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September 2008
The Yale Center for British Art is hosting an exhibition about an obscure 18th-century art hoax (one that I had never heard of before). The exhibition is titled "Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret" -- which makes it sound a bit like a new Harry Potter novel. From Art Knowledge News:

In 1796 Benjamin West, the American-born President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, fell victim to a remarkable fraud. A shadowy figure, Thomas Provis, and his artist daughter, Ann Jemima Provis, persuaded West that they possessed a copy of an old manuscript purporting to contain descriptions of materials and techniques used by the Venetian painters of the High Renaissance, including Titian, to achieve the famously luminous effects of color that had long been thought lost, forgotten, or shrouded in secrecy. West experimented with these materials and techniques and used them to execute a history painting entitled Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1796–97). In truth the manuscript was fake and the story an absurd invention. West had believed it, and, through him, the Provises managed to dupe a number of other key artist-Academicians.

When the fraud was finally exposed, the embarrassment was far worse for West than it was for the other victims. It was largely through his influential position as President of the Royal Academy that the perpetrators gained access to so many of his variously hapless, dim-witted, or simply greedy colleagues. Years later, having been mercilessly held up to ridicule by satirists (in song; in the press; and in a remarkable satirical engraving titled Titianus Redivivus by James Gillray, 1797,Benjamin West - Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes, 1796–97, Oil on canvas - Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Michael D. Eisner. West painted an almost identical version of Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1804), this time according to his own methods and traditional studio practices. This “atonement” painting is today in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.
Categories: Art, History
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 19, 2008
Comments (1)
A woman walking her dog in the Welsh countryside recently found an empty coffin sitting in the middle of a field. The coffin had a note in it: "Jump in, you're next."

No one knows who put the coffin there, but the likely suspects are local students since it's freshman week and there have been other pranks in the region, such as "a tree full of knickers and a young driver sticky taped into his car." Link: North Wales Chronicle
Categories: Death, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 19, 2008
Comments (4)
Researchers have determined that the Chi-Rho Amulet, found in Shepton Mallet in 1990, is a fake. When it was first discovered in a Roman grave eighteen years ago, it was thought to be the earliest Christian artifact ever found in Britain. Local residents were so excited by the discovery that they named an entertainment center and a street after it. But tests indicate that the silver in the amulet is of nineteenth-century origin.

Suspicion is focusing on protesters who were opposed to local development. Peter Leach of Birmingham University is quoted as saying: "A local group might have had an agenda to place an object there in the hope that an archaeological find would stop the development.” Link: Times Online.

Britain, of course, has quite a history of producing fake medieval artifacts. Back in the nineteenth century two hoaxers, William Smith and Charles Eaton, churned out thousands of fake "medieval" metal objects. Once exposed, the faux artifacts came to be known as "Billies and Charlies." Now they're collector's items in their own right.
Categories: History
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 19, 2008
Comments (1)
Frenchman Don Jean Habrey, whose stage name is Hors Humain (beyond human), has announced his intention to embark on a "sacred collision with Nessie." Specifically, he plans to dive into Loch Ness and "breathe with the monster to send ultimate breathing to the world of childhood.”

Later, he'll make a Christmas Eve visit to the Loch and "conjure the mythical creature from the loch, with chants, drumming, burning flares and bonfires round the shore."

“Nessie will breathe golden pearls for all the children from the earth, this endangered innocence that badly needs air.
“A boat equipped with a sound system will air the great organs of Notre Dame de Paris on the waves of the loch and the oratorios by Mozart, Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach will resound, together with the Hors Humain’s chants and kettledrums.”

I'm sad that I'm going to miss it.
Categories: Art, Cryptozoology
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 19, 2008
Comments (2)
Tony Golossian is accused of repeatedly luring a woman to motels, where he then blindfolded and sexually assaulted her. He told her it was all part of a ritual to remove a "black magic" curse on her family. If she didn't agree to participate, her 15-year-old sister would supposedly develop breast cancer and her "fallopian tubes would no longer function." Adding insult to injury, the woman paid him almost $100,000 for these "prayer sessions."

I hate to blame the victim, but is there ANYTHING that woman wouldn't believe?

At the trial Golossian complained of chest pains and had to be hospitalized. The doctors determined he was "trying to pervert the course of justice by imitating a heart attack."

Link: The Daily Telegraph.
Categories: Con Artists
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 17, 2008
Comments (4)
Problem: the Cleveland Bay, the breed of horse used to pull the Queen's Royal carriage, was dying out. Solution: a fake horse dressed in PVC clothing which is being used to seduce the few stallions that remain. The fake horse is named "Doris."

"The scientists who designed and built Doris quickly discovered her partner - much like certain humans - performed better if she wore PVC." That's another factoid to add to my ever-growing fund of useless trivia.
Categories: Animals, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 17, 2008
Comments (3)
Axonoid.com promises that they'll eventually have a list of 11 cat hoaxes. In part 1 they have five:
  1. Elvis the Robo-Cat
  2. Bonsai Kittens
  3. The one-eyed kitten (which was real!)
  4. Painted Cats
  5. Snowball the Monster Cat
The article is worth a look if only to rewatch the video of Elvis the Robo-Cat.
Categories: Animals
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 17, 2008
Comments (3)
Pietro Psaier was an artist whose works fetch thousands of dollars. He was said to be a friend of Andy Warhol, which helps his saleability. But the question now perplexing the art world is whether Psaier ever actually existed.

This, from the Telegraph, is the little that's known about his life:

Information provided by an agent for the artist's estate states that Psaier was born in Italy in 1936 and died in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. He left Italy as a young man and went to America, where he met Warhol while working as a waiter in a café. His life then appears to have evolved into a nomadic, drug-fueled odyssey that took him between California, Mexico, Madrid, India and Sri Lanka, working in a variety of styles from conventional portraiture and illustration to pop art and assemblage.

Here's the problem: There's no birth or death certificates. There's no solid evidence at all (such as a body) that Psaier existed. There's just a few sworn statements.

Smells like a hoax to me. The question is: Who's behind it?
(Thanks, Bob!)
Categories: Art, Identity/Imposters
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 17, 2008
Comments (1)
Poe's Law, coined by Nathan Poe on the Christian Forums site, states:

in general, it is hard to tell fake fundamentalism from the real thing, since they both sound equally ridiculous. The law also works in reverse: real fundamentalism can also be indistinguishable from parody fundamentalism.

Cranky Media Guy recently submitted an example: truechristian.com.

It contains passages such as:

So God put Adam to sleep and ripped out one of his ribs and behold, we find out that women originate from bones! So men come from dirt and women come from bone. Now that's real science in action and if you disagree you are going to Hell!

My b.s. meter says it's parody, but because of Poe's Law, I'm not totally certain.
Categories: Religion, Websites
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 17, 2008
Comments (5)
It looks like the McCain campaign is playing the old political game of inventing inflated crowd estimates. They told reporters that 23,000 people attended a Sept. 10 rally. They attributed that estimate to a fire marshal. However, "Fairfax City Fire Marshal Andrew Wilson said his office did not supply that number to the campaign and could not confirm it." What's more, "Washington Post reporter Marc Fisher estimated the crowd to be 8,000, not the 23,000 cited by the campaign."

But the McCain campaign isn't revising the figure:

"The 23,000 figure was substantiated on the ground," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said. "The campaign is willing to stand by the fact that it was our biggest crowd to date."

Democrats have been known to play the same game. In fact, political prankster Dick Tuck used to pose as a fire marshal to provide reporters with low estimates of the turnout at Nixon's rallies.
Categories: Politics
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 15, 2008
Comments (10)
Sir Tim Berners-Lee is worried that there's too much disinformation floating around the web. He feels that there needs to be a way to rate sites according to how trustworthy they are. From the BBC:

"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable," he said. "A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."

Sir Tim and colleagues at the World Wide Web consortium had looked at simple ways of branding websites - but concluded that a whole variety of different mechanisms was needed.

"I'm not a fan of giving a website a simple number like an IQ rating because like people they can vary in all kinds of different ways," he said. "So I'd be interested in different organisations labelling websites in different ways".

I don't think this proposal would improve the situation in any way. There already are trustworthy sites on the internet, and the web is actually pretty good at debunking rumors and misinformation. The problem is, the people who believe the misinformation are the same people who don't bother to check the trustworthy sites. (Thanks, Joe!)
Categories: Websites
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 15, 2008
Comments (7)
Bra-burning came to symbolize the feminist movement, but according to this article at pressofAtlanticCity.com, the original 1968 bra-burning protest, that first associated bra-burning with feminism, never actually happened.

Members of New York Radical Women, upset by the Miss America Pageant's focus on women's physique and seeing an opportunity to publicize their cause, traveled to Atlantic City by bus. They wanted to burn things, as was in vogue then (people mad about other topics - such as the war in Vietnam - burned draft cards and flags), but city officials worried about the safety of the wooden Boardwalk asked the organizers not to burn anything, so they didn't.

Instead, the feminists dumped items like high-heeled shoes, bras, false eyelashes and issues of Ladies' Home Journal into a "Freedom Trash Can." They paraded a lamb outside Convention Hall and held up signs with such things as "Welcome to the Miss America Cattle Auction" written on them. Inside Convention Hall, demonstrators set off stink bombs during the pageant and unfurled a sign reading "WOMEN'S LIBERATION."

Newspapers helped fuel the fire. On Sept. 4, three days before the event, Lindsy Van Gelder of the New York Post wrote an article titled "Bra burners plan protest." In the Sept. 8 issue of the New York Times, protest organizer and former child actor Robin Morgan is quoted as saying the women would hold a "symbolic bra-burning." Open the next day's Atlantic City Sunday Press, and the headline jumps from page four: "Bra-Burners Blitz Boardwalk."

And so the bra-burning myth was born. Though I'm sure protesters must have burned their bras at some later point in time.
Categories: Fashion, History
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 12, 2008
Comments (12)
The Wall Street Journal's Ellen Gamerman has written an article about the resurgent popularity of pranks. But the pranks aren't aimed at making fun of anything. Instead, their only goal seems to be to introduce an element of the surreal into everyday life. Examples include:
  • "Freezing" events: people pose like statues in public places.
  • going pantless in subways
  • staging impromptu musicals in malls
  • pretending to be zombies and roaming city streets
  • crowds of people dancing to music no one else can hear.
  • identical twins on subways mirroring each other's actions

Not everyone is taken with the new pranks. Old-school prankster Joey Skaggs is paraphrased as saying, "the stunts lack a subversive, anti-establishment edge. Because of that, people are less likely to stop and think about what they're seeing -- or even care. 'The bar's been really lowered,' he says. 'There's a lot of junk out there calling itself pranks.'"

And then there's the inevitable attempt by corporations to co-opt the trend. For instance, Mr. Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere, was hired by Taco Bell to stage a "freeze" in one of its restaurants:

The stunt was later used in a viral marketing campaign for the restaurant's Frutista Freeze drink, and a video of the prank has been viewed 500,000 times online, says Taco Bell spokesman Will Bortz. "We thought it was brilliant," he says.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 12, 2008
Comments (10)
Designed to deter sandwich thieves. Green splotches are printed on both sides: "After your sandwich is placed inside, no one will want to touch it."

The bag was designed by Sherwood Forlee, who describes himself as "a designer with no design or art education." He also writes that he "calls himself a designer because it sounds hip and no one likes hanging around a nerd at a party."

One of his other inventions is a "Vaginal Simulator," which isn't a sex toy. "Rather, it is one of the most advanced and effective tampon testing simulators."
Categories: Food, Technology
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 12, 2008
Comments (6)
Ken Campbell recently died at the age of 66. The Telegraph's obituary describes him as "an actor, writer and director of wilful eccentricity" who worked in experimental theater. However, he was perhaps best known for a hoax he pulled off in 1980, when he sent around letters announcing that the Royal Shakespeare Company was renaming itself the Royal Dickens Company.

I couldn't find a good description of this hoax online (and, unfortunately, I've never gotten around to writing one up... so many hoaxes, so little time). So here's an account of the hoax from Nick Yapp's book Great Hoaxes of the World:

In 1980, Campbell went to the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Nicholas Nickleby. A friend in the cast told him that Trevor Nunn, the producer of Nicholas Nickleby, had encouraged the cast at rehearsals to adopt the style of The Ken Campbell Road Show in their approach to parts of the play. Although Campbell sat in the front row, and enjoyed what he saw, the link with his own Road Show escaped him. After the performance, he went backstage where one of the cast had a bowl of fruit in his dressing room. Friends were invited to help themselves from this bowl, but there was a catch in the banana. If anyone touched it, it turned into a penis. Campbell says that it was this that in some way inspired him to create his hoax.

With the help of a couple of friends, Campbell had some headed writing paper printed, a perfect replica of the Royal Shakespeare Company notepaper, save for the replacement of 'Dickens' for 'Shakespeare', and 'RDC' for 'RSC'. He also discovered that Trevor Nunn signed his letters 'Love, Trev'. Campbell wrote dozens of individual letters to actors, writers, directors, producers, designers and composers, as well as to Sir Roy Shaw of the Arts Council. A typical letter read:

Dear X,
As you probably heard there has been a major policy change in our organization.
Nicholas Nickleby has been such a source of real joy to cast, staff and audience that we have decided to turn to Dickens as our main source of inspiration.
So that'll be it for the bard as soon as our present commitments decently permit.

There followed a suggestion for the next production: Sketches by Boz, Bleak House, or The Pickwick Papers. Each letter ended with an individually tailored invitation. For Lindsay Anderson, Campbell signed off with: 'Thinking of you brings The Old Curiosity Shop to mind. What a coup if you could bring Sir Ralph and Sir John together again in a script by David Storey. I feel your cool, intelligent approach is going to be badly needed in these new times.' Max Stafford Clark was offered Barnaby Rudge as a production: 'I find this a compelling piece which could be admirably served by your sparse, clear directorial style -- especially if the whole sweep of the book could be captured with the aid of no more than six chairs.' Norman St John Stevas, the Arts Minister, was told: 'The first production of the RDC is hoped to be Little Dorrit. Any thoughts you have on this will, as always, be treasured.' To accompany the letters and add punch to the campaign, the Aldwych Theatre was covered in RDC posters, in the style of the RSC, giving advance notice of the production of Little Dorrit.

The RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby was spread over two nights, and it was a few nights later that Campbell went to see the second half. He was told that the letter had not gone down well, and that Trevor Nunn had called in the Special Branch. There was no suspicion on Campbell, as Nunn believed it was an inside job. Newspaper reports of the hoax grandly exaggerated the affair, saying that 'thousands of sheets' of RDC notepaper had been printed, and that 'hundreds of letters' had been sent. Trevor Nunn was reported as saying: 'It is deeply embarrassing; a lot of people have written to me refusing, or, even more embarrassing, accepting the offers'.

Some months later, while Campbell was working at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, he was phoned by a researcher from the BBC TV programme Newsnight, who accused him of being the RDC hoaxer. Campbell denied it at first, and consulted with his accomplices, who offered him mixed advice. He decided to come clean, and was asked to appear on Newsnight. In the television studio, where he made his confession, he was horrified to see himself, on a monitor, lit like a terrorist, a sinister, dark figure in silhouette. But the affair blew over with no harm done and no recriminations.
Categories: Death, Entertainment, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 11, 2008
Comments (6)
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