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A.J. Jacobs


Can a book about Jerry Falwell bring people together?

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My friend, the writer Kevin Roose, just started a project where he's trying to build a bunch of little brid ges across the red-blue/atheism-religion culture gap. Not a grand Roebling-style bridge. Just a few small foot bridges. But it's a start.

To back up, I met Kevin when I was writing a book about following all the hundreds of rules in the Old Testament. During my project, I was looking for a way to address the thorny issue of biblical slavery, because certain parts of the Scriptures seem to condone the practice. The closest thing to a legal slave in the Tri-State area? An intern. It fulfills the "unpaid labor" part of the definition, at least. So I hired Kevin - then an 18-year-old freshman at Brown University - as my intern/slave for a summer. He did research. He sold my possessions on eBay for me. He baked me a delicious loaf of Ezekiel bread.

Kevin also came with me on a research trip to Jerry Falwell's church in Lynchburg, Virginia. When we got back to New York, Kevin had an idea: What if he transferred from ultra-lefty Brown University to ultra-righty Jerry Falwell's Liberty University for a semester, and wrote about the experience?

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The world's tallest Internet entrepreneur

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World Record: Most Party Hats Worn At Once (Elna Baker) Photo: Emily Wilson

Yesterday, the Air Force announced that its Waverider aircraft set the record for hypersonic flight -- it reached Mach 6. Which is impressive.

But some other world records were also broken yesterday: Fastest Time to Name All James Bond Movies in Chronological Order (9.9 seconds). And Most Beer Bottles Balanced on Chin (12 bottles). 


These records were featured on one of my favorite websites, the Universal Record Database . If you're not familiar, it's a Youtube-like version of world records, where anyone can upload their feats of human achievement -- no matter whether they're inspiring or absurd, athletic or intellectual.

I thought I'd take this historic opportunity to do a short Q&A with my friend Dan Rollman, who, along with his colleagues, launched the site about a year ago. (It started as a project at Burning Man in 2004).

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4 ways to Nudge Yourself

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Photo by chatirygirl / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

A few months ago, I did an experiment in which I tried to be totally and completely rational for a month. To eliminate all of my brain's mental quirks and Paleolithic biases.

Of course, I failed. My irrational monkey mind has a powerful hold on me, and won't let go so easily. But I made some baby steps.

Plus, the experiment introduced me to the idea of nudging myself. The recent (okay, 10-day-old) New York Times article on Cass Sunstein reminded me of this notion. (Full disclosure: Cass is my cousin, which is how I first heard about nudging and behavioral economics in the first place). The article is about Cass's idea of taking advantage of our brain quirks to produce better behavior. As the Times puts it: Nudgers want "school cafeterias put the fruit before the fried chicken, because students are more likely to grab the first food they see. They support a change in Illinois law that asks drivers renewing their licenses to choose whether they want to be organ donors. The simple act of having to choose meant that more people signed up. Ideas like these, taking human idiosyncrasies into account, might revive an old technocratic hope: that society could be understood so perfectly that it might be improved."

But in addition to the government or institutions nudging us, we can nudge ourselves. Here's some of the homespun, unofficial strategies I've come up with.

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Space Oddities

Mary Roach - one of my favorite science writers - has a book coming out this August. It's sort of like "The Right Stuff." But it's more like the weird stuff. The funny stuff. The gross stuff. The unexpected stuff. It's called "Packing for Mars," and it's all about those things NASA doesn't delve into at press conferences: boozing in space, sex in space, peeing in space, etc. Mary - whom you might know from her book about cadavers (Stiff) or her book about life after death (Spook) or her book about bonking (Bonk) -- sent me an early copy for blurbage purposes. Here's the five most important space nuggets I gleaned: --The Japanese space program has an interesting way of screening candidates: Extreme origami. Potential astronauts have to make 1,000 paper cranes to see how they deal with pressure and monotony. --Among the historic trash left on the moon by the first human visitors: Four condom-like urine collection devices. Two were left by Neil Armstrong and two were left by Buzz Aldrin. By the way, two were large and two were small. "Who wore what is a matter of conjecture," says Roach. --Booze is officially banned in space. But some astronauts have managed to smuggle it on. According to Roach's sources, vodka is very useful when trying to get Russian astronauts to cooperate on projects. --Space makes you beautiful. It's known as the Space Beauty Treatment. "Without gravity, your hair has more body. Your breasts don't sag. More of your body fluid migrates to your head and plumps your crow's feet." --A flight surgeon once advised Apollo astroanuts to "self-stim" to prevent prostate infections. Unsurprisingly, today's NASA has no official policy on orbital masturbation. But a Russian cosmonaut Roach interviewed was willing to discuss the issue. "My friend asks me, 'How are you making sex in space?' I say, 'By hand!'"

Wanted: Steampunk Biblical Huts

sukkah-ron-almog.jpg A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about trying to live by all the rules of the Bible - moral, dietary, sartorial. Also architectural. For that last one, I had to build a build a hut and live it in for a week to remember my forefathers' flight through the wilderness (Leviticus 23:42). I couldn't get permission to build my hut on New York's sidewalks, so I ended up building a large rickety wooden structure in my living room. Which caused some consternation from my wife.

The commandment is still observed by religious Jews during the festival of Sukkoth in the fall. (My indoor hut wouldn't pass muster with rabbis, who say it's got to be outside).

Josh Foer and Roger Bennett -- two friends of mine -- are trying to reimagine this ancient tradition. They're holding an architectural contest in New York's Union Square, judged by heavyweights like Thom Mayne and New Yorker critic Paul Goldberger. So come September, look for Frank Gehry-like sukkahs, sukkahs on boats (which are kosher, I'm told), steampunk sukkahs (they've only had one steampunk entry so far, so they're looking for more). Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians are invited to enter as well.

Sukkah City: NYC 2010

Photo by RonAlmog / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Urinating uses up 141 calories per hour

fitbitAndCoin_small.jpgMy next book is about health, so I got a fitbit (in case you missed its debut last year, it's a souped-up pedometer that measures your calorie intake and output).

The best part? You can record an activity on the fitbit website, and it will tell you how many calories you've expended. And not just for jogging or walking or playing tennis. Any activity. The list is absurdly long - hundreds of them. Here, a sampling of some of my favorites:

Cooking Indian bread on an outside stove - 211 calories per hour
Vacuuming - 246 calories per hour
Sexual activity - vigorous effort - 105 calories per hour (sadly, it doesn't say which acts count as vigorous)
Sexual activity -- - general, moderate effort - 91
Sexual activity - passive, light effort, kissing, hugging - 70 calories
Horse grooming - 422 calories
Navy Seal scuba diving - 844 calories
Sitting in meetings and talking - 105 calories
Anishinaabe Jingle Dancing or other traditional American Dancing --- 387 calories per hour
Kneeling in church - 70 calories
Standing and singing in church - 141 calories
Urinating - 141 calories
Casino gambling - 162 calories
Basketball game - 562 calories
Walking for pleasure - 246 calories
Shuffleboard - 211 calories