One Step Beyond – The Journey of Steve

The minute he walks through the door, my heart sinks and I can taste the bile seeping up from my tense, overworked belly. Whatever you are, Steve, you are not welcome in my already troubled head – a slim vision, chrome-dome, New Jack douche-bag slinging a red scarf over his shoulder, floating through the Best Buy doors in slow-motion, like a bank robber in an action movie. That must be the reason for the red scarf! So he can toss it aside in mid-pursuit from the fuzz. Genius!

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“Look at my scarf! Just flowing in the wind!”

I understand madness, for I am her prisoner, but Steve takes me one step beyond. He strolls into Best Buy (to the theme music from “Rocky” no less) and everybody’s eyes light up, presumably because they know he’ll be making an ass out of himself in due course. The employees are excited because they know they’ll be getting commissions just in time for the holidays. Only they won’t be dropping their hard-earned dollars at the Best Buy coupled with an insulting employee discount. No. They’ll be stocking up on canned food at the nearest 99-cents store. Commissions are not what they used to be.

If ever there was a cry for help like a sinking sparrow in a pool of pungent mud, it is Steve and his blood-lust for acceptance, acknowledgement, and attention in this maddening and frighteningly lonely world. Steve believes that the only way he can gain the respect and love of his peers and familial relations is to spend absurd amounts of money at his local Best Buy. I mean, is he seriously going to fork out $3000 for an Ultra HD television? Is he looking to claim an inheritance from a forgotten Uncle? You know, a visit every now and then pays off in greater emotional dividends.

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“I am Steve, King of the Mindless Consumers!”

Of course, we know none of this is true. Like Facebook’s “Hope” (living her dream!) before him, Steve is a figment of a zealous advertising agency’s bloated, tedious imagination. Steve is what corporations want us to be: a mindless consumer so bereft of enterprise and creativity that all he can do to not french kiss a light socket or step in front of an oncoming bus is buy a big-screen television. He samples terrible Bose headphones while snapping his fingers, looks at overpriced smart phone screens, and monitors his escalating heartbeat on a ridiculous wristwatch contraption. If Steve had any sense (any sense at all), he would turn around and walk out the door, while giving the middle-finger-salute. But he won’t. He could try to find happiness through other means – whiskers on kittens, the laughter of a child. But he won’t. He could volunteer at a soup kitchen. But he won’t.

Materialism is defined as a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values. While that definition carries a bit of pretentious baggage with it, it still rings true. But I wouldn’t simply define materialism as a consideration, but more a necessity to those who cannot identify that weakness within themselves. People like Steve feel the need to fill the pitiless void at the core of their souls with merchandise. The void might be filled with smart phones, tablets, and trendy headphones or it might be filled with Fabergé eggs, Baccarat crystal goblets, or Michael Kors handbags. As the concept of love retreats, sucked down into the toothy, hellish maw, perhaps Nietzsche’s abyss, if you will, and human contact dies a very lonely death, possessions and needless materials become more prominent in our lives.

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They don’t let me play music at my Best Buy, so what the Hell is he listening to?

I saw a television commercial the other day where two girls are sitting at opposite ends of a sofa, giggling and tapping on their phones. Their befuddled dad asks them if they are texting each other. They both look at him like he is the most clueless moron on the planet and they say, “Yes!” This is what Steve, Best Buy, and countless other entities want us to believe. They don’t want us to consider that heartless pit to which we assign our half-consumed souls and weeping existence. They want us to buy their wares. They don’t care about us. In fact, they’re laughing at us, and they always will. Is it because they know in their heart of hearts we are nothing more than children bedazzled by the latest toy? Perhaps.

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One for each day! Oh wait…

When I walk into my local Best Buy (conveniently right down the block), I don’t see happy, excited faces, copious amounts of cash changing hands, or employees high-fiving each other. I see misery and suffering, envy and greed. I see unwashed faces standing in front of big televisions, shaking their heads, hating themselves for not having enough money. I see crying children pleading with their parents to buy them the latest iPad. I see quick-witted shoplifters peeling lo-jack stickers off compact discs (yes, they still sell them) and pocketing them before a Best Buy employee can bat an eyelash – the famous five-finger-discount.

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Objects in the simulated image may appear less expensive than they actually are.

There is hope, and, appropriately, it emanates from the wisdom of a child. In the run-up to Christmas (most years), I get what I can only call vehement requests from my daughter for the latest toy; the latest distraction, the latest preoccupation that will keep her busy, maybe even keep her mind engaged. I can’t count on both hands how many times I’ve sought out that toy, proudly presented it to her only to have her roll her eyes after two hours of playing with it, bored to salty tears and then having her ask me for something else, something newer, something shinier. The vicious cycle continues. We can only hope we will reach an impasse wherein adults (both young and old) will become bored and demand a newer, shinier toy to play with; perhaps wisdom begins when the child finally puts down the toy.

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“Make sure to get the Best Buy logo on screen as you raise your bag, or else you’re fired!”

So, Steve? I know you don’t exist. I know you don’t go to the Best Buy and make irresponsible choices with your money. In fact, most people I actually know (real flesh-and-blood humans, no less) don’t purchase ridiculous items they either don’t need or can’t afford (or both). Don’t be tempted to play that role just because a television told you to, and whatever you do, don’t wear a red scarf. You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.

“Too Much, Too Soon: The Rise of HD and the Death of CRT”

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You want a new TV?  Okay, you look at the prices.  Steep.  You check out the Best Buy flyers.  Prices are coming down.  So you save up, buy a big-screen LCD, or LED, or (God forbid) Plasma TV, 1080p, 40 inches or more across.  You hook it up to your cable or satellite.  It looks great on the HD channels.  There are more HD channels than ever.  All your local programming is HD.  All the premium channels, the sports, the key basic channels all in big, bright, bold, colorful high definition.  It’s like having a movie theater in your living room!

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This is the problem. You have hundreds, maybe thousands of DVDS gathering dust on the shelf because they just don’t look that great on your new TV. You’ve spent a lot of money in the 20 years since the advent of the digital versatile disc and you don’t want to throw everything away. There’s a very good chance you won’t find another copy of “La Strada”.

You do your homework, research up-converting 1080p DVD players with HDMI hook-ups for your new TV. The good news is they’re fairly cheap. The bad news is they’re not that great. They suffer the same archiving problems, the same stuttering, jarring effect of your old DVD player. Blu-Ray swoops in like Han Solo to save the day, but for a price. The first commercially-available Blu-Ray player (from Sony) cost about a grand. It was a great, clunky thing that took several minutes to load a disc.

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As Blu-Ray players become accepted into living rooms, the prices go down, and it is now possible to find a decent player for under a hundred bucks, but these newer, cheaper Blu-Ray players do not have RCA/composite audio/video jacks, only one HDMI output and (if you’re lucky) a digital audio out, but you have to buy all-new gear to support it. Wasting money with new technology is nothing new. How many cell phones have you owned in your lifetime?

The problem is that these new technologies are rolled out before anybody knows what to do with them. I mention the composite jack problem because I’ve been looking for a Blu-Ray player to replace the old DVD player in my bedroom, but I keep a big-screen CRT (cathode ray tube) TV in there. I have my HD and my Blu-Ray player (which I love because it has a USB connection and wi-fi so I can watch almost anything I have on my computers) in the living room, and I will not let my old CRT go.

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The CRT TV does not have an HDMI jack, so if I shell out for a new Blu-Ray player, I’ll have to find a HDMI-to-RCA jack, not just a jack, but conversion box to decode the signals from the HDMI and make them palatable for my analog receiver! These jacks are very hard to find. You won’t find them at Best Buy for some reason. Electronics companies and retailers want to steer you away from CRT, once and for all. It’s not a conspiracy or anything. It’s just too confusing dealing with all these different formats and wires.

So why not just give up on the old CRT TV? Get with the program! Buy a brand new television! Not too long ago, I took a walk with my daughter down the road to a gas station. It was rubbish removal day in our small town and at the curb of nearly every residence was a television, sometimes more than one television. For the most part, they were CRT TVs, so we played a counting game. We counted all the televisions we saw.

This is a half-mile stretch of road that connects Putnam Avenue and Main Street. By the time we made it to the gas station, we had counted twenty-seven (27) televisions and I think three of them were hi-def. The basement of our new home is a graveyard for CRT televisions, and all of them work perfectly. It seems obvious people want their toys, and it makes disposing of old television sets very difficult, but considering over the last century most programming was produced for standard 4:3 CRT sets.

If you’re a connoisseur of old movies, television shows, and sports (in other words anything produced before March of 1997 when the first widescreen productions were broadcast), you know that most of those products look like crap on high definition screens. Chances are these shows were not given 4K transfers to HD or Blu-Ray. Only a few TV shows have taken that route (“Star Trek: The Next Generation” comes to mind, and now I hear a Blu Ray box set of The Monkees TV show will be released next year) because production costs make it prohibitively expensive to restore and remaster so many classic TV shows for a niche market of fans and pop culture junkies like me. From the late 70s up until the mid-90s, filmed television shows were immediately transferred to video and then edited from U-Matic or Betacam SP tapes which were then shipped to affiliates for broadcast.

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That’s where CRT comes in. It’s quite frankly the only way to truly enjoy all your favorite TV shows, even at the restricted number of pixels (480i as opposed to 1080p, but there is a reason for interlaced as opposed to progressive frames – interlacing fills in the blanks to provide a cleaner image whereas progressive pixels stick out like a sore thumb as they try to interpret DVD and video-tape signals). This is why DVDs and videotapes look better on a CRT screen.

If the rise of DVD wounded the VHS market, then hi-def flat screens killed it. For a while, there was an unusual compromise with high definition CRT television. These were 1080 interlaced tubes that delivered superior picture and were able to display live widescreen television. They worked perfectly with letterboxed TV shows and movies, VHS, DVD, and broadcast high-definition signals. At best, you could get the 480 lines for standard definition and up to 720p for high definition and 720p on CRT looked better than the highest resolutions produced even today. There were drawbacks. The obvious weight issue aside, there were voltage concerns and the coils would superheat. The first models were pricey and this was right before the first plasma and LCD televisions came into market.

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The technology was too fast for it’s own good.  There was virtually no product to support these new enhancements.  Even now, eighteen years out, DVD and Blu-Ray technology has not out-produced conventional video technology nor has it marketed the simplicity that a CRT television and a VCR can provide.  Physical product is being scaled back while the popularity of downloads and streaming soars.  They’ve made it more complicated, more computer-dependent, but not terribly simple.

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LG has introduced the “bendable” LCD screen.  Paper-thin and held in place with a simple magnetic pad, this new screen will weigh ounces and offer the potential of a 4K viewing experience.  Adapted to smart phone technology, we begin to see the possibilities of personal LCD screens in everybody’s back pockets.  Televisions can be installed virtually anywhere.  I have to admit I was extremely excited when I heard of this new development.

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Screens are getting bigger but it doesn’t matter.  There’s only so much visual information the eye can take in and when we go to a movie theater, our eyes selectively rule out anything with limited visual interest, and now we have to do that in our living rooms.  We have the 4K Ultra HD with hundreds of inches of screen space, yet our homes are getting smaller.  Is there a point to this?  Why, I think not!  It doesn’t ultimately matter because we need our toys and we will continue to purchase our toys, and scores of newer high definition televisions will join their CRT counterparts piling up in landfills across the country.

Originally published October 31, 2014 in VHS Rewind!