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sometimes i feel like i'm living in a low budget science fiction movie
august 23, 2003
Mary and I broke down last week and bought a DVD player, our first.
I would like to say I'm on the edge, leading, cutting, or bleeding, of technology, but I would be lying. We weren't the first people on our block to buy a computer, satellite dish, or infrared broiler, and there are still all sorts of modernisms, including electric cars, lady bug-shaped robots that mow the lawn for you, and seared, nearly-raw tuna, where we are still stepping aside to let others go ahead of us.
The only reason we bought the DVD player is because the Blockbuster we go to every other week to rent an armful of movies has been transitioning from videotapes to DVDs. Quite a few times, we've walked along the walls looking for a particular movie, and all the videotape copies are out, just DVD versions in stock, or else Blockbuster has not purchased any videotape versions at all of a particular movie.
I remembered Consumer Reports had an article on DVD players in a recent issue, so we dug that out, saw Sony had the best player. It went for a ridiculously low $129.
Wednesday before last, we went into town, had a pleasant lunch at the local Romano's Macaroni Grill, drove over to Ultimate Electronics.
Ultimate Electronics had an entire, dramatically-lit aisle devoted to DVD players. We went past the different brands to the Sony section, saw the one we wanted. The young salesman, in a suit too large for him at the neck and cuffs (I've seen a lot of young sales guys lately in the same "incredible shrinking man" suits), held up an index finger. "Let me see if we have it in stock."
It took him a while to come back. "I have good news and bad news." (I'm starting to dislike that gambit. I don't entirely dislike it yet, but it's beginning to get on my nerves.)
"We do have the Sony blah-blah-blah model in stock, but the box has been opened. It may have been opened by us, or it may have been opened by a customer."
Well, why would an Ultimate Electronics employee open the box? They had a display model on the floor already. I couldn't see some tall guy in back reading Brett Ellis on a coffee break suddenly looking over at this sealed box of Sony model blah-blah-blah and deciding, What the fuck, maybe I'll open it. Who knows? Maybe there's not a Sony DVD player inside. Maybe the box is filled with gold, drugs and twins.
So chances are, a customer opened the box. Got it home, tried to make it work, couldn't. Cried on his carpet for a while. Brought it back.
The salesman stood closer to me in his over-sized suit. "I'll take fourteen dollars off the price."
I'm thinking, Okay, I can buy a DVD player that doesn't work, but at least it'll cost me fourteen dollars less than a DVD player that does work.
So we decided to buy it on-line, at Amazon.
I ordered the player that same evening, Wednesday. It was actually on sale at Amazon, for ninety dollars. Even with a ten dollar shipping charge, it still meant we'd get the same model for thirty dollars less.
Incredibly, the player arrived only two days later, that Friday.
Sunday morning we went out to Blockbuster, rented a bunch of new DVD releases. The Hunted, Bringing Down the House, The Quiet American, House of 1,000 Corpses, a few others.
So we get back home, hook up the DVD player. In the process, reading the manual, we discover an S-video cable, necessary to get a good quality picture, is not included with the DVD player. The cable Sony did include, a tangle of red, green and blue plug-ins, will only produce, according to the manual, a "fair" image.
So we drove back to Ultimate Electronics, asked a salesman for an S-Video cable. Do you know how much one costs? The one we got was a hundred dollars, more than the cost of the DVD player itself.
No wonder Sony doesn't include it.
But why didn't Consumer Reports include that information with their survey?
Mary and I rolled our TV table out from the wall, astonished as we always are by the amount of dust that's built up, between electronic purchases, on the thin strip of table top behind the set, an impressive City of Dust that had everything to it, even suburbs.
Hooked everything up, like heart surgeons.
We put in the first disc.
Looked up from the white carpet where we were sitting, knees out, at our TV screen.
"Unable to play disc."
Tried another disc, another.
Brought the discs upstairs, to the DVD players included with our computers, slid them in the square black trays. On Mary's monitor, Steve Martin made funny faces. On my monitor, Sid Haig in clown make-up was shouting at someone.
I went on the Sony Internet site. There was a link for Contact Us.
It didn't work. It timed out. On my dial-up connection, on Mary's broadband cable connection.
I pawed through the white pages in the Dallas phone book, found an 800 number for Sony Customer Care (remember when it used to be Customer Service? What's it going to be next, Customer Blow Job?)
I tapped the number, phone dragged by its long extension cord from the kitchen into our bedroom.
Sony's Customer Care phone line features an incredibly irritating interactive feature. Like most large companies, you call their 800 number, hoping to speak to a human who will solve your problem. You get a couple of ads for their other products (not a good time to pitch, fellas, when the product of yours I bought doesn't work), the usual wind-bagged recitation, twice, of their on-line URL, then an automated feature that collects information about you. Name, address, product you called about.
Usually, that part of your wait is conducted by a dispassionate computer-generated voice that says something like, "Please say your name, first name first, then your last name."
When you call Sony though, you get a computer-generated voice that's obviously been scripted to suggest personality.
This imaginary personality even has a name, which I think was Jack.
Here's a small part of the script:
"Well hello! I guess you have a problem with your Sony DVD player! Let's go through a few basic questions so I can begin to help you! What's your name?"
Me, sitting on our white carpet, telephone to my left ear, not in a good mood, staring up at the Cannot Play Disc error message on our TV. "Ralph Moore."
"I heard, Ralph Moore! Is that correct?"
"Yes." I'm talking to a fucking recording. Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a low budget science fiction movie.
"Let me get your street address before we proceed! Please give the street number, followed by the street name, then spell out the street name for me. Okay?"
"Let's see. Here's what I heard!" (repeats our address). "Did I get it right?"
"All right! While I have you on the line, let's get the model number of that DVD player that's acting up! Please say it slowly."
"Blah, blah, blah."
"Let's see if I have it right! I think you said, 'Blah, blah, blah.' Did I hear you correctly?"
And so on and so on, until finally, five minutes later, I get a human.
"Hello, welcome to Sony Customer Care support. This is Craig. May I have your name, please?"
That's what always gets me. You have to feed all this information to the artificial voice, but then apparently none of it is passed on to the human.
I told him the problem we were having. He went through a couple of diagnostic tests, me depressing the Display key, reading off what came up on our TV screen, him telling me the Sony DVD player was defective. "Sorry."
So we went back out, to Best Buy this time, a large electronics chain, and bought another Sony DVD player, this one a higher-end model that cost $149. Another nice young guy in an over-sized suit. While he rang up the sale, which these days has turned into an elaborate process, not just hitting some numbered keys, handing me the white strip of a blue-inked receipt, but instead keying in an enormous amount of God only knows what information, I leaned forward a little, reading all the little notes taped on the employees' side of the counter.
I have to admit, I love reading these mysterious, taped-up notes meant for store employee eyes only, regardless of whatever store I'm in. I remember one particularly stern message in a clothing store: "BVN203 is now BVN498!!!". And don't you forget it!
We brought the DVD player home like the Christ child in a cardboard box, unpacked it, shooed the cats away, touching whiskers and paws, connected all the cables, laid in a disc.
Nothing at all. Not even an error message on screen saying it couldn't play the disc. But then Mary, God bless her, fooled around with the cables, pulling them out, plugging them back in, and we actually got Benicio Del Toro looking cross as a pickle.