7 Scientific Solutions for Annoying Little Problems

Image via Wonderhowto.com

by Elizabeth Maine

Scientists are working to alleviate those maddening, irritating, altogether obnoxious things that can make your everyday life hell. And not a moment too soon!

1. Cereal Dust

THE DILEMMA Ever notice when you open a box of granola that the nuts and raisins are on top while smaller riffraff lingers at the bottom, making it all but impossible to eat a well-rounded bowl of cereal? This phenomenon is known as the “Muesli Effect,” and it describes the tendency of different size particles to separate, with the largest paradoxically ending up on top and the smallest down below. It also occurs in bags of mixed nuts, which explains why Brazil nuts are always on top (thus the alternate nickname, the “Brazil Nut Effect”), and in gardens, which is why no matter how many rocks you remove from the soil, there are always more next spring, rising up from the Earth’s depths.

It’s the bane of manufacturers, who (like you) prefer their mixtures to stay mixed, and since the 1930s, leagues of cereal physicists have struggled to solve this puzzle. It defies logic: Shouldn’t the bigger, heavier particles sink and the lighter, littler particles rise to the surface? Some blame a process called “granular convection,” whereby larger particles float on top of the smaller granules, which act like a liquid. Others point to percolation, in which the small grains trickle downward, or “fluid drag,” which impacts how much particles move when they’re jostled.

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION While the Muesli Effect is still largely a mystery, inroads have been made toward some solutions. In 1996, engineers led by Kurt Liffman at the Advanced Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Australia announced research showing that the way containers are shaken during packaging could make a difference. “By shaking a pile of particles ‘vertically,’ i.e. in the direction parallel to gravity, we obtain the ‘Muesli Effect,’ where the large particles, initially, rise to the top,” they said at a conference. “Conversely, by shaking the box horizontally, we obtain the ‘reverse Muesli Effect,’ i.e. where the large particles, initially, fall to the bottom.” Unsatisfied with the temporary cereal harmony, engineers are still working on a new type of packaging that could keep the dust where it belongs.

THE QUICK FIX So what does this mean for average breakfasters craving both raisins and crunchy oats in their morning cereal? If you open a box and see mostly large particles, hold the box upright and shake it side to side to make them sink. Seems counterintuitive, but it’s far more effective than turning the box upside down. Science proves it!

2. Overheard Cell Phone Conversations

THE DILEMMA Why is it so easy—and irritating— to get sucked into other people’s cell calls no matter how hard we resist? Cognitive scientists have dubbed this phenomenon the “halfalogue” and have studied why it’s so awful. In one experiment, volunteers played simple computer games—such as following a dot with a mouse—while listening to monologues, dialogues, and halfalogues. People listening to halfalogues performed the worst. The reason, researchers theorize, is that these half-conversations eat up more of our attention as we try to piece them together. “When the brain listens to speech, it builds expectations millisecond by millisecond for what it will hear next,” explains study co-author Michael Spivey, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Merced. “When those expectations are violated, it’s disruptive to the smooth processing of the human mind.”

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION Thankfully, cell phone companies are aware of the mass aggravation caused by their wares, and engineers are working on technology to dampen the din. Certain Samsung phones, for example, include an early-generation “Whisper Mode” that makes use of a hypersensitive microphone, so you can speak more quietly and be far less audible to those around you. While this feature isn’t yet common—or perfected—most manufacturers are working on ways to make babble less bothersome.

THE QUICK FIX Spivey’s team has come up with an alternate (albeit somewhat spurious) solution: Since their research shows that dialogues drain less of our brain power than halfalogues, you can reclaim some peace of mind by politely asking chatty cell phone users to put their conversations on speaker, so you can hear both sides. Chances are this request will be met with strange looks and (we hope) stunned silence.

3. Songs Stuck in Your Head

THE DILEMMA If you’ve been compulsively humming “Poker Face” for the past, oh, 17 hours straight, then you’ve been bitten by an “earworm,” says James Kellaris, associate professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati and author of the study “Dissecting Earworms: Further Evidence on the ‘Song-Stuck-in-Your-Head’ Phenomenon.” In his paper, he writes: “Just as certain biochemical agents (histamines) have physical properties that can cause the skin to itch, certain pieces of music may have properties that excite an abnormal reaction in the brain—a cognitive itch. The only way to ‘scratch’ that itch is to rehearse the tune mentally. This repetition actually exacerbates the itch, so the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the individual feels trapped in a cycle or feedback loop.”

Insanity-inducing songs that are simple, repetitive, and contain some incongruity—a slight odd element—are the most likely to get stuck, with “Macarena,” Barney’s “I Love You,” and “Whoomp! (There It Is)” among the worst offenders. “But only half the answer resides in the song,” Kellaris says. “Characteristics of listeners also contribute to the earworm phenomenon. Musicians are more prone than the general population, probably due to their greater levels of exposure to music and to the repetition experienced in rehearsal. And women appear more susceptible than men. When an earworm is greeted with a panicky When on earth is this going to stop? reaction, it will stick around longer. Research shows that men seem to have more success in simply ignoring earworms and waiting for them to go away.” Generally, earworms are more likely to attack when we are tired, stressed, or in an otherwise weakened state.

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION The best cure is to employ what Kellaris calls an “eraser tune” to eat the worm. “An eraser tune devours an earworm by combining the benefits of both distraction and replacement,” says Kellaris. “Cognitively, the brain can do only so much at once, so if it is engaged in processing an eraser tune, that limits its capacity to continue an earworm.”

THE QUICK FIX Pull out your iPod and listen to a new, less annoying song three or four times in a row. Of course, if your eraser tune is too catchy, it might just replace one earworm with another. “That is a risk,” Kellaris acknowledges. “Ideally, eraser tunes should be something more complex and less repetitive than the earworm to keep it from lodging in your head. Again.”

4. Whiny Kids

THE DILEMMA What’s more distracting than the screech of a buzz saw, nails slowly dragging across a blackboard, or a nuclear detonation? It’s the high-pitched wail of a screaming baby or the incessant whine of a toddler. Rosemarie Chang, psychology instructor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, asked study subjects to do math problems while listening to a variety of annoying background noises. Unruly kids took the prize as the most distracting noise.

THE QUICK FIX Chang theorizes that crying and whining, forms of “attachment vocalization,” evolved as ways for kids to get their parents’ attention and ensure survival (or at least scam a Power Rangers toy at the mall). And parents unwittingly encourage their tykes by responding with their own form of attachment vocalization, called “motherese” —that excruciating singsong otherwise known as baby talk. They spur each other on endlessly. So when the kids are old enough to form sentences, cut the goo-goo speak!

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION What about older kids? The way to derail a teen whining about borrowing your Volvo, says Welsh inventor Howard Stapleton, is to fight fire with fire. At age 12, Stapleton accompanied his dad to his factory job and was shocked when adults weren’t bothered by the high-pitched assembly line hum. He discovered that adults gradually lose the ability to hear high frequencies. So Stapleton invented a device called the Mosquito, which emits a high-pitched grating sound that’s typically audible only to people under 24. He’s sold 10,000 units worldwide, largely to retailers who want to keep unruly teens from congregating.

5. Long Work Meetings

THE DILEMMA It’s 3 p.m., your blood sugar’s at an all-time low, and you’re trapped in a marathon meeting that refuses to end. Oh dear God … is that yet another PowerPoint presentation?

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION While there’s little you can do to escape this particular hell, scientists have pinpointed a technique to make your time more bearable: Pick up a pen and start doodling! It may seem counterproductive, but scribbling helps you concentrate, says Jackie Andrade, a cognitive psychologist at Plymouth University (England) and author of the study “What Does Doodling Do?” in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Study subjects who doodled while listening to a droning teleconference remembered far more of the content than nondoodlers. The reason, Andrade theorizes, is that drawing geometric shapes and weird animals is less distracting than what you’d be doing otherwise: daydreaming. “Research shows that daydreaming uses a lot of mental energy. Once that process begins, it becomes very hard to get back on track,” Andrade explains. “A simple task like doodling might occupy just enough brain power to keep you from spacing out but not so much that it will disrupt the main task you’re trying to concentrate on.” She also points out that doodling complements meetings particularly well, unlike sneaking a peek at a text message, which competes for verbal processing resources.

THE QUICK FIX So what should you draw? “Simple, repetitive, automatic doodles are best,” says Andrade. “A work of art would be way too absorbing.”

6. SPAM

THE DILEMMA In 2004, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates claimed that “two years from now, spam will be solved.” But today, it still makes up 70 percent of the email we receive. Recently a group of spamalyzers at UC San Diego, and UC Berkeley, tried tackling this problem by taking the bait and buying what the spammers were hawking. After amassing a mountain of Levitra and counterfeit Rolexes, they were able to paint a full picture of the spam ecosystem. For one typical message, the domain registrar was in Russia, the server computer in China, and a proxy server in Brazil. When a purchase was made, shoppers were shuttled from a computer in Turkey to a bank in Azerbaijan, then received their shipment from a manufacturer in India. What was the weak link in the chain?

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION “If there was just one of these things you could shoot in the head, which would have the most impact?” asked Stefan Savage, a computer science and engineering professor at UC San Diego. Savage’s team found that 95 percent of the spam they received used just three banks—one in Azerbaijan, another in Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the third in Russia—to do their financial dirty work. Savage believes the most effective solution would be to convince U.S. banks to blacklist certain clients at these institutions. “We’d be demonetizing the industry,” says Savage, adding that they’re in talks with various companies to put their theory into action.

THE QUICK FIX In 2001, computer savant Vipul Ved Prakash created the world’s first community-based spam filter. Now called Cloudmark DesktopOne, it allows users to tag spam and keep it from reaching others. It ain’t perfect—spammers change email and domain names constantly. But today, 1.6 billion people use it, and it’s more effective than the filters used by Yahoo! and AOL.

7. Rain During Your Vacation

THE DILEMMA Your two-week trip to Cancun could have been amazing … if it hadn’t rained every day. Too bad weather channels don’t tell you the forecast six months out—in fact, they have a hard time telling you whether it’s going to rain tomorrow. The problem, say meteorologists, is that the models used to predict weather are cumbersome and involve infinite variables. If humidity, wind direction, or barometric pressure is off by 1 percent, the whole forecast falls apart.

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION In the 1990s, meteorologist Bill Kirk was a captain in the U.S. Air Force trying to predict which dates would be best for flight training six months in advance. Fed up with traditional weather models and their flimsy grasp on the future, he developed his own algorithm: a combination of Gaussian mathematical theories, climate cycles, and statistical weather data spanning back 115 years—data that most meteorologists rarely touch. The result: a new way of forecasting that’s accurate up to a year in advance. These days, Kirk helps such clients as Walmart, Target, and Kohl’s plan inventory based on weather conditions. And his year-ahead weekly precipitation forecast is 76 percent accurate—better than the 71 percent accuracy of the Weather Channel’s one- to 10-day forecasts.

THE QUICK FIX In September 2010, Kirk launched the free website Weathertrends360.com to help the rest of us schedule events when weather could be a make-or-break factor.

All images courtesy of iStock

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

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10 Facts About Aspirin
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Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

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Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.

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