Friday, September 19, 2008

Big Damn Science

As I'm sure most of you know, we're big on the cutting edge sciences here at Stonekettle Station.

Especially Plasma Physics.

With all the hoopla surrounding the Large Hadron Collider , the Stonekettle Station Research Division wanted to do our part for the advancement of entertainment science - you know before those crazy Swiss bastards cross the streams and the world ends in a 12" ball of compressed degenerate matter orbiting near light-speed somewhere north of the chocolaty new singularity that used to be Switzerland.

Now, despite the enormous capability of the LHC and it's Bush-like potential for world ending catastrophic failure, it can't do everything. Like Rush Limbaugh's ego, it's just too damned big. It's a little known fact that originally, the LHC was created by scientists out of spare stereo parts in order to warm a cup of Top Ramen noodles to the temperature of the Solar corona, but those little Styrofoam cups kept exploding with great big Bangs - eliciting shouts of "Oh God!" and fits of giggles from the hungover post-grads (In fact, LHC originally was an acronym for "Look! Holy Crap!" Fact, you can look it up.)

And that's how all great scientific discoveries are made, by accident - usually food related.

CERN purchased a smaller microwave oven for the research staff and turned the LHC towards the hunt for the so called "Oh God!" particle.

Unfortunately, like the rumored Alaska State Quarter, the God particle as never actually been seen by man and in fact may not even exist. The hunt for it is all consuming and leaves CERN scientists little time for pursuing other less famous and even more elusive particles such as the "One Missing Sock" particle, the "Iraqi WMD" particle, or the highly theoretical "George W. Bush's Brain" particle.

And that's where we at Stonekettle Station come in.

About eight months ago we set out to acquire our very own high definition plasma-based electron supercollider. And as every particle physicist can tell you, the best place to find such cutting edge, advanced entertainment research technology is COSTCO. There was some dispute between the scientists and the accounting department regarding the best base technology, plasma projection or LCD - the research assistant didn't care, just as long as it was "Playstation compatible with minimal lag time and big honking speakers." Eventually we settled on a Mitsubishi Plasma DLP wide-screen in the 40gigawatt range with like a bizillion different kinds of input and an gargantuan, multifunction, super technical remote control (seriously, the manual for the remote was the size of the LA Yellowpages and came in four incomprehensible languages, including Engrish, so you know it's good science).

After some initial configuration issues, we brought the monster on-line seventeen months ago and have been smashing electrons into a non-reflective charged 67" wide screen and conducting advanced research across a broad spectrum of digital cable and HD DVD's ever since.

So, for the last year, things have been good - no sign of that GWB Brain particle though and we believe that it may not be a particle at all, but rather a "collapsed wave function." We did however find two missing socks and a catnip mouse when we moved the older tube-based electronic collider to make room for the new machine.

Unfortunately, Monday, we accidentally generated a black hole, a big rectangular one.

There was much screaming, crying, and general waving of the arms in an aimless Nancy Pelosi like fashion - we had intended to to conduct a thorough review of last season's Heroes in preparation for the upcoming new season's research and the failure of our equipment threw the entire lab schedule into disarray. Besides, Monday night Alton Brown was doing a review of the physics behind beer and we missed it. This vexed us mightily.

Eventually after much rigorous testing (which consisted mostly of my wife looking for the manual, and me whacking the side of the device and cursing), we determined that the main mercury-sodium plasma-electron projector (i.e. the "Lamp") had failed or what we in the applied technical sciences refer to as "shit the bed."

After much consternation upon discovering that a replacement lamp cost several million dollars (OK, $200 plus S&H, but still), the accounting department remembered that we had gotten COSTCO's automatic 2-year warranty extension. We contacted COSTCO "Concierge Service" (which I guess, is the fancy way of saying "service department," but then again "concierge" lends an international flavor to the process and that can't be bad). They talked us through some highly rigorous diagnostics, i.e. unplug the TV, now plug it back in, and try to turn it on. The diagnostics confirmed the lamp failure.

COSTCO then promised us a replacement unit via 2-day UPS Air, which arrived right on schedule yesterday.

The replacement unit contained directions and many, many dire warnings about mercury poisoning and high voltage electricity which I mostly just ignored. I unscrewed the access panel on the back of the unit -which contained even more dire and horrific warnings about mercury, high voltage, user serviceable parts, bright lights, gremlins, particle beams, black holes, and animal dander - popped out the old module and inserted the new one.

No joy.

Seems you actually have to put the cover back on before powering up the particle accelerator, there's a safety lock out. Don't want an undergrad accidently leaving a LEGOS Star Wars storm trooper in there, or you know, one of the research animals). Not wanting to endanger the genetic future of everybody in a hundred mile radius, I reattached the cover and fired that sucker up.

The lights dimmed. Two nuclear cores at the Palmer Atomic Power Plant and Bakery came online under emergency startup, oil prices rose, and the resulting photonic barrage of excited electrons blinded the Hubble Space Telescope and disrupted weather patterns from here to Nome. Over head, the aurora flamed and roared.

It was, as they say, a thing of beauty.

So, after a four day hiatus, Stonekettle Station high definition plasma research is back in business, riding the razor sharp edge of particle physics and bringing us all one step closer to the heat death of the universe and the third season of Heroes in digital HiDef.

You can thank me later, if we're not all eaten by black holes first.


All of which is a fancy way of saying that since I didn't have anything else to blog about today, I talked about my stupid TV set.

One thing, COSTCO Concierge Service was just plain outstanding. Prompt, courteous, knowledgeable, and aggressive about living up to their obligation. I've rarely been so impressed by customer service. After we contacted them initially, they assigned a dedicated technician to our problem, gave us a direct access phone number, ordered the part, and called back the next day to confirm that the part was on its way via the most expedited method possible and to give me a tracking number. They asked if I was comfortable performing the replacement swap-out myself or if I would prefer a service technician to come to my house and take care of it. Once I confirmed that I felt fully qualified to open the set and change what was essentially a big damn light-bulb, they provided me with a complete set of directions and a toll free number to call if I needed real-time assistance during the process. They also provided return postage for the failed unit. And they just called back here about ten minutes ago to confirm that I had received the part and that everything was working properly.

And that, folks, is how you do customer service. Outstanding COSTCO, and thanks, you've got yourself a dedicated customer.


  1. Maybe Costco needs to contract with the real LHC.


  2. "Unfortunately, like the rumored Alaska State Quarter, the God particle as never actually been seen by man and in fact may not even exist."

    I bought two rolls of uncirculated Alaska State Quarters at the bank yesterday.

    Just sayin'.

  3. I find that the lack of strife in this story; the absence of stupid people; the utter lack of things that make your head go all 'splodey...disappoints me in ways that are both great and many.

    (I love your rants.)

  4. Missing Alton Brown doing a review of the physics behind beer? That's just not right. I feel your pain, Brutha Jim.

    (I have a little crush on Alton Brown.)

  5. BTW, this post? It did please me mightily.

  6. I wish I could get that creative when I have nothing to blather on about. ;)

  7. ...before those crazy Swiss bastards cross the streams and the world ends in a 12" ball of compressed degenerate matter....

    Wait... I thought the LHC was supposed to find the Higgs boson. When did that change to a search for Dick Cheney's soul?

  8. I thought the LHC was about Pr0n. What is all this talk about radiation and rays and stuff?

  9. "and me whacking the side of the device and cursing"

    Strangely enough, that's how they got the CERN collider working initially.

  10. Cindi, I managed to find a roll of Alaska quarters myself today. and they are starting to circulate here, slowly. Of course, they appeared just about everywhere else first.

    Nathan, you're lucky you got anything at all today. I'm in major, excruciating pain today and not feeling particularly ranty.

    Carol, Alton, he rocks, I rarely miss a show and I have all of his books.

    MWT, well, it's mostly the pain pills talking.

    Dirty Tom, thanks man, I was trying to work a back handed Dick Cheney slap into the post but just couldn't pull it off. So, again thanks for the assist. :)

    Kimby, Girls of High Energy Physics Gone Wild? Hmmm, I see what I can do

  11. Steve, well, that is the approved first trouble shooting step in an failed technology situation.

    Heh, I actually saw a technician once kick a multi-million dollar processor stack that wasn't working correctly. Unfortunately, the protective cover had been removed for trouble shooting, his foot when through the backplane. No sparks, but lots of smoke.

  12. ...well, that is the approved first trouble shooting step in an failed technology situation.

    I am reminded of an old joke I was once told by a computer engineer. It goes something like this... let's see:

    A mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, and a computer engineer are riding down the road together in a car, when they hear a horrible noise under the hood and smoke begins pouring out from under the hood and they have to pull over onto the shoulder. They pop the hood, all jump out, they're all peering at the engine.

    "Dammit," says the mechanical engineer, "it's the transmission, you could feel it go."

    "What are you talking about?" says the electrical engineer. "Look over here at the alternator and belts. The whole electrical system is shot."

    Then the computer engineer says, "Why don't we just turn the engine off, count to ten, and start it up again?"

  13. The LHC broke today. Maybe a particle Cheney's soul was found, and interfered with other dark matter causing a catastrophic collapse. It'll take two months to get it back up again.

  14. Hey what it my Geeky Husband doing actually commenting? Kewl!

  15. ...well, that is the approved first trouble shooting step in an failed technology situation.

    I will attest to this. I once led a radio crew that had a screwdriver shoved into a foo-module for the last half of a trans-pacific crossing.

    Whatever works, that's my motto.

  16. There is a technical term for that - it's called "percussive maintenance". It can apply to anything from whacking with your hand to shaking to smacking with a hammer. (Not recommended for plasma screen devices, just saying...)

    This article pleased me mightily too... and makes my writing block days look pretty damn slackerish.

  17. I never knew that fixing a TV could sound so poetic.


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