Man Over Microchip

Ron Karpinski  ©2002


No task in this modern age is more hopelessly complicated than "programming" a video cassette recorder (VCR).  My wife and I have owned two VCR's in the past twenty years, and neither of them ever functioned properly.  It took months of tinkering to configure the options; and, every time the power went out, the settings disappeared.

So it was with great trepidation that we recently embarked on a mission to replace our old VCR.  After shopping around for a few weeks, we settled on a model with six-heads, hi-fi stereo, virtual surround sound, and the trademark "MegaLogic" operating system.

Although quite similar in appearance to previous versions, this new VCR heralds a heretofore unheard of advancement in home electronics: the sales brochure claims that it will program itself, automatically -- after a human being inserts the single European SCART cable into a slot on the rear of the television set and plugs in the power cord.

Naturally, it fell upon the male of the household to perform this simple task; but, first, I had to bore a hole through the one-foot-thick brick wall separating our living room from the master bedroom.  There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.

Having lived in several countries during recent years, our assemblage of household appliances has grown to include versions with U.S. plugs, German plugs, and Swiss plugs.  The U.S. and German plugs both work fine in Switzerland, with proper adaptors; but, when three different plug styles and two different adaptors all converge on a single wall outlet, as is the scene behind our stereo and television ensemble, the resulting construction looks like a miniature version of the international space station.

An unoccupied AC receptacle was clearly visible through an open hole in the jumbled mass, but two bulky plug combinations in adjacent receptacles blocked access to it.  Rather than redesign the "space station," it seemed easier to just run a cable through the wall and splice into an unused AC outlet in the bedroom.

Once supplied with alternating current, the VCR did, indeed, begin the setup process all by itself.  The date and time display appeared, as if by magic; and a note on the screen announced that there would be no need to reset after every power outage or for daylight savings time.  A smart little microchip deep in the bowels of the VCR simply searched for a TV channel with "video text" and copied the date and time from there.

Most television channels in Europe have video text.  With the touch of a single button on the remote control, the TV screen switches to a multi-colored display that broadcasts breaking news, weather, previews of upcoming programs, and other information of general interest.  The date and time are updated via a continuous radio signal.

No need for any human to tune in channels on this wonder VCR, either.  In less than a minute, the brainy little microchip had analyzed the TV configuration and downloaded the entire channel structure intact.  It also determined that the attached television had a wide-screen (16:9) monitor and adjusted its playback settings accordingly.

So far, so good.  Next came the moment of truth: actually inserting a video cassette into the VCR and playing it back on the TV screen.  For this honor, I pulled a copy of "Bull Durham" off the shelf -- a store-bought original of an American baseball classic -- and popped it into the open slot.  The machine swallowed it whole, slammed shut, and began humming and whirring.

No need to change to the video channel on the TV or even turn on the TV, for that matter.  Just pop a tape in the VCR.  The miracle microchip does the rest.

Again, with absolutely no human intervention, the TV came to life -- tuned to the video channel.  In addition, the VCR recognized instantly that the tape in its belly had been recorded in NTSC (standard U.S.) format, as opposed to PAL (standard European) format, and adjusted its multitude of floating heads to accommodate the foreign standard.  After a few seconds, a picture appeared . . . but no sound.

The stupid moron of a microchip had locked itself into the automatic fine-tune mode.  Mired in an endless loop, the VCR continuously attempted to sharpen the focus of the NTSC picture, blocking the sound in the process and covering a large portion of the screen with tuning instructions and an adjustment scale.

It is common for an NTSC film to appear slightly fuzzy on a PAL television set, due to differing monitor standards.  PAL television sets produce 625 horizontal lines of resolution while NTSC sets have only 525; hence, the image from a tape recorded in the NTSC format is spread across an area roughly eight percent greater on a PAL television set.  Apparently, the little microchip didn't know this.

*          *          *          *          *

The next three days were spent huddled over the twenty-page instruction booklet.  Actually, the booklet is broken down into five sections, each twenty pages long, written in German, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and "Taiwanese English." 

Why, you might ask, does a television set manufactured in Germany come packaged with operating instructions written in Taiwanese English?  Simple, it's the law.  The World Trade Organization has awarded Taiwan the exclusive right to produce all product literature written in the English language.

Unfortunately, the user manual accompanying our new VCR made no reference to the automatic fine-tune feature -- not in Taiwanese English or in any of the other four languages.  Time, then, to forget the book and fall back on the average American male's strongest problem-solving skill: pointing a remote control device.

The remote control unit for our new VCR has thirty-five buttons.  I pushed every one of them at least a hundred times and in dozens of different combinations; but no amount of human intervention could convince that stubborn little microchip to release its hold on "Bull Durham."  Switching tapes had no effect at all.  As a last resort, I entered the forbidden land of "special features" in the on-screen display.

By pressing the "menu" button on the remote control and selecting the "service" option, an impressive array of special features came into view, including AV2-IN, PIN8-CONTROL, OSD-MODE, RF-CHANNEL, and ATS-RESTART -- each requiring manual input.  My, my, it seems this example from the newest generation of video cassette recorders isn't so automatic, after all.

It also appears that Taiwanese authors of English user manuals find it unnecessary to include any explanation next to the title of a special feature.  Their rationale?  If the user is not already familiar with a particular special feature, he has no business going there.

One-by-one, I activated every special feature listed on the screen.  None of them could free the picture from that cursed automatic fine-tune mode.

*          *          *          *          *

On the evening of the third day, I sat on the sofa, staring across the room at our shiny new VCR, perched on a shelf under the TV.  Say, look at that big round knob on the right side.  Wonder what that's for?  Quick, go get the instruction booklet.

As one might expect, none of the sections in the user manual made any reference to the big round knob; however, a black-and-white diagram at the beginning of the book did provide front and rear views of the VCR housing, and the knob showed quite clearly.  Opposite the drawing of the knob, the following text appeared:

Turn knob to the left -- during playback:
 forward search;
 when stopped: fast forward.
Turn knob to the right -- during playback:
reverse search;
when stopped: fast rewind.


At first glance, it appeared as though the Taiwanese English Writer's Union had been infiltrated by a Japanese Haiku artist.  The punctuation, in an abstract way, also had a poetic look; but none of the words made any sense.

The problem with the VCR had nothing to do with searching, going fast forward, reversing, or rewinding.  Still, the word "playback" appeared twice, and we most certainly did want to "play back" a video cassette.  Maybe the big round knob was worth a try.

I turned on the VCR, inserted the faithful "Bull Durham," and . . . waited.

When the automatic fine-tune mode took hold and wouldn't let go, I reached down and twisted the mystery knob to the right.  Immediately, the screen went blank.  A second later, the word "tracking" scrolled across the bottom of the screen in white letters.  Five or six blinking rectangular blocks extended to the right, representing -- one can only guess -- the struggling microchip's progress at synchronizing with the tape.

After an agonizingly long period, perhaps five or six seconds, a picture slowly emerged on the TV screen, followed by . . . SOUND!  It worked!

*          *          *          *          *

Once again, practical experience proves that artificial intelligence, regardless of how advanced, is no match for the average American male, given his innate and complete understanding of all things mechanical.


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