February 8, 2007

What do I look like, someone who’s not lazy?

Filed under: Funny Stuff, General Me, Science and Technology — tomemos @ 2:27 am

When I was in Oxford for my year abroad, I had a persistent problem with oversleeping. I’ve never been a morning person, and in Oxford this problem was compounded by two factors. First, I had to write a paper for each of my two tutorials every week, so I had invariably been up late writing the night before. Second, tutorials in the British university system are one-on-one meetings between student and professor, so if you oversleep, the class doesn’t go on without you; there’s just a professor sitting in their office, looking at the clock. Faced with this humiliating consequence, and in fact experiencing it quite a few times, I tried everything—short of, you know, planning my week so I could write the paper and still get a good night’s sleep. Drinking coffee just before getting into bed, booby-trapping my alarm clock with a tower of empty aluminum cans…it all ended the same way, with furious pedalling mixed with panicked swearing.

One night, finally lying down at 4 a.m. or so, I was kept awake, or half-awake, by the certain knowledge that in five hours my alarm clock was going to go off and that I wasn’t even going to dream about it. “If only there was some way to keep my alarm clock from turning off until I was out of bed,” I thought. “Maybe if my bed contained a scale, one that was hooked up to my alarm clock. Then, the alarm clock wouldn’t be silenced until it detected that my body weight had left the bed!” I drifted into sleep, not realizing until much later that I had just proposed, if only to myself, a $15,000 device to help me get up in the morning. I was probably late for my tutorial the next morning.

I tell that story to get a laugh, but part of me has always thought it was a neat idea, one that served a real need in an over-the-top way. And tonight I’m feeling vindicated, because while science hasn’t yet gotten around to the AlarmScale (suggestions of better names welcome), it has finally realized that an alarm clock should make you get out of bed:

If a screeching buzzer is not enough to get you moving in the morning, consider Clocky.

This alarm clock doesn’t just make noise, it breaks the snooze-button habit: after the first snooze period, Clocky rolls off the nightstand and runs away.

Clocky generated Internet buzz in 2005 when it was just a conceptual design project by Gauri Nanda, then a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is now an actual product, available for $50 at

The clock can survive a two-foot drop and the alarm beeps randomly, ensuring that its frantic squalling won’t be easily forgotten. It comes in white, light blue and light green.

Now, I’ve improved considerably since my time in Oxford, certainly beyond the point that I could justify owning a $50 ambulatory alarm clock (though if anyone’s looking for a kooky birthday present…). Nonetheless, Clocky here goes to show that there is always money to be made catering to the lazy. After all, there are entire companies that have become hugely successful simply by manufacturing extremely comfortable chairs, some of which can give you massages. It’s about time someone used technology to address one of laziness’s more prominent downsides.

Update (2/8/07, 10:30 p.m.):  Just in case this post isn’t self-deprecating enough already, Julie assures me that she told me about Clocky months ago, when it first came out.  Clearly my alertness has not improved as much as I’d like to think.


January 28, 2007

Knowledge is good

Filed under: Laws and Sausages, Science and Technology — tomemos @ 1:47 pm

Recently, it seems that the news has been rife with one of my least-favorite things: the denial, rejection, or disapproval of new information or research that does not fit with one’s worldview. Many of you know me as a skeptic, so you would expect that I would be in favor of taking all news with a grain of salt. I am. However, what we are dealing with here is not “skepticism” in the proper sense, since these are not cases where individuals want to get all the facts before making a judgment. This is simply refusing to accept facts (or hypotheses, if you want) which one doesn’t like, which is actually just another form of skepticism’s opposite, credulity. Some of this is due to identity politics, some is due to a warped moral sense, and some is due to out-and-out lying. Which is which? You make the call:

•Fox News’s John Gibson refusing to recant the claim that the Indonesian school Barack Obama went to as a child was a “madrassa” (implication: a conservative Islamic school), even after a CNN reporter visited the school and found it to be a secular public school. Infuriating quote:

HOST: Yeah, [CNN] sent a reporter out there.

GIBSON: Yeah, cause they got a reporter in Indonesia, probably went to the very madrassa, now works for CNN. But that reporter went out there, and what did they see when they went to the madrassa where Barack Obama went to school?

HOST: Kids playing volleyball.

GIBSON: Playing volleyball, right. They didn’t see them in any terrorist training camps?


GIBSON: No. Um, but they probably didn’t show them in their little lessons where they’re bobbing their heads and memorizing the Koran.

If you’re up for some real outrage today, I recommend listening to the audio. You really have to hear Gibson’s disgust that CNN would be so treacherous as to have a reporter in a foreign country, and that they would sink so low as to use him to verify the truth of something.

•Some conservative Christian groups opposing the mandatory vaccination (and some even opposing the optional vaccination) of young women against HPV, the vaccine that causes cervical cancer, because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease so vaccinating against it might send a message that promiscuous sex is okay. Infuriating quote: Jeez, that wasn’t infuriating enough? Well, okay:

“Some people have raised the issue of whether this vaccine may be sending an overall message to teen-agers that, ‘We expect you to be sexually active,’ ” said Reginald Finger, a doctor trained in public health who served as a medical analyst for Focus on the Family before being appointed to the ACIP in 2003.

Wow, pretty scary. Hey, what’s the ACIP? Why, it’s the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises the CDC on immunization. Yes, this former James Dobson employee was on a GOVERNMENT PANEL.  (The vaccine was eventually approved, but of course the fight continues.)  Man, I am horrified to think what we might hear from these people if we ever discover an AIDS vaccine. Speaking of which:

•Male circumcision opponents refusing to accept (or, at least, refusing to approve of) the studies that show that male circumcision makes transmission of AIDS less likely, even though the 50-60 percent reduction it seems to cause could save millions of lives. Infuriating quote…is behind a firewall, and I don’t feel like paying five dollars to make fun of it. But if you know anything about the anti-circumcision movement, you can write it yourself: “Circumcision evangelists … false hope … mutilating infants … many Jews and Muslims now oppose …” God, what a less-than-urgent cause that is. I could write a book.

•Some gay rights and animal rights activists refusing to believe that Dr. Charles Roselli’s research on gay sheep is not a precursor to developing a “cure” for being gay, even after Roselli insisted that he was “repulsed” by the idea of sexual eugenics. Infuriating quote: Tennis star and lesbian Martina Navratilova, who “remains unconvinced” despite a personal response from the university assuring her that there was nothing sinister about Roselli’s research:

“The more we play God or try to improve on Mother Nature, the more damage we are doing with all kinds of experiments that either have already turned or will turn into nightmares,” she wrote in an e-mail reply to a reporter’s query. “How in the world could straight or gay sheep help humanity?”

Well, Martina, I suppose that the way they would help humanity would be in the way all other learning has helped humanity: by enhancing our understanding of the world and our place in it. This is good in and of itself, but it’s particularly important with a subject as plagued by ignorance and fear as homosexuality. In a world where many people still believe that homosexuality is a choice, couldn’t research into what causes it to naturally occur help promote understanding? This is the quote that made me want to write about this subject, because I don’t understand how anyone could take a blanket position against knowledge. What is the practical difference between saying the above and saying, as Darwin was headed for Galapagos, “How could short- and long-beaked finches possibly help humanity?”

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