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TORRENTial Downloading
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“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. I have not been to confession for…er..uh…52 years. Okay, so I’m not Catholic. But I’ve been feeling a little guilt over a recent episode, so I figured I better come clean about it. Nothing like a little confession to cleanse the soul, eh? And better talkin’ to a priest than a cop.”

“Why do you speak in this strange manner, my son?”

“Why do you ask so many friggin’ questions? I’ll tell ya’ why I’m talkin’ like this. I saw Sin City last night and it’s made my whole world go topsy-turvy. You see that much ultra-violence and hear that much noirration and you start talking like this. You should see the scene where he wastes the priest in the confessional. Hilarious! Oh, sorry!”

All right, enough with the Sin City talk. But I did do a tiny little bad thing and I do want to talk about it.

My family and I returned from Easter break in sunny Orange County and plopped down on the sofa to watch the most recent episode of the hormone-fueled teen comedy-drama The O.C. , which we’d taped in our absence. To our horror, we learned that the episode had been pre-empted by a Giants baseball game and that The O.C. had aired instead on a “sister” channel. Yikes! Not a big deal, you’re thinkin’. Maybe to you. But we watch this show religiously as a family and because it has an ongoing story, you really don’t want to miss an episode. Unfortunately, few people that we know watch the show. We called my wife’s sister, who had TiVo’d it, but she had long since unhooked her VCR, so we couldn’t get it from her. We made a few other calls, but came up empty. Were we going to stoop so low as to have to read a summary of that episode on the Internet sometime before the next program aired?

I decided to try a gamble. I went into an Internet chat group about the Grateful Dead that I occasionally frequent, and I laid out my dilemma. Deadheads are a weird bunch, I figured. A lot of them are technologically hip. They practically invented taping concerts and trading, after all. Maybe there’s an O.C. fan out there who happened to tape the show. I was not encouraged when the first couple of responses to my pitiful entreaty were things like “Kill your television” and “What the hell is an O.C.?”

But within the hour, I had gotten a reply that steered to me into a strange new place: the world of bit torrents.

Now, I’m not the most technologically savvy guy in the world. Have you ever seen those great claymated cartoons featuring “Prometheus and Bob”—a cranky futuristic alien and a really stupid caveman? Well, I’m like Bob, the caveman. Look up “troglodyte” in your Webster’s and you’ll find my picture. “Bit torrent? Ugh. What is?”

Actually, a few months earlier, I had first encountered bit torrents when a Deadhead pal, out of the blue, sent me several bootleg videos that had been downloaded from a bit torrent site directly to DVD. These were commercial-quality versions of videos I had previously owned as crappy high-generation VHS copies. I was stunned at how good the DVDs looked and sounded. I spent a moment thinking about the legal end of this: why can someone download for free a DVD which is probably a video the Dead will eventually want to release commercially themselves? Same was true for their never-released 1972 concert film, Sunshine Daydream, which was one of the other bit torrent DVDs my friend made for me. I know that’s in the Dead’s release plans. I figured, ‘well, not too many people have the time, inclination or acumen to get into these complicated downloads, so it’s probably just a few folks doing it.’

Wrong. Lots of people are doing it. And what exactly is “it?” Well, I went through page after page of explanations about it on the Internet, but my eyes sort of glazed over and I couldn’t really retain much of what I read. The bitorrent.com FAQ section was literally 26 pages long. Here’s some of the propaganda intro on the website:
“BitTorrent is a free speech tool.

“BitTorrent gives you the same freedom to publish previously enjoyed by only a select few with special equipment and lots of money… You have something terrific to publish—a large music or video file, software, a game or anything else that many people would like to have. But the more popular your file becomes, the more you are punished by soaring bandwidth costs. If your file becomes phenomenally successful and a flash crowd of hundreds or thousands try to get it at once, your server simply crashes and no one gets it.

“There is a solution to this vicious cycle. BitTorrent, the result of over two years of intensive development, is a simple and free software product that addresses all of these problems. The key to scaleable and robust distribution is cooperation. With BitTorrent, those who get your file tap into their upload capacity to give the file to others at the same time. Those that provide the most to others get the best treatment in return. ("Give and ye shall receive!")
“Cooperative distribution can grow almost without limit, because each new participant brings not only demand, but also supply. Instead of a vicious cycle, popularity creates a virtuous circle. And because each new participant brings new resources to the distribution, you get limitless scalability for a nearly fixed cost…”

I’m not really sure what any of that means, but this I do know: There’s tons of stuff up there in the Internet ether, most of it copyright controlled, that is being downloaded by an awful lot of people for free.

In fact, this is how I got my episode of The O.C. The same person in the Dead chat room who had hipped me bittorrent.com mentioned specifically that I could find my O.C. episode on tvtorrents.com. A mouseclick later, there it was, complete with a still photo from the show. And on the same Internet page you could also find that week’s Survivor or West Wing or 24 or practically any major network show. You just have to download ‘em.

After looking through endless spec sheets and explanations about why it was both virtuous and easy to download from a bit torrent site, I ultimately decided it was not for me. You see, I’ve had a lot of computer problems the past year and a half or so and I’ve become really paranoid about downloading programs and such to my hard disk. Honestly, I have nothing against the Indian people—in fact I wish I was chomping a piece of lamb curry-soaked naan right now—but I’m really tired of spending hour after hour on the phone with technicians in Bangalore and Mumbai trying to fix some computer nightmare I’ve stepped into, always through no fault of my own. So I was not about to start downloading giant files from god-knows-where just to watch a stupid television show. Besides, someone in the chat rooms said that their girlfriend in New Mexico might have taped what I needed and if they were on good enough terms when he called, maybe she’d send it to me. Where’s Dr. Phil when you need him? I’m at the mercy of their relationship? What’s up with that? Anyway, it turns out there was a power outage over much of New Mexico that night and the gf didn’t tape it. Oh, well.

Meanwhile, my wife, who works as an editor at a major metropolitan newspaper, asked around her job to see if anyone had taped The O.C. Nope, ‘fraid not. However, we learned that one of the higher-ups there was also looking for that episode—he, too had unknowingly taped and hour of Giants baseball that night and was similarly peeved—and he actually had the gumption to call up the TV station that had pre-empted the show and convinced them to give him a tape of it. Ooh, feel the power!

So we were covered. Whew. That’s a load off. Back at the Jackson house, my computer-savvy 14-year-old had taken it upon himself to try downloading the episode from tvtorrent.com. He must’ve done something wrong, though, because literally 20 hours later, it was still downloading and all we had was audio. See, this is why I don’t mess with this stuff.

Then another guy in the Dead chat room—Jeff from Santa Cruz—revealed that my plight had inspired him to try to download the episode himself. He was a veteran bit torrent downloader, but he’d never gone to tvtorrent before. Good news! He had been successful—it took him about three hours, he said—and he kindly put it in the mail for me after watching it himself.

Two days later, the DVD from Jeff arrived and my wife came home with the VHS copy from the television station. We decided to watch the VHS copy, since we had no idea if the DVD was going to be any good. We figured getting a tape from the station itself was a guarantee of quality. The first thing we noticed on the tape is that it was widescreen, rather than the way we usually watch it when it’s broadcast. That’s cool, though—it’s shot that way. But the quality, quite frankly, was really bad. The colors were over-saturated and runny and there was some ghosting. Suddenly Marisa had four breasts. Actually this is standard VHS stuff.

“Let’s try the DVD!” We put it in and, oh man, what a difference! It, too, was in the widescreen format, but the picture was infinitely better—in fact it looked better than the broadcast ever does. When I asked Jeff about this later, he said, “Whoever uploaded it originally to the site probably had it in hi-def.” Wow! And no commercials!

I suppose it’s pretty hypocritical of me to rant, as I have, about Kazaa and Grokster and all those other free music file-sharing sites that I know are siphoning off millions, perhaps, billions of dollars of potential income from musicians and record companies, yet feel that getting my bit torrent DVD of The O.C. is okay. Part of me says, “Hey, it’s just like borrowing a videotape from a friend.” Or, “It’s legal to make a VHS or TiVo copy of it—what’s the difference?” Why should I have to wait for a re-run, because the airwaves are free, no money is exchanging hands, nobody is being denied a royalty. The only people who are hurt in this transaction are the companies that advertised on the show, and I guarantee that if I’d successfully taped it, I would’ve skipped through the commercials when I watched it. Maybe I would’ve seen a few seconds of this product or that TV promo buzzing by at high speed, though. But I’m not in the market for tampons and I have no plans to watch House.

So that’s my story. It’s a minor sin at most, I hope. And I’m not going to make a habit of it. And you’ll still never find me downloading a song illegally from the Internet…cross my heart and hope to…well, unless I really need to get it. And it sure would be nice to have a copy of Sin City.

Send your own tales of technological degradation to blair@blairjackson.com.