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Rob Cockerham

The bastard child of Mr. Wizard and Amy Sedaris, online provacateur ROB COCKERHAM talks about busting Herbalife, Bounty towels, and spending $25,000 at Safeway.

Provacateur Rob Cockerham is the man behind cockeyed.com

What is your date of birth? March 18, 1969. I’m 34.

What is your occupational, real and desired-in-another-lifetime? This is in a state of flux. I had a great career in graphic design and web production, but my last two jobs have been building displays for the California State Fair and carving jack-o-lanterns for ExtremePumpkins.com.

I have a bunch of things I’d like to do, including building educational websites, to installing public artworks, to writing for a comedy show. The hard thing for me seems to be focusing one area of interest.

Many of the articles on Cockeyed—endeavoring to find out how many cups of beer are in a keg, or trying to make a fire using primitive materials—explore seemingly mundane but ultimately fascinating questions, things that everyone wonders but few people bother to investigate. Do you have a background in science? Do you think that people, in general, are insufficiently curious? No, not at all. I believe the reason people follow the site so enthusiastically is because we explore the stuff that people do think about, but that they don’t have the time or inclination to actually pursue. In the beginning, it was just a site to share with my friends and co-workers, but I started getting great feedback from all kinds of people. Scientists, schoolchildren, people in the military, architects…a huge swath of people.

Many of the projects and experiments seem boring or silly until we actually get started, when invariably, something unexpected pops up, a moment of discovery. For instance, in the ‘how much is inside paper towels’ experiment, where we explored how much Gatorade one roll of Bounty Towels could absorb, I came across something interesting: the paper towels would cling to the red color in the Gatorade when I squeezed them out. They towels would stay red, and this barely pink, almost clear, liquid would drip out. Isn’t that strange? Maybe that isn’t a good example of useful information being revealed, but at the very least, it is making my evenings more interesting!

What’s a charity worth giving to? I don’t know. I’d guess small ones.

You wrote a lengthy exposé about Herbalife and their shady methods of recruiting new members. Have you suffered any repercussions? That was the best thing I’ve ever done. With anyone that is unfamiliar with their methods, remember the scores of ‘work from home,’ ‘have a computer, put it to work,’ and ‘Lose 30lbs in 30 days!’ signs on telephone poles? The big plastic ones? One evening I dialed up six telephone numbers from those signs and they all had the SAME message, which led me to one company, Herbalife. I was hell-bent to expose this little trick of theirs. I was scared at first, of a libel lawsuit. I actually tempered the story because of that and made certain that I could support what I had written.

They changed their corporate policy on the signs, and their VP of distributor relations emailed and asked if the problem was improving in Sacramento. That was unexpected.

I get about 10-20 emails per week, from almost every English-speaking country thanking me for writing that Herbalife article. I get some hate mail, some understanding dissenters. I got a couple of threats, but nothing that kept me up at night. One thing that shows up in the hate-mail is the concern that my life is filled with anger and hatred! Which is funny, because one sub-directory over, I’m making Cheerios necklaces and licking peanut butter off of my hands. I hope I get the chance to do something that important in the future.

What are your favorite books? I like comedy and science fiction, but I’ve been reading a lot more pixels than pages lately. An old favorite was Research: Pranks. The Onion’s Our Dumb Century. In SciFi, I liked Foundation & The Ender’s Game books. David Sedaris is a superstar too.

Explain the concept of a ‘Victimless Prank.’ There is a wide variety of pranks that involve a victim: Crank calls, black-eye binoculars, kick-me signs, etc. But they aren’t much fun if you don’t have a handy foe. A victimless prank is one that causes a little harmless chaos or confusion, but doesn’t have a target: Posting a sign that reads ‘dry paint’ is the simplest example. Some people aren’t going to give it a second look, but other people are going to touch the paint, or ponder the source of that sign for hours. I fell in love with this style of gag in high school, and as my construction skills have improved, I have been able to post some really great stuff. I’ll install a sculpture, a historical marker, or a sign where none belongs, or simply wrap an area with ‘Caution’ tape.

What makes you laugh? I laugh at new products, particularly drug commercials and other marketing that strikes me as absurd or pitiful. I laugh at phone system routing menus, I laugh when the narration of a TLC television show insists the builders are running out of time. I also laugh when I’m supposed to, during the Conan O’Brien show or watching Rushmore.

Safeway Shoppers all across the nation are purchasing groceries as Rob Cockerham. How is your Clone Army faring? Great! Instead of hiding my name from the Safeway Club card database, I decided to share it out. With dozens of us shopping under one account, the data is anonymous. People sign up in bunches, and BOY, do we buy a lot of stuff. Seven kinds of refried beans, Modern Bride Magazine, twelve kinds of bacon, and a million kinds of ice cream. Our total Safeway expenditure is over $25,000 and growing. It is amazing… I have become the ultimate shopper!

Who are your heroes? The guy that stood in front of those tanks in Tiananmen Square. He focused the conflict there onto two men, himself, and the commander in the first tank. He changed the conflict by risking his life. After that, it was impossible to underestimate how serious their struggle was. I’d like to recreate that scene in a bronze memorial somewhere. Life-size. Dale Chihuly and Ben Franklin too. Hans Blix didn’t start out a hero of mine, but since I created the ‘#1 Hans Blix Fan Site,’ I’ve grown into the role.

How’s this year’s Halloween Costume coming? Well, that’s top secret. [A top administraion official within the White House has leaked the details to the press. This year Rob Cockerham will be dressed up as ‘Jenga’—ed.] I wanted to construct a large backlit suit of plastic armor, but I didn’t think I could make it super while staying within a reasonable budget, so I ditched that idea.

I love having a large costume! All it takes is a backpack and a few PVC poles to make something colossal. Last year, on the streets of San Francisco, everyone and their conjoined twin had their digital camera flashing. It was like paparazzitropolis! I can’t wait to go back.

Name five words that sound great: Viscosity, Doodle, Starfish, Noble, Translucent. Those are also the names of the guys in my Razor-scooter gang.

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TMN Contributing Writer Matthew Baldwin has haphazardly updated his site defective yeti for more than a decade. He is also responsible for Infinite Summer (an internet-wide reading of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest), A Month of Son (a blog about raising his autistic son), and Seattle Gamenight (a monthly tabletop gaming group). More by Matthew Baldwin