An ode to electronic skip protection

There are certain technologies that force you to rethink how the world works. Early in my life I encountered one such technology, electronic skip protection, a bullet point feature on portable CD players that introduced “skip free” playback. This small feature not only blew my mind when I first encountered it, it was also one of the first times I remember turning to a product manual not just for help using a device, but for understanding it.

When portable CD players were first introduced they had a very specific and annoying problem: if you bumped the player, even just barely, it caused the CD to “skip.” This skip gave a horrible sounding digital record skipping sound, or worse, stopped playback altogether. As a kid, who himself bumped into everything and who also happened to live on a bumpy dirt road that bumped him around, this made a portable CD player a particularly difficult device to get the hang of. I would hold it in my hand as I walked, tucked into a jacket pocket for extra protection, or I’d hold it in my lap in the car, ready to lift it up in case of a bump.

Eventually, anti-skip protection was introduced. On the Sony Discman, certainly the most popular portable CD player and the one I owned, this technology was called “electronic shock protection,” or, cleverly, ESP for short. Why clever? Well, if you’d read the manual you’d understand it.

The Discman had a small memory buffer, initially just three seconds, then 10 seconds, and eventually “skip-free.” When you activated ESP, 3-10 seconds of future playback was stored in RAM. If you bump or tap the Discman, the player reads the data stored in RAM instead of the CD.

It turns out there’s a lot about linear time and memory buffers for a 14-year-old to learn from the manual of a CD player.

This feature wasn’t free, though. It came at the cost of battery life, and AA batteries were hard to come by in my house. Battery life with alkaline batteries was about 12 hours without skip protection and just 9 hours with it enabled. Using ESP became a treat, best saved for when I had to run to the bus because I was late, or for a particularly bumpy road.

Rationing technology and saving features for specific moments hasn’t changed much. We slide a phone into low power or airplane mode when we want to conserve battery or disable notifications when we need to focus. But rarely do we bother to figure out how these features work anymore, and there’s certainly no good manual provided for doing so. Most of the time, things just work, without much prodding from us at all. I suppose this is better, but it does make me surprisingly nostalgic for those discoveries we’d make in a product manual.

Currently readingThe Stand by Stephen King

Currently watching: 11.22.63

Recently watched: Tenet (⭐️), The Nest (⭐️⭐️⭐️)

Currently listening: Belle and Sebastian What to Look for in Summer