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July 2006
Status: Superstition
It's been a hot summer, and a lot of areas really need some rain. The town of Lubbock, Texas is taking a pro-active approach by organizing everyone in the town to pray for rain. Mayor David Miller says:
"Nobody is going to tell God what to do and what not to do, but we are in a serious drought in West Texas and since he is the man who controls the rain clouds, we're asking him for his mercy and his help."
If the City Council approves the rain-prayer resolution, residents of the town will be asked to pray and fast for rain this Sunday.

Sounds like quite a plan. But Lubbock would do well to take heed of San Diego's troubled history with government-sponsored rain-making projects. Back in 1915 San Diego hired Charles Hatfield, who promoted himself as a "moisture accelerator," to brew up some rain for the city. Hatfield set up his equipment in December 1915, and in January 1916 it began to rain. But it rained so hard that it produced one of the biggest floods San Diego has ever seen, causing millions of dollars of property damage.

So if Lubbock goes ahead with its plan it should take some precautions in case God responds with a flood of Biblical proportions.
Categories: Religion
Posted by Alex on Wed Jul 26, 2006
Comments (27)
Status: Strange but real
image A strange photo can be seen on Yahoo! News Photo. It looks like this gymnast is headless, though, of course, that's just an illusion created by the angle of the camera. The gymnast is Katherine Coronel of Venezuela. The photo was taken by Martin Bernetti.
Categories: Photos/Videos, Sports
Posted by Alex on Wed Jul 26, 2006
Comments (7)
Status: Weird News
image Sheilas’ Wheels, a UK-based auto-insurance company that caters to women, has announced the invention of a "buddy on Demand": "a blow up man that inflates at the flick of a switch if and when a passenger is needed to be used whenever a woman driving alone after dark needs an instant passenger."

It doesn't sound like a bad idea, and it would be very useful for carpool lanes as well. I suspected the whole thing was a joke since I couldn't find any picture of this "Buddy on Demand," and it's not for sale yet, but in their press release Sheila's Wheels notes that "The 'Buddy on Demand' was designed and created by Inflate, with all design rights owned by esure services Ltd." That sounds official enough to make me believe they really did create this thing.

Update: Found a picture of the Buddy. (Thanks, VL)
Categories: Exploration/Travel, Technology
Posted by Alex on Wed Jul 26, 2006
Comments (15)
Status: Real
image Has a giant cursor been photoshopped into this picture? It looks like it, but the cursor is actually a kite created by Tim Elverston of WindFire Designs. It's not yet for sale. In the larger version of the picture, you can see someone on the right-hand side holding the strings to keep the kite aloft. More pictures of the Cursor Kite can be seen at the WindFire Designs site. (via OhGizmo)
Categories: Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Tue Jul 25, 2006
Comments (12)
Status: Hoax
The following quotation is widely attributed to Albert Einstein:
"As a young man, my fondest dream was to become a geographer. However, while working in the Customs Office, I thought deeply about the matter and concluded that it was far too difficult a subject. With some reluctance, I then turned to physics as an alternative."
Did he ever say it? No. Nor did he ever work in the Customs Office. (He worked in the Patent Office.) In an article in the Toronto Star, Sharon Burnside traces how the quotation became attributed to Einstein in the first place. Apparently it was actually written by Duane Marble, a faculty member at New York State University, who, a few decades ago, posted the quotation on his office door as a joke directed at the Physics faculty who worked in the same building with him. From there it spread until it became an official Einstein quote. It was finally debunked in 1997 in a series of columns in GIS World written by Jerry Dobson.

I found the Toronto Star article via Craig Silverman's Regret The Error. Craig says that he's thinking of creating a master list of erroneous attributions. If so, he should definitely add to his list the famous P.T. Barnum quotation "There's a sucker born every minute." Barnum always swore he never said it. No one is sure exactly who did say it, but a leading theory is that it was said by the owners of the Cardiff Giant who were annoyed that Barnum's fake Cardiff Giant was getting more attention than their 'real' one.

Another erroneous quotation is "It's not who votes that counts; it's who counts the votes." Often attributed to Joseph Stalin, although there's no evidence he ever said it. It's not known who did say it.
Categories: Literature/Language, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Jul 25, 2006
Comments (7)
Status: Unusual product
image Want some marijuana? Of course, here in America it's illegal to buy the real thing, but you can buy mock marijuana... lifelike marijuana plants made out of silk and wood. It would be a pretty cool conversation piece to have sitting in the corner, especially if the police ever show up unexpectedly. The mock marijuana is sold by New Image Plants, operated by pro-pot activist Joseph White. It's a small business. Most of his customers, ironically, are law-enforcement agencies. But he did just sell $40,000 worth of his plants to the set director of Weeds, a Showtime series about a marijuana-dealing suburbanite soccer mom. White notes that he does have some customers who seem to think he's selling the real stuff, but he notes that: "We cannot be held liable for stupid people smoking our plants."

Actually I did once hear that while it's illegal to buy and sell marijuana plants, it's legal to buy the seeds. I thought this was an urban legend (if not, it's a strange loophole in the law), but a quick google search reveals that there are quite a few internet sites offering to sell marijuana seeds. Personally, I'd be very cautious about giving money to these sites (not that I was planning on doing so, mind you). I'd be worried that they would take the money and run.
Categories: Health/Medicine, Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Mon Jul 24, 2006
Comments (24)
Status: Hoax
image A collie named Rob has long been celebrated as a hero of World War II. He received the Dickin Medal for Gallantry "For service including 20 parachute jumps while serving with Infantry in North Africa and SAS Regiment in Italy." However, Rob's plane-jumping exploits have now been exposed as a hoax.

Quentin "Jimmy" Hughes, a former SAS training officer, exposed the hoax in his recent autobiographical account of the SAS, Who Cares Who Wins? The London Times reports:
Far from doing 20 parachute drops, Rob did little more than act as a companion for Tom Burt, the quartermaster for 2nd SAS. His reputation was concocted when Rob’s owners, who had lent him to the Army Veterinary and Remount Services to help the war effort, wrote asking if they could have their dog back. Burt, who had grown attached to the dog, was upset at the prospect of losing him, so he and Hughes contrived to keep him in the regiment by sending him on a parachute jump. Hughes would then write to the family to say that Rob’s services were indispensable.
“We had a suitable parachute harness and I phoned through to the RAF and made arrangements for Rob to have a short flight,” Hughes wrote in his memoir. “Unfortunately, quite a strong wind blew up during the flight and the RAF decided it would be dangerous to drop Rob on that day.”
Hughes resolved to write the letter regardless, and thought that would be the end of the matter, but Rob’s owners were so proud that they passed the letter on to the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), which awarded the dog the Dickin Medal for Gallantry — commonly described as the animals’ Victoria Cross.
I had never realized that dogs could make parachute jumps, but Wikipedia reports that the first parachute jumps, back in the late eighteenth century, were done by a dog:
The parachute was re-invented in 1783 by Sébastien Lenormand in France. Lenormand also coined the name parachute. Two years later, Jean-Pierre Blanchard demonstrated it as a means of safely disembarking from a hot air balloon. While Blanchard's first parachute demonstrations were conducted with a dog as the passenger, he later had the opportunity to try it himself when in 1793 his hot air balloon ruptured and he used a parachute to escape.
The BBC also notes that during WWII parachutes were made for pigeons. But if you're imagining pigeons with little harnesses around them, it's not quite like that. The pigeons were first put into containers and then dropped by parachute into France:
Ms Miles [curator of the Nelson museum] said up to 16,000 pigeons were dropped into France by this method, but only just over 1,800 made it back to Britain, as a lot could have perished unfound in their containers. "They were dropped in the hope that people who found them would return them with information. It was a brilliantly simple idea." Many may not have been found, but some could have fallen victim to a counter-attack strategy by the Nazis - a "squadron" of hawks posted at the French coasts to catch any pigeons winging their way across the English Channel.
Categories: Animals, Military
Posted by Alex on Mon Jul 24, 2006
Comments (11)
Status: Seems to be some kind of viral marketing campaign
Here's a bit of a mystery. Last week Liam Yates went to pick up his car from the Borough Green train station, where he had left it parked, only to discover "the bonnet, windscreen and roof of his car caved in, with one 8ft wing protruding out of the front, and another sticking up out of the top." It looked like an angel had crashlanded on his car. This Is Kent reports:
The wings were matted at one end with what looked like blood, as if they had been ripped off. And in a grisly twist, the "blood" was also smeared around the shattered glass and on "bones" protruding from the feathers inside the car. The overall appearance looked like a giant bird or an angel had fallen from the sky.
This incident doesn't seem to have been widely reported (I can't find any pictures of it), but it did inspire a number of theories, which are: a) it could have been a practical joke; b) the wings could have fallen from an aircraft; or c) it was a publicity stunt devised by Google (Google denies this, and I don't understand why people linked this to Google in the first place).

Yates seems to have quickly disappeared from the scene without bothering to phone in a police report, which would suggest that this was some kind of bizarre prank or publicity stunt.

image Update: MadCarlotta found a site, fallenwings.org, that has some pictures of the car with the angel wings crashed into it. Fallenwings.org is a blog that tracks sightings of angel wings throughout the world. It's affiliated with loab.org (the League of Angel Believers). These sites and the car incident all seem very much like a planned viral marketing campaign. It reminds me of those videos that circulated last year of giants being found in various parts of the world. That turned out to be a viral marketing campaign for a new Playstation game.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Mon Jul 24, 2006
Comments (21)
Status: Hoax
image Earlier this spring, while digging up an oak tree, residents of Feckenham (a small British village) discovered an 800-year-old scroll written by King Henry III. The scroll stated that the village should remain independent forever. This prompted the villagers to declare their independence from Britain, set up border-patrol checkpoints around the town, and lower the taxes on beer. The Ottawa Citizen reports:
The scroll, of course, is a joke. The story started earlier this spring as a way to involve locals in a town festival, which wraps up tonight with a dance in the local hall. Villagers followed through with the tongue-in-cheek idea and created their own national flag, t-shirts, and moved to get rid of the government's infamously high alcohol tax. But now villagers feel the line between reality and fiction is starting to blur.
Not everyone realized it was a joke. One businessman reportedly contacted the village to inquire about the possibility of opening an import/export operation to take advantage of the town's tax status.
Categories: Places
Posted by Alex on Mon Jul 24, 2006
Comments (4)
Status: Etiquette advice
Miss Manners recently tackled the question of whether it's better to be honest (and unpleasant) or to be fake-nice. A correspondent asked her: How can one deal (correct word?) with nice people, saying "all the right things," without meaning any of it? It's just been driving me crazy as it seems to be occurring more and more.

Miss Manners responded that it would be a disaster if people were always brutally honest:
This is not an affliction, Miss Manners assures you. It is a blessing. For the last several decades, people have been saying all the wrong things that they really mean, from "I can't use this" instead of "Thank you" for a present; "Only a moron would think that" instead of "I'm afraid we disagree" in a political discussion and "You've put on a lot of weight" instead of "How nice to see you" on seeing an acquaintance. If they are learning to say the right thing, good for them. In time, they will learn to say it more convincingly.
Along these same lines, in The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life, Ralph Keyes points out the extent to which being fake-nice is the socially accepted thing to do:
How often do we lie and get lied to? All sorts of figures get bandied about. I've seen estimates that range from two hundred times a day to once. One study concluded that we tell thirteen lies a week on the average. Another found that some form of deception occurs in nearly two-thirds of all conversations. If this sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that the most frequent lie of all is "Fine" (in response to the question "How are you?"). This fib is so ubiquitous that deception researcher Bella DePaulo excused subjects from recording it in records they kept of every lie they told in a week's time.
I definitely agree that most of the time it's better to be fake nice. If I ask someone how they're doing, I don't really want to hear about their bad back and ingrown toenail. But on the other hand, I think Miss Manners needs to provide some guidance for those cases in which fake happiness goes too far. For instance, my wife used to have a constantly upbeat co-worker whose favorite expression was "Yayyyyy!" She managed to use that word a couple times every hour: "That's Great! Yayyy!.... Awesome! Yayyyy!" My wife had to listen to this constant stream of peppiness all day. Not to be cynical, but surely there must come a point when it becomes socially acceptable to subject such people to various forms of medieval torture?

Related Posts:
March 17, 2006: Fake Smiles May Cause Depression
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Sun Jul 23, 2006
Comments (23)
Status: Undetermined
image A penguin might have recently visited a British beach near Yarmouth. Jean Edwards claims to have seen the penguin standing on the beach, and she took a photo of it with her mobile phone. But wildlife experts are skeptical that it really is a penguin. After all, penguins live at the South Pole, so it would be a long way for one to travel. And no local zoos have reported any penguins missing.

Kieran Copeland, animal care manager at Hunstanton Sealife Sanctuary, speculated that it might be a guillemot (though he can't explain why the guillemot would have its winter plumage): "The beak does not look right for a penguin, it looks way too thin, and I am not convinced. It looks a lot more like a guillemot, but the dark colour would more correspond to its winter plumage, and it's the wrong time of the year."

Coincidentally, a penguin seen wandering along the banks of the river Thames was the theme of The Sun's April Fool's Day joke this year. But I doubt that the bird seen by Mrs. Edwards has anything to do with The Sun's joke. (via The Anomalist)
Categories: Animals
Posted by Alex on Sun Jul 23, 2006
Comments (8)
Status: Linguistic puzzle
Check out these parsing challenges over at linguistlist.org. It took me a good 15 or 20 minutes to figure out why they make sense. (Though I'm sure some people will figure them out immediately.) The first one is this sentence:

Dogs dogs dog dog dogs.

It's a legitimate english sentence. To figure out how this is so, it helps to compare it to the sentence: Cats dogs chase catch mice. (They both share the same structure.)

The linguist list folks then point out that the word 'buffalo' can also serve as the basis for a similar sentence:

Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo.

And if you consider the possibility of Buffalo in the city of Buffalo being 'Buffalo buffalo', you can get this sentence:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Linguist list actually strings 10 'buffalo' together as one sentence, but I think only 8 can be used, since to 'Buffalo buffalo' can't be used as a verb. (via Reddit)
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Sat Jul 22, 2006
Comments (33)
Status: Weird News
Gluing a coin to the ground and then watching as people attempt, unsuccessfully, to pick it up, has to be one of the oldest street pranks around. It dates back hundreds of years. It's a very simple prank, and I would never have imagined it could be viewed as dangerous or threatening. But somehow a prankster who glued some quarters to the ground at the Kosciusko County Fair in Indiana almost managed to shut down the entire fair. The Times-Union reports:
A prankster glued a couple of quarters to the blacktop on the south side of the Home and Family Arts Building Thursday at the Kosciusko County Fairgrounds. A young woman spied the 50 cents and reached down to claim the quarters as her own. The glue was still wet so she went into the Home and Family Arts Building to wash the substance off. A chemical reaction with the water caused blisters on her fingers.

That’s when the panic started, according to Fair Board President Randy Shepherd. An ambulance was dispatched. Since no one really knew what was on the coins, the emergency medical technician called the county’s emergency response team. Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department deputies arrived at the scene.

"The area beside the Good News Caboose was quarantined, the ambulance was quarantined, a decontamination area was set up at the hospital and soon word got out that the fairgrounds was closed," Shepherd said. "It was a fiasco and it just kept growing. Everyone is OK. The young woman was dismissed from the hospital. The fairgrounds never closed and events will go on as usual."
I'm wondering what kind of glue could have been on those quarters. I suppose that some kinds of super-glue could cause blisters. Though it's odd that the blisters only formed when the glue mixed with water.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Sat Jul 22, 2006
Comments (12)
Status: Weird News
image Wired has an interesting article about Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese researcher who has built a remote-control robotic version of himself:
Ishiguro's silicone-and-steel doppelgänger was made from casts taken from his own body. Powered by pressurized air and small actuators, it runs on semiautonomous motion programs. It blinks and fidgets in its seat, moving its foot up and down restlessly, its shoulders rising gently as though it were breathing. These micromovements are so convincing that it's hard to believe this is a machine -- it seems more like a man wearing a rubber mask. But a living, breathing man.
Ishiguro says that he built the robot so that he could "robot in" to his classes instead of having to endure a long commute. During college I actually had a recurring fantasy about doing exactly this, since I would routinely oversleep and miss classes. So I imagine in the future, if Ishiguro's idea becomes popular, there could be entire classes filled entirely with remote-control robots. Though if everyone in the classroom were a robot, it would kind of defeat the purpose. You might as well just have a tele-conference. (Thanks, Kathy!)
Categories: Technology
Posted by Alex on Fri Jul 21, 2006
Comments (12)
Status: Clever marketing scheme
Kathleen McGowan claims to be a descendant of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene. That belief would make her no different than all the other people in this world suffering from delusions of grandeur, except that she's managed to leverage her extraordinary claim of ancestry into a major book deal. Simon & Schuster will soon be publishing her novel, The Expected One, with a print-run of 250,000 copies. The book is a loose fictionalization of her claim. She wanted to publish it as nonfiction but explains that she couldn't do so because "she couldn't make public the sources she developed while researching and writing her book."

Many might view McGowan's novel and ancestry claim as an extraordinarily brazen Da Vinci Code rip-off. But not so, she says. And she's quite right. I think it's actually a Holy Blood, Holy Grail rip-off (as was the Da Vinci Code itself). And I have to hand it to her that it is a clever way to cash in on the religious thriller mania that Holy Blood, Holy Grail and the Da Vinci Code have inspired.

As proof of her ancestry, McGowan says that she's had visions of Mary Magdalene. She also claims to have genealogical records passed down through her family during the past two thousand years. But, of course, she's not sharing these documents with anyone.

What I find interesting (though not surprising) are the comments in support of her ancestry claim from the editor-in-chief of Touchstone and her literary agent. Her editor says, "Yes, I believe her. Her passion and her mission are so strong, how can she not be?"

And her agent says, "She spent 20 years of her life researching this subject. You have to give her any benefit of the doubt because she's totally rational. I believe her absolutely. She had total credibility with me from the very beginning."

In other words, her editor and agent seem to be arguing that as long as someone is fanatical enough about what they claim, then they must be right, even if they offer no evidence to support what they're saying. Unfortunately, most of the people in the world probably would agree with this sentiment.
Categories: Literature/Language, Religion
Posted by Alex on Fri Jul 21, 2006
Comments (26)
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