VCR, they’ve colluded with the distribution companies (cable, satellite, etc.) to make sure that that doesn’t happen again. The battle was never really quit, of course. As soon as the TV makers sought to spare the consumer the presence of that big, ugly cable box by adding upper channels capacity to their TV, the cable companies moved the channels further up out of their range.

Then they just started scrambling everything, paid or free.

That wasn’t enough, though. You had to have the box, pretty much, but on top of that, they wanted to make sure that you couldn’t do anything with it. Congress even passed a law saying that cable companies had to provide a functional firewire port on their boxes for control and capture; but cable companies put the port on there—but in defiance of the law, they don’t bother to make it work.

I don’t want to pay the cable company an extra $15 a month. Or $10. Or even $5.

You can tell this is a thing with me, right?

Instead I bought some hardware and built myself a MythTV machine. The first thing that should be apparent from that is that money was not the issue. Even at 20 bucks a month, it takes a long time to make up the cost of a machine that has the oomph you want.

That’s not counting the trouble. Although some installations are very smooth, especially with things like KnoppMyth and MythBuntu, there are a lot of issues.

Most of the issues, not surprisingly, revolve the aforementioned content guys—creators (like movie studios) and providers (like cable companies)—working overtime to make sure that you can’t do any of the cool stuff you want. For example, it can be difficult to play—just play!—a DVD.

I’ve noticed kids’ DVDs have the most vicious security, and you can see the hard work these guys put into making sure you can’t play the DVD you just paid for by things like Vista downgrading your Blu-Ray discs. Remember that? And the Sony rootkit fiasco? I may be crazy, but I think when an industry’s priority is stopping copyright infringement over providing paying customers with the experience they paid for, I think there’s trouble.

The dumb thing being that, if you’re inclined to cheat, you could just download all this stuff from the Internet. I find it to be bothersome to get an identical copy of what I’ve purchased off the ‘net, but I’d hardly feel guilty for downloading something I already own. It’s a lot of work that messes up paying customers.

They’re not smart enough to look at the music industry and realize music’s not going away because everything is digital. All it will take is an MP3 format for video—i.e., something that’s easily exchanged and sufficient quality—and the party’s over.

Anyway, I make perfectly legal personal-use copies to protect my original discs (most of which are actually badly damaged, but that’s another story). And my DVR lets me store those and play those, which is something I can’t do with a store bought machine. And given how fragile DVDs are (Nearly indestructible! the hype claimed), having all the kids’ movies ripped and on a hard-drive is the only sensible thing to do.

There are a lot of cool things MythTV can do that your cable company’s DVR can’t. I won’t bore you with the details now (I like to spread my boring stuff out), but one of the coolest things is that, if you run out of space, you can just add a cheap USB drive. I have 2.25TB on my drive.

The most interesting thing—and if you’ve had a DVR for years, you may have encountered this—is that everyone watches less TV. We record everything, but we watch very selectively. Also, there’s none of that “Oh, we’re waiting to watch…”

Also, with the forty of us living here and sharing one TV, it’s much easier to apportion out the time.

Cable Box: “Oh, crap!”


We got a new cable box on Sunday.

First of all, you gotta give Time-Warner props for volunteering a guy to come out on Sunday. This was in response to a call I made Saturday morning at 2AM because the rain had knocked everything out (phone, ‘net, TV).

The guys doing support are actually pretty cool. Every now and again I get one who sounds incredibly bored, but mostly they’re grateful if you treat them like real human beings.

Anyway the new box is pretty slick, except that it’s not working. And for all the world, the little LED read-out looks like it says “OCRP”, which I immediately read as an “ORLY”-style “Oh, crap!”

It’s actually reading “OCAP” which apparently stands for “Open Cable Application Platform”. (Sight unseen, I have to wonder if that “O” there isn’t being abused.)

We’re currently in the stage of “Yeah, I liked the old one better” and this is not diminished by the recently discovered fact that it takes around 45 minutes to boot the damn thing. (Apparently, it can take less or more, the vagaries of which also do not build confidence.)

We replaced the old one because we had to reboot it daily (at least) to keep the video-on-demand working. We rebooted this one for the same reason and it never came back up. Let’s hope it’s not a daily thing.

I could sure use my Zodiac about now.