September 24th, 2008

Honorable discharge

If you're into bizarre, potentially mind-blowing scientific/technological phenomena, this is a must-read.

Those who have seen my recent posts ( may recall me mentioning a recurring problem with my Rio MP3 player's left audio channel. It often doesn't like to work when I first power on the device, but usually it just takes some wiggling of the headphone jack to get it right. No doubt it's some buildup of dust/debris or corrosion (or simply a loose connection), and the wiggling is usually enough to "clean the contacts" and get things moving.

But my aging Rio did give me a scare that one day back in July, and after some strange (and not entirely definitive) diagnostics, it started working again. It's been status quo since then. Until today.

The last time I used my Rio before today was Sunday, when I climbed Mount Diablo. Diablo has a tendency to kill things -- if not me, then something else integral to my trail running. For instance, while I was driving home after my second-most-recent trip there, I tried to remove my trusty, durable running sunglasses for a moment, and one of the bows declined to come off with them, electing instead to stay on my ear. Too many years, and too much exposure to harsh agents (sweat, sunscreen, sunlight, trail dust, etc.), had finally taken their toll on the plastic, and I was forced to look for new sunglasses.

So having dealt with that recently, when I was getting ready to start the treadmill today, I wasn't too shocked (haha, no pun intended ... keep reading) to find that no amount of wiggling and jiggling would reactivate the left channel. In fact, I can usually at least hear some crackling in the left channel while wiggling the connector before I "hit the sweet spot," but this time there was nothing but silence. I wasn't willing to abort the run and go back upstairs to do battle with the device, so I grudgingly got on the treadmill and started running with music annoyingly playing in my right ear only.

Before continuing, I need to shed a little light on a certain backstory...

There is an interesting characteristic of some treadmills, and how they interact with my shoes, that causes static charges to build up while I'm running. It doesn't happen on all treadmills, and sometimes you can have multiples of the exact same treadmill model next to each other, yet only some will do this. But I'll be running along, and every time my hand contacts the crossbar in front of me, I'll get a shock. The more time between shocks, the bigger they get. It's vaguely annoying, but I've simply internalized the practice of unconsciously touching the bar periodically while running to ground myself (preferably before the charge is big enough to actually hurt).

So anyway, I was running along today with music in my right ear only for the first twenty minutes or so. Then at some point, I touched the bar and felt a pretty substantial static discharge, and -- this is the weird part -- simultaneously, the left channel started working. It shut off again when I adjusted the volume and changed tracks, but a few minutes later, the same thing happened: I got a pretty stiff shock, and suddenly I had music in my left ear again. After that, all was well for the duration of the session.

If it had happened just once, I wouldn't be able to rule out coincidence entirely; but the fact that it happened twice -- and that the static discharge coincided perfectly with the reactivation of the left channel -- makes a connection virtually undeniable. Other than the obvious part about the Rio being an electronic device, I can't imagine what about a static discharge could have affected said device with a non-conducting rubberized shell, attached to my arm with a similarly non-conducting cloth band. (Both materials may be able to hold a charge, but conversely, neither is good at transferring one.) For the Rio to have even "felt" the discharge is hence dubious, and for the discharge to have affected the Rio's internal electrical functioning is an even more bizarre proposition.

Of course, given the strange results of my troubleshooting described in the above-reference July post, it was never entirely clear to what degree the Rio itself or the headphones may have been the culprit. But if it was a headphone problem, it's strange to think the discharge would have affected them for the same reasons it would be odd for the Rio to have been affected.

I honestly am at a loss for an explanation. But if you're in an anthropomorphic mood, you could say I defribillated my Rio's left channel back to life, and in the process discovered a novel new use for treadmills. Install one in the ER, and doctors can stay in shape while saving lives. It's George Clooney meets Richard Simmons!