Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Taser reporting falls short

I'm a city editor at a small daily newspaper, and I spent three years as a night city editor in the Northeast. Cop & fire stories were my bread and butter then, and I retain a very high interest.

This means I read a lot of Taser stories, and as a result I read a lot of Taser stories that contain an annoying flaw. Here's a for-instance (originally from the Spokesman-Review, one of the country's largest newspapers - aka people with no excuse):
The two 50,000-volt Taser jolts left Strange, 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, "momentarily unconscious" on the ground, according to the lawsuit.
Wait a sec. If the current in a household electrical outlet can kill you, and it is only 110 volts or so, why doesn't a Taser turn you into a Crispy Critter?

The answer is simple: Amps. A Taser's amperage is really, really low, so the high voltage shouldn't kill you.

Why? This is the point where someone breaks out a water-through-a-hose analogy and we all fall asleep. But here's an alternative analogy.

Think of a high volt/low amp current (like you get in a Taser) as dropping a penny off the Empire State Building. If you hit someone, man will that sting. But it probably won't kill them. The amperage is the small coin and the voltage is the big drop.

Think of a low volt/high amp current (like you plug your blender into) as dropping a car off the roof of your house. If you hit someone, they're fucking dead.

OK, maybe that's not history's best analogy, but if you're writing a Taser story, ditch the voltage unless you are going to talk about amps, too.


Holly said...

I think your analogy is wonderful! - And you didn't bore me with a bunch of stuff I wouldn't understand...

Alasdair said...

Hooray! I actually revised that post about six times to eliminate the boring part :)

Johnny Yen said...

Yeah-- most people don't realize that a little spark from rubbing your stocking feet on a carpet is thousands of volts-- just a miniscule amount of current (amperage).

My dad was an electrician when he was younger, so I got the completely incomprehensible analogies when I was younger. It wasn't until I had to teach science to grade school children that I actually understood it.

Alasdair said...

What blows me away is that lightning (I guess that would be like dropping a car off the Empire State Building) is just static, too...

I, too, heard all about "how energy works" when I was a kid - my father was a physics professor - but I didn't get the whole picture until I became a newspaper guy... Curious, that.

Holly said...

Teaching someone else is the best way to learn it yourself!