Tech: July 2008 Archives

I’ve been enjoying listening to Spark, a Canadian (CBC) radio show on technology and culture. I’ve been listening to their summer long-form interviews, getting a chance to hear from folks whose work I know mostly from blogs and print:

I just discovered CBC Radio’s podcasts. Besides Spark, I’ve also been listening to:

  • C’est la View, an English-language program on Francophone culture
  • White Coat, Black Art, a program on medicine and medical practices and culture
  • Canada Reads, an annual reality-show-style competition where celebrities duke it out to promote their favorite Canadian book

I married into Netflix. I never used to rent movies, but B had an account, but when she gave me a profile under her 3-DVD plan, I started discovering a world of great movies that I’d missed in the theater. The more movies I rated, the better Netflix’s collaborative filtering performed. By the time I’d rated over 600 movies (basically every movie I’ve ever watched), I found myself coming to really trust the Netflix engine, to the point that I now rarely ever watch a movie unless Netflix projects that I’d rate it a 4 or higher. The predictions are eerily accurate—and help me avoid wasting hours watching bad movies.

I was disappointed when Netflix announced that it would cancel the profiles feature, allowing a single account to be split up into multiple queues . Without profiles, B and I would have to end up sharing queues and ratings, giving both of us crappy recommendations. I was particularly annoyed that Netflix would delete all my data.

Annoyed with Netflix I developed a tool last month to export user profile data, back it up, and optionally upload it to another Netflix account. Thankfully, Netflix relented soon after, so the immediate data deletion threat was over. I’ve been using the opportunity to experiment with moving my ratings data to other recommendation platforms, to combat lock-in and test other engines.

The first alternative movie recommendations platform I tested was Yahoo! Movies, powered by ChoiceStream. Porting hundreds of ratings over from Netflix to Yahoo was more difficult than i expected. Yahoo didn’t have every movie that I’d rated in Netflix; in many cases, it was difficult to disambiguate between different works with similar names.

After transferring several hundred ratings, Yahoo! Movies spat out the following recommendations for movies for me to see at the theatre:

  1. The Visitor (hadn’t heard of this, looks interesting)
  2. The Fall (Tarsem visuals, but iffy plot?)
  3. Brick Lane (saw it, glad I went)
  4. The Dark Knight (planning to watch)
  5. The Incredible Hulk (ick, no way)
  6. Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (do they think I’m a 9 year old girl?)

I really have to wonder about The Incredible Hulk and Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, but the first four recommendations aren’t bad. Unfortunately, Yahoo recommendations only touch movies in the theater and DVD releases, but they do do a good job of providing an immediate personally-filtered read on what interesting general-release movies are playing. I plan to look them up the next time I want to go see a movie and have no idea what’s playing.

I’m reasonably happy with this project so far. I’ve been able to get my data out of a closed system, save it as a personal backup, and move it to another platform. If Netflix had kicked users like me off their site by shutting down profiles, I would have had the capacity to move. While Yahoo! Movies’ collaborative filtering system isn’t a reasonable substitute for Netflix’s at this time, there may be others out there that do a better job.


Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.


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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Tech category from July 2008.

Tech: May 2008 is the previous archive.

Tech: August 2008 is the next archive.

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