I recently bought an mp3 player and when I sat down with the user manual to try to figure out how to make it work the only two consecutive words that made sense to me in the entire document were “User Manual.”

This was not especially helpful.

The on/off button was labeled on the player, and the headphone jack was obvious enough, being the only small, circular hole.

But otherwise I couldn’t discern any connection between the contents in the manual and the player itself.

I was suspicious even before I plunged into the syntactical labyrinth that is the manual.

The document describes this device not simply as an mp3 player, but as an “Mp3 HIFI player.”

Besides the inexplicable, and apparently random, use of capital letters, I was struck by the reference to hifi. Unlike much else within the manual I at least understood what it meant — hifi simply being a shorthand version of “high-fidelity.”

But I’m pretty sure that term, which usually described a complete home stereo system that weighed as much as a refrigerator and was the opposite of portable, went out of vogue about the same time as disco did. Which is to say, about the time the Reagans were tossing out the last scraps of peanut hull from between the White House cushions.

In any case, the mp3 format, although ubiquitous, would better be described as “lo-fi” — or LOFI, as the authors of the user manual likely would write it.

This format is a type of digital audio compression — basically a way to shrink the number of bytes, making it possible to cram a few thousand songs into a product smaller than a credit card.

This process necessarily reduces the fidelity of the original recording. But since most of us — myself included — listen to our mp3 files by way of tiny (and tinny) earphones, the sonic limitations are, well, muted.

Typically I don’t bother consulting the user manual for an item as relatively rudimentary as a cheap (as mine decidedly is) music player.

Most also can store and play videos, photos and ebooks, but I use mine to listen to music and podcasts. And even an electronic simpleton, as I most assuredly am, can usually decipher the buttons by way of their labels. I suspect anyone older than, say, 3, recognizes the symbols that denote “play” and “fast forward” and “pause.” And a square almost always means “stop” (although, to stay consistent with our traffic signs, I always thought the octagon would be the better geographic choice).

My chief concern with the new player was to make sure that when I pause in the middle of a podcast, as I often do, that it will resume playing where I left off the next time I turn the thing on.

This seemed to me a straightforward concept.

But I didn’t even get through the first page of the manual before it became clear that I would not be able to answer that question. Indeed, I concluded that I would learn as much, and probably accomplish quite a lot more, by pressing buttons in random sequences rather than trying to decipher the manual.

And yet the descriptions in this brief document — five pages, the type of a size that food makers prefer to list their litanies of artificial ingredients — includes sentences so dazzling in their sheer strangeness that I was helpless not to continue reading.

Even the list of specifications, which ought to be simply explained, contain a few puzzling passages.

The display screen, I am informed, measures 1.8 inches. But this is followed, in parentheses, but what seems a non sequitur — “subject to the actual purchase of the machine.”

Either this means you won’t have the 1.8-inch screen unless you buy the device — something that seems to me so self-evident that it hardly bears mentioning in the user manual — or else the screen is designed to shrink or expand to a size other than 1.8 inches if it’s stolen or acquired in some way other than by “actual purchase.”

I suppose this feature is unlikely. But the possibility is so intriguing that I’m tempted to leave the player in a conspicuous place and wait for someone to pick it up and then watch to see what happens to the screen size.

My new player, in common with many of its kind, is equipped with a slot that accepts a micro SD card. Yet the manual insists that, should I desire to use this feature, I should insert the expansion card slot into the micro SD card. I don’t happen to have a micro SD card, but I don’t think this procedure is possible.

I was eager to learn about the functions of the key in the middle of the display, as I assumed its prominent position reflected its importance. The key has the familiar triangle symbol that denotes “play” — in effect the accelerator pedal of an mp3 player.

But the manual, rather than revealing the key’s abilities, merely deepened the mystery.

I read this sentence several times but it didn’t become more comprehensible: “Under menu options, it is equivalent to determining the key.”

No matter how creatively I defined those words I couldn’t decipher which menu options the manual meant, or for that matter where I might find them. As for what key I was supposed to determine the equivalence of, I’d be as likely to solve a calculus equation.

A few entries in the manual made sense, but with wording that seemed to imply that the player also had hidden features, rather like the Easter eggs secreted in certain Blu-ray discs.

The shutdown timer, for instance, is a simple enough feature. Except the manual says this is “mainly used to set the automatic shutdown time.”

The use of “mainly” suggests that I can also use this timer for something besides setting the automatic shutdown time. Except the manual contains not so much as a hint — and given the language employed I read with an especially open mind — as to what that other use might be.

My new player, as you have likely deduced, was built in China.

And I’m all but certain that’s also where the user manual was written. The travails of translation no doubt explain the tortured language.

I suppose the manufacturer assumes buyers expect to receive a user manual with their purchase, so they put one in the package regardless of how incomprehensible the document is.

I appreciate the humorous aspect, in any case.

And it turns out the manual wasn’t without practical value. It concludes, as manuals usually do, with a troubleshooting section. Which section includes this pithy, but undeniably accurate, line:

“No power on: no electricity, or the battery has run out.”

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.

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