A Rant on Commerce

So, let me put on my Andy Rooney hat (again) for a second.

(Disclosure:  I also posted an abbreviated version of this rant on Facebook earlier today.)

I've been looking periodically for ice melt for the front steps.  I don't want a 20lb bag of it, I want a plastic container with a lid I can open and shake a bit out.  Unbelievably, the only place I found this was at Target five days before Christmas, and I wasn't standing in line for 20 minutes for a $6 jug of salt.

Incidentally, Lowe's, Home Depot, and True Value down here all want to sell you $15 handheld crank spreaders you'd use for grass seed or fertilizer, plus the 20lb bag.

Well, last night I thought I'd stop back in at Target and pick up the container of ice melt that I wanted.  I was disappointed but unsurprised to find that they were sold out, but the real irritation was the fact that I had to ask a Target team member to figure this out, and said member was annoyed because clearly he had been asked this same question at least a dozen times.

With that set up, here's my curmudgeon rant, which is two-pronged:

Why do stores go so far out of their way these days to hide the fact that some items are out of stock?  Are they really that compulsive that they need all the shelves to appear fully stocked at all times?

I mean, I get that this is entirely due to our modern Just-In-Time system:  Stores keep much less stock "in the back" than they used to, some corporate inventory system allocates stock inventory, and the warehouses keep only enough stock to fill orders, and the manufacturers set up their production lines to make only enough to fill the orders they have.

So in many cases, even if a local store owner looked at the weather and said, "Gee, I could order 250 more jugs of ice melt and make a killing next Tuesday" they don't have the authority to do that.  Even if they did, there's no room for it on the truck because the delivery is already optimized for a full trailer, there isn't any extra in the warehouse, and the place that makes it doesn't have the workers to start up an extra line to make more.

I had the same discussion two weeks ago with a manager at Trader Joe's.  A couple of weeks back, spoothbrush sent me out to see if they had any cocoa truffles left, because they are amazing.  I asked if they still had any and the guy laughed at me.  He said that corporate puts in one order and they get what they get.  "Buddy, I could have sold another 5,000 of them, but the store gets what it gets," he said.

But back to stocking the shelves.  What's wrong with allowing customers to see that you're out of something?  Especially when it's an item that's popular and timely.  Wouldn't an empty shelf with a little sign saying "Sorry, we're out of ice melt, we'll have more on Monday" take some of the pressure off the floor workers?

Plus, I wasted 15 minutes walking the store looking for it before I stopped someone.  Which I guess is in Target's best interests to have happen, thinking I might see something else I would want to buy.  But now I'm vaguely irritated I can't find any trace of it -- or where it ought to be, so I'm predisposed to be less kind to the staff than I otherwise would be.  And if I hadn't asked, I could have just as easily walked away thinking "Gee, Target must not ever carry ice melt at all, I won't think to look for it there in the future."

Gah.  I walked out of Lowe's because I thought the $15 spreader was gouging, but if you figure the value of the time I've burned between the trips to Target and writing this, I should have just paid the man and gotten on with my life.

Cool Cap

Best TV Intros

So I was talking with rakko78 recently and the TV show "The Fall Guy" came up. This prompted me to say I thought it has one of the 20 best title sequences of all time. Not only does it have a catchy theme, but the clips match the lyrics pretty well:

So, gentle reader, while I'm thinking about this, give me some nominations for best TV intros. Tell me why it's good! And feel free to name shows you think have overrated titles too.
Matthew 2010

Troubleshooting the BVU-870

So, some time back I wrote an article about my attempts to obtain higher-quality video output from my old warhorse 3/4" deck (see Stupid U-Matic Tricks). The one thing about documenting my efforts is that it pulled together a lot of useful information I simply didn't have before. Like information on other gear out there that was available on eBay to do the job for under $100. That was valuable.

I wound up getting a Panasonic UTP-2 transcoder to supplement my homebrew solution. Once I had it up and running, I decided I should at least attempt to apply the scientific method to things to see how my handiwork stacked up to a pro solution. So I hooked my cables back up and dug up a tape with color bars on it. I turned on my trusty BVU-870, and... well... The AUTO OFF indicator lit up and the LED counter started blinking weird characters. It wouldn't load a tape and it wouldn't pass video. And since the universe tends toward maximum irony, it had to happen at that moment.

I power cycled the unit several times, and eventually the LED display stopped lighting up at all. This wasn't at all good. And the only help I got from my old friend Google was a suggestion that the moisture sensor thought there was condensation on the video heads. I read through the service manual and found nothing helpful either. I sent an Email to an old TV engineer I know who used to work with a lot of BVU-800s and he had never run into anything like it either.

I had other things to do so I set the problem aside, occasionally turning the unit on and off to see if anything changed. Nothing. A few weeks later, I took a trip to see my folks in Illinois. While I was there I took the opportunity to pull all the boards from my spare machine which lives in a closet there like a heavy but benign troll. Swapping them all out when I got home made one difference. Now every light on the control panel lit up. But it still wouldn't load a tape.

Finally I pull the thing out of my equipment rack and break out the "THORY OF OPERATION" manual (Engrish or Typo -- YOU DECIDE!) and decide to track down and basically short circuit the moisture sensor to see what would happen. That's when I stare at the fuse panel on the back and decide to take a peek inside. And sure enough, there's a 5V fuse which had blown out.

A trip to Radio Shack and $3.50 later, and my BVU-870 runs like a champ. Which makes me simultaneously grateful and annoyed, because I could have fixed it a month ago if the symptoms would have pointed me more firmly to check the fuses. I mean, why the hell should I expect there's a bad fuse when the machine powers up and the fan starts running?? Or something in the troubleshooting section of the service manual, maybe? Not to mention the time I spent digging out and packing up the spare boards to bring back to New York, which now are in a box here in the apartment taking up precious space. Not to mention I now have a U-Matic deck spread across two states and I won't be able to use the spare in a pinch since its guts are a thousand miles away.

Oh well. It works again and now I can do some tests.
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Matthew 2010

Classic DW Core Characters & Concepts

As a follow-up to my last post, I got to thinking about how even if I were going to introduce someone to the new Doctor Who, that I would still prefer to introduce certain core concepts from the series, well, from the classic series.

This is in part because I'm a believer in context, but also because while the new series gives you enough to go on, for the most part it doesn't fill in the backstory very much on a lot of topics because it doesn't have the time. (The Cybermen being an exception -- their alt-universe backstory reboot is actually pretty good.)

But this got me to thinking. Say you have someone who has enough general idea of what DW is about simply by being exposed to fans for a time, and you want to introduce them to a particular pillar of the show. Which stories would you pick? Never mind whether the story is considered one of the series greats or not, it just needs to have a reasonable entry point for a newbie. Mostly I'm thinking about the major villains, but also things like the Time Lords and regeneration.

The Daleks
The obvious answer here is to start with "The Daleks", but I reject it. For one, a lot of the early Hartnell era is an acquired taste to begin with. And for two, the Daleks came to be portrayed rather differently as the series matured. If it still existed, I think I'd say "The Power of the Daleks" because it builds up so well to showing the characteristics that define them. "Resurrection of the Daleks", "Revelation of the Daleks", and "Remembrance of the Daleks" are both fantastic, but bad for introductions since you need to know about Davros to understand why there are two Dalek factions. Jon Pertwee and Terrance Dicks never really believed in the Daleks and it shows. So that leaves the superlative "Genesis of the Daleks". Even though the sort of prologue at the beginning is easier to understand if you know who the Daleks are, once you're past that you get a good buildup of what they're about and you meet Davros at his 'best' as well.

The Cybermen
This one was tougher than I thought. Obviously "The Tenth Planet" is out -- unless the BBC gives us an animated restoration of Episode 4 in the near future. And that's kind of sad because it would also be a good candidate as a regeneration story. There's "Tomb of the Cybermen" which is good (and a great showcase for Pat Troughton's Doctor to boot). "The Invasion" could work, too. There's a part of me that wants to use "Earthshock" since it's a good reintroduction, but the whole Adric thing would confuse a new viewer. "Revenge of the Cybermen" and "Silver Nemesis" are both crap... And "Attack of the Cybermen" works best if you already have seen the B&W stuff. I guess I will settle on "Tomb of the Cybermen" after all, because it fills in the backstory better than "The Invasion".

The Master
I really feel like this is a case where you begin at the beginning and "Terror of the Autons" is the place to start. I can make a case for better 'Master' stories but Roger Delgado was the first and the best, and the interplay between him and the Doctor is magnificent here. "The Deadly Assassin" is fantastic, but it really isn't the character's finest hour. And "Logopolis" is far, far too chock full of other things going on to start someone new on for this purpose. I'm sure that someone reading this will be utterly baffled that I didn't pick "The Daemons", but just don't see that as a great place to start.

The Time Lords
Although I keep wanting to come back to "The War Games" since it introduces us to so many things about them, I have to go with "The Deadly Assassin" as it really marks the start of the 'modern' interpretation of Gallifrey which has been built upon ever since. Which makes for an interesting recursion: How do you introduce a story to a newbie about the Time Lords when you sort of need to know about the Master already, and how do you show a newbie a story about the Master when you sort of need to know that he's a Time Lord?

This one's a bit tricky, because ideally you want a story that explains regeneration, not necessarily a story where a regeneration takes place. There's an urge here to go with the whole "The Keeper of Traken"/"Logopolis"/"Castrovalva" arc except this would make our excerpts very Master-heavy. It'd also make for a marathon of 12 episodes. And as great as "The Caves of Androzani" is and despite it having what I think is the best regeneration of all of them, like much of '80s DW it does sort of act like you already know the concept. "Spearhead from Space" would be a good candidate, but I discount it since there isn't an actual regeneration scene. So despite the atrocious alien-world sets I think I'll settle on "Planet of the Spiders".

Ah, UNIT. Here's another one that begs a knee-jerk nod to "The Daemons". And it does showcase the so-called 'UNIT Family' (The Brig, Sgt. Benton, Capt. Yates, Jo, & the Doc vs. the Master) but it really isn't a very good story for UNIT as an organization as they're pretty ineffective throughout. Although, if I ask the question 'When was UNIT effective?' does not bring a story immediately to mind -- with the exception of "The Invasion". But since UNIT is really a Pertwee-era thing, I would reject that. "Inferno" perhaps? "Spearhead from Space"? How about "The Mind of Evil"? Or maybe "The Daemons" after all. Huh.

So that would be 0 Hartnells, 1 Troughtons, 3 Pertwees, 2 Tom Bakers, and 0 Davisons, Colin Bakers, and McCoys. Interesting, that.
Matthew 2010

Mmm, Pinups

So, I'm a fan of the classic pin-up. Here are two websites that show the model's photo and the finished product which makes for a really cool behind-the-scenes reveal.

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Sad Kit

"My Sarah Jane"

If you're a Doctor Who fan and haven't seen the BBC's tribute to Elisabeth Sladen, it's very well done and worth watching:

I got my "Planet of the Spiders" DVD from Amazon which I'd had on preorder for months and watched it this weekend. I was reminded how Sarah Jane really is the Gold Standard when it comes to companions.

Rest In Peace, Lis.
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Matthew 2010

The Mysterious Locking 7-Pin DIN

Here's another set of technical tidbits I wanted to put together in one place given how difficult it was for me to find accurate information when I needed it.

There is a hard-to-find connector used for interconnecting older professional videotape machines which confusingly is used by multiple (partially incompatible) video standards.

This "dub connector" as it is commonly referred to began as a forerunner of today's component video. It was intended to be used for direct machine-to-machine connection to improve the quality of videotape duplication. Usage was pioneered by the U-Matic family of videotape recorders and later found its way into subsequent generations of professional analog VTR families including Betacam/Beta SP and VHS/S-VHS. (If anyone knows whether the M/MII format included this connector I'd like to know.)

Originally, the connector was used to keep the luminance (luma) and chrominance (chroma) signals separated, but as true component video came into professional use a variant pinout was developed to take advantage of the existing hardware design. In some cases, like Betacam, the dub connector matched the U-Matic format's output to ease the transition between formats. In other cases, such as S-VHS, the same cable and pinout was used but the chroma signal was modulated at a different frequency. In fact, depending on the product family and variant there are several possible frequencies in use: 629 kHz, 688 kHz, 3.58 MHz, 4.43 MHz. And that's just for NTSC! PAL has its own set of frequencies. So although the video quality obtainable from the dub connector is far superior to composite video, the adaptive reuse of the connector type can make using it for digitizing archive video a daunting challenge! In many cases some form of conversion may be necessary for use with a capture card and in most instances a custom cable will be required.

In all cases though, these machines use what is called a Locking 7-Pin DIN connection, so named because it has a ring that locks the connector in place much like a BNC connector does for composite video. This connector is currently made only by Hirose Electric. Here is a diagram and pinout for the two versions of the standard:

Locking 7-Pin DIN
Part # RM12BPG-7SPart # RM12BPG7-PH
Female Locking 7-Pin DINMale Locking 7-Pin DIN
 1Y SignalY Signal
 2Y GroundY Ground
 3Head Switcing Pulse (VHS)R-Y Signal
 4NOT USEDR-Y Ground
 5C SignalB-Y Signal
 6C GroundB-Y Ground
 7Control-LNOT USED

I hope this helps someone else down the line as there is a huge amount of misinformation out there regarding this, especially for people with first generation JVC S-VHS units with this connector. As Y/C interconnection became standardized with the 4-Pin Min-DIN S-Video cable, there is a tendency to assume that all locking 7-Pin connectors use the U-Matic dub signal standard. The fact that the connector may have a nonspecific label ("Dub" by itself isn't terribly helpful to a newcomer) which does not specify the signal format just makes it worse. But the good news is, every variant I've researched is pinout-consistent so the most likely outcome of connecting two incompatible components with a properly wired cable will be monochrome video, or at worst, simply no video at all.
Cunning Plan

Outsmarting Sony (or, Stupid U-Matic Tricks!)

So, part of the reconfiguration of my edit suite/man cave has been to recable everything to use S-Video instead of composite video for the highest quality video I can get from my collection of professional and prosumer gear. This was pretty easy on the S-VHS front since that's where S-Video was developed to begin with, and my Betacam deck does S-Video natively as well. Same with my Hi-8 camera.

This left one format conspicuous by its absence -- my trusty old BVU-870 U-Matic deck which was designed and built before the idea of S-Video (Y/C 3.58) output was conceived of. However, U-Matic machines did use a special 7-pin component output (officially Y/C 688 but generally just called "Dub") which was intended as a short cable, straight-through connection for tape duplication. And while the luminance (the high-detail B&W part of the video signal) is identical in output to modern S-Video, the chroma (the low-detail color part of the video signal) is encoded differently and is not S-Video compatible.

Now, years ago there were two companies who made gear that would transform dub output to S-Video but it was never made in large quantities and is now very hard to even find information about it. But while Googling I found a forum posting with a not-very-detailed account from someone with a different model unit than mine. He was able to attach wires to specific points on the circuit boards inside the unit and obtain a Chroma signal that was actually S-Video friendly. Since I have the service manuals and wiring schematics for my machine, I spent a night pouring over the diagrams until I found exactly which circuit boards I needed to study and some likely locations where I could "steal" the signal. My guesses turned out to be pretty shrewd because I was able to get a watchable signal the first time. It wasn't perfect, of course, and it took a few more tries to find the best points to tap the signal from, but suddenly I was getting video that was visibly better quality than anything I was used to seeing from the U-Matic format!

From there, it took me three trips to the local electronics shop to figure out what I actually needed to wire things up permanently, and I spent a night Googling just to find that special 7-pin connector so I could obtain the luminance signal from its proper location. Ultimately, I decided to use female BNC connectors so I could use my existing video cables to run the separate chroma and luminance signals to the rest of my gear. After a couple evenings with my soldering iron I'm proud to say I have something that looks pretty damn good and works a treat!

Here's where I pull the color signal from the Chroma Decoder board's test points. Only after spending an hour trying to find the test points from the schematic did I realize the service manual also included a map of the circuit board.
The custom cable feeds out the back of the unit to this nice connector.This takes just the luminance signal off the Dub Out port.

To give you an idea of just how much of an improvement this makes, here are screenshots from the composite output (above) and the S-Video output (below) from the same segment of videotape. Note how much "cleaner" the color bars are!

And lastly, I've captured one frame of video using both sources and made a composite using a checkerboard pattern to show off the differences. I deliberately used a low-quality piece of video which has been copied several times from a very old (1973) source tape. This is why the S-Video output appears much grainer than the composite video. But even so, look at how much more detail is in the reporter's jacket!

Damn, I'm proud of this!
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