Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Stuck in a moment you can't get out of

I've been through dramatic, breathtaking transformations in the world of electronics before. It comes with being an old guy. I'm not talking about hearing the 1920 election returns on the radio, or seeing television at the 1939 World's Fair. But I do remember when our family got its first color television around 1965, and how we all used to fight to watch our favorite shows in living color. (Funny how Dad eventually won all the arguments about prime time, leaving me with Officer Joe Bolton and the Three Stooges in glorious black and white.)

My most obvious example of this came in the late 1980's. I had an all-in-one stereo unit of sorts that included a radio, a turntable, and a -- gasp -- eight-track player/recorder. You used to see eight-tracks at flea markets, but they are even getting rare there. But at least I could tape the albums I liked and listen to them in the eight-track player in my car.

But then I got a compact disk player. As Glenn Locke put it, I jumped about 20 years in technology in one trip to the store. Like everyone else at the time, I bought "Brothers in Arms" by Dire Straits, which was practically a demonstration of the CD's abilities.

Now, the process is happening again. Sort of.

Our television in the bedroom recently died, a 20-inch Magnavox that was nothing special but worked well enough for some years. Now, it's silly at this point to buy a set that doesn't have high-definition capability. It's pretty obvioius that all of television will be there sooner rather than later. But I really don't watch enough television to justify a full switch to HD, and it's cable price-tag of more than $100 a month. I was merely counting on a somewhat better picture on the LCD screen for the same price I had been paying.

There was a surprise waiting when I installed the new set. It turns out that the cable company doesn't go out of its way to reveal that the HD signal for local stations is buried on basic cable. In other words, out popped NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox -- all in HD. Yes, the picture is a nice step up; I can tell how long it's been since Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks shaved by watching the NBA Finals. I told a local television personality that she'd better brush her teeth when her station makes the conversion to HD; she'd hear about it from me if she didn't.

The television in the den still has its picture tube, though, and I have to say that the "framing" of the picture size when going back and forth between sets can be maddening. The old, standard broadcast has a 4/3 ratio of width to length. I believe HD is in something like 16/9.

These days, when I watch a show in the den, there's a good chance that I get a picture that doesn't fit the screen. It's particularly evident when graphics come up. For example, I can never see the scoreboard graphic completely when Fox does a baseball game. When my wife asks what the score of the game is, I have to say, "Well, the Mets have three, but I can't tell about the Phillies." One time we were watching a PBS show, and singer "Ichie Havens" was listed in the opening credits. Does Richie Havens have a rash or something?

I'm a patient man; I still have a VCR because it works fine and I have no need to spend extra money for digital cable and its tricks. (Well, I miss C-SPAN2 and HBO, which was bumped to digital cable only, a little -- but that's another argument.) And when my den television dies, as it surely will in a couple of years, I'll upgrade to another HD set and probably break down and spend the extra money.

But in the meantime, I have a toe in two different pools of water, and one is hot and one is cold.

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