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April 7, 2013

Magneto Boy

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In the upcoming movie "Be Kind, Rewind," Jack Black plays a man who is magnetized and erases an entire store-full of video tapes. But can people really be "magnetic?"

In the ScienCentral News video below, meet a boy who calls himself "Magneto Man," and has a reputation for making computers go wild. The text article below that is courtesy of a collaboration with the Syracuse Post-Standard.

More Problems Than the Average Joe

In the upcoming movie, Be Kind Rewind, Jack Black plays a man who becomes "magnetized" and erases all the tapes in the video store where he works. Joseph Falciatano III of Richland can relate.

Joe, 12, began calling himself "Magneto Man" last year, after his teachers concluded that his presence could crash the school computers.

"Another student could use a computer, and it would be fine. But if Joe was on it, weird things started to happen," said Marie Yerdon, computer lab teacher at Lura Sharp Elementary School in Pulaski, NY. "I think there's something in his body chemistry, something in his makeup, that causes the computers to go haywire."

The idea that a human being can be magnetic, electric or electromagnetic is considered paranormal, but a quick Internet search reveals lots of believers.

Many people claim to have a special "aura" that interferes with electrical appliances and watches. There are "SLIders," or people with Street Light Interference, who claim they turn streetlights on and off when they pass under them. And there are those who just seem to have far more computer problems than the average Joe.

In the case of Joe Falciatano, he says he nearly failed his fifth-grade social studies class last year because his required PowerPoint project was plagued by computer trouble. While his classmates worked on their projects in computer lab, Joe and Mrs. Yerdon spent the time trying to troubleshoot problems with Joe's PC.

"It was weird," Yerdon said. "He might be in Microsoft Word and suddenly he would be unable to change the font. Or if he highlighted something, he couldn't un-highlight it. Or he would get the upper symbols on the number keys without using the shift key. Or he'd save something then couldn't get it back."

She added: "We would shut it down, reboot and he'd be OK for a while, and then he'd have another problem, so I would move him to a different computer that a different student was just on, but it didn't matter. Joe couldn't work on his project like the other kids, and it was very frustrating for him."

Yerdon finally put a grounding pad under the computer, which she connected to an anti-static wrist strap that Joe wore. Yerdon said the school had purchased the equipment to protect a student with a pacemaker from any electronic surges while she used the computer. Instead of using it to protect a student from the computer, Yerdon used it to protect the computer from Joe.

It worked. Yerdon and Joe's other teachers found that when Joe wore the wrist strap, he had no computer trouble, but if he forgot to wear it, any computer he used would soon act up. Joe's teacher e-mailed Joe's dad, a math teacher at the high school, that his son could "break" the computers just by sitting at them.

"At first I thought it was a joke," Joe senior said. "I e-mailed her back, 'Yeah, he always wanted to be a super hero.'"

Joe's parents, Joe II and Dona Falciatano, said their son had no electrical problems at home, except when it came to his Xbox. Whenever Joe tried to play games, it froze. Finally, his parents replaced it with the Xbox 360, which is wireless. Joe is able to use it as long as he sits across the room from the game system, his mother said.

But the most legendary example of Joe's "powers" came at his fifth-grade promotion ceremony last year, when the teachers put together a computer slide show of their students' baby pictures. The gym bleachers were packed with parents, and the students sat cross-legged on the floor to watch the presentation.

"They were going through the slide show, and my son was sitting quietly," Joe senior said. "And all of a sudden, the music started to slow down and get distorted, and the pictures were messing up, stuff like that. As parents, we didn't think anything of it, until two teachers sprinted over to get to Joe. We're thinking, 'What did he do? Did he do something wrong?'

"The teachers moved him away to the side of the room, and then the slide show started going again, and the computer went back up to speed," he said. "And then we realized that it wasn't that Joe was misbehaving. They were moving him away from the hard drive so the computer wouldn't crash."

What caused Joe's computer problems? Kelly Robinson, who runs Electrostatic Answers in Rochester, says it had to be static. After a reporter told him about Joe, Robinson was so intrigued that he drove to Pulaski to investigate.

Earlier that day, Joe had problems on an ungrounded PC after working on it for about 10 minutes. Then he successfully used the grounded computer. Joe's problems didn't recur after the expert arrived.

Robinson used an electrostatic field meter to measure Joe's static electricity and determined it was normal. He measured the conductivity of Joe's sneakers and concluded that they were very insulating, so they might have prevented any static on Joe from passing into the ground; hence, it went to the computer. But, Joe's parents pointed out, Joe wore the same type of sneakers as many other students.

Still, Robinson said it had to be "a static issue" because Yerdon solved it with anti-static devices. He said static issues have nothing to do with a person's body chemistry.

"In science, you learn that your body is made up mostly of water, with a little bit of salt and other minerals in it," Robinson said. "That makes the human body a very good conductor of electricity. And even if there's a little bit of variation from person to person, the conductivity will remain very high."

Tips on reducing static issues at home or work - from the Syracuse Post-Standard
He said the only thing that would cause one person to hold more static charge than another would be their daily routine - whether they wear more insulating shoes or clothes, whether they scuff their feet on the carpet, whether they work in a room with very low humidity. Because these things may vary day-to-day, static problems come and go.

"That's what keeps me in business," Robinson joked.

Meanwhile, a change of environment seems to have foiled Magneto Boy's powers. This year, the Pulaski School District built a new middle school wing, and Joe's sixth-grade class moved into it. Joe said he hasn't needed a wrist strap to use a computer in the new building.

"We haven't gone on the computer a lot here, but so far I haven't had any trouble," he said.

He thinks his static stayed with him long enough to make him famous in school, and then he didn't need it anymore. Yerdon said no other pupil has come close to Joe's "Magneto Man" reputation in the elementary building.

"It's a mystery," she said.

By Janet Gramza, Contributing Writer
Courtesy of the Syracuse Post-Standard

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