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May 2006
Status: Urban Legend
Dwayne Day has an interesting article in Space Review about the urban legend of the Million Dollar Space Pen. I'm sure you've heard the legend before. It's the one in which NASA pays a million dollars to develop a pen that will write in space. The Russians, meanwhile, being a bit more practical and budget-conscious, just use a pencil for their space missions.

The truth is that the space pen was independently developed in the mid-1960s by Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company. He did it completely on his own, without prompting by NASA and without NASA money. It turned out to be a good pen, and NASA later started to use it. But they paid around $2 a piece for them. Not $1 million. Day notes that:

"The Million Dollar Space Pen Myth is just that, a myth. The pens never cost a lot of money and were not developed by wasteful bureaucrats or overactive NASA engineers. The real story of the Space Pen is less interesting than the myth, but in many ways more inspiring. It is not a story of NASA bureaucrats versus simplistic Russians, but a story of a clever capitalist who built a superior product and conducted some innovative marketing. That story, however, is a little harder to sell to a public that believes what it wants to believe."

I know that you can still buy space pens. I saw them for sale a few months ago at Restoration Hardware.
Categories: Technology, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon May 08, 2006
Comments (17)
Status: Strange, but true
imageThe Press Association wire service is reporting that "Two black Labradors have become the world's first dogs to be trained to search for counterfeit DVDs." The two dogs, Lucky and Flo, were trained by the Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact). In their first assignment "Lucky and Flo were put to work at FedEx's UK hub at Stansted Airport in Essex where they immediately identified packages and parcels containing DVDs for destinations in the UK."

Okay, obviously these dogs can't have been trained to sniff out counterfeit DVDs specifically. Why would a counterfeit DVD smell any different than a regular DVD? But still, the idea of using dogs to sniff out DVDs at all seems absurd to me because I can think of many totally legal reasons why people would be shipping DVDs to each other.

I don't see any reason to believe this news isn't real. However, it doesn't seem to have been posted yet on Fact's website. [Update: it's now on their site.]
Categories: Animals, Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Mon May 08, 2006
Comments (6)
Status: Probably photoshopped
image These pictures doing the rounds supposedly show a "guerilla marketing component from a campaign designed to gain public support in an effort to reduce the pollution released by particular powerplants in Chicago. The shape and text was created by power-washing filthy sidewalks using a large stencil form."

It would be a clever idea for an anti-pollution campaign, except that these photos look photoshopped. The border of the image seems a bit too well-defined, as do the lines of the text. Plus, if you're going to do this, where do you get the water and power source for the washer? (Unless you have a mobile washer hooked up to a van.) (via ads of the world)
Categories: Advertising
Posted by Alex on Mon May 08, 2006
Comments (11)
Status: Myth
image According to Wikipedia, the Casimir Effect (which is real) is "a physical force exerted between separate objects, which is due to neither charge, gravity, nor the exchange of particles, but instead is due to resonance of all-pervasive energy fields in the intervening space between the objects." The effect is best observed with things such as parallel plates of metal in a vacuum.

Another example often used to illustrate the effect is that it can be seen operating on ships lying close together in a strong swell because "waves with wavelengths longer than the distance between the ships would be suppressed in the space separating them. This could perhaps pull the ships together."

But Nature.com reports that former NASA scientist Fabrizio Pinto has challenged this notion. The claim about the Casimir Effect acting on ships apparently traces back to a 1996 article by Dutch scientist Sipko Boersma, who came across a statement in an 1836 nautical book warning that "two ships should not be moored too close together because they are attracted one towards the other by a certain force of attraction." Pinto found a copy of this 1836 book and discovered that it was talking about ships moored in a calm sea, not in a strong swell. But Pinto is suspicious even of this claim. Nature reports:
Pinto says he hasn't found any real evidence for the effect, in either sailing or scientific literature. Naval architect Jason Smithwick of Southampton University says he has never heard of such an effect. "I could imagine how it might possibly happen, but it would take a very specific set of circumstances," he told news@nature.com. "It's nothing that naval architects have ever worried about." Pinto thinks that the whole tale is symptomatic of physicists' approach to the history of their subject. "Physicists love lore about their own science," he says. "There are other stories that are unfounded historically."
Nature lists a few of these other popular (but false) stories that physicists like to tell, including the claim that Galileo proved objects fall at the same speed by throwing things off the leaning tower of Pisa, or that Newton was inspired to discover the law of gravity after an apple fell on his head.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Sat May 06, 2006
Comments (6)
Status: Looks like a hoax
image The discovery of massive pyramids in Bosnia was widely reported in the news last month (at which point Beasjt posted about it in the Hoax Forum). The discovery was made by a Bosnian-American businessman named Semir Osmanagic, who has been actively pursuing Chariots-of-the-Gods-style archaeology for the past fifteen years, mostly in Mexico and Central America. (He believes the Mayans were descended from Atlanteans who came from the Pleiades... you can read about it in his book, The World of the Maya, which is online.)

Osmanagic claims the supposed Bosnian pyramids were built by a Bosnian super civilization that existed 12,000 years ago. But since Osmanagic's announcement of the "discovery," mainstream archaeologists have been busy refuting his claims. Anthony Harding of the European Association of Archaeologists suggests that Osmanagic may have found "voids or something similar in the rock," but not pyramids. He also points out that 12,000 years ago "Europe was in the late Upper Paleolithic... and no one was building anything except flimsy huts."

Other archaeologists are equally skeptical. Archaeology magazine reports that: "Curtis Runnels, a specialist in the prehistory of Greece and the Balkans at Boston University, notes that 'Between 27,000 and 12,000 years ago, the Balkans were locked in the last Glacial maximum, a period of very cold and dry climate with glaciers in some of the mountain ranges. The only occupants were Upper Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who left behind open-air camp sites and traces of occupation in caves. These remains consist of simple stone tools, hearths, and remains of animals and plants that were consumed for food. These people did not have the tools or skills to engage in the construction of monumental architecture.'"

Sounds to me like Osmanagic is hoping to exploit Bosnian cultural nationalism by cooking up some farfetched story about an ancient Bosnian super civilization. It's basically the same thing Macpherson did when he wrote his Fragments of Ancient Scottish Poetry and attributed them to a 3rd century bard named Ossian (thereby suggesting that Scotland was producing great literature before England), or that the Piltdown hoaxer did when he engineered the discovery of the missing link between man and ape in England (thereby suggesting that England was the birthplace of modern man). (Thanks to everyone who emailed me about the Bosnian Pyramids.)
Categories: History
Posted by Alex on Sat May 06, 2006
Comments (10)
Status: Probably an urban legend mistaken as news
This could be the next big thing: Soylent Green Human-Flavored Rum. Reuters reports:
Hungarian builders who drank their way to the bottom of a huge barrel of rum while renovating a house got a nasty surprise when a pickled corpse tumbled out of the empty barrel, a police magazine website reported... the body of the man had been shipped back from Jamaica 20 years ago by his wife in the barrel of rum in order to avoid the cost and paperwork of an official return. According to the website, workers said the rum in the 300-liter barrel had a "special taste" so they even decanted a few bottles of the liquor to take home.
You could prepare a dinner starting with human-flavored tofu, seasoned with some human-hair soy sauce (and a little bit of bread made from human hair as a sidedish), and then wash it all down with this human-flavored rum. Yum! (Thanks to Big Gary for the link.)

Update: As Joe points out in the comments, this story sounds an awful lot like the tapping the admiral legend, which involves Admiral Nelson's body being preserved in a cask of rum while at sea, and the cask slowly being drained by sailors on the voyage home. World Wide Words points out that: "Jan Harald Brunvand, the American academic who has made a lifelong study of such legends, has told versions in one of his books, including a related one dating back six hundred years about some tomb robbers in Egypt. Other tales tell of containers holding similarly preserved bodies of monkeys or apes that spring a leak on their way from Africa to museums; the leaking spirits are consumed with a gusto that turns to horror when the truth of the situation emerges." So given the relatively flaky source on the Reuters story (a Hungarian website), it's probable that whoever runs the Hungarian website got taken in by an urban legend, and then Reuters in turn was taken in by it.
Categories: Death, Food, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Thu May 04, 2006
Comments (15)
Status: True
image It's not quite as miraculous as the (false) case of impregnation by bullet recorded in 1874, but it's still pretty remarkable. A bullet fired by a cop at an assailant ended up lodged in the assailant's gun. Not in the barrel of the gun, but in the cylinder. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports:
The officers ordered the man to drop the gun. Instead, police said, he squared up against them. "The officers returned fire in response to that deadly threat," Kimerer said.
Both officers, armed with Glock .40 caliber semi-automatic handguns, fired. One fired four shots; the second, three shots.
One of those bullets ended up in the gunman's gun -- jammed into the cylinder of his revolver. The department released photos Wednesday showing the cracked brass of a bullet shoved out of the rear of one chamber.
Fire medics arrived but were unable to revive the man.
Of course, I'm sure the miraculous quality of this is lost on the dead guy.
Categories: Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Thu May 04, 2006
Comments (5)
Status: Urban Legend
image The Oroville Mercury Register has an interesting article about the lost art of saving— how people don't save stuff the way they used to. A lot of people, myself included, save rubber bands and plastic bags in order to reuse them, but back in the old days it was common to religiously save string and tinfoil. The tinfoil, in particular, was a bit of a mystery since it never seemed to be reused. It would just accumulate, the ball of it growing larger and larger over the years. The author of the article (I can't find a byline) also notes the strange, urban-legend-inspired custom of saving lids and other bits of junk:

ANOTHER STRANGE form of saving stemmed from a kind of misguided philanthropy. I have no idea how the myth got started, but a lot of people believed that if you saved enough cigarette packs, cigar wrappers or coffee can lids, you could obtain a variety of devices needed by handicapped people. Fifty thousand empty cigarette packs would fetch a hospital bed; 10,000 cigar wrappers would get you a wheelchair.

Curtis MacDougall, in his 1940 book about hoaxes, notes the case of Earl Baker (pictured): "A stranger told Earl Baker, 11, of Coatesville, Pa., that he could obtain an artificial leg by collecting 50,000 match box covers. Later Earl, who lost his leg when he took a dare to hop a moving freight train, learned it was a hoax. Sympathetic neighbors took up a collection to buy him an artificial substitute." So this urban legend has been around for a while, but it's still going strong, as evidenced by the thread in the old hoax forum about Collecting Plastic Bottle Tops. Lots of people are still out there diligently saving empty bags of potato chips or bottle tops to get someone a wheelchair. If you hear about such a campaign, it's almost always going to be a hoax. I suppose this urban legend appeals to people because it makes them feel like they're doing something worthwhile, and it also plays to the fantasy of taking junk and transforming it into something of value.
Categories: Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Thu May 04, 2006
Comments (24)
Status: Strange, but true (I think)
image Muhamad Noor Che Musa met Wook Kundor while he was a lodger at her house. Soon love blossomed, and the two have now gotten married. Sure, she's 104-years-old, and he's only 33, but let's wish them the best anyway. (I guess kids are out of the question.)

This is the kind of news story that makes you wonder, right away, if it's true. But as far as I can tell, it is. A picture of the newlyweds ran on the front page of Malaysia's Berita Harian newspaper (with, as the Telegraph puts it, "Wook holding the marriage certificate in her gnarled hands"). And a number of reporters seem to have interviewed the couple. Anyway, the idea of a very old person marrying a relatively young person doesn't seem that far-fetched to me. What does seem more questionable is the woman's age (can she prove that she's 104), and the claim that this will be her 21st marriage. That would mean she's married a new husband every 4 or 5 years. Possible, but pretty rare for a Muslim woman.
Categories: Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Wed May 03, 2006
Comments (11)
Status: Strange, but real
image The JATO (jet-assisted take-off) car is one of the most famous urban legends of all time. (Man attaches JATO unit to the top of his Chevy Impala, fires it up on a deserted Arizona highway, and launches himself into a nearby cliff at 300 mph.) But the San Francisco Chronicle reports about a man, Ron Patrick, who has built a real-life JATO car. It's a silver Volkswagen with a huge jet engine sticking out the back. It's very cool. I want one. Patrick gave this description of turning on the jet engine while driving:

"You drive the car up to about 90 miles an hour and you spool up the jet, then hit it W.O.T. (wide-open throttle)," he said, fondly recalling one of his rides. "It's one of the finest feelings you can have in your life. In the rear view mirror, all you see is light and hear the thunder of the jet. It's like you're going down the largest hill you've ever been on." He said that a jet-boosted run will "pin the speedometer and that's at 140." He thinks that when it hits 160 mph -- he hasn't seen that ... yet -- the car will start lifting off the ground, but "the fun is not necessarily how fast you want to go. The fun is the sound of the thing. Just starting it up, it's like a (Boeing) 747 landing in your front yard."
Categories: Technology
Posted by Alex on Wed May 03, 2006
Comments (19)
Status: Not an official ad
An amusing monster-truck-style radio commercial for St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Birmingham is doing the rounds. "This Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! It's a sacramental showdown at St. Andrew's Episcopal..." It's not a real ad, in the sense that it's never been aired. Nor was it created by the church. As Church Marketing Sucks reports, it was created by Mike McKenzie, who's a St. Andrew's parishioner:

"It wasn't with the intention of making a commercial--I was just goofying around," says McKenzie. "The idea hit me right after 10:30 mass--it's high mass, very formal liturgy. What would happen if you took formal liturgy and combined it with a monster truck rally?"

McKenzie then shared his creation with the church leaders, and from there it started doing the rounds. But it sounds like St. Andrews likes the ad, and may actually use it sometime in the future. At which point it would become a real ad. (via Julie's News from New York)
Categories: Advertising, Religion
Posted by Alex on Tue May 02, 2006
Comments (3)
Status: Hoax
You may feel that you need to scrub your eyeballs after seeing this supposed ad for Breyers ice cream, so if you click on the link don't say I didn't warn you. (The ad is disturbing for what it suggests, not for what it actually shows.) However, the ad definitely isn't real, which is obvious if you read the text on the right-hand side of it. I don't know who created it, but it wasn't Breyers. Unfortunately the image is now circulating around the internet in a reduced size that makes the text hard to read, leading some people to think that it might actually be a real ad.
Categories: Advertising, Gross
Posted by Alex on Tue May 02, 2006
Comments (75)
Status: True
Taking a cue from Wendy's (see gross things found in food, TGI Friday's served a diner a piece of a human finger. Except in this case the finger piece really did get on the customer's plate as a result of a kitchen mishap, not because the customer put it there himself. Apparently one of the kitchen workers had sliced off a bit of his finger by mistake, and while everyone was rushing to help him, no one noticed that the finger piece had landed on a plate of food, which was then served to a customer. The customer noticed right away. But it doesn't look like the diner will be able to make millions off of this, because the police told him it wasn't a criminal matter. (Thanks to Big Gary for the link.)

In related news, the suspects in the 2004 Cracker Barrel Soup Mouse case (also described in my post about gross things found in food) have been convicted on felony charges of conspiracy to commit extortion because of their demand that Cracker Barrel pay them $500,000 after they falsely claimed to have found a mouse in their soup while dining there.
Categories: Food
Posted by Alex on Tue May 02, 2006
Comments (4)
Status: Undetermined (though highly unlikely)
image Last week Nintendo announced that it was renaming its soon-to-be-released console. The former name was Revolution. The new name? Wii. Barely had the name passed Nintendo's lips, than the snickering and outrage from the gaming community began. As one person astutely put it, "It means piss. For god's sake, it means PISS!" (It also means little in Scottish, but no one seems as upset about that.)

Does Nintendo hope to generate publicity by gaving the console such an odd name? Or is this a case of a Japanese company not having realized what the name of its product meant in translation? Or is this all an elaborate hoax staged by Nintendo?

Those who think it might be a hoax point out that there are no trademarks registered by Nintendo for Wii. However, Nintendo has responded that it has, in fact, registered the name, but it takes a while for trademark web sites to update.

Nintendo explains that the name is supposed to emphasize the communal, multi-player nature of the console. The two i's in the name are supposed to look like two players. My hunch is that Nintendo is perfectly serious about this and that the name isn't a hoax. But we'll know for sure when the product is officially launched at the upcoming E3 convention.
Categories: Technology
Posted by Alex on Tue May 02, 2006
Comments (34)
Status: Real tattoo, fake mustache
image When I first heard about this, I thought it meant that people were tattooing mustaches on their upper lip. Not quite. The mustache is tattooed on your finger, allowing you instantly to don your mustache disguise whenever and wherever necessary. Watch the video and you'll understand. Both men and women are getting these things. Fox News has dubbed it the newest trend in tattoos.
Categories: Body Manipulation
Posted by Alex on Mon May 01, 2006
Comments (21)
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