Chips for Chumps Letters, from July 2005

Letters in response appeared in July 2005 (Vol.26 No.7):

Unique credibility

Editor: Once in a while, I read an article in Stereophile which makes me wish I could extend my subscription for a decade. Such was the effect of Jim Austin's "As We See It" in May (p.5). To say that it highlighted the unique credibility of your publication would be understatement. While there are many who will value imaginary gains to the exclusion of reality, his wisdom is well-received by those seeking a firmer foothold in demonstrable science.

What Jim said needed saying, and while he will surely be attacked from the fringes, I hope he knows that many more who have invested the years necessary to get a basic understanding of physics will champion his efforts to bring forth the truth on this subject.—Steve Armand, Sanger, Texas,

Smoke and mirrors?

Editor: I really enjoyed Jim Austin's column in the May Stereophile: Science brought to Stereophile, perhaps some reasonable explanations of smoke and mirrors. I can only hope. I do hope Jim becomes a regular in the magazine. Who knows, he may even convince you of the usefulness in select cases of double-blind testing, eg, of speaker cables when they are reviewed.—Allen L Schmidt,

Clark heard from

Editor: Hey! I resent Jim Austin's May 2005 "As We See It" on the incredible Intelligent Chip and its deluded defenders. He named names but left mine out! Here I go to all the trouble to write a really long report about my experience with it (and those who fell under its sway) at CES, besides defending myself on, and all I get is the cold shoulder. Don't my mystifications deserve equal credit?

It's all in the mind I know and this wouldn't be the first time I was influenced by greedy, dishonest opportunists like the guys at Golden Sound and Machina Dynamica. Why, I'm even known to spend over $50 on a bottle of fermented grape juice fer godsake and I consume vitamins without a single measurable improvement in my health. Call me a goner.

And in audio I do all this certifiably crayzee stuff—vibration isolation (on a CD player yet!), mechanical damping on cables, AC power filtration, CD surface polishing—that has no DBTs, no science to back it up. Thus I suspect that when Jim Austin, PhD., AAAS, sniffs at such as us who merely listen, he is probably correct. On Audio Asylum he has earnestly annunciated, anent the Chip, "There's nothing in there that, according to known laws, could cause the effect people say it has...I believe these people are running a scam."

I must admit it's good to receive assurances from the custodians that the laws of physics are safe, or even, as Paul Klipsch used to say, "immutable"—perhaps nowhere more so than in audio. On the other hand the history of science might suggest that "common sense" is forever being replaced by weird ideas, so maybe one shouldn't be too quick to judge new possibilities such as the Intelligent Chip, to whose efficacy dozens upon dozens of people have attested. But what do we the underdegreed, the great unwashed know about priestly science? What we hear, can't even be enumerated! We do however have the Great Albert, if not the Amazing Randi, on our side: "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."—Clark Johnsen, Boston, MA,

Wondrous strange?

Editor: "O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!"

Horatio uttered this line following an apparition sighting, but it also encapsulates Jim Austin's reaction to the Golden Sound Intelligent Chip in the May, 2005 "As We See It." I, too, approached the seemingly impracticable device with a healthy amount of skepticism. After all, the chip is a tweak that appears too good to be true, and neither Golden Sound nor Machina Dynamica offers enough information about its workings to satisfy my curiosity.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Hamlet's admonition to Horatio is equally applicable to Jim Austin, the physicist with a PhD. I am neither a physicist nor do I hold a PhD, but I contend that modern science is too vast for any individual to survey, let alone master, no matter how qualified. I find it quite plausible that the chip utilizes scientific principles unfamiliar to Mr. Austin.

This is no impediment to Mr. Austin as he contemptuously characterizes all satisfied users of the Intelligent Chip as deluded. We bought a bottle of snake oil, says he, as he laments the dearth of DBTs in high-end audio. Excuse me, but I trust my own ears more than any number of others that can be enlisted into a DBT. I've heard the chip produce a very real and positive effect on many discs, and others have shared similar experiences on Audio Asylum. To label us a bunch of dupes is quite insulting.

"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all"

Conspicuously absent from Mr. Austin's article is an account of his experiences with the chip. I'd be more apt to heed his cautions had Mr. Austin actually evaluated the chip himself. Lacking this, his estimation of the chip appears baseless. Perhaps conscience demanded haste in warning his readers about the newest charlatans in audio land, and he just didn't have the time. So this happy customer challenges Mr. Austin to try the chip himself and report his findings. I'm not asking for an audited DBT here—only a single listening session with a chip and some good CDs.—Patrick Conroy,

Mr. Conroy, Occam's razor was formulated by a 14th century Franciscan monk—William of Ockham—and given rigorous support thanks to a version of statistics formulated by an 18th-century theologian (Thomas Bayes). Despite its religious roots Occam's razor says, in effect, that people shouldn't create gods (or ghosts, or other mysterious forces) unless they really need them to explain something. Alternative formulations of Occam's razor include these: plurality should not be assumed unless you really need it, and the familiar "keep it simple, stupid."

The late Nobel-winning physicist P.W. Bridgeman once described the razor as satisfying "a deep-seated instinct for intellectual good workmanship," and I agree. To ignore it is the intellectual equivalent of building a chair with 6 or 7 legs, instead of the usual 3 or 4: you can still sit on it, but it costs more to make than it needs to, it weighs more, and nobody would ever call it an elegant solution to the problem of where to sit.

It's certainly true that there are areas of science that I haven't mastered; pretty much all of them in fact. Yet, the serious study and practice of science teaches a healthy skepticism of things that violate logic, common sense, and a basic understanding of how the universe works and how its parts interact. A rigorous de-bunking of the so-called Intelligent Chip would take more room than I have, but I'll make three observations, at least one of which has been made elsewhere.

• The Intelligent Chip claims to be fixing "errors" that probably don't even exist; a simple bit-by-bit comparison of the disk will demonstrate that it has the same information on it both before and after, and that information, in turn, is the same as what's on another non-defective copy of the same CD.

• Certain forces act on certain types of materials in certain ways, and these forces are generally well-understood; there are no forces known that could explain how a piece of stuff—which may or may not have some connection to quantum-dot technology (not that it matters)—can act through a metal CD-player casing to manipulate the pits on a plastic disc with a metallic layer.

• Even if that was possible, this little chunk of stuff would indeed have to be intelligent, since it would need first to detect which pits are in the right place and which ones are in the wrong place before it could get to work repairing them. That's something even a brilliant scientist with a million dollars worth of equipment couldn't do without access to an original, unmodified digital source.

Given the fact that we don't have to look far to find perfectly good, simple, fully scientific explanations in the realm of neuroscience and psychology, I'm reluctant to attribute them to science that is either brand new or very poorly known. Some may find it offensive, but until some new information comes along, it's the simplest explanation.Jim Austin