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The World's Most Dangerous Hobby

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I admit to sneering when I first encountered the vast international community of flashlight addicts. Who are these losers, I generously wondered. These "flashaholics." Perhaps the nerd equivalent of, say, those neurally healthy folk who have sex with plush toys? Only less interesting?

That was a month ago.

Since then, I have spent an absurd sum on exotic lights, complex chargers, volt-ohm meters, and -- the seductive bit -- batteries whose energy density rivals TNT.

These are not the dim Boy Scout torches of your innocent youth. One of these small hand-held flashlights, improperly handled, is indistinguishable from the Unabomber's favourite mode of death delivery: the pipe bomb. (Not that you can distinguish much when you're on fire and missing most of your organs.)

I stumbled across the flashlight realm by accident, while hoping to cultivate a completely different obsession: randonneuring. I was innocently hunting down powerful illumination for bicycle touring at night and Google led me to the experts: lumen freaks who congregate nocturnally at such haunts as Candlepowerforums.com and the Teutonic Taschenlampen-forum.de.

First, let's dispense with the understandable preconception that flash addicts are dweebs with thick glasses, pocket protectors, and the sexual habits of fungi. While some of the candlepower people fit this description, the guys I've met on these forums are more likely to be on active duty in Afghanistan, or pondering how best to enhance their collection of switchblades and nunchucks and Glocks. Or, hardcore survivalists, grimly awaiting the arrival of the promised zombie horde.

They range from the honourable (Marines) to the repulsive (big-game hunters, wannabe mercenaries, actual mercenaries). Not at all what I expected, given that my experience is mostly with manly hobbies like slide-rule collecting.

I now own small flashlights -- no larger than the average human penis -- capable of turning darkest night into vampire-vanquishing day. Stealth diodes that cut through midnight like those ranging spotlights in Hollywood. I am, through these prosthetic enhancements, superhuman.

Okay, I'm exaggerating. I am only slightly more awesome than you are. And flashlights aren't really the world's most dangerous hobby -- not statistically, anyway. That said, not many hobbies can promise to dismember you and your loved ones and consume your home in lithium flames. This may not happen very often, but the word "dangerous" is appropriate.

A brief poll at candlepowerforums.com -- a forum of experienced and knowledgeable people -- might put you at ease: 70 per cent of those polled had never "had a cell explode or vent in an undesirable and unexpected way." And of the remaining 30 per cent, only 10 per cent had experienced a cell doing one of these things "violently."

This was a tiny, unscientific poll. But it was enough to cheer up one forum member, who announced that battery danger "now seems a nonissue [sic], and I am glad."

An elder responded: "You are happy because you are wrong. Collecting a few anecdotes doesn't change the chemistry."

Let that response be your mantra.

Here's the issue. In order to fire up the latest LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) to eye-damaging levels, you want chemistry with balls. Ideally, this means something like fat lithium-ion cells, purchased over the web from obscure outfits in China: people like "DealExtreme" and "DinoDirect," who purvey battery tech with ominous branding, like "Trustfire Flames."

The Chinese have specialized in fireworks for thousands of years. They introduced gunpowder: one of the Four Great Inventions. They pioneered the whole concept of cheerfully trafficking in stuff deemed criminal by public health officials in lesser cultures.

The cells you purchase from Shenzhen are in fact identical to the ones that make up the batteries in your laptop. The difference is that your batteries have been designed by nice people like Apple who insist upon litigation-proof quality control and layers of idiot-proof electronic protection. Whereas the ones flash freaks enjoy are the very opposite of idiot-proof.

I am, to be honest, probably too much of an idiot to be fooling with this stuff. Electronics has always been a black hole in my education: I've never managed to get my brain around the most basic circuitry. Hence my favourite community is BudgetLightForum.com, because it's a bit less macho -- it suffers fools more gladly. There I learned the basics: that a single pitiless cylinder, for instance, is not properly speaking a "battery" -- it is a "cell." Batteries are what you get when you put a number of cells together. What you get if you do this sloppily is Armageddon.

I, fool, now own flashlights that promise to reveal my mortality should I allow the cells to discharge below a certain level. (These levels I check religiously with my fancy multimeter, about which I know almost nothing). I own chargers that, should they malfunction and overcharge, will cause imagery -- and the physical condition -- associated with John Milton.

You know how an angry person is said to "vent"? Well, angry lithium-ion cells do the same thing. They vent flames: unquenchable lithium fire. And should they decide to do this while encased in a dense waterproof flashlight -- a tightly sealed tube of aluminum, generally, but sometimes stainless steel or titanium -- they become pipe bombs.

I know: cool, right? If I'd discovered this when a kid, I would not have survived kidhood. Hence, I consider this research. I write young adult novels occasionally, so I have to know this stuff. My characters do in fact tend to die in chemical fires (you think I'm joking), so it's my duty to experience personal flambé, just as it's Stephenie Meyer's duty to get sucked dry by the glittering undead.

One of the worst things that can happen, flashlight-wise, is quite complex. It requires a modicum of electrical savvy to prevent. If a flashlight is powered by two lithium-ion cells, and one is at a much lower level of charge than the other, then this weaker cell can "be driven into reverse polarity" (a technical phrase for "roast your favourite body parts").

A certain obscure battery technologies favoured by flashheads, lithium manganese (LiMn), is much safer than lithium-ion when it comes to charging. Discharging, on the other hand, is a whole different pool of wax. These cells are worshipped because they discharge rapidly, providing wild amounts of current. They don't give you much run-time, but flashaholics are like Goethe: what matters finally is More Light. Should you accidentally short-circuit one of these cells, it will misbehave. Which is a term of art for "puncture your skull with what used to be a piece of your flashlight."

Let me emphasize again that I am a rank novice when it come to the chemistry and physics here. Flash communities do in fact feature nerds of prodigious intellect: the druids, revered, who really do understand the complex molecular interactions that Let There Be Light. These guys will go on about "boost" versus "buck" drivers, emitter "bins" and tints, grades of MIL-SPEC anodizing and how they are achieved.

I suspect these forums are pretty much unique, community-wise: Where else do fearless warriors stand in awe of the nerds in their midst?

All this to say: I'll probably be fried by experts for getting some of the tech wrong here. (And these are not the kind of experts by whom you wish to be fried.) I am a truly eager novice, however, with all that such eagerness entails. For instance, I have come very close to losing my girlfriend as a result of my new-found obsession. She thinks I've become financially irresponsible. But money can purchase diverse things, and why should our rent be more important than superior knurling?

I am patient, however. She will see the light. Should I survive into mavenhood, I expect I shall be too brilliant to be gazed upon. More likely I shall fall short of that level of expertise: eternally short, and you will recognize that precise moment of failure. It will be an awesome spectacle.