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November 2005
Status: Email hoax (real pictures, fake caption)
Bad: Falling for an email hoax. Worse: Using the hoax as the basis for your presentation to the local city planning commission, thereby displaying your gullibility to the entire public.

As reported by the Muncie Star Press (no link), Don Love gets the award for doing the latter. He received an email containing a series of pictures of an opulent estate (shown below), with the caption:

In case you're wondering where this hotel is, it isn't a hotel at all. IT IS A HOUSE! It's owned by the family of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu-Dhabi.

Enraged, he made a slide presentation out of the pictures and showed them to the planning commission, as part of his effort to get them to approve construction of an ethanol plant. His point was that they should promote local energy projects, to prevent all the city's money going to greedy, oil-rich sheiks. He told them: "This is the type of thing being done with your petro dollars that I want to re-patriate. Keep in mind the gentleman has more than 20 wives. This is one of 70 baths. Some are bigger than my house. This is his little swimming pool. These are his cars."

Of course, the pictures don't show a sheik's palace. In reality they show a fancy hotel in Abu Dhabi called the Emirates Palace. All the stuff about 20 wives is bogus too. If Love had bothered to do any research, he would have found this out. He probably could also have found some real pictures of a sheik's palace, which would have been a more effective way of making his point. Incidentally, my other house (the one in my daydreams) looks just like the one in the pictures.

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Categories: Email Hoaxes, Photos/Videos, Places
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 15, 2005
Comments (69)
Status: Viral email
Pasted below is the content of an email that's going around. It's not a hoax, but it deals with issues of camouflage and deception. (It also reminds me of some Before and After pictures that I posted over a year ago.) The subject line of the email is: Never underestimate the power of makeup.

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Categories: Email Hoaxes, Photos/Videos, Politics
Posted by Alex on Mon Nov 14, 2005
Comments (29)
Status: Hoax Website
image By-Accident.com claims to be a company that will "deliver customized accidents such as rape, assault and past traumatic experiences. All personally tailored to suit your special needs." The idea is that you can fake a traumatic experience in your past, and thereby get all kinds of attention as a victim. The company will even provide (optional) Aesthetic Scar Surgery to make your past "accident" more believable: "You can have any physical damage you want, our trained surgeons promise it won't hurt and the result will be exactly as you wish."

By-Accident.com is a hoax. Satirical elements such as the Christmas Mugging Special make this fairly obvious: "Your chance to avoid stress and become the center of attention during the holiday season!... Get mugged and make sure to have a warm and happy winter!" In addition, the creator of the site didn't do much to hide their identity. The site is registered to someone called Barbara Nordhjem. A quick Google search finds a poster called Malach on pixelex.com stating that: "the page is a prank.. girl making it is a danish artist. Was working for me as a production assistant some time ago."

Of course, even though the site is a hoax, it does have a core of truth to it in that a company offering such a service definitely would find customers. Witness all the fake victims that popped up after 9/11. Victimhood is very appealing to a lot of people. (Thanks to Bob Pagani, aka Cranky Media Guy, for the link.)
Categories: Psychology, Websites
Posted by Alex on Mon Nov 14, 2005
Comments (3)
Status: Hoax-facilitating software
Genealogists are in an uproar about new software that allows people to create fake (but real looking) online family trees. The program is called Fake Family. (Because of the controversy, the website of the software maker is now given over to an Open Letter to Genealogists.)

Genealogists argue that the fake information created by this program could easily find its way into real family history databases. They also charge that the only purpose of the software is to create webpages that will lure people with false information, and then profit from advertising links.

The maker of the software, Don Harrold, defends his creation by insisting it's very unlikely that a serious researcher would be taken in by the information Fake Family produces. For instance, the software will often list people as being born in cities before those cities existed. He also makes a curious point:

The people most upset about Fake Family seem to be folks who have a RELIGIOUS reason for being upset. (However, if I was going to be baptizing people who had passed on, I would do more research than just "grabbing names" from a website.)

Does this mean there are people who do genealogical research in order to retroactively baptize their ancestors? Can a dead person be baptized? I had never heard of such a thing.

Anyway, Harrold's basic argument is valid enough. The internet is so full of misinformation that anyone who uncritically uses historical information they find online is asking to be misled. But having said that, it sounds like the purpose of his program is to create spam (spam that clutters search engine results rather than email inboxes). And spam in any form should be condemned.
Categories: History, Identity/Imposters
Posted by Alex on Sun Nov 13, 2005
Comments (56)
Status: Hoax
image A reporter for Inside Bay Area (I don't know his name... it's not given with the article) recently recounted how his granddaughter told him that the bear on the California flag was originally supposed to be a pear. Back in 1846, Capt. Jedediah Bartlett, leader of a band of rebels fighting against the Mexican authorities in California, supposedly drew up a flag for the future state. He thought a pear, as a symbol of the region's agriculture, would be a fitting symbol. But his instructions were misread and the flagmaker inserted a bear on the flag instead of a pear. The error was never rectified.

The Inside Bay Area reporter was a little suspicious when he heard this story, but he did some fact-checking, discovered the story was true, and shared this with his readers. What he should also have told his readers was that his fact-checking consisted simply of finding the story listed as true on Snopes and therefore assuming it had to be true. Two weeks later he was forced to admit his error. The story is not true. The California bear was not originally a pear.

In his mea culpa the reporter offered this excuse: "I decided to recount it when I checked a Web site that purports to investigate urban myths to determine their validity. The Web site pronounced it 'True.' So I passed it along. Bad idea."

In other words, he seems to be blaming his error on Snopes. What the guy doesn't seem to realize is that the Pear/Bear story is one of a handful of deliberately false stories that Snopes has on its site (it calls them Lost Legends), placed there precisely to trip up people who are too lazy to do thorough fact-checking. Snopes explains this if you click on the "More information about this page" link at the bottom of the Pear/Bear story (something the reporter evidently still has not gotten around to doing). Journalists should be proud to call this guy one of their own.
Categories: History, Journalism
Posted by Alex on Sun Nov 13, 2005
Comments (15)
Status: Impersonating a deity
A male police officer in India has declared himself to be the reincarnation of Radha, the female consort of the Hindu god Krishna. Naturally, he dresses the part:

Devendra Kumar Panda, a 1971 batch officer of the Indian Police Service (IPS), presents an odd sight draped in female attire - complete with nose ring, lipstick, finger and toe nails painted red - and singing hymns in praise of Lord Krishna and dancing. "Lord Krishna has himself assigned me the role of Radha and whatever I am doing is in pursuance of his wishes," 57-year-old Panda told IANS.

However, his wife isn't buying any of it:

On Saturday, Panda chose to put up a full-scale performance before a host of TV cameras in his house. "I see nothing wrong with this. After all, I am carrying out the will of almighty Lord Krishna," he said. An unimpressed Veena has declared her husband as "fake" and refuses to believe his claims about divinity. "He is indulging in all other normal activities, and even chats on the Internet. I am sure all this façade is put up by him to find some excuse for remaining in the company of women, whom he describes as 'Krishna's gopis'," she alleged.

As strategies for picking up women go, that's a pretty elaborate one. I wonder if it actually works.
Categories: Law/Police/Crime, Religion, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Sun Nov 13, 2005
Comments (12)
Status: Hoax (probably an art project)
image I've received a couple of emails calling my attention to the Human Upgrades website. This group claims to be some kind of futuristic outfit offering bizarre DNA modification procedures such as Simplenose (giving people one large nostril instead of two), Simpletooth (fusing all the teeth into one long, continuous row), and other more sexually explicit modifications (some of the images are not safe for work). The site states that:

Human Upgrades was founded in 2001 by Doc. MUDr. FaVU. Petr Skala CSc. and his team from Institute of DNA Modification in Brno in Czech Republic. Since the contacts around the world and first class expiriences of the team Human Upgrades was able to offer unprecedented portfolio of surgeries based on the newest discoveries in the field of DNA manipulation.

All the text on the site is written in broken English, complete with misspellings. It seems that someone paid a lot of money to design the site, but never bothered to run the text past someone who can speak English. Anyway, the whole thing is obviously a hoax. The Institute of DNA Modification doesn't exist. The question is, who created the site? The main clue I can find is that all the contact information provides the addresses of European offices of the Bosch Group (makers of automotive and industrial technology). So either the contact information is a deliberate red herring. Or Human Upgrades is part of a strange marketing campaign created by Bosch's PR company.
Update: Another theory (because I find it hard to believe Bosch is responsible for Human Upgrades): There's a Czech film director named Petr Skala (same name as Human Upgrades supposed founder, and the registrant for humanupgrades.com). Perhaps he or one of his students created the site. Or perhaps this is yet another red herring.
Categories: Body Manipulation, Websites
Posted by Alex on Fri Nov 11, 2005
Comments (35)
Status: Seems to be real
image A golden retriever has given birth to a green puppy, appropriately named Wasabi. Local 6 News reports:

The dog is healthy and green, according to the report. Local 6 News showed video of the puppy rolling around with its normal-looking newborn brothers and sisters. Skeptics said the dog had to be dyed green but the owner said the puppy was born green. Veterinarians said it is possible for a newborn puppy's fur to be green because the placenta, which is green, rubs off at birth.

This reminds me of the guy whose sweat turned green. I'm inclined to think the dog case might be real, because if you're going to dye a puppy, why do such a bad job? Go all out and make him glow in the dark. The puppy in the pictures hardly looks green at all (though maybe that's just because of the poor quality of the video images). Of course, if their next move is to sell the puppy on eBay, then I might suspect a hoax.
Categories: Animals
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 10, 2005
Comments (41)
Status: Hoax (supposedly a magic trick, but it doesn't work)
I received this polite request this morning:

Dear web master ,
Please review this website that is able to determine a persons sex just by four visual questions.
Name : Gene Guess .com
Link : http://www.geneguess.com
Thank you ,
Pras Til


So here goes: it worked for me, correctly guessing my gender. I suppose it was an interesting ten-second time waster. I don't know why it worked. Obviously it has a 50/50 chance of getting the answer right (unless you're a hermaphrodite, which might trip it up a bit). My theory is that the color choice question must be an important clue, since guys probably tend to pick darker colors than women.

Update: Based on everyone's comments, the gender guesses it makes appear to be totally random. The trick is apparently that it will be right half the time, thus half the people will think it works. And yet it did fool me into wasting time with it.
Categories: Psychology, Websites
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 10, 2005
Comments (37)
Status: Scary scam
An Indiana dentist has been charged with diagnosing patients with cavities that didn't exist. This is the kind of thing that feeds the popular paranoia about dentists:

The attorney general's office said Dunlap diagnosed three patients with cavities, but the patients sought second opinions and were found to be cavity-free. State officials said Dunlap diagnosed a child with 10 cavities in June, but another dentist found that the child did not have any cavities. A similar complaint was filed by a patient in May 2004, said Staci Schneider, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

Personally, I've never had a cavity. But one time a dental assistant cleaning my teeth told me I had three or four cavities. Luckily the dentist who checked her work recognized that the 'cavities' were just grooves in my teeth.
Categories: Con Artists, Health/Medicine
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 10, 2005
Comments (44)
Status: Urban legends
The blog of Mari Kanazawa has an interesting post about Japanese urban legends. Here are some of the highlights:

Turbo Gramma: When you drive on the highway at a blistering speed gramma knocks on the car window. If you see her, you will have a car accident. Someone made a turbo gramma game.

Touch the Red G-String: The delivery company trade mark of Sagawa is "Hikyaku", a traditional Japanese postman. Hikyaku wore a traditional red Japanese g-string Fundoshi! The legend was 'if you touch a red g-string on a sagawa truck, you will have good fortune, if you could touch it on a moving truck, the fortune would be bigger, and faster was better.' As far as I checked this story on the internet, many people wrote that they had tried touching it. I heard sagawa had to change their trade mark red g-string to red pants. ha ha ha

The Skylark Bellybutton: Skylark is a chain restaurant that we can find anywhere in Japan. The trade mark of the restaurant is a bird that has a bellybutton. The legend is if you can find one without a bellybutton, you can eat food free in the restaurant.

Hanako san in Toilet: There were many variation of the story but the basic one is very simple. It happens in a toilet at school: You knock three times on the toilet door, and say "Hanako san?" and you can hear someone reply "ha----i" quietly somewhere from empty toilet room. Because of this Hanako san boom, many kids could not go to toilet alone in those days. This Hanako san story was arranged and made into 4 movies.
Categories: Places, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 09, 2005
Comments (7)
Status: True
image This is a slightly old story, but very heartwarming. A baby hippo in Nairobi that survived the tsunami has apparently adopted a tortoise as its surrogate mother:

"It is incredible. A-less-than-a-year-old hippo has adopted a male tortoise, about a century old, and the tortoise seems to be very happy with being a 'mother'," ecologist Paula Kahumbu, who is in charge of Lafarge Park, told AFP. "After it was swept and lost its mother, the hippo was traumatized. It had to look for something to be a surrogate mother. Fortunately, it landed on the tortoise and established a strong bond. They swim, eat and sleep together," the ecologist added.

As far as I can tell, this story is completely true. But the real reason I'm posting about it is because I think it might provide me with a great title for my next book: Hippo Eats Tortoise. Kinda catchy, don't you think?
Categories: Animals
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 09, 2005
Comments (8)
Status: Real
image Target.com is was selling an upside-down Christmas tree for $499.99. (Thanks to Travis for the link--which has now gone dead, therefore I removed it) I'm not religious, but my first thought when seeing it was that it would be a perfect holiday decoration for a family of Satanists, to accompany their upside-down crosses and crucified Santa. I know it's not a joke, or some mistake on Target's part, because Hammacher Schlemmer is selling the same thing for $100 more. I understand these things are supposed to be space-savers, but why not save space by buying a smaller tree? I guess I just don't see the point, or appeal, of an upside-down tree. And why are they so ridiculously expensive?
Categories: Religion
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 09, 2005
Comments (84)
Status: Real service named after a hoax
Amazon.com has unveiled a new web service called Amazon Mechanical Turk. I'm making note of it here because they've named it after a famous hoax: the Great Chess Automaton (aka the Mechanical Turk) of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. The Mechanical Turk, which wowed audiences during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, was supposedly a mechanical device that could play chess against human players (and win!). In reality, there was a man hidden inside the device who was doing the chess playing. Amazon's service similarly uses real humans to do tasks for computers. They describe it as Artificial Artificial Intelligence. Their site states: Complete simple tasks that people do better than computers. And, get paid for it. The kind of tasks they have in mind are things such as identifying objects in pictures (simple for a human; very hard for a computer). One problem I can see with their service is that people have the tendency to lie, cheat, and make mistakes. So will they need to have a human to check the work of the other humans? In the meantime, it seems like a dream job for someone like Caias, who will do anything for money.
Categories: Technology
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 09, 2005
Comments (12)
Status: Commercial
image Someone emailed me a videoclip titled "Road Rage". It shows an old woman slowly crossing a road, as a guy in a sports car lays on the horn, trying to get her to hurry up. I won't ruin the ending, but it's pretty amusing. However, the video (in the version I received) appears to be an unscripted scene accidentally caught on video by an amateur. There's no identifying information to suggest otherwise. But since I was curious about whether the scene really was unstaged, I managed to find it on Google Video. Their version was a few seconds longer, preserving the ending in which it's revealed to be an ad for IKEA. So apparently the scene was staged. It's still funny. But, I have no clue how the scene is supposed to inspire anyone to shop at IKEA.
Categories: Advertising, Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 08, 2005
Comments (16)
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