Electric Monks, Angry Radio and Honesty

Douglas Adams, in one of his Dirk Gently books, describing what an ‘electric monk’ does[1], mentions in passing that VCRs are “machines that watch TV programs so that you don’t have to” (paraphrase). As usual with Adams underneath the joke is a point well worth thinking about.

For example, in 1993, I owned a TV but that was all. OK not all, I owned shirts and pants and CDs and probably a few other nick-nacks. But as far as TV was concerned that was all. If I wanted to watch something I had to be there in front of the TV at the time it was shown.

In 1994, as well as my quota of nick-nacks and underwear, I bought a new TV and a VCR. Now I could record things when I was out. I was no longer tied to TV schedules. I needed to remember to set the video of course, which was often a faff. I also needed to make time to watch what I’d recorded – which proved a bigger challenge. Thus the madness began.

By 2006 I owned a VCR, a DVD recorder, a PC with a TV card and recording software and a PVR. I had the means and the capacity to record far more TV than I could ever watch. It was now possible to record 2 or even 3 programs and watch a 3rd (4th). The logistics of planning such viewing are however beyond challenging (e.g. record BBC1 9-9:30 on the VCR and BBC2 9-11:30 on the PVR for the film and then record Channel 10-12 for the other film…) The madness had grown.

Now, May 2007, I have a fully-functional[2] MythTV box. I no longer am tied to the schedules at all. The challenge has receded because finding and recording programs is as easy as browsing a guide (or even saying “record every Kevin Costner movie”)[3]. However this very ease of use creates its own issues. It’s so easy to record that why not record nearly everything that’s vaguely interesting? The madness has been curtailed with one hand and extended with the other.

I’m saying all this because last night, after only a few weeks (a month? more?) my MythTV hard drive is almost full. A lot of it is crap that sounded worth a look. A fair bit is stuff I’ve watched but not deleted. MythTV has an auto-expire function. You set a recording to auto-expire and when the drive is getting full it can be deleted. If there’s nothing that can be deleted eventually it’ll refuse to record new stuff – it won’t have the space to. Part of me thinks if I use this system properly I’ll be ok. I’ll keep the madness at bay.

“Properly” would be as follows:

  • Set the defaults sensibly – stuff I’m likely to want to keep (mostly movies) default to auto-expire off, stuff I’m likely to watch once and never again (reality tv, random ‘interesting’ crap[4]) auto-expire on.
  • change the defaults for anything that needs it – crap[4] movies get auto-expire on, genuinely re-watchable TV gets it off. “disposable” re-watchable TV[5] gets off too.
  • after watching anything consider whether it’s re-watchable and set auto-expire off if it is.
  • as the proportion of non-expirable recordings grows re-view them with a view to setting auto-expire or archiving to DVD[6]

Which should mean MythTV mostly manages its own space and everything is ok. At present for example about half the space is auto-expirable.

It makes a lot of sense. It’s all very plausible. But am I kidding myself? See the “madness”, what I’ve learnt from 1994 onwards about deferring watching of TV, is this: being able to record TV is simply a form of procrastination. If you don’t watch it soon after it’s recorded chances are you never will. “I can watch it any time” very often means “I will watch it at no time”.

For example, I mentioned some time ago that I was watching the reruns of Dawson’s Creek. I was using my PVR to do this. They were (are) showing them every week-day. I got behind and I now have a backlog of around 50 (some on my PVR which is now permanently “full” the rest on my Myth box). I’m actually looking forward to the end of the currently showing 6th season as that will be the end of the recordings. But will I ever watch them all?

Hence the honesty. Honesty with one’s self that is. How much of this stuff will I really watch? This is similar to the dilemma I faced with a music program I used to use called iRate radio The principle is simple – scattered across the web there’s loads of free and perfectly legal downloadable free music (demo tracks from unsigned bands mostly). Most of this is from bands you’ve never heard of. What you do is download the “player” which downloads and plays 6 starter tracks. You rate (hence I-rate – it’s not about anger) the tracks as they play. Your ratings are fed back into the iRate database and matched against users with similar ratings. Based on this you get fed new tracks (the iRate site doesn’t have the music it just keeps a record of where they can be downloaded.) – you rate those and so on… Over time the system should become more and more in tune with what you like and give you music you enjoy.

However for me it seemed this process took too long. Firstly this is because the player plays the same tracks over and over as it downloads new ones. Even with broadband I found I was listening to a few good tracks over and over and a lot of mediocre ones. It seemed slow to learn my preferences. I searched the iRate forums and found others had had a similar problem. The answer given by the software’s author was a little surprising:

The software works, people aren’t honest enough about their preferences.

“Do I really like this song or am I giving it a highish rating because it’s of a genre I like and I hope by doing so iRate will give me more songs of that genre (but better)?”

He suggested to be brutally honest and don’t try to fool the system.

To be honest I never stuck with it long enough to see if that worked but either way it made me think, and it makes me think about MythTV and auto-expiry too. How much of this crap will I really watch?

Well this post is not so much with the pithyness, let’s hope someone finds it entertaining.

[1]which was to believe things for us so we don’t have to and thus allow us to hold several contradictory positions at the same time. A vital ability in modern life.

[2]well ok there are glitches and it needs rebooting quite often but it basically does what it’s supposed to. Enough to be useable. Enough to prompt the kind of issues this post is about.

[3]I have no idea why anyone would want to do this either[7] but Costner was the first name that popped into my head OK?

[4]”crap” is my term for anything that I’ll watch but which has little real value. Often sensationalist, one-dimensional or of tangential interest. I’m happy to admit I watch crap.

[5]”disposable” would be stuff like Friends, Frasier etc. Stuff that’s nearly always enjoyable when it’s on but that you’re not going to miss not seeing and which is almost certainly going to be re-run.

[6]Which currently means writing the files to a data disk. MythTV has an archiving feature that produces playable DVDs but I’ve not got it working yet.

[7]I quite like Tin Cup and Field of Dreams is good but once is enough for Dances With Wolves and never is enough for Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves[8]

[8]I always tell it like this – I was unemployed (briefly) when that movie came out and thus qualified for a cheap afternoon rate of £1 instead of the £4ish that was the full price at the time. So I went along. It had Alan Rickman and one good joke[9] It had impossible but amusing geography[10]. Still, I came out thinking I wanted my pound back.

[9] Rickman’s Sherriff to a serving wench: “You my room 10:30”, to the next wench “You 10:45” (pause) “and bring a friend.”

[10]From the White Cliffs of Dover to Sherwood Forest via Hadrian’s Wall in an afternoon on foot.


About shuggie

My name is Shuggie, Paul or LatePaul depending on where you know me from. I work in computers (databases) and occasionally write about softw
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