So, I finally bought a used Tivo just to see what it was like.  I don’t know why I never got one before, honestly… I think the whole idea of the subscription service put me off.  Since I’m already paying $13 a month for a Comcast HDTV DVR though, I figured I’d be interested in seeing what a real DVR looks like.  Short answer: I’m impressed.

I’m really not big into DVRs per se, so I still don’t know what I’m going to do with this thing … recording tv shows is actually a bit of a phase with me.  I’ll be interested in it for a while, then go months without, then want to do it again.  Pretty much the same thing with computer games.  I always love watching movies though. :)  So the fact that I have to consistently pay a monthly service fee whether I’m using it or not kinda bothers me.  Of course, I’m interested in doing it right now, but that’s because it’s still a novelty, and quite honestly, it’s worth it… Tivo is nice.

I am really anal when it comes to my user interfaces, especially menu navigation.  Tivo gets it right in every place.  In fact, the only even minor gripe I have with it isn’t related to main menu navigation at all (it’s the fast forwarding, which kind of flips out on me sometimes … but it could just be that my remote is so sensitive, who knows … still researching).  One thing I really like is it always remembers what position you were last on whenever you enter a menu, be it the Now Playing list, or the Settings menu.  It’s a small touch, but nice.

Overall the presentation is really professional too.  The menus, backgrounds and animations are well designed and easy on the eyes, and the remote is extremely well done.  I’m having a really hard time switching over to using my universal remote to control the Tivo because their remote is so comfy.

Another reason I got one is because I wanted to see if it could decode the Hallmark Channel for me.  I’m convinced now that Comcast is encrypting it or something, since Tivo won’t pick it up, even with its digital tuner.  Of course, my HDTV had a digital tuner and didn’t pick it up either, but I figured maybe throwing a DVR into the mix might do it.  It didn’t.  My Comcast box is the only one that is able to pick it up.  Very strange.

I’m still going to hold onto my new Tivo though, and I’ve already decided that I’m going to use it to navigate through my channel surfing instead of my TV.  In that regards, it has one feature that I really like, which, while it should be standard in my opinion, it’s still a nice surprise to see it in action.  In the channel setup for the Tivo I can select which channels I receive, which I really narrowed down to the ones that I’d ever actually bother to watch, so that any possible listings or recording options only show what I’d be interested in.  On top of that, I can also mark a channel as my favorite.  Then, when I’m watching TV and use the program guide to display the channel lineup, I tell it to only display my favorite channels.  It remembers the setting, and when channel surfing only flips through those.  Here’s the cool thing though — when I want to go browse possible shows to record, it shows me all the listings from all the channels I receive.  Very cool.  So what happens is I don’t have TNT on my favorites list so I don’t see it when I’m channel surfing, but it still records all my Cold Case and Without a Trace episodes for me.

Another thing I really like is being able to mark shows I like or don’t like with the thumbs up or down option.  I’ve always been really specific about my own personal ratings systems, and I scrutinize my ratings, so that’s fun that I can do that on TV shows too.  In fact, it had another unintended bonus — when I’m channel surfing, the info bar displays the thumbs up or down icon in the top left, and before I process what’s actually showing, I’ll see that icon and just know whether to keep flipping or not.  Kinda cool.

One thing I was really interested to see how it works, and this is something that I’d heard about from the beginning since Tivo came out, is that it will monitor what you are watching and recording, and record suggestions for you.  I’ve only had this thing for two days, so I might be getting lucky, but four out of the five recommendations that it recorded for me, I’d be interested in watching.  So that’s pretty cool.  I love anything that takes my preferences and helps me find stuff … I get a big kick out of Netflix and Amazon finding stuff for me, since I’m always looking for something new and interesting I might have missed out on otherwise.

Last but not least, this thing is freaking quiet.  That’s one area where the Comcast box drives me insane and I want to chuck it out into the street.  Mine is so noisy that it drives me nuts.  I work with computers all the time, so naturally I’m used to some background noise, but I think my box might be broken since it is constantly whining.  The Tivo does make some noise when it’s recording stuff, but when its just sitting there, it’s quiet as can be.  It’s really nice.

The only problem I’m going to have in giving up my Comcast box completely (which is odd, since I’ve only had it … what, two weeks?) is the On Demand service.  I really like the free shows it offers, which is always a random collection of old movies and TV shows that nobody would really want to watch to start with.  I have no idea why, I just like it.  Tivo has the Amazon Unbox, which I looked at once and mostly shrugged off.  If I want the latest movies, I’ll just rent them on Netflix, and if there’s a TV series I want to watch I just buy the DVDs.  I don’t follow the whole buying a digital copy thing, since they always get lost.

I do believe though that Tivo has everything built into it (including market share and brand recognition) to do video downloads directly, so maybe things will change in the future.  I’m sure they can only get better.

Anyway, I like my little Tivo.  It’s been a lot of fun playing with it.  I think I’ll hang onto it for a while. :)

movies on demand

Continuing in my slow re-examination of playing with Comcast’s DVR offerings, something else is coming back to me — I really like their On Demand selection. In fact, it’s actually the best I’ve seen to date. Although, in all fairness, I’ve only looked at three: Comcast, Real and Netflix.

I was flipping through the free movies section of Comcast’s on demand menu, and it occurred to me that there was a lot of movies that seemed interesting to watch. So many, in fact, that I went back and counted to get an idea. There were 12 total that I thought looked decent enough to at least try and start watching them, and I’m pretty sure a few of them were in my Netflix queue (which is maxed out at 500 movies). On top of that, there were four movies that I’d already seen, but I wouldn’t mind watching again. In fact, I did watch a movie tonight (Field of Dreams) for free, and that was cool.

That’s not to say the user experience still couldn’t be improved. First of all, the things I like, aside from the selection, is that the shows start instantly, and I never have a problem with caching or anything like that. As usual, all the issues I have deal with the user interface again. You can only fast forward at one speed, which is not very fast at all. So if you want to jump ahead at all, whatsoever, you are really screwed. The second minor issue is that the box is really slow to respond, which many people complain about. It’s interesting because the menu will respond quickly but anything related to playback takes a good second or two to apply. So if you hit fast forward, the OSD will immediately display on button press, but it won’t start fast forwarding right then. That wouldn’t be nearly so bad a problem except if you want to resume playback, by the time it does work, you’re already a good five seconds ahead of where you wanted to be. I haven’t watched any TV shows using the DVR (I was just skipping through the boring parts in the movie), but I imagine that would be a real pain if you’re trying to skip commercials and you constantly go too far ahead. I can’t help but wonder if that’s intentional, since in all my experience with TV tuners, recording and playback, seeking and pausing has never been an issue. Who knows. It wouldn’t be hard to attribute it to crappy coding either, since the entire thing is a mess.

One other problem I just remembered is that pausing a movie isn’t very friendly either. If you leave it paused for more than something like three minutes, it will stop the playback completely, and dump you back to the original on demand menu. That’s a bit of a pain since you have to re-navigate the menu to get back to your movie. I can understand doing that after a long wait, but every time it happened to me I had either just gone to the bathroom or to the kitchen for a minute and it had already exited out. It is a really short delay. And I’d be surprised if it does that when you’re watching live tv and you paused it. Another odd UI decision.

The only other on demand instant movie services I’ve tried is RealPlayer’s offerings (although that was a little less than a year ago, I doubt much has changed) and Netflix. Netflix just barely announced that for any of the unlimited plans, customers can also watch unlimited movies as well. That news might be exciting, except that their selection is incredibly crappy right now. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Top 50. Number 40 is Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie.

Admittedly, I really don’t think it’s their fault, though. I’m sure it’s the movie studios being really, really reluctant to open up their libraries to the internets to let everyone have them on their home computer. I think things are changing, but I also believe it’s going to be a few years before things really take off. Maybe with Apple TV entering the ring the landscape will start to change a bit faster. We can only hope.

The other thing I like about Comcast is I can actually watch the movies on my TV. I’ve never been one for watching things on the computer, which is why I ditched my RealPlayer account and never really bother with Netflix. I mean, I could easily hook up my Windows machine to a TV, but I’d still have no remote, and I have to deal with downloading and buffering the thing. It’s not worth the hassle.

Finally, I should disclaim that anyone should consider any of these services based on my recommendation, since my taste in movies is really unique. I’d say that a good portion of my movie collection you can’t even find in the DVD rental stores, and every time I go there it literally takes me up to an hour to find something I feel like watching. But that’s okay, I wouldn’t recommend Comcast’s DVR option right now anyway. I just wish there were more on demand options, with more movies, with the possibility of natively watching it on my TV.

lack, amount and willingness of transparency

There’s one other issue that seems to be a problem that users are talking about on the forums, and that’s a lack of transparency. I guess the belief is that everything is secret and since there’s little to no communication of what’s going on with the outside world, that developers therefore don’t really care about the users interest’s at all … or something like that. On the contrary, I believe that there is a great willingness to be transparent, but there is actual little amount of it simply because no one is tapping it.

For the most part, I think if you asked any developer or team what it is they are working on, what their plans are for the future, and what they’d like to see, that they will tell you. I know I’m more than willing to do a braindump on anyone who comes by asking questions on projects I’m poking at. Just because the information isn’t being voluntarily organized and presented doesn’t mean that they are withholding information — it just means that nobody is doing the organization and asking. So here you have two groups — people working on stuff and people wanting to know what’s being worked on — but no middle man to communicate from one to the other. The reasons for that, I think, are simple. One, it’s hard work, and two, it’s boring.

The newsletter is a good example to examine, though to be honest I don’t know much about the process that goes into providing one. I do know that having one on a regular basis has really raised the standard of living for users, and I also know that it’s a lot of hard work putting it together. I have on ocassion written articles for it, which is fun at first, but gets tiresome really fast. Maintaining the status quo is never simple. Even keeping a tree full of stable ebuilds for an architecture is an incredible amount of work, and it doesn’t always fall into the “this is fun” category. The reality is, someone is giving of their time voluntarily to do a lot of work to keep people’s boxes up to date or to keep the documentation nice and clean or whatever the task may be.

One thing that I think is a misconception as well is that there is always this mysterious group of people behind the scenes who are all working together to magically make this happen. As sad as it is, the reality is quite different — more often than not, it is just *one* person working on an entire project to see it through from start to finish. Generally speaking, you’ll have people contribute small amounts here and there, but for the most part, it’s always going to be one person doing a lot of the brunt work.

That’s why we need volunteers. The spirit is always willing, but the flesh is also always weak. I’m hoping to bridge that gap a little bit by writing up some ideas that will hopefully lower the entry barrier of how to help, and who to talk to about what, but that’s not going to change the fact that people need to get involved if they want to see things done right. Lack of manpower probably always has been and probably always will be the most critical element to deciding how sustainable and reliable a community project will be. There’s just a lot of stuff that requires maintenance that isn’t glamorous, but still needs to be done.

Anyway, I’m rambling again, I just was hoping to clear up some misconceptions. My main point though, is to get involved somehow. I know it’s a little difficult to find out how, and can be confusing at first, but I would suggest persistence. If you don’t get any answers the first time around, then try asking somewhere else or someone different. I’ll offer myself again as a personal guide to anyone who wants to get started helping out on Gentoo, but doesn’t know where to start.

I also don’t want to make things sound glum, and I realize this post was a partial rant, but I think it helps to realize the situations at hand. A lot of stuff simply doesn’t get done unless someone who is interested in seeing it done steps up themselves and sees to it, or helps it along. If you have a great idea of how Gentoo could improve, then run with it. Setup an overlay. Write some documentation. Become a developer. Get a blog. Submit a patch. Help out on the forums. Hang out on IRC. As cliched as it is, it really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something.

I still think Gentoo is a great little distro, and I’m really positive in the direction things are heading. I don’t know how useful, entertaining or interesting my take is on the whole thing, but I’ll try to do a little bit of a better job to be more transparent myself and post more regularly what it is I’m working on within Gentoo. For the record, right now I’m fixing some bugs in GPNL so I can add some stuff onto it. I don’t want to go into details right now since it’s still a work in progress (and I’m not sure how feasible it is), but I think it will help by gathering some user statistics.

Sorry for the dramatic, sad tone to this whole post — this is why I don’t like writing these things. I really do think the future looks good, though. There’s some cool stuff on the horizon, and I think Gentoo is just going through some growing pains. I’m confident that it’ll all work out in the end. :)

communication issues

I really don’t like commenting on things going on in that relate to Gentoo internally, and I won’t, but I think I will touch upon one subject that I see coming up lately, and that is communication with users.

I was just reading a forums post where someone was mentioning how the devs “never listen to the users.” Just for once, I’d like to give my side of the story.

I’ve been working on Gentoo development for about a year and a half now. I really enjoy it, and for the most part it’s a lot of fun. I try to read the forums to keep an idea of what’s bugging people (and that I can help out with), but I can only take it so far, as long as it’s something I can fix or something I’m interested in. Admittedly, some stuff I maintain even now, I don’t use anymore, or have ever used regularly. But I know that people appreciate it so I keep working on it.

I think that communication lines can be opened, but I don’t really have any great ideas on how to do it. As an (admittedly passive) member of user relations, I want to help, but at the same time I don’t have a lot of time to drum up something dramatic. I know there needs to be an effectual communication between what users are experiencing — to a degree. For instance, I think that we should fix what we’ve already obligated ourselves to maintain, but if someone has a different vision of how things should be going, then I invite them to participate and get involved. I think the whole “get involved” thing needs a brush up howto somewhere, since I think that can be a little vague, and people may want to help, but don’t really know how. I remember that’s how it was for me as a user for a long time. In fact, I should write up a document about some good, practical ways to contribute.

One point that I wanted to address though is that communication goes two ways. I wouldn’t say that developers aren’t listening as much as no one is really talking. I’ve stated that anyone is free to contact me anytime, repeatedly, on here and on the forums … and in all this time I don’t think I’ve ever gotten one e-mail from anyone asking for help about something on Gentoo. I certainly never get pinged on Jabber even though my contact info for that is up there, although I do get poked on IRC maybe once every three months or so.

So, from my point of view, I think that some users might have unreasonable expectations of how developers are supposed to “hear” what the community wants, especially if no one is talking. Ranting on the forums doesn’t help. I think that the majority of the devs probably don’t search through the forums on their day off hoping to find problems they can fix. I, personally, look through the Multimedia ones quite a lot (whenever I’m bored), and more often than not when I see users hitting a bug that I didn’t know about, that I can fix, I’ll go and fix it. That’s gonna be the exception though, and not the rule.

I’m just rambling, and I’m tired, so take this all with a grain of salt, but in my case, feel free to ping me about anything that I’m assigned to or working on, and I’ll be glad to update you with the status. The fact is, I have no idea how “serious” a problem is unless someone tells me or I start to see side effects. We don’t have any kinds of statistics tools telling us what is most popular or important, so my priorities as far as bug fixing and general improvements are either totally random or arbitrary depending on what I want to work on. If you want something fixed, feel free to speak up, and ask nicely, either on the IRC channels (there are a lot of them devoted to sub-projects in Gentoo), the mailing lists, etc. In my case, you have my e-mail, my IRC nick, and my jabber info.

So, if there are communication issues from developers to users, I apologize. I’m going to start looking at some ideas on how to improve communication and get feedback, but I could really use suggestions. Let me know what you think. :)

Edit: I should probably add a few disclaimers.  One is that, I’m not advocating contacting developers directly, since some may not like that and I don’t want them to get mad at me.  I’m certainly okay with it, though.  Secondly, I could be completely wrong about devs watching the MLs and forums and stuff.  Maybe they do cover them frequently.  I have no idea. :)  I was thinking of forums when I wrote it, and I don’t see many developers posting there, or at least the entries I read.  Just one man’s perspective, is all.


A bug in MythVideo inspired me to work on fixing mplayer-resume tonight, so that it can properly handle movies with filenames.  I don’t know why I didn’t think about this before, but it’s simple if the file is properly escaped or quoted.  And so, mplayer-resume v1.5 is released, with support for spaces in filenames, finally, and also one other cool little thing: it works with playlists now, to a degree.

The playlists thing is kind of hard to explain, and it’d be easier to point you to the documentation that I’ve already written.  Instead, I’ll just describe what it is I’m going to use it for.

One thing I’ve been wanting to add to my MythVideo setup is some playlists so that I can randomly play something.  I have a lot of cartoons and videos and movies, and sometimes I don’t feel like picking something myself — one of the nice things about TV in general is you are genuinely surprised when you’re channel surfing and something cool just happens to crop up.  That’s kinda what I like, and what I wanted to do.  But, I wanted to take it a step further.  If I started playing $random_episode, then if I quit, I want to be able to resume playback of that same show.  Up until now, mplayer-resume wouldn’t work that way, since if you’re randomly picking something from a playlist file, there’s no real way to seek back to the same one.

That’s fixed now.  The script will read the filename of the movie you are playing when you exit (once you setup .lircrc correctly), and checks to see if that’s the same file you started playing.  So if I play random.pls and it plays Tarzan.mkv, and I exit, then when I go back to watch Tarzan, it will resume in the same place.  Basically, it saves the file position for Tarzan instead of the playlist file.  Pretty cool. :)

So, there you go.  I’ll put it in portage shortly as well.  Enjoy. :D

comcast cable tv upgrade, part two

Comcast came out on Friday morning and installed my upgraded cable connection. Strictly speaking, I have no idea which tier I’m actually on right now. I know it’s at least expanded digital cable, and I think I get some HDTV channels. To be honest, I haven’t played with the settop box for more than 5 minutes. The real reason I wanted to get cable was so that I could have the Hallmark Channel again. Unfortunately, it looks like that’s not going to happen. I’ve tried everything, and the only way I can get the channel is by using the settop box. In the meantime, I only added 4 channels that I was interested in watching (Food Network, TLC, HGTV and Animal Planet), and am living with that.

There’s a lot more channels that I like to watch, but I’m taking it slow. Another channel I’m mostly interested in is TNT, since they play Without a Trace and Cold Case regularly. I think. Anyway, I’m actually trying to cut *back* on the number of channels I watch (one of my TVs only has all the PBS channels on it, which is a nice change of pace), but the fact is that some channels on cable have a much better and interesting lineup than the local ones.

Onto the cool stuff though. The settop box is a disaster and a half, or at least the menu is. I’m going to have to take screenshots because it really is unfathomable how much of a UI nightmare this is. Here’s my biggest beef with the whole thing: you can’t setup a custom channel list, or even add / delete channels from your lineup. If you want to go channel surfing, you have to go through *every* *single* *channel*. The only option around that is to add a ‘Favorites’ list, for which the remote has a button that will flip through those, but only going up. It’s incredibly annoying because adding / deleting channels has been a standard option for TVs for decades. Comcast’s settop box does let you setup a list of your favorite channels, but to browse it, you have to go through about 3 or 4 actions on the remote to get there, and even then it only displays the list in a guide. If you go back to hitting channel up or down, it just cycles again through every channel you get. And there are a lot of channels. And of coures it doesn’t ignore the ones that you aren’t signed up for, so you get to muddle through about three dozen that you aren’t authorized for.

I *think* that that the DirecTV and Dish Network boxes let you create lists, and then keep you in those channel lists for when you want to channel surf. I’m not sure, since I’ve never given one a good hard look. I’d switch to one of those just for that, though. In fact, I probably will.

In the meantime, I’m going to screw around with this settop box for a bit more before taking it back to Comcast. From what I’ve been reading, MythTV can add the box as an input device, using a firewire connection to control the channel tuner, and of course record TV. Mine is the HDTV DVR (Motorola DCT3416), and I haven’t yet seen much info about connecting one. The anecdotal evidence so far seems to be along the lines of “plug in the cable, and it works great.” We’ll see. I don’t even have a firewire cable.

So that’s where I’m at right now. I’m not gonna use the settop box unless I can get Myth to play around with it. Even then, I don’t need it, since I can tune into all the channels I wanted anyway with my normal TV tuner cards. I still need to see exactly which channels I get. I actually ripped it out from my HDTV since the picture was so horrible to begin with. Even on component output it looked incredibly crappy, not to mention worse than my original coaxial input connection. I plugged it in briefly using HDMI, but that was just as unimpressive.

I’m toying with the idea of getting a Tivo just to see what my options are (yet another area I don’t know anything about, so who knows), but I’m not too optimistic anything good would come out of it. I’ll probably buy one used somewhere just so I can see if its worth it.

The real good thing is that, despite all these interesting issues, is that I’m perfectly happy with my original cable lineup, so if I rip everything out, I won’t miss it one bit. I’m just curious to see what I can accomplish though. It’s fun. :)

comcast cable tv upgrade

So, I finally made an impulsive move and called up Comcast to get an expanded cable TV package. I got an ad in the mail yesterday (addressed specifically to me, interesting) from them offering Digital Cable with HD for only $25 for 6 months. I thought that was a pretty spanky deal (certainly less than their bundled crap), so I called em up. The only hidden fees were a $13 installation fee for the guy to come out, and the HDTV box is gonna cost me $7 a month to rent. Still, I’ve been wanting to check out their HD selection for a while now, and in fact was planning on calling them for the past month or so, but never got around to it. For HD programming, I’ve actually done my research and decided that Dish Network is the best one to go with (Comcast is too expensive, and DirecTV are crooks). I haven’t gotten around to calling them yet though … so I guess I’ll give Comcast a spin first.

I’ve been going with Digital Basic or whatever it’s called for the longest time. That in itself is an incredible deal — its only $12.95 a month, and I get all my local channels, plus 5 HD channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, KUED, FOX), plus Discovery Channel and Travel Channel, BYU TV and a few other cable channels that I’d never watch (C-SPAN, some shopping network, TV Land). I used to get Hallmark Channel as well, which I really loved because they would show stuff like Matlock and Perry Mason all the time, but one day it just disappeared. That’s probably the main reason I want cable again, I really enjoyed having that channel.

If you do want the most basic lineup though you’ll have to call them up and ask for it specifically. I don’t think it’s listed on the website anywhere, and of course when you call they’ll try to talk you out of it, but it’s worth it. Plus you still get the $10 discount a month for having cable internet with them. Not too bad.

Anyway, I haven’t had expanded cable TV for a long time. I wonder if the box is gonna come with a DVR or not. They’re coming out Friday to install it, so I guess we’ll see.

region-free dvd drives

Following up on an earlier post about region-free dvd players, I happened to have a stroke of luck — I found a DVD-RW drive that is region free. I happened to pick up an SATA DVD drive, and as I was playing around with it, I decided I wanted to rip one of my Region 2 DVDs. In order to do that, I had to use regionset to change the region code first.

Part of the program options, though, is that regionset will display what region the drive is currently set to. When I ran it, it didn’t have any setting at all, which seemed curious to me. I wondered what would happen if I just played the disc without changing the code. Normally, on my old IDE drives, it would throw all kinds of errors before dying on me, and I’d have to do a hard reset to get my drive working again. In this case, though, it worked flawlessly without any modification! I thought my luck was too good to be true, so I popped a Region 1 DVD back in the drive to see if it had any issues playing those, and it did fine as well.

I’ve since tried ripping other Region 2 and Region 4 discs on it, and it has taken everything I’ve thrown at it so far. I’m pretty excited, to say the least. It would have been nice to have a region-free DVD player with HDMI output, but I haven’t been able to find one at a decent price. Being able to rip and watch them on the computer though is just as good.

For the record, the drive I have is a Lite-On and the model is LH-20A1L (firmware revision BL03). Interestingly enough, the Lite-On brand is the only one when it comes to DVD drives that I have never had problems with. When it comes to poorly authored DVDs, when my other IDE drives (Pioneer, Sony) would freak out, freeze up and die, the Lite-On one would always (well, about 95% of the time) take those crappy discs and skip over the bad sectors and manage to complete the rip. I’ve been really impressed with them.

switching aspect ratio on the fly

I was tinkering with my MPlayer configuration for LIRC tonight to figure out a small OSD annoyance, when I found this interesting thing that I always thought would be nice.  The slave mode has an option to switch the aspect ratio during playback.

The reason this is nice is for those who are using mplayer to watch a fullscreen format (4/3) show on a widescreen TV, and they aren’t already stretching it to 16/9.  Basically, it stretches stuff if you want it to.  Personally, I like watching stuff in the original format it was filmed in, but sometimes I want to expand it to fit the whole screen too.  This let’s me do that.

Here’s the relative config for my lircrc file:

prog = mplayer
button = some_button_you_mapped
config = switch_ratio 1.77778
config = switch_ratio 1.33

So, what that does is switches stuff from fullscreen to wide, and back again by pressing it again.  Pretty spiffy.

I also uploaded my mplayer lircrc file.  It’s nothing glamorous, but might give someone some ideas.