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Eraser Heads

Jim Treadaway lived next door and decided he‘d walk right in. And say, “Hey man, what’s up?” and push, for no apparent reason, the Record button on the tape deck, thus erasing, and continuing to erase, the tape we‘d been listening to.

“Treadaway!” “Dammit!” and “Fuck!” passed before Treadaway snapped out of his vandalism trance and hit the Stop button.

“Man,” Treadaway replied peaceably, for he was a Rugby player, “that was so weird. I wonder why I did that. Sorry.”

“Thanks, Treadaway. That’s nice.” My roommate Beef and I waited for decidedly non-roommate Treadaway to get to the part about how he‘d be replacing the recording sometime fairly soon and on at least chromium dioxide tape. And then we’d tell him where we kept the vinyl and how many rotations he should give it with a genuine Discwasher™ when he stopped by that evening to rectify the damage. Instead, Treadaway surprised Beef and me by smiling, hitting the Play button, saying “Sorry” again, shrugging and leaving. He was, I was beginning to understand, a serious Rugby player. Beef -- who, fresh from reading the racing form on the cold hallway floor in his underwear, had popped the tape in the deck and been brushing his teeth in bed for perhaps 30 seconds before Treadaway walked in -- now shook his head and rewound a few seconds of tape to analyze the erasure. Beef was the creator of what came to be called the Beef Attitude: So pathologically casual was Beef that his participation in, say, a minor traffic accident would presumably yield an identical reaction to his winning the lottery. Not that he didn‘t emote; he just recognized that neither situation made life all that different. In the world of Beef, Treadaway erasures were predictable, and not particularly unwelcome.

Beef hit Play. As expected, the tape’s audio content had survived its ordeal intact, with the exception of about three stark seconds of blank hissing. Because the areas surrounding the hissing blank resembled something entirely unlike the hiss itself -- in this case, bad, loud, rock-style music written and performed by people in their late 20s and 30s who‘d finally figured out how to communicate with teenagers -- Beef and I could far too easily discern where Treadaway had hit Record, where we’d yelled “Dammit” and “Fuck,” and where Treadaway had finally hit Stop, smiled and left. It was such a short interruption. Insignificant, really. Except it sort of, well, ruined the tape.

Last week, a reputable radio station ran a story (ad) about (for) a company in San Jose that had developed a system of scanning digital television signals for duplicate frames and removing them. Why would someone want to remove duplicate frames? Because by subtly removing, for example, 1,798.2 duplicate frames from a one-hour television show, the show becomes 60 seconds shorter, thus allowing the sale of two big fat 30-second commercials to make the world a better place for six advertising executives and commensurately worse for everyone else. The radio-station reporter hired to read the ad said that we, the audience of the near future, will not notice that the noncommercial content is shorter; the only difference we‘ll notice will be an increase in the number of commercials.

Oh. Okay. But how, if we notice the increase in commercial messages, could the corresponding decrease in adjacent programming escape our perception? Maybe because, unlike a blank hiss amid loud bad music, there is very little difference between the ads for the programs and the programs for the ads.

I’m not that familiar with names of television-based celebrities, an ignorance to which I cop with as little pride as possible; but I know what they look like, and I‘ve seen dozens of the same citizens -- people already making $25,000 a week and more -- appearing as celebrity salespeople for telecommunications firms, Doritos and everything in between. (You know who you are.) Similarly, commercial jingles and other sounds seem to be of the same language timbre as those in their “content” counterparts; the sponsors’ logos are composed of the same design elements as those of the programs. It‘s as if the same four Time-Warner-AOL people who write the commercials are designing and editing the programs.

One way (though not a particularly good one) to solve this ad-programprogram-ad delineation problem is for the FCC to slap a few subliminal frames of something horrifying -- Arnold Schwarzenegger’s head, for example -- into the signal as a warning; a yellow light between the red and green. For a taste, download three huge Saturday Night Live MPEG video clips from jayteedotorg‘s fine archive: Aykroyd and Radner in “Mel’s Char Palace” (www.jt.orgpubsnlmpegvideosnljtorg-commercial-melchapal.mpg), Belushi in “Little Chocolate Donuts” (www.jt.orgpubsnlmpegvideosnljtorg-commercial-john_belushi_donuts_of_champions.mpg) and some model-looking guy and matching dog in “Canis Cologne” (www.jt.orgpubsnlmpegvideosnljtorg-commercial-canis_calone_for_dogs.mpg). Add to these the short, obligatory Schwarzenegger head, a clip from Eraser, courtesy of Denis Hamelin, professor of computer science at the University of Quebec (wwwdim.uqac.uquebec.ca~dhamelinfilmseraser.mov). In your registered QuickTime Player, open all four files, with Canis, Schwarzenegger and Belushi across the top, and AykroydRadner centered beneath them. Turn the sound down to about 20 percent on everything but Schwarzenegger. Set AykroydRadner and Schwarzenegger to Loop, and select Play All Movies. Perhaps you can come up with a better solution.