American’s ain’t needin’ nun that sai-ance

A recent NSF study found that few Americans know their science, but most believe science fiction is true:

A survey of 1,574 adults found that 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed that some people possess psychic powers or extrasensory perception, a premise that is generally discarded as unproven by most scientists.

But never fear, the results are improving:

In contrast to two years ago, when half of those surveyed were wrong, a majority, 54 percent, answered correctly when asked how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. (One year.)

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a better place to start an organization like Scientology than right here in pseudoscience central.

Online service my ass

Faced with a complete deficiency of customer support numbers online, I decided to use my local electicity provider’s website to sign up for new service. Heralded as a convenient alternative to talking to a real person, I received this auto-reply within seconds:

The Electric Company has received your request for an application and/or discontinuance of Electric service. Your request will be completed within 2 to 4 business days.
If you recently moved to a new address and your Electric service has not been turned on, please contact a Customer Service Representative at 1-800-555-2000.
Thank you for contacting The Electric Company.

I guess by ‘convenient’ they meant that they will turning on my electric service at their leisure. I just don’t see why online customer service is so much harder than using a telephone.

Health monitoring systems

Robert Cringely’s personal narrative about losing his child is heartbreaking, having realized his son Chase was dead on his lap while he wrote email. The cause of death was determined to be SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), a disorder that is little understood, or even studied for that matter, due to a lack of medical data. Cringely’s article is in large part a call to arms for developing systems for collecting data and analyzing it: “a $10 device that can be strapped or stuck or otherwise attached to, 100,000 little babies, measuring and recording respiration, heartbeat, body temperature, and anything else we can think of.”

It just so happens that my office mate, Vadim Gerasimov (famous for developing tetris) is actually working on this problem right now. Although the cost is still out of the $10 range, one of his Hoarder boards can collect months worth of biometric data (EKG, breathing, skin conductivity, etc.) onto a compact flash card. I just hope that some of this research will find its way into the real world, like Cringely suggests.

Trading baseballs for cigarettes

Oh, Darryl Strawberry, where did it all go wrong? On his umpteeth conviction, a Florida judge finally sentenced him to 18 months in jail. The former all-star was caught “breaking the rules of the drug treatment center by smoking, having sex with a resident and trading baseballs for cigarettes.”

Only Robert Downey Jr. could compete with this impeccable track record (which includes being a spokesperson for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence).

Anthropology saved

In the doctor’s waiting room last week I was catching up on the back catalog of Atlantic Monthly, and I came across this cover story: 1492, by Charles Mann. The article is an account of the debate over what the Americas were like before it they were the “New World,” one of the more striking theories claiming that much of the Amazon forest may have been a human artifact constructed by the terraforming of an otherwise barren landscape. Mann paints a picture of thriving culture devastated by the influence of European “explorers,” who carried diseases that the unexposed population just couldn’t recover from.

This is the sort of research that makes you want to rush off to South America, Indana Jones style, despite the fact that you’re a professor and you’ve got classes to teach on Monday. So it’s settled, I’m growing a beard and taking up anthropology.

Did Jerry Garcia get his start in a noise band?

Last night at our weekly electronic music gig (the appliance of science) in Cambridge, we featured guests Keith Fullerton Whitman (aka Hrvatski) and Greg Davis in duo form, just back from an extended US tour. They played a set of positively nerve-racking noise, full of baby giggles and monstorous groans (someone likened them to Legend). Since the last time I had seen them together, they had somehow lost all interest in melody, song and structure. At the same time, something more striking: they had both grown bushy, unkempt beards.

So I posed the question: is there an inverse correlation between the length of a man’s beard and his melodiousness? To which I received the quick retort: “Dude, Jerry Garcia had one mother of a beard, and all he did was spew melody.” But this only adds to my nascent theory: after years of melodic oppression at medium beard length, it makes sense that one reaches a certain threshold, and it starts to pour from every part of your body. There’s no way to know really, except through experimentation. Tomorrow, I stop shaving.

The flattest one wins

Recently released, the official rules for the Extreme Ironing World Championships:

There are three components for scoring:

  • Extreme and creative ironing style
  • Extreme well pressed and clean clothes
  • Extreme short time

At the World Championships every ironist must use the official World Championships iron for an accurate comparison of extreme ironing performances. The iron will be provided by the World Championships Committee. For the safety of all competitors and for the protection of the environment, the iron will be heated without electricity. The irons will use alternative energy sources.

It’s warming to know that ironists are conservationists.

The Strokes Tipped

Ben Greenman writing for the New Yorker asks: will bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes have a widespread and lasting effect on rock music?

A week ago, the answer cut me off in a crosswalk: some balding 40-something was enjoying the new found
spring weather, speeding around with the windows of his early-90’s Ford minivan rolled down to the hilt, singing Last Nite at the top of his lungs didn’t have enough brain cells to cope with the visceral experience he was having and notice me in the street at the same time.

Yes, my friends, The Strokes are widespread. If some dad with a combover is overcome with elation, you can safely say that the music is pervasive.