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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

You win this round, remote!

Posted on May 4, 2010 at 10:37 PM

Today was brutal. Like ba-rue-tull. Usually, my work day starts at a civilized 9 AM. I turn on some music, get in the shower, make myself a double latte, drive in to work, check e-mails, return some phone calls, send off some invoices and then spend the majority of the remainder of the day snaking on my lunch and working on “John Time.” John Time is usually filled with Web surfing, writing, reading magazines, rinse and repeat until 6 PM when I go home.


Today was all-work, all the time. Not even one second of John Time. Not one e-mail check. Not even a break for lunch, unless you count a pity Coke that the customer gave me after about 6 hours. Even on the hardest days, my job is never breaking rocks. But today it was. With my mind. Pointy, sharp, flinty rocks that I had to slowly smash one by one with my brain unit. But these rocks didn’t go peacefully into the night. They fought back, trying to punish and hurt me at every turn.


My project du jour was programming a Universal Remote Control MX-980, which is normally a task I enjoy doing. The wrinkle in my time was that this wasn’t my client, so I was base jumping headfirst into a project that was totally foreign to me. Second, nearly EVERY piece of gear on this job presented its own clever and unusual twist, trying to break me on the crucible of cruelty. In fact, this entire system was like some kind of elaborate mental torture porn scene from Saw.


First, there was the Vizio TV which offered the first little hiccup in the form of no discreet power commands. Seriously, I don’t understand this. The cost to add a Power On and a Power Off button would cost nothing. Like, zero point zero. Not doing it just says, “We hate custom installers and want to make their lives miserable, but we can’t actually SAY that, so this is our special little F-You!” The URC work around is a variable command string (when TV turns on, set TV On flag to Yes; if TV On flag = yes, then...) which works with about 90% reliability. You know, just reliable enough so that when you are showing it the customer it works, but the second HE tries it, it doesn’t. In fact, that is pretty much Murphy's Law #1 of remote control programming.


Next he had a Mark Levinson (read “super, crazy, frickin’ expensive”) CD player that had the most bizarre remote control codeset I’ve seen in a while. To power the unit on, press the dimmer button. Totally makes sense, right? To power it off, press dimmer 4 OR 5 times (it depends what state the unit is in whether it is 4 or 5) till it goes into standby. I could have become a monk, moved on top of a mountain, founded a monastery, and devoted my life to automating the power cycle of this CD player and still died lonely and frustrated. Of course, this remote wasn’t in URC’s library so I had to learn every command.


Then a Sony SACD player that just had NO power button. Just a hard, front panel push button. Again, a model so old and so esoteric that I couldn’t find any codes that worked and had to learn every button.


Then a Logitech PS3 adapter. Now, the codes WERE in the library, but after 5 repeated download, install, test sessions where nothing worked, I had a co-worker check URC’s Website and apparently others have had problems so I downloaded someone’s code fix. But his fix caused a lot of double button presses, so I had to modify his repeat length on almost every button.


After about 4 hours of building the remote layout, learning all the codes, testing the receiver’s RS-232 commands, and building my power and activity macros, the finish line is clearly in sight and it is time to download and start testing. Except, it won’t work. I press download and it just blinks. I reboot the program and try again, same thing. I delete the USB driver, reinstall, unplug, replug, swear silently, reboot, hard power, curse loudly, and then call URC tech support. After about 30 minutes on the phone, we determine that my program has somehow gone all Rod Blagojevich and corrupted itself. (Its hair is probably also suspect.) I know the answer, but I ask the URC tech anyhow. “Well, what do I do now? How do I fix it?”

“You can’t. You’ve probably just got to start over.”


You know that scene in Saving Private Ryan where they are landing on the beach and that guy is just kind of wandering around in a daze holding his blown off arm? That was me. I was just sitting in the middle of his theater, staring around the room, looking at all of the remotes spread out before me, and just spent several moments of impotent uncertainty.


Finally, my mental “YOU’VE GOT TO GET OFF THE BEACH IF YOU WANT TO LIVE!” kicked in, so I set about rebuilding. And finally limped home around 8 PM with the system working as good as his components would allow. Now, if you’ll excuse me, a bottle of red wine is calling. And if I get 80% through and it starts acting up, I’m gonna just open another.

Categories: May 2010, CTA

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Reply HTI Guy
7:40 PM on May 5, 2010 
one of my best home theater customers just called and their Optoma HD8000LV failed again....for the second change to Pessima would be in order
Reply HTI Guy
7:41 PM on May 5, 2010 
John, if I ever run into you at a CEDIA or CES or CEA event....we have absolutely got to tip a few