Famous Last Word

Thursday, October 1st, ©2009 Marcus Brooks

I have started watching Craig Ferguson again. I guess I’ll explain.

Events too interesting to repeat here have left our home without the traditional big-screen video hearth, so my wife Shea and I now use our separate MacBooks for entertainment. This usually works OK because we don’t often like the same shows.

HVR 950Q Hybrid TV Stick

Adventures with USB TV and DVR

Shea likes thrillers, horror flicks, and depressing dramas. But she hates watching TV on principle, because of its inanity, arbitrary schedule, and hours of life-sucking advertisements. She does watch some TV shows, but only on her own terms: usually on DVD, after the season is over.

In contrast, I prefer comedy, news, and documentaries. And despite TV’s faults, I enjoy looking for the occasional gem amidst all that crap. Also I sometimes like a more passive interface to the wide world than I get from email and the Internet. Yes, the Internet is vast, but TV more consistently shows me things I never thought to look for.

Shea worries when I watch TV, because it tends to go on and on, and in the past I’ve had trouble turning it off when she thinks I should. (This was especially before we cut off the cable.) I do have the same issue with books and the Internet, but at least those are quieter.

Now that we no longer have a real “household” TV, I finally decided to equip my MacBook with a USB TV tuner and digital video recorder (DVR) software. The tuner lets me use my MacBook’s nice LCD screen to watch broadcast TV. The DVR feature lets me more or less ignore the TV’s arbitrary schedule, and also lets me flit quickly through the crap and advertising.

The first recording I scheduled on my new DVR was The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, just about my all-time favorite TV show. I think it was in fact Shea who started me watching Ferguson. She was attracted to his rugged good looks, but I like his humor (too).

One of the great things about Ferguson’s humor is it often works on several levels. He manages to tell jokes in a way that seems funny even if you don’t get the whole joke. (Indeed, sometimes I suspect a joke would be funnier if I didn’t get it. You can’t win ’em all!)

I especially like the way Ferguson will throw in something bizarre, offhand, and let you run with it on your own. The other night in his closing remarks he made a playful jab at film students, then said “Oh, by the way, it’s the sled. It’ll save you watchin’ it. It’s the sled. That joke’s for five people in America.”

Maybe only five people in the audience got the joke, but they all laughed. It’s his delivery. I think he could make it funny even if he were speaking in tongues. In fact, sometimes he does speak in tongues, and it’s funny!

The sled joke was especially fun for me because it carried me in an entirely different direction. Of course the other four realized Ferguson was referring to the movie Citizen Kane: Kane says a word on his deathbed, and the movie follows a reporter who traces Kane’s life, trying to learn what the word means. The reporter never does, but at the end we see it’s the name painted on a sled Kane played with in childhood.

By coincidence, I recently watched an old Columbo TV mystery (on NetFlix) in which that very same sled (despite having been burned as rubbish at the end of Citizen Kane) is in the collection of the suspect, a movie buff whose friend got killed “accidentally” by the buff’s pet Dobermans. Columbo managed to prove the dogs had not suddenly gone rogue, but had instead responded to a kill word that their owner taught them in secret. To establish his alibi, the suspect had left his friend with the dogs, phoned from elsewhere (with witnesses), and tricked his friend into uttering the seemingly innocent kill word, the word on the sled. Voila! How to Dial a Murder.

Which brings me to an observation that’s probably obvious, but still it strikes me as funny. The sled’s name is of course the dog victim’s last word in Columbo (not counting screams). This seems especially apt, since the same word, Kane’s last word, may well be the most famous of famous last words.

And since it is a last word, I saved it for last. It’s “Rosebud.”


For those who want details, the USB tuner I got is a Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 950Q Hybrid Video Stick. I tried the Windows DVR program that came with it (WinTV) under Windows XP on my Intel MacBook, but I quickly decided to pay an extra $80 for the MacOS-based DVR program (EyeTV). EyeTV is much better; somehow it even makes the tuner’s reception seem more reliable. To compare the experience, I’d say EyeTV is to WinTV what Charlize Theron is to a sharp stick in the eye.

With EyeTV, the HVR 950Q with its included collapsible antenna receives my area’s broadcast digital TV stations as well as or better than a couple of different set-top DTV converters that I’ve tried in the same house (but with a different, more elaborate, indoor antenna). The HVR 950Q is also supposed to take composite or S-Video input, but I haven’t tried that yet.

I initially thought I’d use MythTV, the free open-source DVR suite, but the pre-built Mac version I found doesn’t support USB tuners, and I couldn’t see my way clear to building a version that did. I considered installing the Linux version on Shea’s old game PC, now in my closet, but I decided to have better things to do.

Depending on the program’s broadcast quality, U. S. digital TV programs seem to use use about 1 to 8 GB per hour in native format (MPEG-2 with AC3 audio). That eats up my MacBook’s free disk space quickly, so I usually set EyeTV to record onto an external 1TB USB 2.0 drive. That should last a while. EyeTV manages and plays native video only, but it lets you export videos to a variety of destination file formats. Note, however, that exporting can take time, sometimes much longer than the show’s run time.

Which reminds me, I have to go export a show I just recorded for Shea.

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