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When Profiling Goes Wrong 626

huskymo writes "This morning's Wall Street Journal is carrying a funny story on TiVo and Amazon's automatic customer profiling. As most Slashdot readers probably know, TiVo keeps track of which programs you record and--if you haven't told it not to--records other programs it thinks you'd like. The article describes users that TiVo's mistaken for Korean, for gay, even for "a pregnant gay man."" Funny as hell.
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When Profiling Goes Wrong

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  • by zaren ( 204877 ) <holdthis@mail.com> on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:38PM (#4759484) Homepage Journal
    Jeez, what kind of system would even allow "pregnant gay man" to be an available category?
    • Wel, one of my best friends is a "pregnant gay man" and he's Korean too!

      You got something against pregnant gay Korean men?
    • by mbadolato ( 105588 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:51PM (#4759626)
      Don't blame TiVo... If it sees that someone recorded a season pass to Will & Grace, and the movie Junior (Arnold Schwartzenegger and Danny Divito), what's it supposed to think??? ;-)
    • Reminds me of a prescription I got filled a couple of years ago. On the label, it instructed me to call my doctor if I became pregnant. That would be quite a shock, being male and all.
    • Re:error checking? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by stuntpope ( 19736 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:30PM (#4759941)
      From the article, it appears the man once ordered gay-themed material, and he later got recommendations for other gay material. Then he ordered a baby book for friends, and subsequently received recommendations for other baby/pregnancy related stuff. I don't see how this equals a computer "thinking" the subject is a gay pregnant man, or that it has any such category. And when the other guy ordered war movies and then started getting a lot of Third Reich stuff, he claims TiVo "thinks" he's a Nazi. People are reading way too much into this.
    • by RollingThunder ( 88952 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:16PM (#4760377)
      Possibly one that accounts for two or more people in a given location, with differing interests.

      IE: the pregnant wife, and the in-the-closet gay husband?

      Man, this does have TV show written all over it.
  • Hence (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Raul654 ( 453029 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:38PM (#4759486) Homepage
    The need for opt-in laws about this kind of thing. Oh wait, the government wants to steal this info from the companies too, so I guess they'd never go for that kind of thing.
    • Re:Hence (Score:3, Funny)

      by iMMersE ( 226214 )
      To be fair, I think the government will actually get these statistics from elsewhere. Would you rather trust medical records and doctors or Amazon to tell you if someone is pregnant?
  • by Copperhead ( 187748 ) <talbrech.speakeasy@net> on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:39PM (#4759494) Homepage
    Sorry... can't afford the $80 it takes to read this story. I'm sure it's really funny, though.

    • Re:Can't afford it (Score:3, Informative)

      by beebware ( 149208 )
      Now that's worrying. I *know* I haven't got a subscription to WSJ, yet it allowed me to read the article without paying. You didn't just see "WSJ" and then post that comment without realising that only the WSJ archives are "fee-based"?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:40PM (#4759504)
    I would be greatly insulted to be called korean.
  • what? (Score:3, Funny)

    by malana-cream ( 546316 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:40PM (#4759509)
    so the question is:

    what does "a pregnant gay man" like to watch?
  • by Sc00ter ( 99550 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:42PM (#4759532) Homepage
    the suggestions is part of the reason I bought the TiVo. And it's not like it goes out and overwrites what you told it to record. Whatever you tell it to do will always happen before what the TiVo thinks. What's nice is that if you have extra space and the TiVo isn't recording something then it might go out and look for re-runs or something similar.. It's not like you'll come home and everything you told it to record will be gone and in it's place will be a bunch of stuff you don't want.

    • not anti-Tivo (Score:5, Insightful)

      by siskbc ( 598067 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:06PM (#4759750) Homepage
      I subscribe to WSJ, and every day middle-low on the front page, they have a "humor" story, I suppose for really uptight type-A people. That was today's, so I assume no anti-TiVo subtext.
    • I must say, I almost never actually like anything it records for me as a suggestion. I hardly every bother to do the thumbs up/down, so the TiVo just goes based on what I explicitly record. I have only one season pass, for the simpsons, and then usually record shows one off here and there. This gives some eclectic suggestions.

      Basically my TiVo seems to think I'm a violent (sopranos) child (simpsons) chef (iron chef). This means I get mostly random cooking shows and cartoons that I have no interest in whatsoever. Lately its obsessed with trying to get me to watch dexter's laboratory.
      • by Keeper ( 56691 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:38PM (#4760585)
        If you want the quality of suggestions to improve, give your TiVo some feedback. If it records a suggestion you don't like, give it a thumbs down. If it records one you do like, give it a thumbs up.

        It's a piece of hardware with software written by human beings. It isn't empathic. All it knows at this point is that you like the simpsons, soprano's, and iron chef. So obviously with what little it knows the unit is hypothesizing that you like cartoons, cooking shows, and mob based tv shows. Shouldn't be terribly surprising when you get random cartoon and cooking shows recorded as suggestions.

        If you don't want suggestions at all, it's incredibly easy to turn them off.
    • The really stupid part is when people have to go out of their way to search for things they have no interest in just so it will stop making bad recommendations. Of course, if I had the source I'd probably waste far more time tweaking it :)
      • You don't have to go out of your way. The people described in the article are idiots. If you don't like a suggestion, you give it a thumbs down. This tells the tivo that you didn't like it. Imagine that.

        You don't go searching through the guide listing finding programs that seem like the opposite of the suggestion you didn't like. Why? Because the Tivo doesn't know that you didn't like the suggestion it recorded.

        When you first get a tivo the suggestions are pretty bad. This is reasonable; the unit doesn't have much data to go off of. Use it for a month or two using the thumbs up/down ratings properly, and the suggestions are pretty good. When I run out of "normal" tv to watch, I can scroll down to the recorded suggestions and 9 times out of 10 there will be something down there that I want to watch. The other 1/10th of the time there is something down there that I would normally watch but am not in the mood for...
    • What TiVo really needs is a "likes good writing" profile. Genre profiling only works if you have an unhealthy obsession with one genre or another. Most of us don't care if a show is a western, a lawyer show, a sci-fi, or whatever. We like shows that are done well, and hate shows that are not.

      I watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" every Tuesday, but have no interest in "Clueless", "Charmed" or "Sabrina the Teenage Witch", as I am neither a teenaged girl, nor am I obsessed with them.

      A properly configured TiVo would see that I like "Buffy" & "The Sopranos" and realize that thoughtful writing is what captures my attention, making reccomendations like "The Industry" when its on PBS (That's the US title for "Made In Canada", the funniest and smartest damn sitcom I've ever seen.)

      • by mosch ( 204 )
        The profiling isn't simply genre based. TiVo uses the tribune media service guide data, which includes a list of producer, writer, director, all the actors, how many "stars" a movie has, what the show's audiance rating is, whether or not it's subtitled, if it's in color or b&w, and a bunch of other things that I can't remember at the moment.

        The TiVo can use all of these things in some formula to come up with the recommendations, not just the genre/subgenre (though there are six levels of that too, in the data). Whether or not it does, I don't know.

  • A poll... (Score:3, Funny)

    by jonr ( 1130 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:43PM (#4759538) Homepage Journal
    How many of you think that CmdrTaco has a WSJ subscription? Anybody?
  • a pregnant gay Korean man? Kimchee with added folic acid? A KIA with the LATCH system?
  • by nstrom ( 152310 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:43PM (#4759545)
    To read the story without having to register for the (pay) site, use this link:

    http://online.wsj.com/article_email/0,,SB103826193 6872356908,00.html [wsj.com]
    • by airrage ( 514164 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:52PM (#4759635) Homepage Journal
      "I'm just counterprogramming because TiVo thinks I'm gay."

      That really is quite funny. I think we've hit on a new tech-term: counterprogramming - noun - to use the front-end of a software program to perform operations with which the backend program should have been able to do in the first place.
      • counterprogramming - noun - to use...
        If your definition starts with the word 'to', then the word in question is most definitely a verb. However, many verbs can be used as nouns (see "gerunds" [uoregon.edu]), which was the usage in the article.
      • Amazing! (Score:3, Funny)

        by theduck ( 101668 )

        If I replace just one word and remove just two others, we have the definition of politics:

        counterprogramming - noun - to use the front-end of a software program to perform operations with which the backend program should have been able to do in the first place.


        politics - noun - to use the front-end of a person to perform operations with which the backend should have been able to do in the first place.

      • by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @03:37PM (#4761197)
        That really is quite funny. I think we've hit on a new tech-term: counterprogramming - noun - to use the front-end of a software program to perform operations with which the backend program should have been able to do in the first place.

        Good first cut, but I think a better definition would be:

        counterprogramming - mitigating the erroneous behavior of a computer system by applying unusual or inconsistent inputs; counteracting the effect of badly designed software by placing the system in a state where the malfunctioning component is disabled or overridden, usually via specially designed inputs

        Good enough for the Hacker dictionary?

  • by bwalling ( 195998 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:45PM (#4759567) Homepage
    I wish I could convince my Tivo that I don't speak Spanish! About 1/3 of its "automatic" recordings are in Spanish. I have even tried taking the Spanish channels off of the 'Channels You Receive' list and it still seems to record from them.
    • Re:No Hablo Espanol (Score:3, Informative)

      by cafebabe ( 151509 )
      This happened to me when I first got my TiVo. I had never recorded anything in Spanish so I couldn't understand why. I posted in the newsgroup and was told that it will begin to think you speak Spanish if most of the movies you record have a secondary SAP track (like closed captioning, but in Spanish). Since most of my movies were from HBO, which has SAP, it thought I spoke Spanish. Don't worry -- you don't have to start giving Thumbs Down to movies. Just give 3 Thumbs Down to any program it records with the primary track in Spanish instead of English and it will figure it out pretty soon.
  • by toupsie ( 88295 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:46PM (#4759573) Homepage
    I am constantly getting mail to increase my penis size and grow hair. They should know better! I have long hair and a big, well, uh, you know...
  • by 4of12 ( 97621 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:47PM (#4759581) Homepage Journal

    As direct marketing has become more intrusive into my life, I've taken to using my dog's name in various business dealings. She has name which was a popular name for girls about, oh, 80 years ago. (Like Brittany, Ashley and Nicole will be about 70 years from now.)

    At any rate, I get this phone message for Violet from a retirement home in Phoenix.

    They were "updating their records" and they "haven't heard from you in a while" and wanted to make sure she know about all the "wonderful plans they had" for their retirement community.

    It reminded me of college days when the dorm would subscribe to publications under the moniker of Omar The Goat.

    • Re:Profile My Dog (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mseeger ( 40923 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:25PM (#4760439)

      Keeping track of the "flow of information" you're handing out is a fascinating thing. I once invented a company name to reserve a domain for. This was in the dark ages, when a popular top level domains was upkept by someone using a "vi" and who was rejecting domain names he disliked. As "fantasy" names were refused, i made up a company named like the domain i wanted to get. Unluckily i used my home address.

      The name and address together was never used again by me. But this company still gets magazines, advertisement, business proposals (not only from Nigeria) and (during the .boom era) once even got an offer for a takeover.

      Even if i should drop dead immediately, this name would continue to live and be responsible for the slaughter of complete forests.

      So be carefull when you invent names. Like ghosts they may come when you call but not leave when not wellcome any more.

      Yours, Martin

  • by hashmap ( 613482 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:49PM (#4759612)
    I found the TiVo recommendation service quite underwhelming.

    It looks to me as if they simply look at the genre of the program you rate high and then take that to be your preference.

    I found out that the hard way, one day I went home and I found the tivo filled with idiotic shows like: "Price is right" and "Spend $1000 in 1 minute", "Blind date" etc... upon investigating I realized that I've have rated "Junkyard Wars" (a competition of building things from junk) and "BattleBots" (remote controlled robot fight show) high the previous day, this triggered the game-show category to be recorded.

    As Larry David would say: pretty-pretty-pretty dumb.

    • by Beeman ( 31488 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:12PM (#4759798) Homepage
      My wife watched TLC's A Wedding Story twice a day for several months until Tivo started recording Divorce Court. After giving Divore Court the thumbs down, A Wedding Story returned. Is it just a coincidence?
    • by ajs ( 35943 ) <ajs@nOspam.ajs.com> on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:40PM (#4760047) Homepage Journal
      Sometimes the TiVo suggestion feature is stupid, but on the other hand, it's far superior to surfing channels. If you're out of "scheduled items" to record, and you want to surf, you're far more likely to find something interesting in the suggestions. What you ran into was probably before the most recent upgrade. It seems to have been a bug, and I ran into it too (I gave a thumbs up to something that was vaguely western, and TiVo couldn't get enough of recording old Westerns).

      I recommend trying it again. Give an explicit two-thumbs up to anything that you really like and three thumbs up to the two things you think are the best shows/movies on. Leave the default on-thumb for everything that you set up to record, but set anything to neutral that you record on speculation.

      I find that 50-60% of the stuff it records for me is junk, which is a much better rate than surfing channels, at least in my experience.
  • a roommate (Score:5, Funny)

    by Uhh_Duh ( 125375 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:51PM (#4759631) Homepage
    TiVo is my favorite household pet of all time. I love the suggestions feature!! Then one day I had a houseguest show up for a few days and TiVo suddenly started thinking I liked gay porn. :(

    I was secretly hoping TiVo would turn me gay as a result (Hello lawsuit!) Naturally, you can understand why I was disapointed when a few days later I realized that I was still attracted to women. :(
  • by skia ( 100784 ) <(skia) (at) (skia.net)> on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:52PM (#4759638) Homepage
    Cut and pasted from half.com:

    "If you like MAC OS X Developer's Guide you may also enjoy:

    Bridget Jones's Diary
    Hardcover, 1998
    Helen Fielding
    $3.75 (Save $19.20)

    At Home in Mitford
    Paperback, 1996
    Jan Karon
    $1.00 (Save $11.95)

    The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing
    Hardcover Textbook, 1999
    Melissa Bank, Melissa Banks
    $2.25 (Save $21.70)"
    • by Tackhead ( 54550 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @03:25PM (#4761057)
      > Cut and pasted from half.com:
      > "If you like MAC OS X Developer's Guide you may also enjoy:
      >Bridget Jones's Diary [...]
      >At Home in Mitford [...]
      >The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing [...]

      So half.com definitely thinks you're gay, but doesn't know whether you're male or female?

      Wow, marketers really are dumber than advertised.

  • by M.C. Hampster ( 541262 ) <M.C.TheHampster@NoSpaM.gmail.com> on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:54PM (#4759659) Journal

    ... if the submitter had read the article. From the submitter:

    The article describes users that TiVo's mistaken for Korean, for gay, even for "a pregnant gay man.

    From the article:

    Like TiVo, other techno-profilers run hard with limited information. Ray Everett-Church of Fremont, Calif., who is gay, ordered "Queer as Folk" videos from Amazon.com. Understandably, the site began suggesting gay-related calendars and books. Then he bought a baby book for a pregnant friend. So for weeks, the site also recommended parenting books. He says it was as if Amazon.com decided he was "a pregnant gay man."

    Now even the submitters don't read the articles.

  • by somethingwicked ( 260651 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:54PM (#4759660)
    The "quote of the hour" or whatever you call it is somewhat fitting for this article. In case it changes, the front page quote is currently-

    One is not born a woman, one becomes one. -- Simone de Beauvoir

    Apparently, this is how it happens!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @12:56PM (#4759671)
    See a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal, but can't read it, because it's a pay service?

    Copy the URL, and change

    (yes, that's: sed -e s/article/article_email/ )
  • by mclancy10006 ( 626420 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:05PM (#4759747)
    Trooper: Sir, do you know why I pulled you over?

    Motorist: Umm, no

    Trooper: I got an email alert from TiVo alerting me that you've been taping the Fast & the Furious, Fast Lane, Gone in 60 seconds, and other shows that match a repeat speeders profile.

    Motorist: ummm. I think that was my son...

    Trooper: No, sir it correlates with your EzPass acitivity as well. Please step out of the car...

  • Stupid Profiling (Score:4, Insightful)

    by kalidasa ( 577403 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:06PM (#4759751) Journal

    The key thing is not to profile for things that will offend people unless there's an opt-in somewhere: sexuality, religious beliefs, etc. And the filters for language are obviously way off: it shouldn't start recording stuff in Korean unless you've watched at least two or three shows in Korean.

    • They probably don't have categories such as "gay" "Korean" etc. at all. More likely it correlates your preferences with the preferences of other TiVo users. e.g., you recorded X, a lot of other people who recorded X also recorded Y, so it will recommend Y for you. (The actual statistical algorithm is probably more complex, but that's the basic idea.) No explicit categories necessary at all.
  • I looked at some dirty emails once and now I get messages all day asking if I want a larger penis, hot slutty teens. Sometimes it even bugs me to lower my mortgage payments or get deals on toner! Help! The Internet thinks I'm some kind of impoverished sex maniac!
  • by Woogiemonger ( 628172 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:08PM (#4759772)
    I see in the article it talks about people trying to "outwit" the profiler, with someone searching around Amazon.com for stuff on politics and computers so it wouldn't think he's a pregnant, gay man. While this may provide for a better story, Amazon does allow you to see what it's using to profile you, and you can uncheck a box that basically says "Use this product to profile me" so he could remove the parenting book from the pool of data used to judge him.
  • by mr_gerbik ( 122036 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:16PM (#4759831)
    This article reminded me of my early Tivo days (before I turned the suggestions off).. One time I had some friends over and I wanted to show them my Tivo.. when I turned it on and headed to the menu, what did I find? An episode of 'The Golden Girls', 'ALF', and 'Dukes of Hazzard'! It wasn't until my friends got up off the floor from laughing and making fun of my television tastes that I could explain to them that the Tivo tries to record things based on my tastes.

    More amazingly I gave each of these shows 3 thumbs down.. but every once in a while, Tivo would still record 'Golden Girls' for me.. as if it was trying to say, "Nonono, seriously, this is a good show! You must have just seen one bad episode, give it another try!"

  • by Lemuel ( 2370 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:20PM (#4759857)
    I'll agree with everyone who has complained about the submission. The article itself, though, is weak on substance. Tivo thinks you like something, and if it is wrong you thumb-down its recommendations. Big deal. It happened to me but I wouldn't tell the Wall Street Journal about it.

    Regarding the pregnant gay man, Amazon has a feature where you can see what the basis was for a recommendation. If you find it was based on a book or other product that you do not want them to consider for your recommendations, you click a button and that is the end of it. The writer of the article should have done more research.
  • by theBunkinator ( 204351 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:22PM (#4759859)
    I agree this is rather funny. But 3 quick points:

    1. TiVo is not multi-user capable, at least as far as I've observed so far. So my friend watches NFL & South Park, his wife is hooked on Buffy, and they have Tivo record Teletubbies for their kid. Profile this! I'm quite frankly surprised the Tivo hasn't exploded yet.

    2. Human "profiling" messes up the same way.
    Last year I mentioned the leonoids to my in-laws. I promptly got a beginner's guide to stargazing for my birthday. Boring. I like looking at some shooting stars or the like, but I'm not up to reading books about it and becoming a full scaled backyard astronomer. Very nice and thoughtful gift though.

    3. For the most part, profiling does work for me. There is a load of [Items on Amazon|Shows on TV|Goods at the Supermarket], way more than I can sort through manually. So if Amazon, based on my previous purchases, shows me some new R/C toy, I appreciate that. Better than randomly advertising some Barby Doll in the same space.
    I've found Tivo recording some great shows for me. Some garbage, too, but I can say that it guesses correctly quite often.

    Seriously, is profiling hurting us so much? I think it's quite acceptable, realizing that one of the cost saving aspects of more technically advanced infrastructure is improved advertising. Let them make a buck.
    Yeah of course it's all about stereotypes. But next time you see a Tampon commercial during Monday night football, let me know.
  • by binaryDigit ( 557647 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:25PM (#4759881)
    I can see it now, /. starts automagically filtering comments based on those comments you've clicked on. Now all I can see is :

    First Post!
    Imagine a beowulf ....
    Sony/M$ sux, OS rules
    CmdrTaco can't spell
    This is old news

    Oh wait, /. seems to have already implemented this ...
  • by mckwant ( 65143 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:25PM (#4759883)
    During the Final Four last year, my beloved Kansas Jayhawks were playing. I came home from a happy hour the Friday night before the final four to find that TiVo had recorded the Final Four practices for all four teams. I didn't even know anybody would be nuts enough to cover that non-event. Needless to say, I was thrilled to see KU and their opponent's practices appear, unbidden, on my TiVo.

    For that occasional miracle, I'll take all the Univision soap operas, shopping channel dreck, and Korean news I can delete, and I'll thank TiVo every time for trying.
  • by AtariDatacenter ( 31657 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:25PM (#4759887)
    I struggled a bit with this during the first few months that I had a TiVo. "Oh! You like the news!" "Oh! You like old sitcoms!" "Oh! You like children's cartoons!"

    How I responded was to thumbs-down any recorded suggestion that I didn't like. And after a while, TiVo learned. A little too well.

    In fact, now, it hardly records any recommendations at all. And they are usually some bland program that is completely unnoteworthy. Frankly, I wish my TiVo had some balls.

    I'd like for it to try suggestion some new programs that hit the air each season. Or something a little daring. But it is too timid and weak to come close. I'm afraid that I've broken its spirit.
  • At Last!! (Score:3, Funny)

    by kbewley ( 461756 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:26PM (#4759897)
    At last, I can blame dodgy programming for the 4 hours of 'Adult' programming the TiVO recorded for me!

    Doubt anyone will believe me though
  • by robbo ( 4388 ) <slashdot@@@simra...net> on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:34PM (#4759977)
    I find it remarkable (and alarming) that nearly every person who felt they'd been mis-profiled responded first by altering their viewing habits, and second by *buying more*. It's as if the profiler encourages the viewer to increase their consumption by playing off their insecurities-- I wonder if this is by design, or just a happy accident for the people in marketing.

    Then again, come to think of it, I suppose the entire advertising industry operates this way- alter people's behaviour (and boost their inclination to consume) by exploiting their insecurities. The moral of the story- turn off your TV!
  • by pcp_ip ( 612017 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:36PM (#4760003) Homepage
    my tivo keeps recording childrens shows and documentaries on hard-core drug use.

    To my tivo, I'm a 5 year old with a $600 a week crack habit.

  • by cybermage ( 112274 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:37PM (#4760012) Homepage Journal
    Got problems with the shows TiVo records as suggestions? Well, try these methods to fix it:
    1. Edit your "Channels You Receive" to remove channels you aren't interested in at all.
    2. Look at the "TiVo Suggestions" for upcoming shows and rate them using the thumbs up/dowm method. Give three thumbs-down to major mistakes.
    3. Take a moment to rate shows it has recorded before deleting them.
    4. Rate your season passes. TiVo will automatically give anything you record 1 thumb-up. If you've got a season pass for something in a genre, or with actors, you'd typically dislike, rate the season pass with multiple thumbs-down (it'll still be recorded.) Do this as well for the one-off items you record (especially if your recording for guests.)
    5. If all else fails, punch the reset button. Somewhere in setup you can tell TiVo to start over in building it's profile.
  • by ceo ( 6176 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @01:39PM (#4760028)
    I find it interesting that people are talking about their Tivo's like they're sentient beings crouched on top of the TV, casting judgement on the crap you watch and recommending new crap to watch. It's just a computer program, people, and likely a fairly simple one at that.

    I don't have a Tivo (or a TV, for that matter), but my Amazon profile still hasn't recovered from when my wife was in graduate school studying developmental psychology, specializing in childhood trauma. More books about child sexual abuse, just what I wanted. =:-O The programming books are staging a comeback, though.

    What I find particularly interesting are the "people who ordered this also ordered these" selections. On infrequently-ordered titles, it only takes one or two wackos with bizarre profiles to generate some really peculiar results.
  • by bwillcox ( 196500 ) <bwillcox.ares@homeip@net> on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:05PM (#4760264) Homepage
    I never post here, but want to set the record straight on the TiVo's features.
    1. Suggestions are optional. There is a menu setting under "Messages and Setup ==> My Preferences. Don't care for suggestions? Turn them off. (like they are on my TiVo)
    2. TiVo will never delete something you have as a Season Pass in order to record a suggestion. If stuff is expiring too quickly, that's just a sign you need to put in some bigger hard disks. (or watch less TV)
    3. If TiVo records something you don't like, give it one thumb down before you delete it. That's all it takes. Seriously! The only thing you should give three thumbs down to is Paid Programming.
    4. If your suggestions get too out of whack then you can clear all of them. Go into the "System Resets" under "Messages and Setup" and there is an option to "Reset Thumb Ratings and Suggestions".
    5. A good resource for all things TiVo is the Tivo Community forum at http://www.tivocommunity.com/tivo-vb/ [tivocommunity.com] You'll learn more than you ever wanted to know about TiVo there.
    (they'll probably kill me now for linking to them from Slashdot.)


    (owner of a Philips S1 TiVo with 249 hours + turbonet and tivoweb)

  • by MCRocker ( 461060 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:08PM (#4760292) Homepage
    First of all, it's clear that many of the previous posters don't really know how TiVo works and I'd like to clarify what's going on. First of all, the primary mode of operation is where the viewer picks what they want to record ahead of time. TiVo only records stuff based on its' suggestion algorithms when there's extra space on the drive. Viewer selected shows always have priority over shows recorded by Tivo based on suggestions. The end result is that, occationally, viewers get a surprise in the "Now Playing" screen. Usually, it's a pleasant surprise or something that the viewer might not have even been aware was available and presents an opportunity to see something extra.

    As the article points out, the suggestion algoritm isn't perfect, but if it gets off target, it's fairly easy to correct... even though the users in the article obviously hadn't figured out the most efficient way to do so. The suggestion system works by allowing the viewer to press the "Thumbs Up" or "Thumbs Down" button. Strangely enough you can give a show up to three thumbs up or down (most people I know only have two thumbs;). The algorithm uses these ratings to find shows that have been catagorized the same way as shows that the user has rated highly. One thing that most people don't realize is that any show selected for recording automatically gets one thumb up. Naturally, for this system to work, show catagorizations have to be accurate, which isn't always the case.

    The users in the article who recorded lots of shows to counter the ratings were doing things the hard way. A much easier way is simply to go to the suggestions screen where TiVo supplies a list of recommended shows that it thinks the viewer might want to see. From there, it's easy to just give three thumbs down to each of the shows that the viewer doesn't like. On a lucky day the show that caused the problem in the first place will appear as a re-run, so the problem can be fixed quickly. This can be repeated until the suggestions screen only shows stuff that the viewer likes.

  • by tbmaddux ( 145207 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:14PM (#4760353) Homepage Journal
    Actually, it was Amazon.com that classified someone as a "pregnant gay man" based on a gift he bought for someone else. I've been mistakenly classified as a pet owner from purchasing items for others' wish lists.

    Rather than go through all the trouble of engineering a profile, though, he could have found the purchased item in "Improve your recommendations" and deselected the "Use to make recommendations" box. Problem solved.

    I like the system; over time it's brought authors to my attention that I might not otherwise have noticed.

  • by handy_vandal ( 606174 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:20PM (#4760412) Homepage Journal
    Remember oliver, the electronic personality extender predicted by Alvin Toffler in "Future Shock" ...?

    There's an interesting passage about olivers in John Brunner's excellent novel, "The Shockwave Rider":

    "... so-called olivers, electronic alter-egos designed to save the owner the strain of worrying about all his person-to-person contacts. A sort of twenty-first-century counterpart to the ancient Roman nomenclator, who discreetly whispered data into the ear of the emperor and endowed him with the reputation of a phenomenal memory." (pp. 41-42)

    More than a few of those emperors went crazy from all that power, which makes me wonder:

    What happens when tens of millions of 21-century citizens have their personalities extended -- and some of them already crazy?

    Well, for a start ... I predict that The Sims will fuse with Counter-Strike into a new game where heavily-armed psychopaths massacre hapless suburban clones ....

  • by symbolic ( 11752 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:27PM (#4760465)

    This isn't all that funny. I'd even say it's serious. While the consequences in this case are little more than a strange and perhaps unexpected selection of programming, consider the consequences if say, lyin' Johnny (Poindexter) and a huge government bureaucracy drew some equally bizarre conclusions based on what you've bought, what you've watched on TV, or how frequently you've visited a certain establishment, or where you've traveled. I hope the 'suspicious' person is still laughing as they're being carted off to a Q&A session with a couple of HomeSec droids. While coercing Tivo to modify it's behavior is but a minor annoyance, I can't help but think that we're about the see the very real danger in allowing others to acquire the means to draw completely inaccurate conclusions about who we are and what we're doing.
  • Poor AI AI is poor (Score:5, Interesting)

    by corvi42 ( 235814 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:37PM (#4760573) Homepage Journal
    As a student of AI & Cognitive Sciences, it makes me laugh to see this stuff finally coming around. I've thought for years that this kind of tracking was absurd for exactly these reasons. AI in its many forms is still primitive and it is not easy for anyone, even the experts to make it work well. It is almost impossible for it to be made infallible.

    While I can't really know what kind of effort was put into these systems, it seems unlikely that Amazon or TiVo hired a team of veteran AI developpers to build these features. That being said, this problem still underlies a trend in all AI systems, no matter how good. That is that they are all really quite dumb when you compare them to anything we would call "reasonable" intelligence. They are incredibly fallible, incredibly silly machines in terms of their output to a large extent. Sure they can be made to do wonderful things, but it always has to be done with a group of human "moderators" to judge and assess the machine's performance and output, and that with a large grain of salt.

    The idea that a machine is objective and not biased like people is absurd. They are more biased. They can only follow mindlessly the rules set down for them by their designers, and do not have the breadth or depth of experience that people have to know when the rules don't apply. Even the best dynamic systems and neural nets have these flaws somewhere or other. While it is funny to see them goof like this, it is scary to think that Governments are going to use similar techniques [slashdot.org] for vital things like law enforcement. This is a serious concern to all of our civil rights.

  • by KFury ( 19522 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:44PM (#4760659) Homepage
    I love my TiVo, but I lost faith in its content recommender when it started recording "To Be Announced." (true story)

    It also decided for a while that I really wanted to watch Korean love stories and Latino dance parties, but it got over that eventually.

    Nowadays I keep my TiVo full enough that it never has room for suggested recordings, except the occasional SCTV or South Park, which is as it should be.
  • by freeBill ( 3843 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @02:48PM (#4760686) Homepage
    ...and I've been waiting for the right place to post this. I doubt I'll ever see a place where it will be more on-topic.

    I use TiVo at work and have very specific reasons to turn off profiling: I never want it to record something I didn't tell it to record. It's not that I don't think it's a perfectly good feature. I just don't ever need it.

    A couple of weeks of thumbing TiVo's suggestions up and down and profiling gets pretty good. Other than that, just remember it's not really profiling you. It's just filling the empty space on your hard drive with stuff that's somehow like stuff you've said you like (or stuff you've watched, if you haven't told it anything).

    But I've got a different problem. My TiVo doesn't think I'm gay. I think it's gay. I leave it on CSPAN every night because I like to watch "Washington Journal" in the morning when I come in early to work. I don't want CSPAN cluttering up my hard disk, but (since TiVo auto-records the last 30 minutes of whatever the channel is set to) I'd prefer to have it record something interesting.

    Recently, though, it's been watching The Discovery Channel when I get in to work. It hasn't recorded anything on Discovery; I don't have anything programmed to be recorded on Discovery; I don't even think I've ever watched a Discovery Channel show on it. But there it is: happily watching "Interior Motives" on The Discovery Channel. The only explanation I can come up with: It's got a crush on the host.
    • Nah.

      It's connecting to the Discovery Channel because there is a specific block of time that Tivo buys to send some of the previews and promo clips down to the unit. Instead of trying to dump all of that information over the modem, they buy a half hour block of paid advertising time and send it to the Tivo in encoded format. If your Tivo isn't doing anything else during that time, it will tune itself to Discovery Channel and download all that information.

      If you were watching during that time period, you would also see all of the promotional clips, commercials, etc that your Tivo has on its main menu. Unfortunately, if you don't record anything else, your TV will be on Discovery once the show is finished. Sort of confusing, but I think it's documented on one of Tivo's FAQs.
  • by timbck2 ( 233967 ) <<moc.liamg> <ta> <2kcbmit>> on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @03:09PM (#4760873) Homepage

    To shed a little more light on this, TiVo's suggestions are collaborative; that is, other users' choices figure in to what it records as suggestions for you. That can help explain some of the "inappropriateness" that happens sometimes.

    Here's a link to a thread on the TiVo Community Forums that further explains how TiVo's suggestions engine works: TiVo Community Forum [tivocommunity.com]

  • by David Leppik ( 158017 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @03:27PM (#4761074) Homepage
    As someone who's done work in the field (both academic research and in the private sector), these systems don't "profile" the way, say, police officers do. I can't speak to the specific algorithms used by Tivo or Amazon, but the techniques are generally the same. (Though I can make really good guesses about Amazon, since they have a patent with some specific algorithm descriptions.)

    These systems (generically, recommendation systems or collaborative filtering) don't use pre-defined genres or categories. They use correlations between actions to predict future actions. So your recommendations are essentially based on the sum of your past actions. In other words, you can't make it ignore "gay" stuff by selecting "macho" stuff-- it will just sum those together and you'll get both "gay" and "macho" stuff.

    Worse, if enough people try to outsmart the system, it pollutes the correlations. "Gay" and "macho" items become linked together, and requesting one makes it recommend the other. This can work both ways. If most of the people who record "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" are doing so to counter their watching "Queer as Folk", then someone who watches "Third Reich" will get "Queer" as their first recommendation!

    In case it's not clear how this works, let me describe one generic type of recommendation system. The system forms rules like "People who like A also like B, C, and D" based on analyzing its database, with some definition of "like." This being e-commerce, it's usually "like=buy". It might be more complicated, e.g. "35% of people who buy A also buy B."

    These rules can be shown raw, as Amazon does, or they can be personalized. I've bought A, C, and D, so it combines the rules for A, C and D (using set intersections, sums, averages, etc. depending on how the rules are stored.) It decides, in essence "People who like A like B; people who like C like B; you like A and C, so you probably would like B."

    So if you wanted to counter your watching "Queer as Folk", what you would want to do is not train it with "anti-gay" input, rather you would want to flood it with "everything but gay" input-- BUT you would probably have to do it IN EQUAL PROPORTION to the viewing habits of the average person in their database.
  • by kstumpf ( 218897 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @03:45PM (#4761279)
    Just curious, do you guys use the thumbs up and thumbs down buttons? I've had my Tivo for a few weeks now, and it seems to randomly choose a topic every few days and go out and grab a ton of programs relevant to that topic. As they are recorded, I run through and hit thumbs up or thumbs down on each one. The more you do this, the better the Tivo Suggestions feature will function. My Tivo's just about figured out things I would like.

    Its just a computer. Think about it. If it randomly records Will & Grace, and you play the recording and then say "OMG GAY" and delete it, Tivo can't hear you and probably assumes you watched it. Press thumbs down three times and I guarantee you won't get Will & Grace again.
    • by stevel ( 64802 ) on Tuesday November 26, 2002 @05:42PM (#4762446) Homepage
      When you first get a TiVo, it doesn't have a lot to go on, so it seems to use some generic suggestions to see what you think of them. After a few weeks of regular use, especially if you have set up multiple Season Passes and/or asked to record shows, it will fine-tune the suggestions. Also, if you delete a recorded suggestion without watching it (or more than 5 minutes), the TiVo notes that and adjusts future suggestions (though not as much as a ThumbsDown).

      It is not a good idea to give three thumbs-down on a lot of shows, this will tend to deterioriate the suggestions algorithm. One thumb is usually sufficient, but keep in mind that TiVo doesn't know, for an individual show rating, WHY you thumbed it, so it adds or subtracts weighting from entries for genre, actors, directors, etc.

      As an example - my wife has season passes for various home improvement shows, such as Changing Rooms. So we get lots of suggestions for other home and garden shows, including various Martha Stewart shows. My wife hates Martha, so we give her shows one thumb down, but the TiVo doesn't know it's because of Martha. It's the collective weight of other ratings that tune the suggestions.

      For a while, there was a hidden feature called TeachTiVo, that allowed you to rate individual actors, directors, titles and genres. The UI wasn't complete (and was buggy), and you had to "enable backdoors" to get at it at all. The whole feature was removed in recent versions, unfortunately. I'd like to see something like it return in the future.

Logic is the chastity belt of the mind!