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When Open Source gets it 99% right...


One of the most frustrating things about Open Source software is that frequently you end up with products that are 99% perfect, but the remaining 1% is so infuriatingly wrong that you end up wanting to just throw it in the trash.

Take for example MythTV. I love MythTV, it's my primary mode of watching TV these days. I've got a dedicated Fedora box sitting in my rack with a 19" display hooked up, and I probably spend 30 hours a week watching content on it in my office. I have mentioned that I'm a media junkie, haven't I?

The MythTV software is nearly perfect, I especially love having weather radar as my sceensaver. I wish I could watch my digital cable channels using it (it would requiring paying for another set-top box from Comcast and getting the IR commanding or Firewire interface to work), but it pretty much does everything I'd want it to do.

But I've got one problem that's driving me nuts. Comcast has trouble broadcasting their channels on exactly the right frequencies, and I need to occasionally fine-tune some of them to get decent (non-glitchy) video. Unfortunately, this is where MythTV has dropped the ball. The only way to fine-tune channels is to either use the web interface or directly access the MySQL database and tweak the channel frequencies by hand. You try adding 100 (100 what? Hz? MHz?), move off the channel and back on. Does it look better? It's like going to the eye doctor. "Beter, worse, or the same."

How hard would it be to have a keybinding to let you tweak the frequency up or down by some reasonable default amount? That way, you could quickly get the channel settings just right. In fact, I've requested just such a feature, but no one seems interested in implementing it. I've even taken a look at the code, to see if I could do it. Unfortunately, I'm not proficient in the technologies MythTV uses, so it would take me quite some time to figure it out.

Would a commercial package do any better? I know for a fact that at least two of them do. In many other ways, they're vastly inferior to MythTV, but at least I can get the channels appropriately zeroed in without hours of trial and error. Like so many open source projects, MythTV gets it almost right, but fails to execute at the end of the day on important features.

It's the paradox of FL/OSS. You get lots and lots for nothing and can do whatever you want with it, but sometimes what you really want is the one thing it doesn't do. The "if you want it, implement it" attitude works fine as long as we're talking about a community of technologically savvy users, but should everyone who uses open source software have to be a code geek? Firefox is a good example of an open source project that has taken things to the 100% mark. If open source is truly going to be a major player outside of server and applications development circles, it needs to spend a little time making sure that usability and feature set completeness are priorities for the contributors. Sometimes you need to scratch the itches that other people have, not just your own.

Has the Internet joined the Axis of Evil?

To judge by network TV over the past week, the Internet is the single most evil place on earth. First, on Criminal Minds, a show that usually tries for at least an iota of intelligence, we had it explained to us how the Internet is teaming with child molesters and pedophiles, just waiting to swoop in and grab any child foolish to wander into a chat room. They even went to the extreme of having one pedophile running an online auction to sell a child to the highest bidder.

Meanwhile, over on Law and Order, a teenager uses a thinly disguised version of MySpace to recruit someone to kill her mother, giving the producers a chance to lambaste the Internet as a place where kids are inadequately monitored, and companies are more interested in making a buck then protecting children.

Apart from the fact that these shows are at least learning the jargon (both referred to anonymous proxy servers, and one went so far as to mention SSL), it seems that the assault on personal freedoms in the name of protecting the children has gotten another shot in the arm.

Are there pedophiles on the Internet? You bet. Are there pedophiles running scout troups? Certainly. From today's news, there are evidently also ones heading the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus. But just as video games are an easily exploited target to excuse America's violent nature, the Internet is becoming the reason that children get hurt. And who will protest when more and more intrusive government monitoring becomes the norm, if it's "to protect the children."

Of course, the networks have their own agenda in making the Internet seem a scary place for kids. Don't forget that at the end of the day, the networks are content providers, and don't appreciate the YouTubes and MySpaces of the world taking eyeballs away from their content. Is the underlying message of these shows that your kids will be much safer if Disney is the only one allowed to create content?


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