As a man who owns an $800 video cassette recorder that doesn't work, a $350 compact disc player that doesn't work and a $200 telephone answering machine that hasn't worked once since I bought it two or three years ago, I ought to know better than to write anything about electronic gadgets.
I will say that I have mastered my computer to the point where I can write on it (that's known as word processing), but I haven't the slightest idea how to exploit its capacity for other tasks, and when it goes out of order, I panic.
Consequently, I did not demur when Al Hibbs, former voice of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, sent me a catalogue ad for a cassette tape recorder that plays back vocal sounds at twice their original speed, expressing surprise at this technology, and offering it as tentative proof of his recent prediction that in the near future television and audio recording will replace reading and writing.
Hibbs admitted that he had considered his prediction of "speed listening" (as an analog to speed reading) as "a bit visionary," only to find out that he was behind the times. "It appears," he conceded, "that I should be less conservative in predicting the products of this remarkable electronic art."
Not surprisingly, I was as unfamiliar with speed listening recorders as Hibbs was. My reaction was "What will they think of next?"
Both Hibbs and I were farther behind the times than we knew.
My first rebuke came from my older son, Curt, who was educated at the Air Force electronics school in Biloxi, Miss., and is something of a whiz in the field. "How many mistakes have you made this year?" he asked.
"None that I know of," I told him, overlooking one or two.
"Well, you've made one now," he said. "About the speed listening recorder. That technology has been around for at least 10 years, that I know of."
That's what you get for having a smart kid.
I later received letters from several readers who were also ahead of Hibbs and me. Most pointed out that I was wrong in assuming that a speeded up voice would sound like "a flock of cackling chickens"--the effect one gets by playing a phonograph record at a higher speed.
"Both you and your JPL reader Al Hibbs are, indeed, living in the slow lane if you are just now discovering the technology of speed recorders," writes Gale Norton of Ontario.
Norton is a volunteer reader for the blind and visually handicapped at Recorded Professional Journals for the Blind, in La Verne. He says, "Speed recorders have been specifically engineered to speed up the human voice so sightless and visually handicapped listeners can process the information at speeds considerably faster than most sighted readers can imagine practicable."
Peter Larsen of Lake View Terrace assures me that "the G.E. Fastrack tape recorder merely removes tiny increments of silence (and perhaps of vocal sounds that can be shortened without aural distortion) and doesn't raise voice pitch. . . . I understand that this speed-up technique is already being used in radio commercials, the result being not so gross as to sound peculiar, but speedy enough to make time for something else (like more commercials)."
David Feign of Santa Ana adds that "what is special about the VSR technology is that the playback can be speeded up without distorting the pitch of the speech. The 'chipmunk,' or as you put it, the 'cackling chicken' effect disappears."
For my distortion of this instrument's performance, I apologize to G.E., Radio Shack, VSC Soundpacer and anyone else who makes them.
Donald D. Weddle of Buena Park writes that his executive interviewers use variable speed recorders to interview community and business leaders for research reports. "They speak with greater authority about what people are saying to them . . . and they finish their work a great deal faster. Speed listening is here to stay in my shop."
Larsen says this trend toward speed reminds him of Ogden Nash's Mr. Artesian, who "had one object all sublime / Which was to save simply oodles of time."
As the ultimate time-saving device, Mr. Artesian stepped out the window of his office, which happened to be on the 50th floor. "Has he vertigo?" asked one of his partners. "Oh, no," said another, glancing out the window. "Only about 10 feet more."
Will wonders never cease?