... with your powers, not so much.

I don't watch much network TV, especially during basketball season, when I like to keep tabs on both my beloved Clippers and hated Lakers. That's countless hours per week I spend absorbed in pointless activity on a television screen. Combine that with the countless hours per week I spend absorbed in pointless activity on a computer screen and it's a wonder I don't have the pasty white complexion of a porcelain toilet bowl.

That said, earlier this week (whilst waiting for the endless NBA season to get underway) I happened to tune into this new show on NBC called "Heroes". This appears to be an X-men ripoff where all of the characters have been assigned the bonus power of "rubbish acting." However, as I have had a lifelong obsession with bettering myself through divine inspiration (see previous post), I went ahead and watched the whole thing.

As with X-men, "Heroes" deals with the idea that mutation in humans can lead to unusual abilities. While that's perfectly plausible, some of the powers strike me as a wee bit over the top. For example, one guy on the show can stop time! What kind of mutation causes that? Another guy can paint the future. I wonder if he'll eventually make a painting that reveals that the show has been canceled, LOL.

I realize that the writers of these shows are going more for entertainment than realism, but it strikes me that a truly clever show could get you thinking that the notion of "superpowers" need not be sci-fi, so long as its toned down a bit. There are plenty of documented cases about people who have extraordinary memories, or computer-like calculating abilities, or musical gifts from the great unknown. Aren't these effectively superpowers? Who's to say there aren't more fantastical cases out there?

One thing about these people is clear: with their gifts comes some kind of deficiency, a twisted exchange in God's eyes. The great savant Kim Peek, a walking encyclopedia who was the inspiration for the movie "Rain Man", cannot even dress himself. Less extreme savants are often autistic; they just go on to become computer programmers.

So if we are to hunt for superheros, we might proceed by observing people who appear to lacking in certain skills we take for granted. This was on my mind when I had the following conversation with my roommate at the grocery store. I have long suspected he might be a borderline superhero (or, more likely, super-villain) since he already has a super-name: The Cog.

INT: Grocery checkout
A great looking guy with calves of steel-- an obviously well-trained cyclist-- and his homely sidekick are waiting in line. They observe some new technology in the aisle next over.

Me: It seems like all of these grocery stores are using self-checkouts now. We are quickly being replaced by machines. Hey, grab that box of ho-hos for me.

The Cog: I'm not going to bag my own groceries, I'll tell you that much.

Me: Wow, lazy!

The Cog: No, it's not that. It's... never mind.

Me: Now you have to tell me.

The Cog: Ok, but don't tell anyone...

Me: It's in the vault!

The Cog: Well, it's ... uh... I don't really know how to bag groceries.

Me: What does that even mean?

The Cog: It's hard for me to open those plastic bags... my fingers can't do it quickly enough, especially with people waiting. It's embarrassing!

Me: Cog... I think you might be a superhero! Get in the Cog-mobile and we'll get you back to the Cog-cave to run some tests!

INT: The Cog-cave
A top-secret lair in the heart of Orange, California (just 10 minutes to Disneyland!) High-tech accouterments line the walls, as do an assortment of junk-food wrappers.

Me: First question. Cog, is there anything you are good at?

The Cog: I have to say, that question is a little insulting.

Me: I mean, do you have an special abilities. For example, maybe you have perfect pitch?

The Cog: What is that?

Me: You know, the ability to recognize the pitch of any note you hear.

The Cog: Of course I can do that. Otherwise, how would I tune my trumpet?

Me: What I'm saying is, you can't tune your trumpet. Not without a tuning fork or something.

The Cog: I can totally tune my trumpet, dude. I've never owned a tuning fork in my life.

Me: Ok, let's test it it out, superboy. I'm going to tweak the 6th string on this guitar here I want you to put it back on "E". Set's it to B-flat You can't play any of the other strings or anything.

The Cog: Puleeze. This is a piece of cake. Fools around with tuning levers. Ok, done.

Me: Ready to mock The Cog. I am ready to mock you, Cog. Plays string and checks tuner. It reads just a few hertz flat of "E". WTF. Hmm, that's pretty good. I must be misunderstanding "perfect pitch."

The Cog: Sweet! I'm a superhero?

Me: Not quite. I mean, you were a little bit off. But I think it's safe to say that you have "pretty good pitch". I'm sure that would be useful in some sort of crime setting, Cog.

The Cog: Yippeee!

Me: Just remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

So of course I'm a little bitter (needless to say I tried testing myself for "pretty good pitch" and only managed to break a guitar string). While my roommate has mediocre superpowers, I have yet to uncover any of mine. And I have TONS of deficiencies (see, eg my nonexistent direction sense).

Oh yeah, I'm due for a big one, and I'm getting pretty grumpy waiting for it!
Tom, do you, or do you not live just north of San Diego? Because if you do, I am definitely buying you lunch next time I'm out there.
Great double post, it really adds to the effect... what effect that is, I do not know.
Danial.Beta wrote:
Great double post, it really adds to the effect... what effect that is, I do not know.

It is his superpower. He has such a short-term memory as to allow him to recall large amounts of text moments after discarding it from view, and is able to recreate it for a follow-up post with less trailing white-space.
Wait, The Cog has a trumpet? I didn't know that. We should totally start a mariachi band.

Anyway, I must question the methods used in this experiment. Was the subject allowed to touch any of the other strings? Was a sufficient waiting period enforced to clear the subject's short term memory of any other known tones?

My ideal test keeps the subject in sonic isolation for a period of time that's sufficient to clear short term audio memory. If the subject has a very good short term memory, this may take days; keep at it. Don't let them go anywhere. Then, play a single random tone and ask the subject to identify it. Repeat.

I suspect The Cog may have simply demonstrated a combination of short term memory, along with relative pitch. Everyone can do that. I'm unimpressed.

By the way, stay away from those $#@!ing self checkout lines at the grocery. They inevitably take roughly 7 times longer than the regular checkout lines. Every single time I've tried it, the following has occurred:

Me: <scans item and places in bagging area>

Machine: Unexpected item placed in bagging area. You must remove this item from the bagging area.

Me: <removes item from bagging area and sets it aside>

Machine: Item removed from bagging area. You must return this item to the bagging area.

Me: <places item back into the bagging area>

Machine: Unexpected item placed in bagging area. You must remove this item from the bagging area.

Me: !!#@!$%

Machine: Please wait for assistance.

Store Employee: <walking away, disappears for several minutes>

Regular Checkout Line: <5 people, each with $200 worth of groceries, get through the regular line while I wait so I can pay for my 3 items>
DerDragon: I live in Orange, 10 minutes from Disneyland. If you are ever in the area, I'll be glad to buy you a beer or a Mountain Dew.

Mike: The experiment was pretty scientific. I had the cog listen to an E on the guitar. Then the next day I scrambled the E to somewhere between a B-flat and a B and had called him into the room. He played the string and immediately put it ~10Hz flat of E. I did not let him play any other strings. We repeated the experiment a few days later and he got it to within ~10Hz. We tried again a few days later and I fooled him by starting the guitar just slightly flat and he actually made it worse (going more slightly sharp). Hence, "pretty good" but not quite "perfect" pitch. I don't know if he can just randomly identify notes, though... we specifically trained on the E. Maybe he can just retain that for a day or two... still "pretty good" pitch if you ask me!
Hmm, sounds like The Cog has "pretty good E", and possibly even only "pretty good guitar E". It may also simply be a case of "pretty good tension required for that particular type of guitar on the high E string". There's an obscure super power for you!

I'd still try to do the experiment with a variety of different tones and instruments, requiring the subject to actually identify the pitch played. It removes the possibilities listed above, and only then would I concede that The Cog may have "pretty good pitch".
The Cog has notoriously poor fingers (hence the bagging deficiency), so I doubt it's the tension thing. He claims he can tune his trumpet so I bet he at least has "pretty good" trumpet pitch. Not sure about the rest. Since his disability isn't that big of a deal (he seems to be able to get by life with the uncoordinated fingers), it's unlikely has has an extreme enhancement of musical ability. However, it was enough to impress me!
Oh Tom, I've bet you've enjoyed my Lakers improving to 2-0 without Kobe. :)

I think I may have perfect pitch but, not being a musician, I can't go by the note names. You would have to give me the name of an 80's pop song containing the desired note.

It seems to me that you have a potent but underutilized "entertaining-blog-posting" power. You must nurture it!