Low End Theory

To Serve and Protect


By Brendan I. Koerner

As a somewhat spoiled only child, I got a lot of sweet Christmas gifts in my day: a VIC-20, the first Stetsasonic album, Soundwave. But the topper was the handheld police scanner that my dad scooped up at Radio Shack in the late 1980s. Paid for on a layaway plan (a fact which pops still brings up to this day), that beloved scanner afforded me many, many joyful hours of eavesdropping on cellphone convos, trucker banter and, most importantly, police chatter.

I guess that's when I started thinking about becoming a cop—oh, how I yearned to run around the streets of pre-Ramparts Los Angeles, chunky utility belt strapped around my waist à la Batman. It was a dream deferred, then denied as I chose a life of the mind over a life of wanton Taserings.

But a Geekish-American can still fantasize, yes? And then flesh out the fantasy with some low-end gadgets that can turn any civilian into a poseur policeman. After the jump, three techie toys that'll help you play make believe, yet cost less (combined!) than my favorite Xmas gift from the days of yore. PLUS: The low-end champ of one-gig drives?

You gotta trick out your car cop-style to start, and that means investing in this nifty four-in-one, $29.99 siren combo. The hype sheet language really says it all: "Don't settle for one boring blast when you can have 4 loud at your fingertips." I guess the stumbling block here is that your local PD may have cars that feature a different "police wailer" sound, and so you might seem out of place. When in doubt, simply activate the "euro ambulance siren"; that should confuse everyone sufficiently to make them pull over to the shoulder, wondering how and when they ended up in Zagreb while en route to the local 7-11.

Low End Theory does not advocate the use of firearms, primarily because they're too darn expensive for cheap folks like us. But what would a cop be without some means of subduing the bad guys? Stun guns are the affordable means of doing so, and cheap models are legion at any store run by a real-world version of one-armed Herman from The Simpsons. But the geek in me just can't resist spending a few extra quid on the Palco Cellphone Stun Gun, which looks like a Motorola handset circa 1991. Hunting-and-fishing megastore has it on sale for $69.99, but if you poke around you should be able to locate a unit for closer to $50. Again, the hype sheet lingo is evocative enough to deserve a full quotation: "This causes an attacker to drop while the brain tries to remember how to move the arms and legs." Perhaps the attacker is merely trying to process why you, his tormenter, hasn't yet upgraded to one of Verizon's cheap Razrs.

The toughest get of this trio was a police scanner; used ones abound on eBay, largely via PD surplus sales, but new units are still mighty expensive—a lot pricier than CB radios, for sure. The solution is to do an end-run around the market and opt for one of Uniden's scanners designed for the NASCAR set, specifically the BC72XLT-1RHS. It's designed to let race fans eavesdrop on the back-and-forth between pit and driver, but if you search around you can doubtless find some cop chatter, too. (At least that's what promised on the hype sheet; anyone know if they're stretching the truth here?) The nicest feature here is Uniden's trademarked Close Call, which automatically latches onto nearby radio signals should you so desire. So if there's a crime scene located down your block, this might be the best way of finding out what's going on. (Note: I've found that asking a cop, "Hey, what happened?" tends not to work; the stock response is, "Sir, move away from the yellow tape.")

Low End Theory

With a little diligence, you can scoop up all three of the aforementioned items for around $130 to $170—far less than the $228.79 that my dad ended up paying for my scanner when all was said and done. (Yes, he quotes that exact figure.) The caveat—and you knew this was coming—is that your local PD may not appreciate your aspirations to copdom. In fact, should you spend a day roaming around your town with siren wailing, zapping random passerby who seem to be committing misdemeanors, I can pretty much guarantee that you'll end up in jail. If/when that happens, please e-mail with the subject heading "I've Been Arrested". While I'm far too broke to provide bail money, I might be able to show up at your trial as a character witness.

LOWER THAN LOW: In last week's column, I marveled over a $31 one-gig flash drive that's being hawked more-or-less factory direct by a Shenzhen manufacturer. I guess I'm not really too up on low-end USB drive pricing, though, as a couple of readers pointed out drives that were closer to the $20 mark. The best seems to be this RiDATA unit, available on Newegg.com for $22.89. As we move ever closer to the ultimate low-end dream: one gig for one dollar. (Thanks, Gyg)

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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