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April 2006
Status: Hoax
Here's an email that's been circulating around:
"A 36-year-old female had an accident several weeks ago and wrote off her vehicle. It was raining, though not excessively, when her car suddenly began to aquaplane and literally flew through the air. She was not seriously injured but very stunned at the sudden occurrence. When she explained what had happened to a highway patrolman, he told her she should never drive in the rain with cruise control activated. If your car begins to aquaplane, it will accelerate beyond the set cruise control speed when the tyres lose contact with the asphalt."

So is there any truth to this? Is it dangerous to drive in the rain with cruise control activated? Not according to Australia's RAA (Royal Automobile Association) which recently issued an advisory about this email:

“Should the car’s tyres break traction with the road, such as in an aquaplane situation, the increase in wheel speed would be sensed and the cruise control system would then reduce the amount of throttle and maintain the set speed. Additionally, cruise control systems are deactivated as soon as the brake is applied. As braking is usually an automatic reaction in most emergency situations, the scenario of cruise control causing an increase in vehicle speed is highly unlikely.”

I actually never use cruise control, whether or not it's raining, because I have a bit of a phobia about it. I have a fear that one time I'll step on the brake, and the cruise control won't deactivate.
Categories: Email Hoaxes
Posted by Alex on Thu Apr 13, 2006
Comments (25)
Status: Hoax
image A Missouri couple, Sarah and Kris Everson, have been charged with staging an elaborate hoax to fool people into believing they had sextuplets. Supposedly Sarah gave birth to the six babies on March 8. Stories about the multiple birth ran in local papers, and people who heard about the family's tight financial situation began to organize donations for them. Sarah also supplied the Associated Press with a photograph of herself looking very pregnant, as well as sonograms of the kids. The babies themselves were supposedly still in intensive care. But the authorities became suspicious when all the hospitals in the area stated that they had no clue who these people, or their babies, were. Turns out there were no babies. Just a bizarre scheme to con people into giving them money.

I write about birth hoaxes in Hippo Eats Dwarf, where I note that they're more common than you would think (Reality Rule 1.1: Just because a woman looks pregnant, it doesn't mean she is). Nowadays the most common birth scam is for a woman to pretend to be pregnant and then con a couple who want to adopt her child into supporting her until the baby is delivered. She lives in high style for a few months and then skips town. Multiple-birth hoaxes, such as the Missouri case, are quite rare, though as I note in the Gallery of Birth Hoaxes, there were a number of them from the 1930s to the 1950s, following the 1934 birth of the Dionne Quintuplets. But multiple-birth hoaxes began to go out of style once fertility drugs made multiple births more common. The phenomenon lost its novelty.

What surprises me about the Missouri case is that the couple must have known they couldn't keep the hoax going without, at some point, producing six babies. So what exactly was their plan? Obviously these weren't the most brilliant criminals in the world.
Categories: Birth/Babies
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 12, 2006
Comments (14)
Status: Undetermined (but probably true)
Alex Palmer forwarded me the following email which is circulating around, consisting of the following text and four pictures:

Subject: Picture is worth a thousand words.
The Honda rider was traveling at such a "very high speed", his reaction time was not sufficient enough to avoid this accident. Swedish Police estimate a speed of ~250 KM/h (155mph) before the bike hit the slow moving car side-on at an intersection. At that speed, they predicted that the rider's reaction time (once the vehicle came into view) wasn't sufficient enough for him to even apply the brakes. The car had two passengers and the bike rider was found INSIDE the car with them. The Volkswagen actually flipped over from the force of impact and landed 10 feet from where the collision took place.

All three involved (two in car and rider) were killed instantly. This graphic demonstration was placed at the Stockholm Motorcycle Fair by the Swedish Police and Road Safety Department. The sign above the display also noted that the rider had only recently obtained his license. At 250 KM (155 mph) the operator is traveling at 227 feet per second. With normal reaction time to SEE-DECIDE-REACT of 1.6 seconds the above operator would have traveled over 363 feet while making a decision on what actions to take. In this incident the Swedish police indicate that no actions were taken.

image image image image

The images and text are posted on quite a few sites, including one that shows a picture of the actual accident scene. I haven't been able to confirm any of the details, but this doesn't surprise me given that the incident apparently happened in Sweden, and I don't speak Swedish. (For instance, I don't pull up any references in Lexis-Nexis to a Stockholm Motorcycle Fair.) But it seems reasonable to me that if a motorcycle going 155mph hit a car side-on, it would definitely have enough force to flip the car (which is the detail that Alex Palmer was suspicious of). After all, that's a lot of energy, which has to go somewhere.
Categories: Email Hoaxes, Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 12, 2006
Comments (28)
Status: April Fool Prank
Students at Hugh McRoberts School in Richmond, British Columbia were stunned when they learned that donut-maker Tim Hortons was going to become an official sponsor of their school. As a result the nickname for the school's team would change from the "Strikers" to the "Dunkers". Also:

The school’s Snack Shack had been sold, students were told in a survey that asked which doughnuts they preferred for the new shack’s menu.
What’s more, the school was to undergo a complete re-branding, with new colours and a logo featuring a coffee cup with Tim Hortons in big letters.

Students responded by protesting and calling up the press to let them know what was happening. (Though other students were excited about the change... especially the possibility of free donuts.) Turned out it was all an experiment in mass manipulation crafted by the school's language-arts class (I have no idea what "language arts" are... it must be a Canadian thing. Maybe it's like rhetoric, or debate), and timed to coincide with April 1st. Now, presumably, students are protesting because they won't be getting their free donuts.
Categories: April Fools Day, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 12, 2006
Comments (11)
Status: Real (kind of)
You've probably heard of the $250 Neiman Marcus Cookie. Now comes word of a $150 McDonald Sandwich. Yes, it's real, but it's not a sandwich from the fast-food McDonalds. It's being sold at Selfridges, a UK department store, and it's named after Scott McDonald, the executive chef at the store. Obviously the name is a little tongue-in-cheek. The sandwich is supposedly worth $150 "because of the Wagyu beef that makes up most of the filling... the 595-gram sandwich comprises 24-hour fermented sour dough bread, spread with a foie gras-flavoured mayonnaise. It also contains Brie de Meaux, considered one of Europe's finest cheeses, English cherry tomatoes and rocket, plus roasted peppers." The BBC has a picture of it.
Categories: Food
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 12, 2006
Comments (19)
Status: Urban Legend
Here's an odd urban legend that I just stumbled across. Supposedly if you smear chapstick down the side of a scantron sheet (the kind used for standardized tests such as the SAT), the grading machine will mark all your answers correct. The theory is that the chapstick will interfere with the scanning light, confusing it into thinking that your answers are correct. Needless to say, this doesn't work.

Some guy named Richard Mangahas has written a short article detailing all kinds of theories about ways to cheat on scantron tests, including: marking or deleting the black lines along the side of the page, filling in the bubbles with cross-hatches, or placing tape along the side of the page. I don't think any of these methods would work either. (Though Mangahas claims some of them work 25-30% of the time... which is about the same percentage you would expect from guessing at the right answer.)

Maybe it was kids armed with chapstick that caused all those SAT-test score errors recently.
Categories: Technology, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 11, 2006
Comments (37)
Status: News
image Thanks to Big Gary for sending me this story about Tijuana's fake zebras, which are facing extinction. The Tijuana zebras are donkeys painted to look like zebras. Tourists like to get their picture taken with them. It's a decades-old tradition. The Reuters article explains:

"It all started in the 1930s when someone decided to paint the donkeys up with stripes so that they'd look better in black-and-white photographs," recalled Jorge Bonillas, a sprightly 75-year-old who has worked with the animals since 1941.

But now tourism to Tijuana has been drying up because of fears about the violence of its drug wars. (I'm guilty of avoiding the place... the last time I went was over ten years ago, even though it would take me less than half an hour to get to the border from my house.) And as the tourist trade shrinks, the zebra workers are finding it harder to make a living. Sad.

Big Gary also forwarded me an article about the financial problems facing Erich von Daeniken's (of Chariots of the Gods fame) Mystery Park in Switzerland. It too, like Tijuana, is failing to attract visitors. My guess is that it's in the wrong location. It should really be somewhere like Las Vegas, not Switzerland. Big Gary notes that "If the park has to close, maybe they can send the unemployed Tijuana zebras there to retire."
Categories: Animals, Places
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 11, 2006
Comments (8)
Status: Highly dubious
Based on the description on the Brain Gym website, Brain Gym sounds like a pretty good idea. It's "a program of physical movements that enhance learning and performance in ALL areas." The program, which consists of 26 different exercises, is now being used in a lot of schools to help kids learn. Exercise can definitely improve mental acuity, so having kids do something like this would seem to make sense. But as Ben Goldacre revealed in a recent Bad Science column, the concept is a lot more bogus than it appears at first blush. The reason is that all kinds of dubious and pseudoscientific claims are made on behalf of these exercises. Take, for example, this exercise called "Brain Buttons":

“Make a ‘C’ shape with your thumb and forefinger and place on either side of the breast bone just below the collar bone. Gently rub for 20 or 30 seconds whilst placing your other hand over your navel. Change hands and repeat. This exercise stimulates the flow of oxygen carrying blood through the carotid arteries to the brain to awaken it and increase concentration and relaxation.”

Huh? Then there's another exercise called "The Energizer," which involves shaking your head, because "this back and forward movement of the head increases the circulation to the frontal lobe for greater comprehension and rational thinking."

It sounds to me like the schools should save whatever money they're paying to the Brain Gym organization, and just have the kids go outside and run around for a while.
Categories: Psychology, Sports
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 11, 2006
Comments (18)
Status: Undetermined
image I'm no aeronautical engineer, so I'm not qualified to say if the plane featured on the website of JCR Technology could fly or not, though it sure doesn't look to me like it would ever get off the ground. Apparently it's supposed to fly by means of eight flapping wings, located on either side of the plane. The website is entirely in French, so I can't determine if this is simply some kind of thought experiment, or a real plane that someone is trying to build. Definitely check out the computer-graphic simulations of the plane flying (look under the 'images' tab). Even in the simulations, it doesn't look like it could fly. There's a photostream on Flickr showing a crosssection of this plane being displayed at the Salon International des Inventions in Geneva, which seems to be a convention for people with crazy inventions.
Categories: Technology
Posted by Alex on Mon Apr 10, 2006
Comments (28)
Status: Undetermined
image Before I saw this picture it would never have occurred to me that Katie Holmes was faking her pregnancy. But now, I don't know what to think. I mean, that has to be a soccer ball beneath her shirt. Right?

This picture, taken on April 4, has been doing the blog circuit. The Blog You Love To Hate has some more photos from the same series in which her belly looks less fake. So maybe it was just the camera angle, or something like that. But still, it's kind of freaky. Even if she were having twins, I don't think her belly would stick out that far.
Categories: Birth/Babies, Celebrities
Posted by Alex on Mon Apr 10, 2006
Comments (17)
Status: Tall-tale creature
image I've found another beer to add to my list of hoax-themed beers: Boonville Beer. Its label shows a picture of a bear with antlers. I was having a bottle of this beer (the outmeal stout) out on the patio this afternoon, saw the antlered bear, and got curious. A quick internet search revealed that the creature isn't actually a bear. The Anderson Valley Brewing Company website explains:

It's not a bear. Bears don't have antlers. Of course not. Who ever heard of such a thing? It is, however, a BEER. The Legendary Boonville Beer to be exact. Barkley, by name, who could be considered a cross between a bear and a deer (thus a beer). Barkley and his brethren are often seen about Anderson Valley by lovers of truly fine beers (especially if they've had a few).

The beer itself was pretty good, though I usually prefer stouts that have more of a chocolate flavor.
Categories: Folklore/Tall Tales, Food
Posted by Alex on Mon Apr 10, 2006
Comments (2)
Status: Joke campaign
Twenty-five people are campaigning to be mayor of New Orleans. One of them is legendary rhythm-and-blues musician Ernie K-Doe. His wife insists that he deserves to be mayor because "He gets the job done. The guy has soul." He also happens to be dead, which, I suppose, makes him perfect for the job (resistant to corruption-- especially if he was embalmed). Unfortunately he's not actually on the ballot, so his supporters will have to stage a write-in campaign. Though he could be a beneficiary of ghost voting, a practice not unknown down there in Louisiana. (Thanks, Big Gary)
Categories: Death, Politics
Posted by Alex on Sun Apr 09, 2006
Comments (0)
Status: True (I think)
image A British mail-order chili firm, Peppers by Post, claims that it has developed the hottest chili in the world. Its website states:

We – Michael and Joy Michaud – grow chillies and sell them by mail order to customers throughout Great Britain... One of the items in our catalogue is Dorset Naga, an exceptionally hot variety that we developed from a Bangladeshi chilli known as Naga Morich. In 2005 we collected a sample of this chilli, and had it tested for heat by two laboratories in the USA. The result, measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), were astounding: taking an average of the two, Dorset Naga came in at 923,000 SHU. To put this figure in context, the Guinness world record for the hottest chilli is currently held by Red Savina, which was once measured at 577,000 SHU... This makes Dorset Naga more than 50% hotter than Red Savina, and clearly a contender for the title ‘hottest chilli in the world’.

The rest of the website is full of facts and information about the Dorset Naga, making me inclined to believe that what they say is true: that the Dorset Naga really is the hottest chili in the world. But here's the catch. The news about the Dorset Naga appeared in many newspapers on April 1. The April 1st United Press International article notes:

They said they even have to wear gloves when they harvest the seeds. "Most people don't cook with it; they just have it near to them when they eat," said Aktar Miha, of the Indis Bangladeshi restaurant in Bournemouth, England. "If you don't know what you are doing it could blow your head off."

That kind of sounds like they're joking. Nevertheless, I don't think the Dorset Naga is a joke. But real or not, I don't plan to ever try this stuff. I like my taste buds too much to do that to them.
Categories: Food
Posted by Alex on Sun Apr 09, 2006
Comments (33)
Status: Prank
image Last year in April a group of Caltech students pulled off a series of pranks at MIT, including handing out t-shirts to prefrosh that read "MIT" on the front and "because not everybody can go to Caltech" on the back. The gauntlet was thus thrown down, and this year MIT responded by stealing the 130-year-old, 1.7 ton, Spanish-American War Fleming cannon from the Caltech campus and transporting it all the way to MIT, where it can now be seen "pointed toward Pasadena and adorned with an oversized MIT school ring. A plaque refers to Caltech as 'its previous owners.'" (And wow! That guy posing on top of the cannon sure is pasty white.) View more photos of the cannon here. Caltech has already posted a response to the prank, stating that "Caltech is prepared to continue the pranking tradition."

In order to pull off the heist, MIT students created phony work order forms from the "Howe & Ser Moving Company," which allowed them to get past the Caltech security guards. They then used a real moving company to transport the cannon across country. The Times reports:

Caltech’s security chief, meanwhile, said that his staff had initially stopped a flat-bed lorry carrying the gun. The men in the vehicle said that they had been hired to move it across campus. “The people that stopped them were presented with some very valid-looking documentation,” said Gregg Henderson. “The person who was the spokesperson or foreman of the job was very convincing.” The security staff watched the young men unload the cannon and leave. When the guards returned, however, it was gone.

Stealing cannons is a venerable tradition amongst college pranksters. As Neil Steinberg notes in If At All Possible, Involve A Cow (the definitive guide to college pranks), the "Cannon War" between Rutgers and Princeton was probably the most celebrated college prank of the late nineteenth century. It involved nine Rutgers students sneaking onto the Princeton campus on April 26, 1875, stealing a massive Revolutionary War cannon, and transporting it back to Rutgers. The police eventually made Rutgers return the cannon.

And as it turns out, the Fleming cannon itself has been stolen before. Twenty years ago Harvey Mudd College pranksters took it from Caltech, but eventually returned it in "an 18ft gift box, decorated with streamers and balloons."

Update: On Monday, April 10 the Fleming Cannon was "rescued" from MIT by a group of Caltech students: "On Monday morning, a group of 23 Caltech students and seven Caltech alumni arrived at the MIT campus to take back the cannon. The rescuers left a miniature replica under glass in the place where the Caltech cannon had rested at MIT."
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Sat Apr 08, 2006
Comments (3)
Status: News
Cy the one-eyed kitten, whom many people refused to believe was real, has found a permanent home at the Lost World Museum, a creationist museum that will be opening later this year in Phoenix, NY. John Adolfi, owner of the museum, will use Cy to support his argument that mutations can not be the driving force of evolution because "The mutations I have seen, like Cy, are either neutral or negative." Evidently Adolfi has never bothered to read a Biology textbook (or he only reads creationist-approved ones) because every explanation of evolution that I've read states quite clearly that the vast majority of mutations are negative. But the more I think about it, the more appropriate it seems for a blind, one-eyed kitten to be a symbol for the Creationist view of the world. So maybe Cy has found the right home. (Thanks to everyone who sent me links about Cy. I got quite a few emails about this.)
Categories: Animals
Posted by Alex on Sat Apr 08, 2006
Comments (8)
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