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January 2006
Status: Real device (whether it worked is undetermined)
image Students of the history of meteorology may be aware of the Tempest Prognosticator of Dr. George Merryweather, but it was news to me. The Tempest Prognosticator was a device invented in the mid-nineteenth century that allowed the forecast of storms, via leeches. Apparently there's been some debate about whether this contraption actually existed, but author Paul Collins, on his blog, confirms that it did. In fact, it was displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Here's how it worked:

The "Tempest Prognosticator" consisted of twelve pint bottles of white glass, round the base of a circular stand, at the top of which was a bell surrounded by twelve hammers. Each bottle was connected with one of the hammers through a metal tube in its neck, containing a piece of whalebone and a wire, to which was attached a small gilt chain. Here is the inventor’s description of how the Prognosticator works: "After having arranged this mouse trap contrivance, into each bottle was poured rain water, to the height of an inch and a half; and a leech placed in every bottle, which was to be its future residence; and when influenced by the electromagnetic state of the atmosphere a number of leeches ascended into the tubes; in doing which they dislodged the whalebone and caused the bell to ring."

Paul Collins also reports that some guy has built a working replica of the Prognsticator, and has it on display at the Barometer World Museum in Devon, England. No word on whether it actually worked.
Categories: Animals, Technology
Posted by Alex on Mon Jan 09, 2006
Comments (3)
Status: Pseudoscience
Last night ABC News had a segment about a study being funded by the National Institutes of Health to determine if prayer can help cancer patients heal faster. Or more specifically, whether a stranger's prayers can help a patient heal faster. (The people running the study have invented the bs term 'distant healing' to make what they're studying sound more legitimate.) My jaw was on the floor as I was watching this. I couldn't believe the government had been suckered into paying for it. I suppose the NIH will next be funding studies of voodoo dolls. But unfortunately, ABC didn't spend a lot of time debunking the study. In fact, if you didn't know better, you might have got the impression from their segment that this was a perfectly scientific study, although they did give a critic a few seconds to make a quick point.

The woman running the study, Marilyn Schlitz, sounds like a real piece of work. She's head of something called the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Since she's a firm believer in the power of prayer, it's a good bet that her study will find that prayer does, indeed, have an effect. Never mind that a study conducted by Duke University has already determined that patients show no improvement in their condition when people pray for them. In an interview with, Schlitz desperately tries to duck this inconvenient fact, suggesting that "One study cannot prove or disprove a particular hypothesis." Oh, really? (Unless the study produces results she likes. Then, I'm sure, she would feel it was definitive.) Plus, in an effort to make what she's doing sound more secular, she suggests that she's not studying prayer, per se, but whether one person's "compassionate intention" towards another person, even if those two people are separated by thousands of miles and don't know each other, can have positive medical benefits. But it seems to me like we already have sufficient evidence to answer this. When celebrities (like George Harrison, for instance) are hospitalized, hundreds of thousands of people around the world pray for them. These prayers don't seem to do squat. Shouldn't that be proof enough that prayer has no therapeutic value?
Categories: Religion, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Jan 09, 2006
Comments (30)
Status: New word
The American Dialect Society has announced its words of the year for 2005 (links to a pdf file). A number of them are relevant to the study of hoaxes. For instance, the word of the year is Truthiness:

truthiness: the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.

I suppose the opposite of truthiness would be hoaxiness. A few of the other words of the year include:

flee-ancée: runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks.
Whizzinator: a trademarked urinating device using a realistic prosthetic penis and synthetic urine in order to pass a drug test.
Bumper Nutz: fake testicles hung from the rear end of a vehicle.

In Hippo Eats Dwarf I have a lot of word definitions like this. I included Whizzinator, but truthiness and flee-ancée are new to me, so they didn't make it in. Nor did bumper nutz, even though I knew what these are. (Prankplace, that company I have affiliate links to, actually sells them.) If there's ever a second edition of the book, I'll put them in. (via The Presurfer)

Update: As quite a few people have now pointed out, Stephen Colbert coined the meaning for "truthiness" used in the ADS's definition.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Mon Jan 09, 2006
Comments (8)
Status: Prank
A Flower Fairy is on the loose on Anderson Island:

Last spring flower bouquets and potted plants began appearing without explanation at the homes of numerous residents of this small island southwest of Tacoma. After a summer hiatus, the practice has resumed, island Fire Chief Jim Bixler said... Residents who received the deliveries said they heard a knock and answered the door to find a floral gift with a handwritten note saying, "Hope these make you smile." Each note is signed, "Love, the Flower Fairy."

My theory: it's a local florist trying to drum up business by encouraging spontaneous flower giving. Still, it's a nice idea.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Sun Jan 08, 2006
Comments (9)
Status: Advertisement
Here's an ad for McDonalds featuring the Loch Ness Monster (or one of her cousins). I think the language they're speaking is Polish. (via Ceticismo Aberto)
Categories: Advertising, Cryptozoology
Posted by Alex on Sun Jan 08, 2006
Comments (3)
Status: Stupid Criminals
A Colorado couple, realizing the police were onto their counterfeiting operation, tried to get rid of the incriminating evidence by flushing it all down the toilet. The results were predictable:

There's dirty money associated with crime, then there's dirty money. Investigators encountered the latter on Thursday, when they discovered a rental duplex that had flooded with sewage when the tenants flushed at least $10,000 in suspected counterfeit money down a toilet, crippling the duplex's plumbing system... By the time police arrived at the duplex Thursday, standing water and sewage covered its floors and the toilets weren't functional. Detectives said Marquez and Valdez had been relieving themselves in plastic shopping bags for at least a week because of the inoperable plumbing... Video of the duplex's plumbing shot by plumbers using a "snake camera" on Thursday showed hunks of suspected counterfeit bills packed into the pipes. The clogs span from just a few feet beyond the toilet to almost 100 feet along the lines. The volume of bills flushed down the toilet was so great that the money was visible when police and sheriff's deputies lifted a manhole cover on the street outside the duplex.
Categories: Con Artists
Posted by Alex on Sun Jan 08, 2006
Comments (3)
Status: Probably a Ponzi Scheme
Cranky Media Guy (aka Bob Pagani) noticed this story in the HawkEye about a job offer that sounds an awful lot like a Ponzi Scheme. Terrie Brown, who owns a limousine business in Burlington, Iowa, is offering to hire absolutely anyone at the rate of $25 an hour. Here's the part of her offer that sounds like a scam:

The hiring process includes filling out an application and then paying a $10 processing fee, according to Brown. Everyone who fills out an application and pays the $10 fee receives a time card and is hired on the spot, she said. In fact, she added, anyone willing to work who pays the processing fee will be earning $25 an hour. "Everyone is paid $25 an hour whether they work one hour or 40 ... and everyone will receive benefits," Brown said. The benefits include health, dental vision and life insurance for an undetermined fee.

So you pay her $10 to get hired, but I bet that only a very few people will actually be put to work and earn that $25/hour. Still, hundreds of people have been signing up for the job:

Since Tuesday, owner Terrie Brown has been inundated with hundreds of job applications from high school students to senior citizens. On Thursday, parking at the business on the corner of Roosevelt and Sunnyside avenues had to be directed due to high–traffic volume. "We had hundreds in here and we want hundreds more," Brown said. "As long as you are willing to work, we want you."

She's even giving people incentives to recruit other suckers to sign up for this job. The Burlington Police are aware of what she's doing, but won't comment on any investigation.
Categories: Con Artists
Posted by Alex on Sun Jan 08, 2006
Comments (2)
Status: A piece of hoax history for sale
image The Bristol Evening Post reports that the house adjacent to what is believed to be Princess Caraboo's grave in Bristol is up for sale. The asking price is a fairly reasonable £299,950 (about $530,000). (I reported back in 2003 that the gravesite was in danger of being paved over to make a parking lot, but I guess that threat was averted.) I can't find the Bristol Evening Post article online, but here's the property listing. (From the date of the listing, it looks like it's been on the market for a while.) If I had the money, I would seriously think about buying it. I figure it would be a great place for a real Museum of Hoaxes. Plus, it would be close to my wife's family in Gloucester. Unfortunately I don't happen to have a spare half-million in my bank account at the moment. So much for that idea.
Categories: Identity/Imposters, Places
Posted by Alex on Fri Jan 06, 2006
Comments (7)
Status: Fiction
Olivia Bruce emailed me to ask: Where is this place...or does it just not exist? I'd be hard-pressed to say where exactly Maddocha is. (Its official website simply says that Maddocha was "a wide-open space that was discovered and then occupied by John Madly and his family.") So I'm going to go with option B. It just doesn't exist. A quick google search reveals that Maddocha seems to be the creation of Deartra D. Boone.
Categories: Places
Posted by Alex on Fri Jan 06, 2006
Comments (12)
Status: Photoshopped
This is pretty obviously photoshopped. The colors are too bright, for one thing. Also, I don't think the Army lets soldiers custom paint their jeeps. (via Telebush)
Categories: Military, Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Fri Jan 06, 2006
Comments (14)
Status: Fake
image This video of a guy lighting a candle by setting his fart on fire is obviously fake. (Given that the video is one big fart joke, it's probably not safe for work, though it's otherwise work safe.) However, it seems that a number of people actually think it's real. To verify that it's fake, all you need to do is visit the url displayed on the film:, which is the website of amateur filmmaker David Packer (aka Sheep). He has a lot of films starring himself that employ various special effects, such as fake fire farts.
Categories: Gross, Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Wed Jan 04, 2006
Comments (7)
Status: Seems to be a prank
image Brian Geist was sitting at home on New Year's Eve enjoying some hazelnuts. But there was a strange surprise in one of them: a condom. As his wife reported to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (may require registration):

"My husband cracked open a hazelnut and a condom popped out. He couldn't believe it. He just sort of sat there and stared at it and he said, 'You wouldn't believe what I found in this nut," Geist said Tuesday. She assumed he might have been talking about a bug. But it turned out to be a bright-yellow condom, still rolled up, she said.

The nuts were bought at a local Wal-Mart Supercenter. The Wal-Mart spokesperson had no clue what to make of the incident. Meanwhile, the police chief noted that he was aware of condoms being sold inside plastic walnuts, though the nut in this case wasn't plastic. The Wal-Mart spokesperson, and a pr representative for the nut company both "expressed surprise at a condom being able to fit into the relatively small shell of a hazelnut. Geist agreed it was a tight fit. She said her husband speculates that the shell had been cut in half and glued back together. Meisner [the police chief], who didn't see signs of sawing or gluing, said he doesn't doubt the Geists' story. Geist said it's not something she could have concocted if she tried. 'It's so bizarre, I'm not clever enough to make up something that crazy,' she said."

I don't suppose there's any way of getting a condom inside a hazelnut without breaking the nut open first. So if it was a prank, someone went to quite a bit of trouble to pull it off. And the Geists aren't threatening to sue, so it's hard to see what motive they would have for making up the story. (Unless they just wanted to get their name in the paper.) Very weird. Maybe a mad scientist has genetically engineered condom-growing nuts.
Categories: Food, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Wed Jan 04, 2006
Comments (17)
Status: Confession of a prank
Back in 1970 a picture was taken showing four young women waving placards with messages such as "Ban the Man" and "Down with Men and Marriage." The picture became a symbol of feminism. But thirty-five years later, the women have confessed that their anti-man protest was just a prank. Margot Ducat explains:

"One day my colleagues - Jo Vincent, Sue James and Shirley Francis - found a wedding dress stuffed in one of the cupboards. Quite why someone left it there we never did find out. Anyway, Shirley tried it on and it was a perfect fit, so we just decided to do something to liven up Surbiton [a London suburb]. It was a rather dull and staid town, so I suggested we telephone the local paper, the Kingston and Malden Borough News, and tell them we were protesting against men. Shirley wore the wedding dress, we made our banners and set off down Victoria Road. Passers-by just gawped in amazement. When it came to being interviewed, we told the press we were militant women's libbers who were fed up with how men seemed to get the best deal out of life. We just made the whole thing up. It was a prank to enliven a very dull day."

Although the article in the Telegraph says that this photograph is very famous and has been reprinted many times, I don't actually have any idea what photograph they're talking about. (And the online version of the article doesn't show the picture.) Anyone know what the image in question is? It's got to be online somewhere.
Categories: History, Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Wed Jan 04, 2006
Comments (28)
Status: False theft report
A San Francisco woman has admitted to sending police on a wild goose chase to find a $175,000 violin that she claimed had been stolen from her car. She really does own such a violin, but it doesn't appear to have been missing. It's not clear why she said it was. Here are some details from the AP article:

The sad tale of a San Francisco music student who had a $175,000 18th century violin swiped from her towed car was a fabrication, authorities confirmed Friday... Rhee-Nakajima told police Wednesday that the violin -- along with her wallet and iPod -- were gone when she picked up her vehicle from a private tow company. She said she had locked the instrument in the trunk of her car, which had been parked too long at a supermarket parking lot in the city's Fillmore district and was towed... On Thursday, she appeared on various television stations, pleading with any members of the public who knew the whereabouts of the violin to contact police. That plea turned out to be hollow.

If I owned a $175,000 violin, I'd be a nervous wreck. I wouldn't even want it in my house, in case of a break-in. The obvious thing to suspect in this case is that the student was involved in an insurance scam, but as the article notes, insurance wouldn't cover a violin left in an unattended car. So the motive for the false theft report seems to be a mystery.
Categories: Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Tue Jan 03, 2006
Comments (9)
Status: Either a prank or a manufacturing defect
image When Angela Bolls bought an interactive Elmo book for her young daughter, Miranda, she had no idea what she would be exposing her daughter to:

Family members said 16-month-old Miranda Boll's new book, "Potty Time With Elmo," was supposed to teach an interactive lesson using voice commands. However, when the book's buttons are pressed, it reportedly says something it is not supposed to -- "who wants to die?" ... Bolls said she checked another copy of the same book and found that it says something completely different; "Who wants to try to go potty?" The company that makes the book said it has had several complaints concerning the book, according to the report.

So I guess some prankster with a dark sense of humor has been tampering with the potty-training books. That, or the books are satanically possessed. I actually don't think the mother should be complaining too much. That book could be worth a fortune on eBay.
Categories: Death, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Tue Jan 03, 2006
Comments (52)
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