Knowledge is weakness

Originally published 2006 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


It's a balancing act, I tell you.

If you know nothing about technology, you'll keep running into totally opaque, utterly illogical problems that totally shatter your workflow - or entertainment-flow, for that matter - and confidence, leaving you feeling like a chimp trying to pass a driving test.

If you learn all of the ins and outs, though, you start to notice things.

Bad things.

Things that may drive you stark raving mad.

I certainly don't wish I were ignorant. Knowledge is good.

Take the other day, for instance, when I changed my Windows desktop resolution and, of course, ended up with all of my icons in a pile. So I used Microsoft's Desktop Icon Layout doodad to put them back.

And my Recycle Bin disappeared.

Maybe it was under some other icon(s). Maybe it was completely gone. Who knows? Windows is like that.

I didn't care. I just used Tweak UI to (definitely) remove the Bin from the desktop, then replaced it again, and bing, there it was. No problem. It was the work of ten seconds.

Just thinking about walking someone else through that procedure, though, makes my head hurt.

If you're clueless about computers, this kind of problem arises all the damn time, and not only for people unfortunate enough to be using Windows.

So, yeah, it's great to be able to fix stuff like that.

But when you know a lot of technical things, you start getting annoyed when you see things that aren't right. Even when people less knowledgeable than you don't notice anything wrong.

The obvious example is screen refresh rate, but the Curse Of 60Hz is more and more a thing of the past now that LCD monitors are commonplace.

Take audio/video synchronisation, though. It drives me nuts when the soundtrack of a TV show or movie doesn't quite line up with the video. And it's common, too. It happens all the time in computer video files - I think because different sound and video driver and codec setups introduce different amounts of delay, so even if the original encoder perfectly syncs the file on his computer, other people won't necessarily see it the same way. But the same problem also commonly happens with pay-TV services of various kinds, and sometimes with free digital TV too, depending on the decoder.

Your average TV watcher does not, so far as I can tell, notice bad audio sync at all, unless it's really awful.

But when you know about codecs and drivers and signal-processing delays, things like this jump out at you.

Knowing how to fix problems helps you notice the darn things.

Another example? How about incorrect aspect ratios, folks?

They're no problem for the ignorant, either. As I'm sure you all know, now that widescreen TV sets are no longer reserved for rich home-theatre geeks.

I'd find it hard to believe if I hadn't witnessed it myself, but lots of people don't seem to notice gross aspect-ratio problems. They've got a widescreen TV, so they expect everything to fill the screen, and they cheerfully press the anamorphic-video-expand button when they're watching 4:3 TV on their 16:9 set.

Now all of the cars have oval wheels and Chewbacca looks like Wicket, but they just don't care.

You can fix many of these problems, of course. The more tinsel-free PC media player programs, like Media Player Classic, let you jockey audio sync and aspect ratio around. The very handy all-in-one, no-outboard-codecs VideoLAN media player lets you quickly cycle through all of the popular aspect ratios. And unless Uncle Fred won't let you touch his remote control, you should be able to fix home-theatre aspect problems too.

There's a whole separate world of pain awaiting you as you try to figure out whether that Discovery Channel watermark has an exactly round globe in it now, not to mention when you keep watching the same five seconds of video over and over again while you tweak the audio timing back and forth until you lose the ability to tell exactly when someone's mouth is meant to make a given noise and have to wait for a nice clapper-board moment like someone shooting a gun.

But at least you can fix the problem, then.

If you've got a satellite TV box with a 30-millisecond sync problem, and you notice it, all you can do is try to get hold of a different model without that glitch. Or a firmware update that fixes it (fat freakin' chance).

Or you can shell out for a home-theatre amp that has configurable audio delay. If, of course, your audio is in front of the video, you'll still be screwed.

The list goes on.

Lousy de-interlacing that gives moving objects zig-zag edges.

Surround speaker systems with three out of six speakers connected out of phase (but not the subwoofer, even though its phase switch should be flipped for it to sound right in the place where it's been put).

Low - or, worse yet, uneven - frame rate video. My hat is off to anyone who can watch an action movie on SVCD without needing at least a stiff drink.

Some uneducated consumers notice stuff like this, and are once again left in the unfortunate position of being aware of a problem they have no idea how to fix.

But most just don't. If you don't understand what's going on under the surface, you tend to just assume that whatever the surface looks and sounds like is the way it ought to be, and so you don't worry. Seek and ye shall find; seek not and ye shall not.

This problem's a freakin' plague among tech-heads. Audiophiles who listen to their stereo through the music instead of the other way around, photographers who wince at every blown highlight and lens flare, home-theatre nuts - yet again - who obsess over edge enhancement and HD codecs and exactly what kind of sugar-water to spray on the carpet to give it that authentic cinema stick.

Does my technical knowledge let me get more pleasure out of a perfectly configured... whatever... than I would if I didn't have a clue?


So clearly I - and probably many of you - need to cultivate a mystic balance between knowing and needing, seeing and doing, being and thinking.

"Wise men hear and see as little children do", according to some dude who may or may not have existed. And a bloke who definitely did exist went on to say "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise" - though not really in a positive way.

I don't know, people.

I think there may be a FAQ about it somewhere, though.

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