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Extreme Home Engineering: How To Build Your Own TiVo

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This week: How to build your own TiVo (or, How to never miss an important football game ever again.)

Building your own TiVo—or FreeVo, as some call it—is more than a dream. It's more than a trend. It's the new cool way to stick it to The (TiVo) Man while impressing your friends.

Make and Wired have published detailed how-tos. There are also several online communities like The Green Button that will help guide you through the tricky parts.

TiVo-article1.jpegFor the technology dunces of the world—myself included—I had several friends break down the jargon into simple steps we can all understand.

Your mission: To build your own digital video recorder from mail-order parts.

The payoff: An integrated entertainment system that records TV programs with no monthly fees. You can also build in various wrinkles so that it will record high-def programs and edit out commercials automatically.

Keep reading for your marching orders...


1. A credit card with about $500 working capital on it.

2. A computer with a media operating system. Various versions of Microsoft Media Center, Vista Home Premium, Linux Freevo, etc. will work, too. It's the operating system that's important, not the computer itself; you can even use that old one sitting in your garage. Or you can use your current home computer. But if you go that route, be sure to back up all your music and videos when you install the new media system. You don't want to lose that precious footage of Junior taking his first steps in your quest to record MTV's Spring Break. Depending on how much you plan to record, you may need more hard drive space.

3. Video card: $70 "“ Available in quiet or cheap versions.

4. A dual tuner: $90 "“ This tuner handles both standard- and high-def signals.

5. MCE remote: $30 "“ It seems like an impossible dream, but you're finally going to have ONE remote.

6. Various cables, cords, and adapters as needed. Some people also like to buy a casing to contain hold all these parts and make it somewhat attractive.

7. More relationship savvy than Dr. Phil, since your spouse/life-partner/roommate is going to wonder what the F you're doing to the TV. The best way to play it is to convince said spouse/life-partner/roommate that you're going to all this effort for them. That's what my buddy C.J. did, as he explained:

"You have to consider WAF (wife acceptance factor -- or HAF if it's the wife doing the installation). Always think about ways to make it easier for them. The right remote will make or break your system due to your spouse yelling at you about how to do certain things even if you told them three times in two days. All aspects contribute to WAF: feasibility, silence, beauty and function. Last week I just added a small program that actually skips past commercials of your recorded shows automatically. My wife was shocked when she saw what it did. It's astounding how well it works, no more fast-forwarding and rewinding to get to the right spot. She keeps saying, "˜I just keep feeling the urge to grab the remote and fast forward but it's doing it for me' with a giant smile on her face. That was the best feeling ever."


TiVo-article2.jpeg1. Install the parts (video card, hard drive, tuners) in the computer case. This just means plugging and/or attaching them to the brackets inside the case. Some people will buy a new case to hold all these parts and make a more attractive package to sit under the TV. If you're using a laptop to build your system, you'll definitely want a new case because there isn't room inside for all the stuff you're adding.

2. Install the media operating system on your computer. Once you insert the software CD into the drive, a self-install application will guide you through the steps.

3. Set up the tuners and install the drivers. The tuners are one of the items you just plugged into the case, and the drivers are the software that will run them. Again, a CD will arrive with the tuners, and you just follow its prompts. Once the drivers are installed, the tuners will pop up on screen, a la "Windows has detected new hardware."

4. Configure your media settings (timers, programs you want to record, etc.) At this point, you still have the keyboard attached to the computer, which makes setting up your preferences much easier. The first time you open up your media operating system is kinda like when you open up Microsoft Word for the first time on a computer: it asks you all kinds of questions about how you plan to use it.

5. Program your remote. No different from programming a new remote under any other circumstances. If you're using Microsoft Media Center, it can set up your remote for you.

6. Connect your computer to the TV. A matter of connecting the cables.

7. Sit back and enjoy. You've just conquered the Everest of home entertainment, my friend.


Chris Weber is an occasional contributor to His last article was on indigenous alcoholic treats.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]