Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Hot Topic: FM is Stereo

Due to time limitations and a general lack of anything to say of late, I did not participate in the most recent edition of the Hot Topic. And as is the way with these things, this weeks edition became the Editors Choice for the week.

From the occasionally troubled minds of this disparate flock of bloggers, the question of whether technological advances weaken our senses is tossed about, and I revisit the lost art of installing car stereos.

Plus, The Duke discusses the medical retraction of jewels, Eric admits he knows not what he does, and Mark ponders the value of internet-savvy refrigerators.

From: Bennett Dawson
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: FM Is Stereo

My lovely wife and I were talking about those "Top-Ten Hit CDs" from the sixties and seventies. You know, the ones that get hustled on those 30-minute late-night infomercials. Me saying that they're really cool because "...those are all the songs that buzzed out of my candle wax-covered AM clock radio when I was a teenybopper..."

Back in 1970, dig?

My wife looked puzzled, trying to absorb a stone-age concept. AM clock radio?

Before I could explain, a sideways brain connection fizzled through my synapses, and I started wondering about "when did FM start broadcasting?" and "Do I actually remember that historic event?"

Yes folks, it's sad but true. In 1970, FM was just like HDTV - meaning I didn't have it.

This led to a brief discussion about the difference between AM and FM, and to my surprise, my wife couldn't tell me the profound difference between the two. Now let me say that my wife is brilliant in her field of expertise, and knows many things that I haven't a clue about. But she had a slightly different upbringing (she's a girl), and was eight years further down the timeline than me. That being the case, FM radio was all she ever listened to.

"All the music was on FM, and AM was all talk radio and traffic and weather."

She knew that FM stations "sounded better" in her car, but that's about it. The "stereo" in the house sounded good because it had two speakers and besides, we paid more money for it than the clock radio, so it had to sound better.

She never truly realized that with stereo, each speaker has slightly different music coming out of it, two distinct tracks. I have no idea what she thought about the sound system in her relatively new Jetta, with speakers every few inches in the doors and body panels. 'More speakers = better sound' is what I'd suppose. Understanding that AM is one track and FM is two tracks was not part of her grip on aural reality.

She protests. "That's not true!" she says. "My CD Walkman has different sounds for each ear, I just never wondered why or how."

Lemme tell ya, my generation was intensely aware of "stereo" and knew exactly what it was. Dammit, we wanted stereo! Our first used cars (junker cars from the fifties and sixties) had an AM push button radio with one speaker in the dashboard. NOT cool.

So we installed a new FM radio under the dash (possibly a cassette or eight track tape player... woo hoo!) and two speakers in the rear window deck. We cut holes and ran wires and hooked up fuses, and then we cruised down the road grooving to 'stereophonic sound'.

Nowadays, everything is pre wired with stereo. Teenagers don't know how to run speaker wires, what channels are, or how a noise suppresser gets rid of the clicking sound coming from the ignition system. Hell, let's be real - nowadays, kids don't even know what an ignition system is. Technology has moved on and the inner workings of a car are as mysterious as the inner workings of a nuclear reactor. If your car breaks down, you use your cell phone to call a tow truck!

What other basic knowledge of 'how things work' has dropped from our pop culture? The home fuse box? Batteries? Pilot lights?

Have we morphed into an icon driven world, with no understanding of what lies beneath the shiny plastic logo-embossed surface? Is it really possible to take stereo so much for granted that folks have no understanding of what they're hearing? Are we being blinded by science?

Or is this just yer standard progression of technology - unfortunately revealing that I'm one old, and somewhat obsolete fella?

By the way, while I was writing this piece, my 21 year-old stepdaughter called, and she has no idea what the word "stereo" means. "A synonym for sound system" was her best guess.

From: Aaron - Duke De Mondo
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: FM Is Stereo

This is all the intriguing in the world. Maybe we ARE those icon-driven hordes ain't got a clue how the torch works but sod it, it's sleek an' white an' the ladies wanna touch me when i got it in the paw.

I'm a software sort, yes, with nary a clue about hardware. I'm gonna go ahead an' reveal the age, bein' 23, an' i can assure you i ain't got the faintest a faints regarding how you might wire a plug. They TRIED to teach me, but imma go play a tune or two, if'n it's all the same. Ain't got a clue how the amp works, or the guitar, but i don't especially worry.

Anecdotal aside - way back when, i remember my ex-fiancee tellin' me that her then-ex-boyfriend used to come 'round to help her dad wire electrical stuff. I think most likely my nuts disappeared somewheres midst the liver (still in there, too, fish the fuckers out wi' a coat-hanger is all a man can do). Felt like i was no kinda MALE if'n I couldn't fix the telly.

Maybe it's cause a buncha youngster-types, far more than used to, are headin' in the direction a university an' theoretical based stuff, as opposed to learnin' trades an so on, which is where this kinda knowledge is handed down, i suppose. Maybe that's not the case at all, maybe i'm just justifyin' my bum-fluff an no-nuts.

Regarding stereo, it all made sense to me when i played Sgt. Pepper's in the car stereo back when i was 13 or so, and realized i was only hearin' half the record. Until that point i probably assumed somethin' similar, that stereo just meant Better Sound. I suppose there comes a point when a society can forget about stuff like Mono and Analogue. The differences 'tween these things probably only have any worth to the folks who live through the change-over.

From: Eric Berlin
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: FM Is Stereo

I think we've entered the age of the super-user, where we run every aspect of our lives -- from brushing our teeth with an electric tooth brush to laying down with an electric blanket of an evening, and all the server-happy Internet play and work-related electronic tomfoolery in between -- via technology of which we haven't the foggiest notion.

Take the words I'm typing right now that cause letters to magically appear on my computer screen. I have a notion that when I type a "v", a "v" appears, or that when I want to say "ultra tubular with consecrated cream cheese linings for upshot adornment of life-melted dude-scape" I can get that message across and feel quite certain I've made an ass of myself in the process.

However, I have no idea how the inner workings go. I imagine there are ones and zeros and electronic processes involved, but I don't even have a fundamental understanding of the mechanical function behind an activity I sometimes spend 12-15 hours a day hacking away at.

And don't even get me started with the mouse!

Sometimes I think about the Roman Empire and the descent into the Dark Ages. About how the art and technology devolved from one generation to another because everyone basically forgot how it was done before. Obviously, we're not in that phase. We're in a phase of astounding innovation and bedazzling art and sights to behold that would blow the mind (a la Scanners) of an 8th-century hombre right straight.

But what if we lost those folks who know how stuff works? What if they end up on the island in Lost (pushing that damned button every 108 minutes) or get herded to the Manhattan of Escape From.... fame?

It's an interdependent world with all the good and bad trimmings of it, I suppose is the upshot.

That, and it's utter gold to know a good mechanic who won't rip you off.

From: Mark Saleski
To: The Hot Topic Team
Re: FM Is Stereo

Ah yeah, so here we have another discussion where technology is concerned. More specifically the effects of "the march".

It's interesting that it's mostly taken for granted that advances in technology are a "good thing". For the most part, I suppose that they are. But then I hear about events like the recent Consumer Electronics Show where concepts such as "digital lifestyle" are touted. Sure enough, we get all of these home devices interconnected and talking to each other. But do we really want to?

This reminds me of back when I used to watch The Jetsons, where dinner consisted of a food pill. Gross. Perhaps even sillier than manufactured food is the very real Internet-enabled refrigerator. Oh yes, it'll keep an inventory for you. It'll notify you when it's time to buy more eggs.

You've got to be kidding me.

Some of this is an extension of what often happens during software development. Engineers, being the tinkering sort, can't resist adding features and/or extra layers to things. The result? Bloatware. Sometimes useful, sometimes not. Ever notice how things like "digital lifestyle" are almost always promoted by men? I don't think this is a coincidence.

Don't take any of this to mean that I have the fear that these new technologies are going to complicate my life. They won't, mostly because they're not comin' in my front door. No, I don't need a digital book to take on vacation because the books that I do own work just fine. I can figure out when to refill my refrigerator using the analog method: the notepad attached to the freezer door. Music is still played through tubes and wire, because these nice digital files sound like crap.

So what do we lose when nobody knows how any of this newfangled stuff works? I'm not sure. In some cases, particularly when talking about media (books, music, etc.), it puts the consumer at one more remove from the artist. I don't think that vinyl records are the 'perfect' medium, but the expansive liner notes allowed me as a fan to get to know the person at the other end. Sure, this can be done in the digital realm, but is it?

Ah, maybe Bennett's right. Maybe I'm just old and obsolete.

P.S. In the middle of typing this, the guy in the cube next to me was 'attacked' by his Instant Messenger -- he floated his mouse over it and it started playing a ringtone-y version of "My Humps". Now that is an advance.

These bloggers have had their say, now it's your chance to chip in!

Do you remember an "old way" of getting things done that seemed superior to the "newfangled" way? Do your friends sneer at your approach to fixin' stuff, amazed that you've not a clue? Or are you one of those folks totally comfortable letting "specialists" deal with the inner workings of 90% of your world?

Tell us the truth, are you completely happy being a "user", with no idea how these damned things actually work?

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