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August 2007
Here's a couple that were making a career out of the inappropriate things found in food scam.

Ronald Evano and his wife Mary would go to a restaurant, purposefully eat glass, get themselves hospitalized, and then threaten to sue the restaurant. They did this at least a dozen times and collected over $200,000 in compensation. The AP reports:
Evano said in court that he and his wife ate the glass because they needed money. "We would go to a restaurant, and I'd say I had glass in my food," Evano said. "Then I would go to the hospital and say I was in pain." Over the years, one or both claimed to have eaten glass at establishments in Braintree and Quincy, Mass.; Bethesda and Gaithersburg, Md.; Washington D.C.; Providence, R.I.; and Midlothian, Va. The couple used false names, Social Security numbers and identity cards. Evano is in custody and is to be sentenced next month. He could receive up to 100 years in prison.
The things some people will do for money.
Categories: Con Artists, Food
Posted by Alex on Thu Aug 16, 2007
Comments (4)
image RainOubliette has beaten me to the punch and already posted about this in the forum, but I've been getting so many emails about it that it obviously belongs here on the front page as well.

For decades a mysterious figure has visited the grave of Edgar Allan Poe in Westminster Churchyard, Baltimore on the anniversary of Poe's birthday and placed three roses and a bottle of cognac on the writer's grave. The figure has become known as the "Poe Toaster."

Now a man, Sam Porpora, has stepped forward who claims to have been the original Poe Toaster, and to have started the tradition as a kind of promotional hoax. USA Today reports:
Porpora's story begins in the late 1960s. He'd just been made historian of the Westminster Presbyterian Church, built in 1852. There were fewer than 60 congregants and Porpora, in his 60s, was one of the youngest. The overgrown cemetery was a favorite of drunken derelicts. The site needed money and publicity, Porpora recalled. That, he said, is when the idea of the Poe toaster came to him. The story, as Porpora told it to a local reporter then, was that the tribute had been laid at the grave on Poe's Jan. 19 birthday every year since 1949. Three roses — one for Poe, one for his wife, and one for his mother-in-law — and a bottle of cognac, because Poe loved the stuff even though he couldn't afford to drink it unless someone else was buying. The romantic image of the mysterious man in black caught the fancy of Poe fans and a tradition grew. In about 1977, Jerome began inviting a handful of people each year to a vigil for the mysterious stranger. The media began chronicling the arrivals and departures of a "Poe-like figure." In 1990, Life magazine published a picture of the shrouded individual. In 1993, he left a note saying "the torch would be passed." Another note in 1998 announced that the originator of the tradition had died. Later vigil-keepers reported that at least two toasters appeared to have taken up the torch in different years.
Porpora is definitely a credible candidate for having been the originator of the tradition. However, there's some debate about whether the legend actually predates him. If it does, Porpora obviously couldn't have invented the tradition. I did a search through newspaperarchive.com, looking for any mention of the legend before the 1970s, but couldn't find anything, even though there were many stories about Poe's grave in 1949 on the 100th anniversary of his death.

Honestly, when I first saw this story it didn't seem like a hoax to me. After all, even if Porpora was the Poe Toaster, his appreciation for the writer was obviously genuine, and so the gesture was an honest one. The only hoaxy element was to add a flair of drama by hiding the identity of the Poe Toaster, and to (perhaps) fudge about how long the tradition had been going on for.

Ironically, there are doubts that Poe's body is even in the grave. In 1875 Poe's body was disinterred and moved, except that no one was quite sure which grave belonged to Poe since his gravestone had been removed. There's also a strong possibility his body had long ago been stolen by medical students for use in anatomy classes, since Westminster cemetery was a common source for cadavers.

Whether or not it's a hoax, the Poe Toaster legend recalls the "Lady in Black" legend, in which a lady dressed in black would visit the grave of Rudolph Valentino and lay a red rose on it. This tradition was said to have been started either by a Hollywood press agent or by the florist across the street from Valentino's grave.

Update: I received the following email from Jeffrey Savoye of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore:
Okay, this silly story is really getting out of hand. Sam Porpora has a long history of making things up for the sake of publicity, which in this case is rather ironic as it is itself a publicity stunt about claiming to have started something else as a publicity stunt. As noted in the AP article, there is a clipping from the Baltimore Sun from 1950 which mentions what is essentially the modus operandi of the Poe Toaster. I was only an English major, but this is clearly long before Sam is claiming to have "started" the tradition.

in the 1970s, Sam Porpora claimed that there was a mass burial grave of Revolutionary War soldiers in the catacombs of Westminster Church, where Poe is buried. It turned out that the pile of bones were from pigs, not humans and of apparently fairly recent vintage. (Hmmmmm, I wonder how those got there? In any case, I suspect that there were very few porcine participants in any of the major battles.) He also invented stories of the catacombs being used in the Underground Railroad, with a crypt on the outside being used to get into another crypt on the inside of the basement area. (Unfortunately, the basement was essentially open to the outside until the 1930s, when it was finally closed up to keep out vagrants -- thus no need for a secret tunnel in the 1850s.) The fact is that Sam makes up stories, and this is apparently just another one of them -- not the event itself but his claim that he originated it. At best, he might have termed the phrase "Poe Toaster," for which, I suppose, some credit is due. The rest of his claims should not be accepted without verifiable evidence, which he does not have.
Categories: Death, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu Aug 16, 2007
Comments (6)
After a couple days of fussing with the design of the site, I've decided to put everything back to almost the way I had it when I started -- except for a few minor tweaks. I decided I couldn't stand having the google ads smack in the middle of the weblog, even if they do generate more money there. (It's probably a trade off anyway between making more money and driving off readers, so it comes out even in the end.) You can all carry on as if nothing ever happened.
Categories: Miscellaneous
Posted by Alex on Thu Aug 16, 2007
Comments (10)
Relatively few crop circles have appeared in British fields this year. This could be because the space aliens who make them are busy elsewhere, or it could be because their human makers have been hampered by the widespread flooding that occurred in the UK this summer.

The Oxford Mail interviewed Geoff Amber, of the Oxfordshire Centre for Crop Circle Studies, who claims that 90% of crop circles are made by "non-humans" (farm animals? sudden gusts of wind?). Ambler says:
"Two years ago it was very prolific and last year was rather good. But they don't seem to have come back to Oxfordshire this year.
"After the terrific storm on July 20 the crop circles seemed to dramatically stop. Usually in that period up to July 30 we have a huge influx of circles but after the big floods there wasn't much anywhere in the region for five or six days.
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"But there's no rhyme or reason for it. Some years are better than others. It may be that we have missed some this year and they have been chopped down by farmers before they have been found."
I hope people don't ever get bored and stop making crop circles, because even if they are man-made, they're still cool to look at.
Categories: Extraterrestrial Life
Posted by Alex on Wed Aug 15, 2007
Comments (2)
An unidentified Malaysian man ran a dental practice out of his home for 29 years -- without any kind of dental training. He learned his trade by carrying the bags of an army dentist for sixteen years. But apparently while he was carrying bags he was also observing closely, because he later figured he could do what the dentist did. And the truth is, after 16 years of watching the guy, he might have been right. The fake dentist charged 20 ringgit for extractions and 130 ringgit for dentures. The police have now arrested him and charged him with illegally practicing dentistry.
Categories: Health/Medicine, Identity/Imposters
Posted by Alex on Wed Aug 15, 2007
Comments (1)
Christopher Crowe had pleaded guilty to domestic battery. When the judge asked his wife to stand up and state if she accepted the plea deal, 47-year-old Rebecca Crowe stood up and said she did. But Rebecca was actually his mother. (Let's hope she was just pretending to be his wife, and it wasn't anything weirder.) The court realized the deception when a prosecutor later saw a picture of Crowe's actual wife.

The article also notes: "Courtroom personnel later admitted they thought the woman looked too old." But that wouldn't have been a good basis for suspecting fraud because older woman/younger man matches are becoming much more common. The most frequently cited example are Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, who are 15 years apart in age, but I'm in this demographic too because my wife, Beverley, is ten years older than I am. Though she definitely would never be able to pass for my mother. I think I seem older than she does.
Categories: Identity/Imposters, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Wed Aug 15, 2007
Comments (1)
Once again, I've redesigned the look of the front page. What prompted the redesign was that quite a few people had mentioned to me that they didn't realize the site was anything more than the blog. So I've put links to the entire contents of the site right up top where they're harder to miss. This also allows me to feature the hoax forum more prominently, and increase the width of the column for the blog. One of these days, after I win the lottery, I'll get a professional to design the site. But until then, we'll see how this format works out.
Categories: Miscellaneous
Posted by Alex on Tue Aug 14, 2007
Comments (20)
The New Zealand Press reports on a new sexual phenomenon: Vegansexuality. Here are some extracts from the article:
Vegansexuals are people who do not eat any meat or animal products, and who choose not to be sexually intimate with non-vegan partners whose bodies, they say, are made up of dead animals...

Many female respondents described being attracted to people who ate meat, but said they did not want to have sex with meat-eaters because their bodies were made up of animal carcasses...

Christchurch vegan Nichola Kriek has been married to her vegan husband, Hans, for nine years. She would not describe herself as vegansexual, but said it would definitely be a preference... "When you are vegan or vegetarian, you are very aware that when people eat a meaty diet, they are kind of a graveyard for animals," she said.
Wow. I never thought of myself as a graveyard for animals, but when you put it that way, I guess it is technically true.

I think what's going on here is what anthropologists call the law of sympathetic magic: Once in contact, always in contact. That is, if an offensive object touches a neutral object, the neutral object becomes permanently tainted (in the eyes of the observer) by the contact. It's a totally irrational impulse, but powerful nonetheless.

I write about an experiment in Elephants on Acid in which an experimenter briefly dipped a dried, sterilized cockroach into a glass of apple juice and then asked people if they would be willing to drink the juice. Most people didn't want to, even though the juice was in no way contaminated. It's the same principle as vegansexuality. If something really grosses us out, that sense of disgust will spread to anything touched by the offensive object.
Categories: Food, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Tue Aug 14, 2007
Comments (18)
Cats are disappearing from the town of Stourbridge in the West Midlands. Up to 40 lost cats have been reported so far, all from the same small neighborhood. Metro.co.uk reports:
The pets disappeared from just a few streets and no signs of any of them have ever been found. Some families lost as many as three cats, one after the other.
But there is one resident who, like others in the town of Stourbridge, refuses to believe it's just a coincidence.
'It really is a bit of a Bermuda Triangle for cats,' said Julie Wottoon. She has started a campaign to try to solve the mystery after her cat, 15-year-old Norman, went missing in May.
She has drawn up a list of the vanished felines in the hope of finding some clues.
It reminds me of that bridge in Scotland I posted about two years ago, which dogs keep leaping off of, apparently to commit suicide. Perhaps the cats of Stourbridge have gotten tired of life in the town and are wandering off to find new homes. Unlikely. Or perhaps there's a cat-napper in the area. Or perhaps it's just a statistical fluke.
Categories: Animals, Places
Posted by Alex on Tue Aug 14, 2007
Comments (12)
News.com.au analyzes a series of photos they recently received via email, apparently showing a woman being struck by a train.

They consulted some amateur photo sleuths who theorize that the images (or, at least, the final image of the four) have been photoshopped, pointing out details such as the lack of a shadow under the woman in the final photo.

However, at least one photo expert suggested the images are real. But, to me, the final comment in the article is the most convincing:
"Have a look at the train, there is a blind in the front window meaning it is probably the back end of the train. No driver. The pictures are taken in reverse."
That makes sense to me, although the blind could be down to shield the driver's eyes from the sun. (Someone, a driver perhaps, is visible standing in the window.) But the woman looks like she's lying down on the ground with her feet up in the air, as if posing for the photo.

image image
image image
Categories: Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Tue Aug 14, 2007
Comments (12)
image On Flickr someone with the screenname "melastmohican" has uploaded a picture of a "moving rock" located in the Racetrack Playa region of Death Valley, California. The caption reads:
Deep in the heart of the California desert lies one of the natural world's most puzzling mysteries: the moving rocks of Death Valley. These are not ordinary moving rocks that tumble down mountainsides in avalanches, are carried along riverbeds by flowing water, or are tossed aside by animals. These rocks, some as heavy as 700 pounds, are inexplicably transported across a virtually flat desert plain, leaving erratic trails in the hard mud behind them, some hundreds of yards long. They move by some mysterious force, and in the nine decades since we have known about them, no one has ever seen them move.
I should have known about the moving rocks of Death Valley (after all, I live only a few hours drive from there), but I have to admit that, before seeing the picture, I hadn't known about them, and so immediately I thought the picture was a hoax

It reminded me of Dan De Quille's "Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley" hoax from 1867. De Quille, a newspaper columnist (and roommate of Mark Twain) invented a story about some stones which "when scattered about on the floor, on a table, or other level surface, within two or three feet of each other, they immediately began traveling toward a common center, and then huddled up in a bunch like a lot of eggs in a nest."

But unlike Pahranagat Valley's traveling stones, Death Valley's moving rocks are a real phenomenon. The mysterious force that moves the stones, scientists speculate, is most likely the wind. When the floor of the racetrack playa gets wet, the ground becomes extremely slippery, allowing strong winds to cause the stones to skid across the ground. Either that, or giants go bowling there.
Categories: Photos/Videos, Places
Posted by Alex on Tue Aug 14, 2007
Comments (27)
image Imagine this scenario. It's your wedding day. You've been planning for it for months. It's cost you thousands of dollars, but finally the big day has arrived and the entire wedding party is gathered in San Diego's beautiful Balboa Park -- the guests, the caterers, the photographer... and the zombies?

Balboa Park is an extremely popular spot for weddings. In fact, it's where Beverley and I got married five years ago, but it's also completely open to the public. Usually this is no problem. But it became an issue last month when Balboa Park served as the location for San Diego's first-ever zombie walk.

Hundreds of people dressed up as blood-spattered zombies lurched and staggered through the park. It was supposed to be a wacky, flash-mob type event. But the people having weddings there didn't think it was funny. Witness this angry letter-to-the-editor that Glenda Wiederkehr wrote in to the San Diego Union-Tribune:
The zombie enthusiasts who invaded Balboa Park last month need to have their “unheads” examined. The soulless walkers dragged themselves through our friend's wedding reception. Not a “meandering” pass by, but a deliberate, harassing parade over and over through the gathered guests. The bridesmaids and others were left to police them, direct them and loudly encourage them to disperse. A San Diego police detective needs to know they were not “just people having fun.” The zombie makeup artist who stated, “It seems to me that everyone in the world right now is so stressed” and that “we grow up so fast” has made her point. And, believe me, it is not well taken.
However, Jennifer Griffith, the organizer of the zombie walk, has denied that any zombies dragged themselves through the wedding. She writes:
Glenda Wiederkehr is sadly mistaken. There was police presence at that walk and they were stationed very near the wedding reception in question. We passed by the reception: ONCE on the absolute opposite side of El Prado (on our way to the west end) and ONCE on our way back to the east end. I PERSONALLY directed zombies AWAY from the reception; towards the center and opposite side of El Prado... I can guarantee that the official walk NEVER passed through the wedding reception. If a few wayward zombies passed through on the way back to their vehicles, then I personally apologize for their actions, but do not slander our entire group for a few potential bad apples (though I REALLY doubt even that happened).
Personally, I would have loved it if zombies had shown up at my wedding, but then, not everyone shares my appreciation for the odd. I can understand that many people would not include zombies in their idea of a dream wedding.
Categories: Paranormal, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Sat Aug 11, 2007
Comments (16)
Last week two Russian submersibles descended to the seabed beneath the North Pole and planted a flag, as a symbolic gesture of staking a claim to much of the Arctic Sea. When Reuters ran the story it seemed to have scooped all of its rivals by obtaining an actual photo of the Russian submarines beneath the North Pole. It ran a picture with the caption: "Russian miniature submarines are seen under water in the Arctic Ocean in this image taken from a television broadcast yesterday." The image was subsequently reproduced by many newspapers around the world.

But a 13-year-old Finnish schoolboy who saw the picture thought there was something strange about it. He had seen it before. And then he remembered where. It was a scene from James Cameron's Titanic. He contacted his local newspaper to share his realization.

Turns out that it was a film still from the movie. Reuters had simply lifted some images that appeared on Russian State TV, and the Russians were, in turn, using stock footage of submersibles searching for the Titanic (footage that Cameron evidently also used in his movie). Most news sources now seem to have pulled the image, but Canada.com is still running the story with the incorrectly captioned Titanic footage. In case they yank it soon, see the screenshot below.

image
Categories: Journalism, Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Sat Aug 11, 2007
Comments (5)
Walk forwards or backwards, left or right. It makes no difference. Whatever direction you walk in, the omni-directional treadmill, developed by Virtual Space Devices, moves beneath your feet to match where you're going. It's like a real-life holodeck. Check out the video.

When I first watched it I was skeptical that the machine could actually do what its makers were claiming. For instance, it seemed to me that the guy in the video spends a lot more time walking left and right than he does going north and south. And perhaps it's all just some kind of camera trick

But after browsing through a technical paper about the invention (click the pdf link in the top right of this page to find the paper), I'm more convinced that it's real. The paper isn't easy to understand, but this passage offers an explanation of how the machine works:
The basic principle of the ODT consists of two perpendicular treadmills, one inside of the other. The top belt, comprised of an array of freely rotating rollers lies atop a second, orthogonally oriented belt also comprised of rollers. Each belt is made from approximately 3400 separate rollers, woven together into a mechanical fabric... Because both the top roller belt and the bottom roller belt are bi-directional, all planar vectors may be generated. The surface moves in any direction, allowing the user to walk a circular path if desired. When the user is moving, the entire active surface area is in motion. The user’s feet contact multiple active rollers, thus creating the effect of a flat and uniform surface.
I really don't understand the mechanics of it, but they sound like they know what they're talking about. And in this case, when combined with the video evidence of the machine actually working, that's going to have to be good enough.
Categories: Technology
Posted by Alex on Sat Aug 11, 2007
Comments (10)
The North Denver News reports that big-thumbed Thomas Martel, of Bonnie Brae, Colorado, has had his thumbs surgically altered, thanks to a "revolutionary new surgical technique known as 'whittling,'" in order to make it easier for him to use his iPhone:
"This is really, on the edge sort of stuff," explains Dr. Robert Fox Spars, who worked on developing the procedure. "We're turning plastic surgery from something that people use in service of vanity, to a real tool for improving workplace efficiency." The procedure involved making a small incision into both thumbs and shaving down the bones, followed by careful muscular alteration and modification of the fingernails. While Martel's new thumbs now appear small and effeminate in comparison to his otherwise very large hands, he says he can still lift "pretty much anything I could lift before the surgery - though opening spaghetti sauce jars has been a problem. That was a big surprise."
The North Denver News does not appear to be a spoof newspaper, like The Onion, which would be the easiest explanation for this story, but I'm calling hoax on it anyway.

Who are these people: Thomas Martel and Dr. Robert Fox Spars? Except for references to them related to this story, I can't find any record of them in a search engine, or a directory listing. You would think that such a cutting-edge plastic surgeon would be listed somewhere. Nor can I find any other stories written by the author of the piece, "James Benfly."

Plus, the surgical procedure itself sounds absurd. I've heard of women having surgery to narrow their feet, to allow them to look better in high heels. But surgery to allow someone to use an iPhone more easily? I'm not buying it. My guess is that the North Denver News threw in a joke story to keep their readers entertained.

Update: The North Denver News has admitted the story was a hoax, and they list some of the points they were trying to make:
that U.S. society accepts plastic surgery and decorative deformation of the human body for vanity, but not other reasons (consider the Bonds steroid stories); that technology has become a new cult phenomena, in which items are praised or ridiculed based upon tribal allegiances instead of functionality and performance (and we are members of the Cult of the Mac- iPhone division); and we like to pretend that some of our writers have a sense of humor.
I've got to say (as I give myself a pat on the back) that I called this one pretty much exactly right. But it's amazing how many newspapers took this story totally at face value without questioning it at all.
Categories: Body Manipulation, Technology
Posted by Alex on Fri Aug 10, 2007
Comments (12)
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