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September 2007
The dihydrogen monoxide prank has gained another victim. Jacqui Dean, a New Zealand politician, received a letter from a constituent asking her to look into the issue of the dangerous chemical known as dihydrogen monoxide. She promptly fired off a letter to the Associate Health Minister asking him whether it would be possible to ban the drug. The minister replied that dihydrogen monoxide "may have been described to her as colourless, odourless, tasteless and causing the death of uncounted thousands of people every year, and withdrawal from which, for those who become dependent on it, means certain death." However, he had no intention of banning it.

American politicians, of course, have proven themselves to be equally susceptible to this prank.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 14, 2007
Comments (6)
I've found the new line of work that I'm going to go into: Flamingoing.

Flamingoing involves offering one's services as a professional flamingo prankster. People pay you to place flocks of pink flamingoes on other people's yards. A note is left along with the birds, "You've been flamingoed," and there's a number the victim can call to find out who played the prank.

Flamingoing, as a line of work, has been pioneered by two high school students, Emily Lohmeyer and Paige Prentice of Nevada Union High School. They charge $35 to "flamingo" someone's property. They're using the money they raise to pay for a trip to Europe. So far they've earned $700!!!

From TheUnion.com:
Prentice and Lohmeyer usually plant about 20 flamingos in the front yard. The job can still be risky at times.
"We've had experiences when dogs have barked," she said. "We had one experience when the owner let the dogs out when they started barking, and they got within 5 or 6 feet of us. We were hiding behind the bushes, so the dogs didn't see us. They were distracted by the flamingos. Then Emily and I jumped up and sprinted for our car."
When I start my flamingo business, I think I'll add a "rude gnome" option -- allow customers to include a few of those mooning gnomes from prankplace.com, along with the flamingoes.

A nod should be given to the University of Wisconsin's Pail and Shovel Party, who were responsible for what remains the most famous flamingoing event.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 14, 2007
Comments (11)
Freshmen at Swarthmore College found in their mailboxes a course packet describing the "Men's Studies" department. Courses included:
MENS 001. ESPN and Sportswriting
Students will analyze the language conventions used in the analysis of sports. Readings and texts will include ESPN’s SportsCenter, Sports Illustrated, and the sports sections of various newspapers.

MENS 025. Study a Broad
An in-depth appreciation of women in our lives. Each week, a different woman from television, movies, or other media will be discussed. Due to instructor scheduling, this course may be taught by a different professor each week.

and

MENS 132. Vodka
An advanced seminar for students who wish to continue their studies of male nutrition at the honors level. Emphasis will be placed on consumption techniques and avoidance of deleterious health effects.
Of course, there is no Men's Studies department at Swarthmore. It was a prank dreamed up by some upperclassmen. I'm not sure how many colleges still have Women's Studies departments. I think most places are now calling it Gender Studies.

No one at Swarthmore seemed at all offended by the prank, though reportedly the Russian Department complained that the 'Vodka' seminar was not cross-listed.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 13, 2007
Comments (7)
A conker tree in Holdenhurst, Dorset was cut down. Inside one of the branches was found an image of a tiny tree. Tree experts say that the brown mark is caused by disease -- that the heart of the wood was beginning to rot. Personally, I don't think the mark looks like a tree. I think it looks like Jesus (wearing a tree costume). Link: The Daily Mail.
Categories: Pareidolia
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 13, 2007
Comments (8)
Health officers in Britain have issued a warning to consumers to be on the lookout for fake holy water. From the BBC:
The water is advertised as coming from the sacred well of Zam Zam in Mecca, the most holy city in Islam, and demand increases during Ramadan. The warning does not cover genuine Zam Zam, which is sourced from the Well of Zam Zam, located within the Masjid al Haram in Mecca. Councillor Audrey Lewis was concerned Muslims may be exploited into buying counterfeit Zam Zam during the holy month of Ramadan. She said: "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia forbids the commercial export of genuine Zam Zam, so we have no idea of the true source of the water which ends up on the streets of the UK.

Zam Zam holy water? I immediately thought it sounded like a good name for a kid's soft drink. Turns out it is. You can buy Zam Zam Cola in Iran.

I think they should issue a general consumer advisory about all holy waters -- that tap water shares all their special powers, for a fraction of the price.
Categories: Health/Medicine, Religion
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 12, 2007
Comments (7)
Terry Austin sent me a link to a company calling itself "Tank Limo" which claims to rent out a limousine built out of an armored personnel carrier. Terry says, "I can't tell if they're serious or not, but if they're not, they've done a lot of photoshop work."

My first thought was that there was no way a tank limousine could be legal. I was living in San Diego when Shawn Nelson commandeered a tank from the National Guard Armory and drove it around the city, crushing cars and plowing over street signs, before the police finally managed to stop him -- and kill him. So, recalling that incident, I couldn't imagine any government would let a commercial service drive a tank around city streets.

But the site looks pretty convincing to me. I found a quotation in a Mail on Sunday article from June 17, 2007 about a British tank limo service (I'm not sure if it's the same one). It says, "The idea came up after a Fifth Gear investigation into which vehicles can legally travel our roads." So maybe tanks can legally be driven on British roads. But they're sure not about to allow them in San Diego.
Categories: Technology
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 12, 2007
Comments (14)
Sometimes I read things that make me feel really out of it. This article by Rene Guzman in the San Antonio Express-News was one of those things, because it describes a prank that apparently is wildly popular on the internet, and yet I'd never heard of it before. It's called Rick Rolling:
Referred to as Rick Rolling or getting Rick Rolled, you click a juicy link -- say, a secret clip of a movie or videogame -- only to end up at YouTube with Rick Astley shimmying to his late '80s hit, "Never Gonna Give You Up."...
"It has been one of the longer Internet phenomena that we've seen," says Michael Parker, media relations manager at eBaum's World, a humor and entertainment site that specializes in viral media. "It's definitely just the nature of pranking someone, and it's easy to do."

The link above really does go to Rene Guzman's article, whereas this link goes to Rick Astley's video.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 12, 2007
Comments (9)
Today was the 100th anniversary of Neiman Marcus. The retailer celebrated by giving away free chocolate chip cookies in most of its stores, as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the $250 Cookie Recipe legend that has caused it so much trouble over the years.

And if you missed the cookie giveaway, you can still download the recipe for its cookies free from its website. One of these days I'm going to have to try them out to see how they are. (via David Emery)
Categories: Food, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 10, 2007
Comments (1)
Here's a news story that's been making the rounds recently. This case is said to have occurred in Chengdu city, China:
Jiang Ming promised his wife, He Ling, that he would not go on the internet any more and would spend more time at home. But he started to sneak into internet cafes again to have video chats with girls.
"I was on the internet, and suddenly the arrow on the screen stopped moving, " says Jiang Ming.
"Then I found that my right hand was on the mouse pad, and blood was shooting out."
In court, the husband pleaded with the judge to release his wife, since he was to blame for breaking his promise.

It was posted on Ananova.com, so right away that lessens the probability that it's true. It's also been reported in the London Sunday Times, the News of the World, the Sunday Herald, and the New York Post.

I can believe that a wife would chop her husband's hand off, but I find it hard to believe that this guy would a) not see his wife standing next to him with a huge knife, and b) not hear or feel a thing.
Categories: Body Manipulation, Journalism, Technology
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 10, 2007
Comments (3)
imageThis eBay auction offers a real bargain. For only $24.95 you can purchase the Secret of Invisibility. You will be rendered completely invisible. It's the same technique CIA agents use.

But wait, there's more. Included in the price you also get the Secrets of Sexual Seduction, "guaranteed to bring women into your bedroom." Plus you get "2 cures for male baldness that really work;" "unusual methods to GAIN 4" - 6" in height;" "A method of losing weight without exercise;" AND "X Secret for Men. Grow 2 - 4 inches of intimate length permanently."

I don't know. For $24.95 I think they should also include Superhuman Strength and Immortality. Otherwise, you're really not getting your money's worth.

The seller provides a teaser about what the method is that allows you to achieve all of these powers:
If the desire is strong and the mind’s will is directed upon the task, the universe will satisfy the desire and the desire will become reality. Ask and you will receive. Unbelievably, when asked with intent willpower, the universe provides solutions and fulfills desires!

Hmm. Could the seller possibly be Oprah Winfrey?
Categories: eBay
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 10, 2007
Comments (5)
I saw the following deceptive sign blogged about on LAist:

image

It seems to advertise a dozen roses for $4, but on closer inspection it's actually advertising a dozen roses for $10. A classic bait and switch scam.

I wrote about some similar advertising scams in Hippo Eats Dwarf. My favorites were the Cleveland Finance Loan Company which enticed those seeking a loan with this offer: "Pay nothing til first payment."

Dunkin Donuts offered: "Free 3 muffins when you buy 3 at the regular 1/2 dozen prize."

And a car dealership boasted: "The price you see is half the price you pay!" Think about it. It means everything on the lot was going for double the sticker price.
Categories: Advertising
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 10, 2007
Comments (8)
Joe Littrell alerted me to an amusing piece on slate.com which takes the air out of a Boston Globe story about the disturbing trend of "Vicious Attacks By Girl Cliques Seen Increasing." Jack Shafer points out that the article contradicts its premise in its own subtitle, where it admits, "Despite Police Statistics, Violence Causing Worries." In other words, police statistics show that girl-on-girl violence is decreasing, but the article tries to spin it the other way, presumably because a rise in girls fighting each other sounds more intriguing, especially when you can lead off with vivid descriptions of girls fighting such as this one:
They use fists, knives, and razors to hurt each other. Before fights, they smear their faces with petroleum jelly so their adversaries' fingernails glide off the slick surface and won't cause scars.

The Boston Globe article manages to use two of the journalistic ploys that I list in Hippo Eats Dwarf: The phony crime wave (in which reporters grab readers' attention on slow news days by reporting crimes that would normally go unmentioned), and the generalization from a single example (in which the reporter claims to have discovered a trend, based on a sample size of one or two examples).
Categories: Journalism, Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 07, 2007
Comments (3)
Just yesterday my wife and I were oohing and aahing at some pictures at telegraph.co.uk of meerkats taking photos of themselves. The text told how an inquisitive meerkat, at Longleat Safari Park, had clambered up the tripod of a camera accidentally left in their enclosure. The meerkat had then "explored the controls and managed to take three family photos." The photo of the meerkat sitting behind the camera was really cute.

image

Nope. Turns out it was a hoax. I should have known. When Amateur Photography magazine queried Keith Harris, head warden at Longleat, he responded:
"It started off as a joke. It was a slight hoax. The meerkats didn't take any pictures at all."
Mr Harris told the magazine that the pictures had been misinterpreted and were only intended to be cute pictures of meerkats playing with equipment.
The photos were later passed on to Southwest News Service.
Paul Walters, picture editor at Southwest News Service, said he took the photographs "in good faith" and that they were presented as the work of the meerkats. "We've been duped ultimately," he said.
Categories: Animals, Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 07, 2007
Comments (5)
Two days ago I noted that I had posted an account of the "September Morn" controversy in the hoaxipedia, and I also said that I had my doubts about the role the publicist Harry Reichenbach played in the controversy. Well, I did some more research, and I've now been able to confirm my doubts. Reichenbach was just spinning a wild yarn.

Some background: The story (according to Reichenbach) is that back in 1913 he was working at a New York City art dealer who was trying to sell 2000 copies of a little-known work of art that showed a young woman bathing in a lake. Reichenbach came up with the idea of staging a phony protest. He phoned up Anthony Comstock, head of New York's anti-vice league, and complained that the painting, which was hanging in the window of the store, was indecent. Comstock stormed down to the store, saw a large group of boys gathered outside the store, gawking at the painting, and almost blew his top. He didn't know the boys had been secretly paid by Reichenbach to stand there. Comstock ordered the picture removed and charged the store owner with indecency. The resulting controversy made the picture famous and caused millions of copies of it to be sold throughout the nation.

It's a great anecdote about how a clever marketer got the better of Comstock, who was a self-righteous moral crusader (and thus a perfect comedic foil for Reichenbach's tale). The story is regularly repeated in newspapers, and for years it's been a staple in books about hoaxes. In fact some author called Alex Boese included it in the book version of The Museum of Hoaxes (Dutton, 2002).

Well, Boese evidently didn't do his homework, because some quick digging through newspapers from 1913 would quickly have revealed a major flaw in Reichenbach's story: The September Morn controversy didn't start in New York. It started in Chicago. Comstock did threaten a New York art dealer who displayed the painting in his window, but only two months after Chicago authorities had prosecuted a Chicago art dealer for doing the same thing. It was the Chicago case that made September Morn famous, not the New York one.

At best Reichenbach can claim that he jumped on the bandwagon after the controversy was well underway. But my guess is that Reichenbach simply invented his role in the controversy out of whole cloth.

You can read my entire description of the controversy in the hoaxipedia.
Categories: Advertising, Art, History
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 07, 2007
Comments (7)
image Bill Henry used to like to tell his wife and friends stories about when he was a relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox back in the 1950s and 60s. He had a lifetime ERA of 3.26. When the Lakeland, Fla. resident died, the Associated Press ran his obituary. But Red Sox fan David Lambert noticed something wrong with it. The obituary said that Henry had been born in 1924, but Lambert knew that Henry was actually born in 1927. He decided to phone Henry's family (whose address he found in Major League records) to check the facts.

Henry's wife picked up the phone and said, "Bill Henry isn't dead. He's sitting right here in the living room."

It turns out that the Bill Henry who died was an impostor, a man who had been falsely claiming to be the former Red-Sox player for decades. Even his wife of nineteen years didn't know the truth.

The real Bill Henry says, ""It's just amazing someone would want to live someone else's life. I say more power to him if it helped him in his career."

Links: chron.com; theledger.com; tbo.com (Thanks, Joe)
Categories: Identity/Imposters, Sports
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 07, 2007
Comments (3)
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