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December 2005
Happy Monkey Day. I'm eating a banana as I type this. (Imagine monkey sounds.)
Categories: Animals
Posted by Alex on Wed Dec 14, 2005
Comments (10)
Status: Real
On December 7th, Matt Sparks went to get some bottled water out of his garage. The temperature in the garage was below the freezing point of water, but he noticed that the water in the bottles was still liquid. However, when he moved the water, it instantly froze. He has some videos on his site showing what happened. They're pretty cool, and if you're not aware of the phenomenon of supercooled water (as I wasn't), you might think there's some kind of trickery involved. But there's not. Matt writes:

These videos were recorded with a Canon Powershot S50 digital camera. They have not be altered in any way, other than to reencode them to xvid from mjpeg to reduce size. I assure you that the liquid you see in them is truly water with nothing added to it. It is straight from the bottle. The bottled water I happened to have was Nestle Pure Life Purified Water.

Some quick googling reveals that supercooling is a well-documented, though mysterious, behavior of water. What it means is that water, if it contains relatively few impurities, can be cooled to below its freezing point without crystallizing. But if you disturb the water, it instantly crystallizes. I'm tempted to try this experiment, but with the temperature outside in the 60s here in San Diego, I'll have to use my freezer.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 13, 2005
Comments (34)
Status: New Age Mumbo Jumbo
Indigo Children is a new-age term for children whose aura is indigo colored. These are the kids whom medical science would diagnose as being hyperactive or having ADD (and many lay people might diagnose as spoiled brats). But according to the indigo-child theory, these are actually children with very special powers. Nancy Ann Tappe, the psychic who first described the concept, says that Indigo Children are "souls with an evolved consciousness who have come here to help change the vibrations of our lives and create one land, one globe and one species. They are our bridge to the future." The Skeptic's Dictionary has some good info on the subject.

According to an article from the Orange-County Register, one of the powers being attributed to Indigo Children is the ability to see the future. Take this example:

When Carolyn Kaufman was getting her daughter, Ariel Carreno, ready to go, Ariel had an unusual request.
"Mom, we need to take an orange," Ariel said.
"Why?" Carolyn asked. Carolyn explained that this was a pizza party, and that an orange would probably be out of place.But when Ariel insisted, Carolyn grabbed an orange and took it to the party... So Ariel carried her orange into Chuck E. Cheese. The party went just as planned. The kids ate pizza. The kids played games. The parents endured the noise. Then, the birthday girl asked for the strangest thing. An orange.

Wow! The kid brought an orange to a party. Try to explain that, skeptics! Carolyn Kaufman also offers an example about her sony Tomy:

After fights with his sister over what to watch on TV, Tomy has broken five VCRs in the family home using only his energy force, Kaufman said. In some families, kids might get grounded for breaking expensive electronics. Not in Kaufman's house.

I'm sensing it would be great to be a kid in the Kaufman house. You could get away with anything. "It wasn't my fault, Mom. It was my energy force."
Categories: Future/Time, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 13, 2005
Comments (141)
image Suzy Walker's husband is away from home, serving on the USS West Virginia. But you'd hardly know he was gone, because Suzy carries around a life-size mannequin of him:

Walker bought her stand-in man for $200 and she takes him everywhere. He's been to the movie theater, Victoria's Secret, and the gas station to buy lottery tickets. The couple attracts lots of attention.

The only thing that could make this creepier would be if it turned out she didn't have a real husband. Didn't William Faulkner write a short story with a premise like that?
Categories: Identity/Imposters, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 13, 2005
Comments (22)
Status: Hoax
Here's a sob story that was reported by the Brazosport Facts:

A boy named John, 10, separated from his mother since the hurricane, was living with other foster children in an emergency shelter, and he had one Christmas wish: to go home. "But there's no way I'll get gifts for Christmas. I don't even believe in Santa anymore," he was quoted as saying.

Quite touching, except John doesn't exist. He was invented by a caseworker with state Child Protective Services in Brazoria County near Houston. The caseworker was evidently hoping to use the phony sob story to drum up charitable contributions. The hoax was discovered by Dan Lauck, a reporter for a local TV station who tried to track down John to interview him.

This, of course, is not the first time a sob story has been invented to tug the heart strings as Christmas approaches. Fake sob stories have actually become something of a holiday tradition. Four years ago I started to put together a list of fake Christmas sob stories (plus a few Xmas pranks). I never got that far with my list. I should add Poor John to the list.
Categories: Identity/Imposters
Posted by Alex on Sat Dec 10, 2005
Comments (7)
Status: True (news item)
A couple of people emailed me about this. (Thanks to everyone who did!) The artist Ray Beldner has been teaching a class at St. Mary's College titled "Pranks: Culture jamming as social activism." One of the class requirements is to try to hoax the media. One hoax created by the students involved "the distribution of a news release touting a fictional bar to be opened near the Moraga campus." However, the media didn't fall for it. (Evidently it wasn't sensational or salacious enough... make a story sufficiently shocking or weird and the media will usually print it first and ask questions later.) Not everyone is happy with the class. A professor of journalism ethics has charged that Beldner "is teaching students to try to screw up an important system that has enough trouble getting things right." I wouldn't agree (based on the limited quotation from the ethics professor... he may well have given a more nuanced response which isn't being reported). My understanding of the ethical rules for hoaxes is that it's wrong to make up lies that people have no reason not to believe or to take seriously (i.e. bomb threats, slander, puffing up your résumé with phony accomplishments, etc.). But it's acceptable to make up stuff if a) what you've made up is ridiculous or absurd enough that common sense would dictate people should question it before uncritically believing it, and b) the dissemination of the false information will do no harm (beyond embarrassment to those who fall for it). If you follow those rules, I think pranks and hoaxes are perfectly legitimate and can serve a useful social function.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Fri Dec 09, 2005
Comments (5)
Status: Update about a classic college prank
image NPR reports that Oliver Smoot has retired from the board of the American National Standards Institute. Fans of classic college pranks will recognize Smoot as the official unit of length of the Harvard Bridge. Here's what Neil Steinberg writes (in If At All Possible, Involve A Cow: The Book of College Pranks) about how the Smoot came into being:

In the fall of 1958, the pledge masters at MIT's Lambda Chi Alpha house, dreading the approaching freeze, charged their pledges with remedying the bridge situation. They gave them the task of marking off the bridge so that a person crossing could know how far it was to the other side without looking up. The unit of measurement selected by the frat elders was the body length of one of the pledges. That role, and immortality of a sort, fell to the shortest member of the pledge class, Oliver Reed Smoot, Jr. One October night, Smoot, several fellow pledges and an upperclass overseer, armed themselves with white paint and headed for the bridge. There they laid Smoot end over end, painting a Smoot mark at every 5'7 interval delineated by Smoot's body. The Harvard Bridge is long, and by the end they were picking up Smoot and moving him along. The bridge measured precisely 364.4 Smoots, plus one ear.

Ever since 1958 the Smoot marks have been diligently repainted and have become a Boston landmark, their preservation embraced and encouraged by the Boston government itself. It seems kind of ironic that Smoot himself, the man who embodied a unit of length, ended up on the board of the American National Standards Institute.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 08, 2005
Comments (4)
Status: Undetermined, but it doesn't look good for Charlie
image Controversy is swirling in the world of muskie fishing over the status of Chin-Whiskered Charlie, the muskie that currently holds the title of biggest muskie ever caught, weighing in at 69 pounds, 11 ounces. He was reeled in by Louis Spray back in 1949. But now a group calling itself the World Record Muskie Alliance is challenging Charlie's right to the title. Based on an analysis of old photos of Charlie (Charlie himself was destroyed in a fire in 1959), they're claiming Charlie's a fraud. They suspect Spray stuffed him with wet sand to increase his weight:

The muskie alliance supplied vintage photos of the suspect fish to Mills, a professional surveyor and former Transport Canada investigator who uses physics and various computer measurement technologies to reconstruct traffic accidents, trace bullet trajectories and discern the height of suspected criminals from video surveillance cameras. "This was definitely my first fish," says Mills. "It was a unique application of the science I use, but I tackled it the same way I would with any other evidence." His findings: the muskie Spray said was 63 inches in length couldn't have been more than 55 inches from snout to tail; and its reported girth of 31.25 inches was not possible given the maximum 10-inch, single-side width calculated by Mills. The Muskie Alliance submitted the results to the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, Charlie's defenders are claiming this is all a plot dreamed up by people in Illinois to rob Wisconsin of the Muskie title. Since photos are all anyone has to go on to determine Charlie's true weight, the battle will likely rage on for a while.
Categories: Animals, Sports
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 08, 2005
Comments (2)
Status: Real
image Last year Alek Komarnitsky thrilled internet surfers with his web-controlled christmas lights. Visitors to his site could remotely turn the lights on and off, and view their handiwork via a webcam. Millions of people checked out his site. Then Alek confessed to the Wall Street Journal that the entire thing was a gigantic hoax. His christmas lights weren't controllable via the web. He had simply rigged up some software to make it look that way. Well, Alek's back, and this year he says his christmas lights REALLY ARE controllable via the web. The Washington Post reports:

Now Komarnitsky, a computer consultant and self-professed tech geek, wants the world to believe that this Christmas he has turned his hoax into reality. Using his technical skill, he says, he hooked up three webcams that feature live shots of his 26,000 Christmas lights, updated every few seconds. As the clincher, his Web site ( ) has buttons that he insists really do allow his Internet visitors to operate the lights.

I, for one, am inclined to believe him. I've been in intermittent contact with him throughout the year after contacting him about using a picture of his xmas lights in my book, and he seems like a nice guy to me. I know that's not a good reason to trust someone, but more importantly, he's also invited reporters to check out the set-up. Plus, he's using the popularity of his site to help raise funds for celiac research.
Categories: Technology
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 08, 2005
Comments (8)
This is a request for help. The proofreader has been going through the manuscript of Hippo Eats Dwarf looking for errors. This is the final check that the book receives before it goes to print. After this, nothing can be changed. Anyway, in the final chapter of the book (about death), I include the following definition:

Xenacate, v.: To kill a TV or movie character off so completely that no chance remains of bringing her back from the dead. Inspired by the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess. Its occurrence usually indicates that the actor playing the character has lost her job under unpleasant circumstances and has no hope of being rehired.

The proofreader has pointed out that it would be good to name a character to whom this occurred. (And I suppose it would be best to name a character on Xena itself to whom it occurred... It must have occurred to someone on that show in order to inspire the term. Though, in a pinch, an example from any show will do.) So can anyone think of a character who has been xenacated? If I use your answer I'll send you a free, signed copy of the book once it comes out (which will be in about three months). I need the answer by Friday, or Monday at the latest.

Update: I ended up using the red-shirted characters on Star Trek as an example. So thephrog wins the contest. I should note that I pulled a bit of a bait-and-switch, because I decided to revise my definition of Xenacate by deleting the part about the actor getting fired. After reviewing the few uses of the term on the internet, I decided that wasn't part of the word's meaning. Instead, it means to get killed off and not return. In which case the red-shirted characters are probably the most famous example of characters who only exist to get killed off. (Though I was tempted for a while to use the guy from MASH, but decided he didn't fit as well with the new definition.)
Categories: Death, Entertainment
Posted by Alex on Wed Dec 07, 2005
Comments (88)
Status: Real picture (fake girl)
image Check out this picture. Is it a real girl lying in the sand? Or is it a sand sculpture? Hard to tell. The photographer, Jair Ribbeiro, says that it's a sand sculpture:

I was walkin' in the Farol da Barra Beach (Bahia Brazil) last august '04 when i saw this sculpture in the sand.. It was really unbelieveble.. The guy that made this is a genius.. Leonardo!!!!

It actually looks faker in the thumbnail than it does in the larger version. (via Optical Illusions Etc.)
Categories: Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Wed Dec 07, 2005
Comments (22)
Status: Hoax
image The picture of this Connecticut highway sign has been circulating for quite a while, and it's obviously photoshopped (Snopes has a picture of the non-photoshopped version, which lacks the phrases "Birthplace of George W. Bush" and "We apologize"... though their non-photoshopped version actually kind of looks like it's been photoshopped). But apparently there really are signs outside of New Haven, Connecticut welcoming people to New Haven "The birthplace of President George W. Bush '68." George W was born there in 1946, while his father was attending graduate school there. I'm surprised no one has edited these signs to add a "We Apologize." (Maybe they have and I haven't heard about it.) Incidentally, New Haven's other claim to fame is that it used to be the oyster capital of the United States.
Categories: Photos/Videos, Politics
Posted by Alex on Wed Dec 07, 2005
Comments (27)
Status: Hoax Website (political satire)
image We've already seen W Ketchup, so why not Baby Bush Toys? Their website states:

Sure, we all want what's best for our kids, but let's face the truth: not every child can grow up to be Einstein! At The Baby Bush Toy Company, we offer an exciting range of products for the resoundingly average child.

Products include a "Twisty Thing, That is Red" (shown in the thumbnail), and a "Terror Alert Xylophone." Unfortunately, none of these products seem to actually be for sale.
Categories: Birth/Babies, Politics, Websites
Posted by Alex on Wed Dec 07, 2005
Comments (5)
Status: Medical Scam
Dr. Dale Pearlman has admitted that the head-lice treatment he was selling for $285 is really a commercial skin cleanser, Cetaphil, that could be bought over-the-counter for $10:

Dr. Dale Pearlman got widespread media attention and skepticism from some head-lice specialists last year when the journal Pediatrics published his study detailing results with a product he called Nuvo lotion. He described it as a "dry-on suffocation-based pediculicide" and the first in a new class of nontoxic lotions for head lice. And as of yesterday, his Web site still said the costly treatment was available only at his Menlo Park, Calif., office. But now, in a letter to the editor for release today in the December issue of Pediatrics, Dr. Pearlman says the treatment "was actually Cetaphil cleanser," available over the counter nationwide and abroad, and made by a company with which he has nothing to do.

So he was reselling $10 soap for $285. But does his treatment, which involves "having patients apply the lotion and dry it with a hair dryer to suffocate head lice" really work? He seems to think it does, though he doesn't have a lot of credibility left.
Categories: Health/Medicine
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 06, 2005
Comments (8)
Status: Faux-rilla marketing campaign
image In order to promote its new handheld game player, Sony is paying artists to spray paint fake graffiti on buildings in major cities. (They're also paying the building owners for the right to spray paint the graffiti, which consists of images of spaced-out kids playing with the new handheld device.) But according to an article in Wired, the fake graffiti has provoked the anger of some city residents, who have spray painted over the images messages such as "Get out of my city," and "Fony." The Wired article points out that this isn't the first time advertisers have created fake graffiti: "In 2001, IBM paid Chicago and San Francisco more than $120,000 in fines and clean-up costs after its advertising agency spray-painted Linux advertisements on the cities' sidewalks." In Hippo Eats Dwarf I also briefly discuss how The Gap once spray-painted fake graffiti on its store windows. The phenomenon is called faux-rilla marketing (i.e. guerrilla marketing that relies on fake elements).

But I wouldn't put it past Sony to have stage-managed this entire controversy. In other words, Sony could have paid the people who spray-painted the angry messages over the original images. After all, the Sony marketers would have to know that fake graffiti, on its own, isn't much of a story. In fact, most people would never even notice it. But fake graffiti that provokes an angry response is likely to get media attention. This theory occurs to me because the Sony spokeswoman quoted in the article, Molly Smith, sounds a bit too pleased by the angry response the graffiti is provoking:

When asked about the criticism, Smith countered that art is subjective and that both the content and the medium dovetailed with Sony's belief that the PSP is a "disrupter product" that lets people play games, surf the internet and watch movies wherever they want.
Categories: Advertising
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 06, 2005
Comments (8)
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