clown_on_unicycle_resize.jpg
Danger! Danger! Get off the phone and flee!
The New York Times has undertaken an awards-bait series called "Driven to Distraction," about the dangers of

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Northwest Plague of Unicycle-Riding Clowns Goes Unnoticed!

clown_on_unicycle_resize.jpg
Danger! Danger! Get off the phone and flee!
The New York Times has undertaken an awards-bait series called "Driven to Distraction," about the dangers of cellphones in cars. But its latest installment concerns pedestrians, and it's even more frightening. The story cites research up at Western Washington University in Bellingham, where psychology professor Ira Hyman conducted an experiment... in terror!

To study what's called "inattention blindness," Hyman and his researchers decided to measure the cognitive response of WWU students wandering around campus while chatting on or otherwise using their cellphones. We know how all college-age kids love their iPhones and other hand-held electronic gizmos. But what scientifically controlled stimulus would be, under normal circumstances, scary enough for them to drop their devices and flee? To prove that walking while texting is inherently dangerous, there has to be a demonstrable hazard that's being ignored. So what would it be--a shark, a land shark, someone in a bin Laden or Cheney mask? Make the jump, if you dare...

Clowns. There's nothing more terrifying than a clown. There's even a medical term for the ancient fear: coulrophobia.

So Hyman had one of his students dress up as a clown and ride a unicycle through the main square at WWU. Of those gabbing on cellphones, Hyman concluded in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, only 25 percent noticed the evil unicycling figure. As Hyman told the Times last year,

"It's a huge drop-off of awareness of the environment around them. It shows that even during as simple a task as walking, performance drops off when talking on the cellphone. They're slower, less aware of their surroundings and weaving around more. It shows how much worse it would be if they were driving a car, which is a more complex task to manage."

Clearly, electronic countermeasures of some kind are required. Left unanswered in the Times story or Hyman's study is how the dread clown menace could be better detected and defended by our smartphones. Seventy-five percent of us are not going to put down our phones, making us perilously vulnerable to unicycling clown attack. This creates an obvious opportunity for phone app developers, something to warn us of imminent clown danger and avoidance measures to take. Thus, for a possible iClown app, we'd like to see the following features (and would gladly pay $5 for the security):

  • Oncoming clowns are identified and mapped via GPS and Google Maps
  • Escape routes are displayed on screen
  • Clown hot spots to avoid are usefully shown (e.g., Pike Place Market, Teatro ZinZanni, children's birthday parties)
  • If escape is impossible, diversionary measures are suggested (e.g., "Please don't hurt me! I loved Patch Adams!")
  • If phone is equipped with separate iTase app ($50 plus extra batteries), 10,000-volt charge may be directed at clown threat
 
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