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November 2007
We've got a pareidolia double feature. First up is an image of the Virgin Mary that some claim to see in a sycamore tree that was burned in the recent Southern California fires. The tree is located off the Sierra Highway in Los Angeles County. KNBC reports:

Believers have left flowers and other offerings in front of the tree, turning it into a makeshift altar. Some also have left notes, hoping to be blessed after seeing the vision.


Second up is a Jesus and Mary Pancake (which sounds kind of like a rock group) which Marilyn Smith recently sold on eBay for $338. In her description of the item, Smith writes:

This is a spiritual, unusual and unique pancake that we believe to be holy and depicts what looks to be Jesus and Mary. My brother said it looks more like Moses and Elijah. What is your guess?? It was created on November 5th by accident along with a batch of pancakes for breakfast. With no suspicions of any figures being in it, my mother flipped it over to do the other side and discovered that these are obviously religious figures dressed in the early desert garb that would have been worn at that time in Jeruselem.


(Thanks, Cranky Media Guy)
Categories: Pareidolia, Religion
Posted by Alex on Fri Nov 16, 2007
Comments (16)
A few days ago word got out that heiress Paris Hilton was trying to call attention to the problem of drunken elephants going on rampages in northeast India. Soon this story got picked up by the press. For instance, here's part of a report that appeared in India's The Hindu:

GUWAHATI: Conservationists on Tuesday hailed socialite Paris Hilton, who has been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, for trying to highlight the cause of binge-drinking elephants in the northeast.
Activists said a celebrity endorsement was sure to raise awareness of the plight of the pachyderms that get drunk on farmers’ homemade rice beer then go on a rampage. Last month, six wild elephants that broke into a farm in Meghalaya were electrocuted after discovering and drinking the potent brew then uprooting an electricity pole.
“There would have been more casualties if the villagers hadn’t chased them away. And four elephants died in a similar way three years ago. It is just so sad,” Ms. Hilton was quoted as saying in Tokyo.
“The elephants get drunk all the time. It is becoming really dangerous. We need to stop making alcohol available to them,” she said in a report posted on the World Entertainment News Network website. Her comments were picked up by websites and newspapers around the globe.
“I am indeed happy Hilton has taken note of recent incidents of wild elephants in northeast India going berserk after drinking homemade rice beer and getting killed,” Sangeeta Goswami, who heads animal rights group People for Animals, said.
“As part of her global elephant campaign, Hilton should, in fact, think of visiting this region literally infested with elephants.”

Much to everyone's disappointment, it turned out that Paris Hilton never made these comments about drunken elephants. The AP posted a brief retraction:

GAUHATI, India (AP) — In a Nov. 13 story, The Associated Press incorrectly reported that Paris Hilton was praised by conservationists for highlighting the problem of binge-drinking elephants in northeastern India. Lori Berk, a publicist for Hilton, said she never made any comments about helping drunken elephants in India.

It's not clear to me what the original source of the Hilton-elephant news was. One theory is that it originated from an article on spoof.com, which would make it a case of satire mistaken as news. But the spoof.com article seems to be dated after the story had already widely circulated.

Whoever dreamed it up should be commended, because I can think of no one better qualified to be the patron saint of drunken elephants than Paris Hilton.

But while on the subject of drunken elephants, I should note that the widely circulated notion that elephants like to get drunk by eating marula fruit rotting on the ground is not true. Recent scientific studies have shown that a) elephants don't actually like to eat the marula fruit when it is on the ground. They prefer the fruit still in the tree. And b) the fruit does not spend enough time in their gut to ferment there and make them drunk. But it is true that elephants will happily drink alcohol if it is offered to them. (There have been studies about that too.)

[Credit goes to Tah for posting this first in the forum.]
Categories: Animals, Celebrities
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 14, 2007
Comments (3)
While researching something in the online archives of the New York Times, I spotted this story, published on December 21, 1940, about a very unusual form of petty theft:

Odd Subway Thefts Are Bared In Arrest
-------
Prisoner Sucked Out Coins From Turnstile, Court Is Told
-------

An ingenious method of pilfering nickels from a subway turnstile was revealed in Bridge Plaza Court, Brooklyn, yesterday, when Magistrate Charles Solomon held Chester Madzenski, 24 years old, of 35 Diamond Street, Brooklyn, in $1000 bail for Special Sessions on a petit larceny charge and $1000 bail for sentence Thursday for obstructing a subway turnstile.

Anthony Milli of the Independent subway police, said that Madzenski on Wednesday slipped a flattened penny into a coin box at the Greenpoint station of the line, passed through the turnstile, then came outside again and waited.

Four or five persons put in nickels and went to the trains. Milli said he saw Madzenski then approach the coin box, place his mouth over the slot and suck out a nickel. Milli arrested Madzenski and called Martin Hyland, a maintenance man.

Milli and Hyland found that the coin used by Madzenski rested on a mechanism which allowed the turnstile to revolve, yet kept nickels placed in the chute from dropping into the receptacle box. When several coins piled on top of one another, he said, it became possible to suck up the coin near the opening of the slot.

"This is the most unique form of larceny I've ever encountered," Magistrate Solomon said. "But it goes to prove that dishonesty in any form is still a sucker's game."

This happened 67 years ago, but I'm wondering if this strategy would still work today. Perhaps not in subway turnstiles (few of which still use tokens), but what about in payphones and vending machines? Anyone care to volunteer to find out?
Categories: Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 08, 2007
Comments (9)
Neil Steinberg, author of the definitive work on school pranks, advises would-be pranksters in the title of his book that they should, If At All Possible, Involve a Cow But I don't think Steinberg would approve of this prank at Wichita Falls High School. From the AP:
A dead cow was found hanging by a hoof from a Wichita Falls High School fence post, but police say the incident had nothing to do with the school's upcoming football game against local rival Rider High...
The Wichita Falls Independent School District initially believed the incident was connected to the rivalry between Old High and Rider, which are to play Friday.
"This is the very type of activity and behavior that antagonizes more behavior," spokeswoman Renae Murphy said. "We are disgusted with that whole behavior and that action with the cruelty to the animal."

Dead cows aren't funny. They're just disturbing and cruel.
Categories: Animals, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 08, 2007
Comments (7)
The Collier County Sheriff's office in Naples, Florida has issued a strange bulletin warning that American kids are experimenting with a new way to get high. It's called Jenkem, and it involves sniffing the fermenting gas from human sewage. You put the sewage in a bottle topped with a balloon to catch the gas. You then inhale the gas which gives you a euphoric high. In other words, you're sniffing fermenting human feces.

Jenkem appears to be real. Back in 1999 the BBC reported that street children in the slums of Zambia were using this method to get high:
Nobody knows exactly where the idea for making Jenkem came from, but it has been used by street-children in Lusaka for at least two years. Nason Banda of the Drug Enforcement Agency is not proud when he says that it is unique to Zambia. He shudders when he sees the boys at the sewage ponds, scavenging for faecal matter to make Jenkem.

However, are American children now turning to Jenkem to get high? Unlikely. David Emery of About.com has done some research to debunk this latest drug scare. He notes that the Sheriff's office has confirmed that it issued the bulletin, however Emery discovered that the pictures in the bulletin come from a thread on Totse.com, in which one guy claimed to have tried Jenkem, and supplied the pictures as proof. But the same guy later admitted he was just joking. The fermenting feces in the picture were really a dough made from flour and water and rolled in Nutella. The urine was beer and water. Emery notes:
It is plain to see that directly or indirectly, the author of the Collier County Sheriff's bulletin based his or her presentation on faulty Internet sources, borrowing photos from a message board posting that was later admitted to be hoax, and quoting invented "facts" from a Website noted for its far-out satirical chicanery.

He also theorizes that, "The word "Jenkem" may be a corruption of "Genkem," which is the brand name of a glue manufactured in South Africa reputed to be very popular among drug users. In some places "Genkem" has come to refer generically to any form of glue or solvent inhaled as an intoxicant."
Categories: Gross, Health/Medicine
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 08, 2007
Comments (12)
Qamar Mohammed Malik, a Pakistan-born engineer, submitted his CV to the Amec Group construction company, but was told that the company had no suitable vacancies. He then submitted a similar CV with inferior qualifications, but using a fake Welsh name, Rhyddir Aled Lloyd-Hilbert. This time he was told there was a job vacancy and was offered an interview.

Malik has now filed a lawsuit against the Amec Group, accusing the company of racism. The company defends itself, saying that, ""Mr Lloyd-Hilbert" was contacted for interview with regard to the quality inspector vacancy and not Mr Malik because the former indicated he was about to move to Wales whereas the latter had a Reading address."

Regardless of who's in the right, Malik's experiment represents a variation on what I'm calling the spurious submission hoax. (I made up this term for it, but if anyone can think of a better name, let me know.) Spurious submission hoaxes usually involve the submission of a disguised piece of work (typically the retyped text of a famous work) to a publisher, who inevitably rejects it. The most famous example of such a hoax was when Chuck Ross submitted the manuscript of Casablanca to over 200 movie agents, many of whom rejected it, saying the script needed work.
Categories: Business/Finance, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 06, 2007
Comments (7)
The Vancouver Sun reports that linguistics researchers believe that many common surnames began as insults. For instance, centuries ago a guy might have been nicknamed "John the Bastard," and the insulting epithet would become his last name, adhering to all his descendants (until someone eventually changed it):
there is a whole category of names that are believed to have been given to children abandoned to orphanages - including the French name Jette (meaning "thrown out"), the Italian name Esposito (meaning "exposed") and the English name Parrish (meaning someone who was raised at the expense of the community.) ...
Both the English names Nott and Cave probably described someone who was bald.
A Barrett was a fraud, a Mallory someone unlucky and a Purcell a little pig...
Similarly insulting are the German names Armann (poor man), Scheunpflug (avoids the plow) and Schiller (cross-eyed)...
"Shakespeare is probably an obscene name, originally, for a masturbator," said Hanks.

This research is particularly interesting to me, because it helps to explain the source of my last name, "Boese," which means 'angry' or 'evil' in German. (It's spelled Böse in German.) Centuries ago one of my ancestors must have been a real jerk, and my family has been saddled with the name ever since.

This research also helps explain some of the "unfortunate last names" I've occasionally posted about.
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 06, 2007
Comments (18)
Last month 75 gnomes suddenly appeared on the front lawn outside of a house in Springfield, Oregon. The police don't know where the gnomes came from, but they assume they were gnome-napped from other houses around town. It is one of the largest cases of gnome-napping anyone can remember.

The gnomes are currently being housed in the police station, although the police have warned that can only be a temporary arrangement:
“We need to get them out of here,” Springfield Capt. Richard Harrison said. “Every time I leave my office they’re sitting in my chair, working on my computer. I can’t seem to get rid of the darn things.”

The police urge anyone who is missing a gnome to come and claim it at the station. All the gnomes that don't get claimed will be put up for auction.
Categories: Gnomes, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Mon Nov 05, 2007
Comments (6)
One of the things that's interested me with the recent flurry of articles about Elephants On Acid, is how the artists who illustrated the articles chose to depict an elephant on acid. So here's a small collection I've put together of artistic depictions of elephants on acid. The two popular options are either to show an angry-looking elephant, or a psychedelic one.

(left) from the cover of my book; (right) from an album by Tusko Fatale, a Virginia-based band.



(left) from the Daily Mail; (right) from the Daily Telegraph.



(left) from the New Scientist; (right) from the London Times



A sad-looking elephant from the Guardian:



This looks like it should be a picture of an elephant on acid, but it's actually the logo of the 2008 Republican National Convention to be help in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota.



And finally, here's the one published picture of an actual elephant on acid, that appeared on the front page of the Daily Oklahoman on August 4, 1962. There are other pictures of elephants on acid from the two elephant-lsd experiments that have been conducted, but they're all hidden away in an archive at UCLA, having been deemed too controversial for the public to see.

Categories: Animals
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 01, 2007
Comments (4)
I received a couple of emails this morning along the lines of: Hey, the Guardian just published a list of the top ten weirdest experiments of all time. It sounds a lot like your list of the top 20 most bizarre experiments. They're not ripping you off, are they?

It's nice that people are concerned, but there's no need to worry. I haven't been ripped off. After I posted my top 20 list back in September, New Scientist contacted me asking if I would like to create a shortened version of it for their magazine. I was more than happy to oblige, and the resulting article will appear in the Nov. 3 issue of New Scientist.

Apparently New Scientist circulated a pre-release version of this article to the media, and it's been picked up by a lot of British papers: The Daily Telegraph, The London Times, and the Daily Mail.

I've also found it in the South African Independent Online, the Sydney Morning Herald, and PhysOrg.com.

Here in America, the Hartford Courant had an article about my book, focusing on the creepy experiments to coincide with Halloween.

So there's been some good publicity. Hopefully it'll help sell a few books.

And speaking of publicity, I'll be doing a book signing at Dark Delicacies bookstore at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 18th. It's a bookstore that specializes in horror, so the first chapter of my book (the one with all the Frankenstein-style experiments) should hopefully find a receptive audience there. If you live in the L.A. area, come on by and say hello.

Update: My publisher also tells me that Playgirl magazine plans to review Elephants on Acid (probably because it has a chapter on weird sex experiments). Thankfully, they're not planning a photoshoot of the author to accompany the review. But I will be able to tell people that I've been featured in Playgirl.
Categories: Miscellaneous
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 01, 2007
Comments (6)
In this video some guys from New Zealand attach helium balloons to a car until it floats away. Unfortunately, no one is in the car when it floats away. (Though that would have been a good update on the legend of Lawnchair Larry.)

Of course, the video is fake. TV3.co.nz reports that it was digitally edited to remove a crane, which is what actually causes the car to rise into the air. Also, the video turns out to be a viral ad created by Ford "aimed at selling Ford cars to generations X and Y."

Categories: Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 01, 2007
Comments (6)
The Sacramento Bee reports that a strange event occurred at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center in Carmichael -- a hawk swooped down from the sky and snatched a woman's toy poodle. At least, that's what the woman claims:
To hear publicity coordinator Betty Cooper tell it, an employee was walking the center grounds when he was flagged down by the hysterical woman, who claimed a hawk had made off with her toy poodle.
And though it's a story straight out of the friend-of-a-friend-told-me handbook, it's not outside the realm of possibility.
The nature center does have a wild hawk population, the dog was about the size of a rabbit and there is an area adjacent to the park that's popular (though not strictly allowable) for running off-leash dogs.
"It's bizarre," Cooper said. "This is the first time I've ever heard about (something like this)."

It's actually not that uncommon for hawks to attack small dogs. I think it's usually a case of the hawk protecting its territory, rather than wanting to eat the dog. So I think the case at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center could be true.

It reminds me of the case of the Killer Hawk of Chicago, from 1927, which also (I believe) turned out to be true, despite suspicions to the contrary. Although the Chicago hawk attacked pigeons, not poodles. (via Legends & Rumors)
Categories: Animals
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 01, 2007
Comments (10)
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