Archive for January 9th, 2010

Sir, your credit card appears to be over your limit.

Today was fantasy day. With each new room at the more exclusive “high-end” show, an audiophile geeks dream was fulfilled. This is a place where some of the most extreme electronics available to “select” consumers are demonstrated. To give one shining example, we went into an amplifier manufacturers sound demo room. In front of us were two monaural tube block amps that obviously were verrrry pricy, judging from their appearance. It wasn’t until I had a look at the dealer price sheet, to learn just what the word “expensive” actually meant. Their signature “reference” amps were $350,000 … each.

To put this in perspective, most advanced Audio/Video systems are 7.1 capable … That means seven channels and a subwoofer. And of course, for the absolute best audio reproduction, the front speakers should bi/tri amped. (two to three amps per speaker) Here’s the math for the already too shell-shocked: (tri-amped version) 13 x $350,000.00 = $4,550,000.00 … without tax! This is with no preamp, no SACD/DVD player, no turntable or cartridge, no turntable tube preamp, no tuner, no digital music server, no digital time correction device, no speakers or subwoofer and no video projector, lens or screen. And for amps of this nature you would have to have an electrician install special wiring, because no house is capable of that much amperage draw. Not to mention some type of line conditioning to filter out noise and give some type of voltage over/under protection. The special wires (such as shielded oxygen-free, silver super fine multistrand, multibraid with “gold over silver” connectors) literally cost as much as a new BMW … with a lot of options! Speakers that go with this caliber of equipment easily run into the six figures per pair. An acceptable turntable and cartridge well over $30,000.00, and so on. The video projector and its anamorphic lens, far more than $100,000.00. And bear this in mind as well, we are talking about sound and video, for just one room.

And next year, it’s all obsolete.

In terms of sheer electronic high-end weirdness, this was a tame CES compared to some of the past “breakthrough” items. One of my favs was a speaker that required tanks of nitrogen to control a hot-as-the-sun carbon-arc to provide a pulsating, gaseous envelope to produce sound. I never got to hear it actually run and I’ve never personally known anyone who has either. But you can always find someone at the show that remembers it. Which is just as well … I figure if you weren’t blinded by the carbon-arc, you would be suffocated by the nitrogen. I don’t even think the extreme car audio crazies would be brave enough to use this thing at a volume contest. But I’d be glad to watch the results on YouTube! And I believe others would as well … Hollywood has always known that any good movie has lots of explosions.

Another “break-through” design I saw a couple of years ago, was an amplifier that ran so hot that it couldn’t be exposed to air … yes, you read that right … the core of the design had to be completely submerged in a high temperature, non-conductive synthetic oil solution. Sitting and watching the seething, churning red-hot solution in its pyrex-like container, trying to cool this ferocious amp from five feet away is still burned into my memory. You know how a blacktop country road during the Texas summer has that “wavy” look? Well, seeing that effect in a small room, in such quantity from that thing, demands respect. Should the container have fractured, releasing the oil and the main power tube been exposed to air, I suspect a Chernobyl-like effect wouldn’t be too far behind.

Incentivizing pain

I’m reading a non-fiction book that has me fascinated: Freakonomics. Basically, by using economics in an odd way, it details the way life changes in sometimes hugely unexpected ways, from seemingly unrelated events. One of the truisms in said book, is how people are unpredictable when incentives to do (or not to do) something are applied. It states that people, by nature, are motivated universally by incentives. It may not be of any concern as to whether or not others may consider that “incentive” trivial, so long as the “beneficiary” deems it worth the effort for the reward.

I saw that theory put to the acid test today. For a baseball cap with the company logo on its brow, the participant willingly allowed himself (only males applied) to be “tasered”. Now you’d think that after the first person permitted himself to be “electrically stimulated into rigidity”, in front of a live audience, that the pool of volunteers would pretty much instantly dry up. But in reality, there was a constant stream of folks who deemed that hat more important than possibly soiling their pants in front of a large crowd. And trust me on this, from the guttural noises emitted once a person is hit with an undulating dose of amperage that this thing can produce, smart money says this must be as much fun as a filling a cavity without anesthesia. For a Taser is nothing like a stun gun. A stun gun only produces localized pain. The Taser uses a “patented neuromuscular incapacitation (NMI) technology” that varies the waveform of the pulses to prevent you from becoming too cozy with mild electrocution. …… And all of this, for a hat and a keychain.

Being the level-headed geek that I am, I decided than rather than to be on the business end of this compliance enhancer, I wanted to actually fire it. So I went into the specially constructed Lexan booth on the second floor of the display for that very purpose. It was then I realized that my accompanying friend, possibly concerned that I may without permission, decide to involve him in this learning exercise, had deferred to another booth posthaste. He needn’t haven’t worried as cocktail time was still hours away. The rep explained how it worked and fired, which took less than a minute. I also discovered how excitable some reps become after being locked in a small enclosed space, with a complete stranger waving about a fully charged, loaded and “un-safetied” Taser with seeming casual abandon. I can only guess my sense of humor was lost on him.

A light touch of the electric firing button, BANG!!, and two stainless steel barbed probes (manufactured by the Eagle Claw fishhook company , no less) shot out at over a hundred miles an hour propelled by compressed nitrogen to the fifteen foot range limit of the civilian model, into the chest of my paper assailant. Unfortunately, so did the replaceable cartridge that contained the wires that connected the Taser to its electrical probes. So, if this was a life or death situation and your Taser just misfired, I’d have to imagine your attacker now has absolutely no sense of irony. I also bet that since no special license/training is required for a Taser, the money you saved by not going to concealed handgun carry classes isn’t quite the bargain it once was.

To be completely serious here … as serious a two geeks discussing who was the best captain of the Enterprise. (it was Shatner, of course) I can absolutely appreciate the notion of a non-lethal deterrent, but only if it’s 99.9999% dependable and effective. (Many high quality pistols have the ability to fire thousands of rounds without a single misfire.) And in many police actions you have other officers to “back you up” with firepower should this method fail at the last second. If this was a (no pun intended) one-shot affair, you would finish in second place … which in a violent attack, second place is the same as last place.