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February 2006
Here's a request for help that I received today from a researcher at a TV production company:

I work in the Development Department for a Production Company called North One TV. We're currently working on an idea for a show that uses science to hoax people. Obviously there are many fantastic science based hoaxes that have been performed through out history. What we're thinking is we could use one or two of the more famous hoaxes to break up the show. The main crux being a presenter fooling people on the street or in a studio, by confounding them with science? Unfortunately this is where we are struggling slightly. Do you know of any simple, experiment based tricks, common misconceptions, science based tom-foolery that would fit the bill. It could be things that are small and relatively simple to elaborate, but visual Science Hoaxes. Any input you guys at the museum might have would be greatly appreciated...

I get so many requests for research help from TV studios, I should probably start charging them consulting fees. But I'm a lousy businessman, so instead I give them all kinds of help for free. Anyway, does anyone have some ideas for this guy? I can't think of anything off the top of my head, though it sounds like what he's really interested in are science pranks.
Categories: Miscellaneous
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 21, 2006
Comments (22)
image I received this unusual request in my email today:

My name is Beatriz Damiani and for 20 years I have devoted myself to collecting "keyrings", being my collection, at present, of more than 5600 units from 184 different countries all over the world. Within my collection one of the most important, as well as interesting sets, is the one of "Museums". After long years of hard but enjoyable work, I have been able to obtain keyrings from most Museums but I still lack one from yours. The possibility of incorporating this keyring to my collection would mean a lot to me, that´s why being impossible to obtain it in Argentina, I dare to write to you with this enquiry. Thanking you for all the kindness with which, according to your possibilities, you will consider this letter and loking forward to hearing from you soon.

You can check out Beatriz's keyring collection here. It's quite extensive. (Museum keyrings are four rows down on the left.) Unfortunately I don't have anything to send her. Nor does Cafepress do keyrings, so I can't even create something for her. Pity. It would be cool to have a Museum of Hoaxes keyring. Anyway, her request reminded me of that guy who wanted an entry ticket to the Museum of Hoaxes. I'm still intending to create some MOH tickets (bearing the message: "Admit it. You're gullible.") and send one to him, but I haven't found a printer who can create them. (Though I haven't actually looked very hard yet.)
Categories: Miscellaneous
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 21, 2006
Comments (8)
Status: Scam
I'm a big fan of Guinness (Murphy's and Beamish as well), so this news report from Africa of a Guinness counterfeiting scam caught my eye. Three men have been charged with producing fake Guinness and selling it to bars in Nigeria. (From what I've heard, Guinness is incredibly popular in Nigeria.) The way they created the phony Guinness was what I found interesting:

They further explained that they buy the original product of Wilmot Stout [a cheap beer] from a depot located in Zuba in large quantity and with that they proceed to their factory where they start by first washing the empty Guinness bottles with the omo and water. After washing all the bottles, they then begin to open the original Wilmot Stout and empty into the already washed Guinness bottles and immediately use the fabricated cork machine to cork firmly so that it does not go flat. When that is done, they arrange the bottles into the crates and distribute to their customers.

I had imagined them brewing up fake Guinness in home-brew kits, but simply pouring a cheap bottled stout into a Guinness bottle is obviously much simpler. Bottled stout tends to be rather dense and not highly carbonated, so this would have aided their deception.
Categories: Food
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 21, 2006
Comments (6)
Status: True
Earlier today I read (via blogdex) the tale of a woman named Judith and her camera that was lost, then found, but still (paradoxically) remains lost. I thought it was interesting, but didn't consider it might be a hoax. However, several people have emailed me about it, so I thought I'd take a closer look at it. Here's the jist of the tale.

Judith lost her camera while on vacation in Hawaii. Back home she decided to create a photo blog of her vacation using pictures found on Flickr of the places she visited. About two weeks into this blog, she posts this message, explaining that she had received a call from a Hawaiian park ranger telling her that her camera had been found by a Canadian couple. Judith called the Canadian couple, only to learn that they didn't want to return the camera because their son (who happens to have diabetes) found it and now considers it to be his lucky camera. So Judith remains camera-less. The behavior of the Canadian couple has outraged netizens.

In terms of evaluating whether any of this is true, there's not, at first glance, much to go on. We kind of have to take Judith's word that what she's saying is true. But what I found most curious was how quickly Judith's blog went from being extremely obscure, to being all over the internet. Usually if you can figure out who's spreading a story, that will shed some light on whether or not a story is true. In this case, it wasn't hard to figure out how the story spread so far, so fast.

Following a chain of links soon led back to the well-known blogger Anil Dash, who seems to have been the first to post a link to Judith's lost-camera story. Boing Boing picked it up from him, and then it was all over the internet. Knowing this made it pretty easy to figure out that the Judith in question must be Judith Zissman, San Francisco artist and creator of (Anil mentions Judith Zissman elsewhere in his blog.) Judith is an artist, so maybe the lost camera blog is all an exercise in creative writing. (Wouldn't be the first time the internet has seen that.) But I doubt it. She seems fairly credible to me... and whether you believe the story is true all boils down to whether you believe Judith is telling the truth. I don't see any reason not to believe her. So for now I'm listing this as not a hoax.

(And in a separate story, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing is now being threatened by someone claiming to be the lawyer of the Canadian couple that took the camera. But it doesn't seem to be a real lawyer... just some random crackpot trying to get attention.)
Categories: Exploration/Travel, Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 21, 2006
Comments (14)
Status: Real bags (but not really made from skin)
image The front page of the skinbags site advertises that skinbags are "Organic objects, in synthetic human skin." That description isn't as clear as it could be, and could easily be misread to suggest that skinbags are actually made from human skin. Much of the rest of the site plays up this ambiguity. You come across passages such as this:

What is it? Could it be human skin? One asks oneself, reaching out a hand in an attempt to touch it : a reflexive gesture. This is what is fascinating – like a game made to scare oneself.

But don't worry. It's not really human skin. Skinbags (as you learn if you search around the site a bit) are latex designed to look and feel like skin. They're made by Olivier Goulet. The skinbag line includes purses, handbags, jackets, overalls, and laptop carriers. It looks like they all have to be special ordered. You won't find skinbags down at The Gap. (Thanks to Timothy Hunter for the link)
Categories: Body Manipulation, Gross
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 21, 2006
Comments (17)
Status: Hoax
image The Raw Feed has linked to a video (in French) in which Belgian archaeologists discuss how they were able to "use computer scans of the grooves in 6,500-year-old pottery to extract sounds -- including talking and laughter -- made by the vibrations of the tools used to make the pottery." The video is fairly good quality and would lead you to believe that it might be real, if it weren't for the premise being pretty farfetched (and not reported anywhere else in the news). Make Magazine reports that the video was created last year as an April Fool's Day hoax, and point out that "This site - 'Poisson d'avril de journal televise', translates to: 'April fools newscast'." (However, I can't find any mention of Poisson d'avril in the site they link to.) Other Make readers point out that the premise (audio extracted from ancient pottery) was ripped off (pun intentional) from a story by Gregory Benford, Time Shards. (Thanks to Schmawy for the link)
Categories: History, Technology
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 20, 2006
Comments (23)
Status: Fake
image About a week ago a touching scene took place in South Korea. A couple boarded a train and then proceeded to get married in front of all the passengers. The groom explained to everyone that he was too poor to pay for a proper ceremony, so he and his bride had decided to get married on a train instead. After the ceremony the crowd broke into wild applause, and pictures of the wedding (taken by a passenger with a cellphone) began to circulate on the internet.

But now it turns out that the scene wasn't quite as romantic as it appeared. The couple were actually actors from the Theatre and Film Department at Hoseo University. Naturally, some people are annoyed by the deception. Mr Shin Jin-woo, who dreamed up and directed the performance, has issued a statement saying: "I sincerely apologise to subway passengers who believed the ceremony was real, as well as many Internet users who posted encouraging messages online. It was not our intention to deceive the public. We felt that it would be rude to the passengers at that time if we told them that the ceremony was not real, but just a play."

The part I don't understand is this: Why would being poor explain why the couple was getting married on a train? Surely it would have been cheaper for them to get married in a civil ceremony at town hall rather than arrange for someone to marry them on a train. I realize it was all an act, but their story doesn't strike me as being logical.

Related Posts:
Aug. 25, 2002: Mock Weddings
Aug. 26, 2003: Mock Weddings II
Feb. 16, 2005: Fake Marriage Proposal
Mar. 6, 2005: Wedding Photos
Categories: Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 20, 2006
Comments (7)
Status: Urban Legends has a list of the 20 Most Popular Myths in Science. Included in the list are classics such as these:

It takes seven years to digest gum.
Hair and fingernails continue growing after death.
A penny dropped from the top of a tall building could kill a pedestrian.
Humans use only 10 percent of their brains.
You get less wet by running in the rain.
Eating a poppy seed bagel mimics opium use.

Oddly enough, they also throw a few strange-but-true items into this list of myths, such as these:

Chickens can live without a head.
Yawning is "contagious".
Categories: Science, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sat Feb 18, 2006
Comments (17)
Status: Fake Hillary
A lot of people don't like Hillary, but I do. But then, I'm nostalgic for the 90s. Anyway, here's something else to add to the list of strange hyperreal objects. it's Hillary Clinton in wax, recently unveiled at Madame Tussauds:

The Clinton statue, crafted at the original Tussauds museum in London, takes its place in a wing dedicated to presidents and other public figures known as "the gallery." There, the likeness of the Democratic senator joins statues of Presidents Bush, Reagan, Kennedy, and her husband, Bill Clinton.

I'll leave it to you to determine which is the real Hillary in the two photos below.

Categories: Celebrities, Politics
Posted by Alex on Sat Feb 18, 2006
Comments (15)
Status: Real
image This image of a Stealth fighter (an F-117A Nighthawk Stealth Fighter, to be accurate) decorated with the Stars and Stripes has been circulating around. At first I suspected it had been photoshopped. After all, painting a Stealth Fighter with bright colors would seem to defeat its purpose. But it's real. Some googling revealed that this Stars-and-Striped Stealth was featured at an Edwards Air Force Base Airshow in 2005 (scroll down almost to the bottom of the page to find it). A caption indicates that "This aircraft has completed its' flight test career and will be relocated to Holloman AFB." The photo was taken by Fred Bruenjes, from whom prints can be bought. Below is a picture of the same plane flying with a few other planes from the show.
Categories: Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Sat Feb 18, 2006
Comments (12)
Status: Undetermined
image For Valentine's Day my wife and I went to a restaurant called Green Tomato and had a great meal which included ravioli in a mustard cream sauce, green tomato soup, and chicken stuffed with mascarpone and spinach. But apparently, if this picture which is going around can be believed, the Valentine's Day dinner at the White House was quite a bit fancier than what I had. I don't see any good reason why this White House menu shouldn't be real. After all, the White House does employ a master chef. But it is possible that someone created this menu as a kind of fantasy meal. I checked out the White House website, but unfortunately no dinner menus were posted there. (via Martini Republic)
Categories: Food
Posted by Alex on Thu Feb 16, 2006
Comments (15)
Status: True
The internet is full of many unfortunate urls that can be read in two ways. Some of the urls intentionally have double meanings, some don't. For instance, (via grafix / viagra fix) was an unintentional oversight, but (powergen italia / power genitalia) was a deliberate joke, as is Apparently Vietnamese sites are prone to the same problem. For which reason, Vietnamese regulators have rejected the website name The BBC explains:

A website hoping to promote grapefruit in Vietnam has been banned from using the fruit's name because of official fears of a mix-up with a penis.
The Vietnamese for grapefruit, buoi, sounds different from a slang word for penis, but without special accents it looks the same. Vietnamese regulations say website names cannot include "sensitive" words. The site, set up to market a grapefruit wholesaler in Ha Tinh province, was told to find another name. "We have to refuse the website name of because the word for grapefruit, buoi, without a proper tone marking can be misunderstood," Thai Huu Ly, of the Vietnam Internet Network Information Centre, told the AFP agency.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu Feb 16, 2006
Comments (5)
Status: Magic trick
image Stevie Starr calls himself a professional regurgitator. He's been doing his act for a long time, and is quite famous. (He's appeared on shows such as Jay Leno and Ripley's Believe it or Not.) But I just became aware of him through a video of one of his performances on Google Video, and I'm at a complete loss to explain how he does what he does.

His performance includes some of the following tricks: He swallows sugar, followed by a glass of water, and then regurgitates the sugar, completely dry. He swallows a live goldfish and regurgitates that a minute later, still living. (As he does this, he mentions the urban legend about goldfish having 5-second memories.) Reportedly he's also able to swallow a (miniature) rubik's cube and bring it back up — solved. (Though the Rubik's cube trick isn't shown in the google video.)

I can't find anyone on the web who has a decent explanation for how Starr is able to do all this. Obviously he has a genuine talent with his stomach. An article about him in the Amherst Student reports that:

he was born in a children’s home in Scotland, where he lived for the first 19 years of his life. When little Stevie was four years old, he discovered this unique talent by swallowing his lunch money and realizing he could bring it right back up. Thus, a freak of nature was born.

But this doesn't explain how he can swallow sugar, followed by water, and bring the sugar up dry. Or the trick with the rubik's cube. Does he have a second stomach, or something like that? To do the rubik's cube trick I assume he must have swallowed a solved rubik's cube before the show. But like I said, I'm pretty much baffled.

Incidentally, history is full of famous vomiters, so Stevie Starr evidently isn't the only one who has ever had this talent. In 1621 there was the case of the nail-vomiting Boy of Bilston (who had been trained by a priest to simulate the symptoms of being bewitched). This was followed in 1642 by Catharina Geisslerin, "the toad-vomiting woman of Germany," who, as you might guess, had a talent for vomiting up toads. In 1694 there was Theodorus Döderlein, who vomited up twenty-one newts and four frogs. (I'm getting this info from Clifford Pickover's The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits.) Pickover also reports that there have been cases of compulsive swallowers who don't later regurgitate what they swallow, including one guy in 1985 who had "53 toothbrushes, 2 razors, 2 telescopic aerials, and 150 handles of disposable razors" removed from his stomach.
Categories: Body Manipulation, Food, Magic
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 14, 2006
Comments (193)
Status: Almost definitely an urban legend
The Leicester Mercury has printed a spooky story that sounds very much like an urban legend. (Though I know some people say that true urban legends don't involve the supernatural, so I guess it would be a ghost legend.) Since I don't believe in ghosts, I'm assuming that the story is mostly b.s. But I'm curious if any parts of it are true.

The story goes like this: In 1950 Dr Guiseppi Stoppolino of Camerino University was testing an Italian clairvoyant named Mario Bocca to see if his powers were real. During the test Bocca picked up a message from a dead woman calling herself Rosa Spadoni, who claimed that she had been buried alive back in 1939. Stoppolino and Bocca searched for the grave of Rosa Spadoni, but couldn't find it until they realized that her tombstone bore her married name, Menichelli. They convinced a court to exhume Rosa Menichelli's coffin, and, sure enough, discovered evidence that she had been buried alive. As the Leicester Mercury tells it, "There was little more than a skeleton left in the coffin, but the spine was arched in an attempt to lift the lid, and the fingers still clawed at the woodwork."

A version of the story can also be found on the World of the Strange website, where they add this ending:

"The outraged public reaction that followed rocked Italy and even threatened to bring down the government. Within months, Dr. Stoppolini succeeded in his crusade for mandatory embalming of the dead. As the story spread to other European countries, burial practices were also hastily changed."

You would think that an event like this that supposedly changed burial practices in Europe would be easy to confirm, but a google search brings up almost nothing. Just about the only part of the story I can confirm is that there really is a Camerino University in Italy. I can't confirm the existence of Dr. Guiseppi Stoppolino, Mario Bocca, or Rosa Spadoni. However, a post (in Italian) on Google Groups revealed that the Spadoni story was told in The World's Greatest Ghosts, which came out in 1984, written by Nigel Blundell and Roger Boar. I'm wondering if Blundell and Boar's account is the first published account of the story. And, if so, did they simply make it up?
Categories: Death, Paranormal
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 14, 2006
Comments (31)
Status: Real
This looks like a painting, or a picture of toy houses, but apparently it's neither. These are real houses. The picture was taken by a Mexican helicopter pilot. (I can only find his last name, which is Ruiz Oscar Ruiz.) He writes of this picture: "REAL PICTURE! 300+ low income homes in Ixtapaluca, complex has more than 10,000!" The link goes to his gallery of aerial photographs of Mexico City. This photo is nine rows down on the right.

row houses
Categories: Photos/Videos, Places
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 13, 2006
Comments (32)
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