Cheap Geek Tour
Saturday, October 2, 2004
We set off for the train station, noticing that it is very foggy outside. Fortunately, trains have an advanced directional system that lets them continue to operate, even in the fog (they just follow the tracks of the previous train, nyuk, nyuk).
On the way, Laura regales Robert with facts about Braintree, such as the fact that it was founded in 1640 and in the town archives are the birth records of Presidents John Adams (1735) and John Quincy Adams (1767), John Hancock (1736), the first governor of Massachusetts, and General Sylvanus Thayer, the founder of West Point.
Fortunately, since it's Saturday, we can go to the Braintree train station, fully confident in being able to get a spot. Sure enough, we do.
We find ourselves, once again, at Boston Common (and what better place for common folk like us?). We have been told (by several people) that no trip to Boston is complete without a ride on the Swan Boats.
[For those of you who don't know what the hell we are talking about, we'll explain. Take a barge, big enough to hold five or six park benches. Put a couple of wood cutouts of swans at one end. In between the swans, put a paddle wheel. Add one healthy teenager who paddles like crazy to propel the barge around the pond. Voila! One Swan Boat.]
Guess we'll never complete this trip, because we're about a week late for the Swan Boats. Like the real swans, the Swan Boats have got the heck out of Dodge and are migrating south for the winter.
Also, they've drained the wading pool and are ready to turn it into an ice skating rink shortly.
We locate the Ether Monument. This monument is engraved: "To commemorate the discovery that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain."
Which happened in Boston in 1846. Robert used to be a chemistry major and ether is a very common solvent used in lab classes (it dissolved damn near anything). You could always tell where the ether bottles were because that was the part of the room where loud giggling came from. Frankly, he's surprised it took them so long.
For reasons we don't understand, the guy on top of the statue looks like an Arab.
We have arrived at MIT! What sorts of mind-boggling research must be going on here! Look—a conference! Let us approach and see what collection of minds has been brought here to work on solving a great problem.
Why, it's the 92nd Annual Meeting of the Northeast Laundry Association.
Hmmm. Maybe this joint ain't exactly packed wall-to-wall with brainpower...
We walk across the campus—strangely deserted until we remember it's Saturday. Frank Gehry (Mr. EMP) has been working his twisted magic here and there is a group of buildings that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. They are leaning in all crazy angles and some have tops that are wider than bottoms.
We stop for lunch at Fresco Cafe, and guess who else is there? It's Mr. Karaoke! This is weird, because we know who he is, but nobody else in the room does. But if you asked anybody, they would certainly know what Karaoke is.
Lunch is good—kebabs and baklava!
We arrive at the lecture hall for the Informal Ig Nobel lectures. And we must say, the width of the seats has shrunk considerably since our undergraduate days. Back then, they were very roomy. But now, we have to shoehorn ourselves into them.
As is traditional, Mark Abrahams (pronounced "Abrams") shows a video of Troy Hurtubise, who has invented a grizzly bear suit (a suit that can withstand a grizzly bear attack, not a suit that looks like a grizzly bear). The video shows various tests that Troy put the suit through while he was inside it. We watch him get hit with a log, struck by a moving truck several times, and tumble down a steep embankment.
In every case, he says "I'm fine! I'm okay!" We beg to differ.
The first presentation is by a winner from last year, Case Moeliker (who has been sitting next to Robert, somewhat to Robert's horror once he realizes it), who works with stuffed animals in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Case's claim to fame is that he published a paper entitled The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. His talk explains what happened.
His department recently moved into a large glass building that's a "real bird killer," which he says is kind of handy, because he gets a steady supply of recently killed birds for the collection.
One male bird that smacked into the glass was approached by another male bird who proceeded to mount the dead bird and begin activities that went on for some 75 minutes (birds usually copulate for 30 seconds or less). He took notes, got pictures, published, and is now (in)famous.
Robert asked him later about whether this has happened with other birds, and he said that it's only been published about sparrows, but that he's heard "lots of cases from other people who tell me. But I only believe what I see."
Now the gorilla boys, Don Simmons, and Chris Chablis, appear. These are the guys who showed a film and asked people to count how many times the ball is passed. During this, a gorilla strolls through, beats his chest and walks off.
They say that people are SO focused on counting that 50% (or "one-half" for you non-scientists) don't even notice the gorilla. This is referred to as "inattentional blindness."
They say it appears as though there is a limited amount of attention each of us has. When we're using that attention, we tend not to notice other things—even things that are unusual or different.
This has application to, oh, say, driving and talking on a cell phone! In ordinary driving, it's no problem, but if something unusual happens (a gorilla appears in the road, for example), Bad Things could happen.
The title of their paper was Gorillas In Our Midst.
James Dunlop appears to talk about his paper The effect of Country Music on the suicide rate (wearing, of course, a cowboy hat).
Seems that one of his statistics classes looked at the suicide rates and found that they tended to occur in cities like Nashville. So they got some Arbitron radio listener data and some suicide data, and did an analysis.
They found that, yup, the more you listened to country music, the more likely you were to commit suicide (especially if you're a white male).
Personally, we believe this is nature's way of improving the species, but that's just us.
The next speakers talked about their paper on hula hoops, or keeping an unstable object stable.
Apparently, when you hula hoop (and it's definitely "you" because we can't do it), there is both a fore-aft oscillation which adds energy, and an up-down motion to keep the hula hoop horizontal.
You manage to coordinate both these activities so that the hula hoop stays stable and rotates around you. There is an optimal up-down/back-forth mode where the hula hoop is stable.
Interestingly, the rate of rotation (or "hooping") is determined by the width of the hoop, with larger hoops being easier to rotate than smaller ones. Different size hula hoopers will rotate the same size hoop at very similar rates—so the hula hooper adapts to the hoop.
We're all hooped after all that...
The Public Health winner is Jillian Clarke, a former high school student, now a finance major at Howard University, who established the scientific validity of the "5-second rule" (any food that's on the ground for less than 5 seconds can be safely eaten).
She did a number of different things, including measuring bacteria counts on floors around the university and in bathrooms. She found that floors consistently have very low bacteria counts.
She also looked at how easily could bacteria deliberately placed on a floor be transferred to food. Gummy bears are bad (smooth surface picks up lots of germs), cookies are good.
She also said that five seconds is the same as five minutes in terms of bacteria transfer.
The key thing is that bacteria need moisture to survive and there's usually not much moisture available on floors.
A few caveats—she only looked at tile floors (although we would expect carpet to be even safer, with a rough, dry, surface) and she only looked a women's bathrooms (if any food is dropped in a men's room, it's best disposed of with a flamethrower).
Mr. Karaoke (really Mr. Inoue) now takes the podium. This time, he has brought a translator with him. Unfortunately, his translator's English is also pretty bad (and he's got a fairly thick accent), so this doesn't help a whole hell of a lot.
Karaoke started in Kobe, Japan and used an eight-track system in the first Karaoke machine. Mr. Inoue draws a diagram on the blackboard, which we can follow only because we already know how an eight-track tape works.
He either replaced all of the tracks with one track, or removed one track from each of the four channels, or maybe he just played all eight tracks backwards, but we're pretty sure he did something.
While he is drawing this, the translator says, "Please imagine what he's trying to say."
Robert asks about how he came up with the name, which Robert thought would be a nice, easy question for him to answer. After about five minutes of discussion, it develops that "kara" is Japanese for "empty" and "oke" is Japanese for "orchestra" (via corrupted English), so "karaoke" means "empty orchestra."
We nod politely.
Now the biologists, who discovered that herring produce small gas bubbles that they dubbed Fast Repetitive Ticks (or FRTs). They also discovered that these really are FRTs and not farts, because they are not produced by the digestive system, but by the herrings' swim bladder.
The Swedish investigator got involved because the Swedish Navy thought the herring farts were Russian submarines. Thanks to science, they found out they were herring farts, and Sweden has been breathing easier ever since (although holding their noses while they do so).
They're pretty sure the herring fart to communicate, and it appears as though only the fish at the front of a school fart, as if to say, "Follow me, boys!"
A special bonus! Massimo Marconi is here to explain the science behind Kopi Luwak.
Seems that a Palm Civet in Indonesia (locally called a "Luwak") likes to eat the very ripest coffee bean berries. While in their digestive system, the outside of the bean is digested, leaving the coffee bean intact (although changed).
The civet then poops out the beans, natives collect them, sell them to Crazy Americans who roast it up and sell it for about $500 a pound.
The only fly in the ointment (although we're sure there's plenty of flies elsewhere) is that Indonesians are always in some kind of civil war or another, and that kind of interferes with production (who wants to collect civet poop when they're getting shot at?).
So, Massimo made a trip to Ethiopia to evaluate whether an African Civet could substitute for the Palm Civet and maybe produce a cash crop for Ethiopia. (Not really—African Civets are ground animals and wouldn't climb trees; even if they hand fed the civets, the conditions they raise them under would prohibit their being traded with any civilized country; AND the flavor is off a little bit).
Massimo is involved with evaluating whether or not coffee that claims to be civet poop really IS civet poop coffee (apparently, there's Mock Civet Poop Coffee), so he has accumulated beans to share.
As a special treat, he has brewed up a couple of pots and passes out sample cups.
Do we try it?
You betcha--free coffee! The Most Expensive Coffee in the World! But it doesn't taste $500-a-pound's worth of wonderful.
We head for the MIT museum, which has some pretty cool stuff:
Finally, our feets are sore and our heads are full, so we head back to Braintree, where we have dinner at the local Thai Restaurant (Cafe Asiana—very tasty if you're ever in Braintree).
Tomorrow is a Travel Day, meaning we'll be spending it being examined by the TSA and sitting in small, cramped seats all day. Reflect on this, while you're lounging around in your La-Z-Boys...
Never abandon the duck!
Robert & Laura