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November 2008
Occasionally I've run across references to a French artist who supposedly committed suicide because he was driven mad by the mystery of the Mona Lisa's smile. There aren't many details to the story. The Telegraph, in an article from 2003, summarizes the entire tale:

On June 23, 1852, a young French artist, Luc Maspero, threw himself from the fourth floor window of his Paris hotel. In a final letter, he wrote: "For years I have grappled desperately with [Mona Lisa's] smile. I prefer to die."

Many articles about the Mona Lisa casually include this tale without bothering to provide any references. For instance, it's mentioned in a 1999 Smithsonian article. Before that, the earliest reference I can find (searching in Google Books) occurs in an obscure 1966 work, Green Leaves: Harish S. Booch Memorial Volume. I came up empty-handed searching archives of nineteenth-century newspapers.

All versions of the tale, from 1966 onwards, are basically the same. No one ever supplies any information about who Luc Maspero was, or where the story of his unusual death originally came from. Tellingly, a 1961 article in the New York Times Magazine specifically about Mona Lisa's smile doesn't mention the Luc Maspero story. This suggests that the tale hadn't circulated very widely (at least in the English-speaking world) at that time.

Because the story of Luc Maspero sounds like an urban legend, and because I can't find any evidence to suggest that it's true, I'm going to list its status as "unlikely".
Categories: Art, Death
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 27, 2008
Comments (4)
The Daily Mail offers a short biography of Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936), a man who made pranks his life work. His most famous prank was the Dreadnought Hoax of 1910. Here are a few of his others:
  • He "once stood in the street handing out free theatre tickets to a series of extremely bald passers-by with the result that, when viewed from the dress circle, the assembly of shiny bald heads in the carefully chosen seats clearly spelt out an expletive - complete with a dot over the 'i'."
  • He used to "wander the streets with a cow's udder poking through his flies. At the moment of optimum outrage, he would then produce a pair of scissors and snip off the offending protrusion."
  • "More adolescent pranks ranged from organising a large party where all the guests were called Ramsbottom or Winterbottom to driving around London in a taxi with a naked tailor's dummy. Whenever he saw a policeman, he would stop the cab, open the door and beat the dummy's head on the ground, shouting: 'Ungrateful hussy!'"
Odd fact: he was Neville Chamberlain's brother-in-law.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 26, 2008
Comments (8)
Apparently this started with a character on South Park who described redheads as "evil" and "soulless". This gave a fourteen-year-old boy the idea of starting a Facebook group dedicated to the idea of promoting November 20 as "National Kick a Ginger Day". The group soon had over 5000 members, and unfortunately some people decided to take the idea literally.

Redheaded students at schools throughout Canada reported being kicked and punched by other students on Nov. 20. One student, Aaron Mishkin (pictured), felt so traumatized that he skipped school the next day.

Things like this just confirm my most pessimistic feelings about the human race. Sometimes people really suck.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 26, 2008
Comments (65)
The business magazine Forbes "absolutely denies" a rumor that it's being bought by a Russian private equity firm, Onexim.

The irony here is that it was Forbes, back in 1991, which published a hoax claiming that the Russian government, desperate for foreign currency, was selling the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin to the highest bidder.

Times and fortunes have changed. It appears now the shoe is on the other foot.
Categories: Business/Finance
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 26, 2008
Comments (0)
Two cases of illegal immigrants finding unusual methods of sneaking into countries have recently been in the news:

Case #1: U.S. border police found 13 illegal immigrants inside a fake Budweiser beer van.

Case #2: British authorities found four illegal immigrants hiding inside a 32-foot-tall fake Christmas tree in the back of a truck. The tree was made of aluminum and nylon, and had been ordered for a town center display.
Categories: Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 26, 2008
Comments (1)
On June 4 Steven Decker of Muscatine, Iowa sold a white powder to an undercover agent. He said it was cocaine, but it wasn't. It was fake cocaine. In the eyes of the law, this doesn't let him off the hook. He's being charged with "delivery of a simulated controlled substance" and is looking at up to ten years in prison and $50,000 in fines.

I'm sure Decker is not exactly a boy-scout, but being charged for selling fake cocaine is a curious concept. Added irony: he was selling a simulated controlled substance to a simulated controlled substance buyer.
Categories: Con Artists, Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 25, 2008
Comments (10)
Thanksgiving is approaching, which means the "turkey makes you tired because it has high levels of tryptophan" urban legend shall once again be heard at tables throughout America. Baylor College of Medicine dietitian Rebecca Reeves debunks this legend in an interview with the Houston Chronicle:

Q: So the tryptophan in turkey doesn't make you sleepy, right?

A: I am not sure how (that) gained wide acceptance. The urban legend is that the tryptophan in turkey is what makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving. Yes, the amino acid tryptophan is present in turkey, and in certain doses it can make you sleepy. But in reality, you'd need to eat an entire 40-pound turkey to get enough tryptophan to make a difference.

But her explanation of why people actually get tired after Thanksgiving dinner raises more questions in my mind than it answers:

Q: So why do people take a nap on the couch?

A: It's probably more due to alcohol. Or it could be that you got up that morning early to travel. Or it's been a long, beautiful day, and you're just tired. I hate to even mention this, but I've seen claims that because you're increasing your carbohydrates, you're increasing your blood sugar, maybe this could lead to sleepiness. But I'm not sure I agree with that.

Why is she doubtful that increasing carbohydrates (and thereby increasing blood sugar) can make you tired? She doesn't offer an explanation. Wikipedia offers a good summary of the "increased carbohydrates makes you tired" theory, and it sounds reasonable to me (more reasonable than the theory that the drowsiness is all due to having had a few beers, or the fact that it's been "a long, beautiful day"):

It has been demonstrated in both animal models and in humans that ingestion of a meal rich in carbohydrates triggers release of insulin. Insulin in turn stimulates the uptake of large neutral branched-chain amino acids (LNAA) but not tryptophan (trp) into muscle, increasing the ratio of trp to LNAA in the blood stream. The resulting increased ratio of tryptophan to large neutral amino acids in the blood reduces competition at the large neutral amino acid transporter resulting in the uptake of tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier into the central nervous system (CNS). Once inside the CNS, tryptophan is converted into serotonin in the raphe nuclei by the normal enzymatic pathway. The resultant serotonin is further metabolised into melatonin by the pineal gland. Hence, these data suggest that "feast-induced drowsiness," and in particular, the common post-Christmas and American post-Thanksgiving dinner drowsiness, may be the result of a heavy meal rich in carbohydrates which, via an indirect mechanism, increases the production of sleep-promoting melatonin in the brain.
Categories: Food, Science, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sun Nov 23, 2008
Comments (12)
November 19 was World Toilet Day. In honor of the occasion, activists in Switzerland held a "false-feces demonstration" outside the Bern train station. This involved placing hundreds of fake rubber droppings on the pavement. The point of this fecal fakery was to raise awareness about sanitation problems around the world. The Sun has pictures of the plastic poo.
Categories: Gross, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Fri Nov 21, 2008
Comments (5)
I swear this is a real news story. It's not from The Onion:

Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant Italian Prime Minister, played a practical joke on the German Chancellor today by jumping out at her from behind a lamppost when they met for an Italo-German summit in Trieste. Slipping away from the welcoming committee, the Italian leader hid behind the lamppost and emerged with a cry of "Cucu!" when Angela Merkel stepped out of her official car to enter the regional council headquarters where they were to meet. Reports said the German leader, who appeared amused, opened her arms and replied "Silvio!".

Bonus: There's video footage of this great moment in international diplomacy.
Categories: Politics, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Fri Nov 21, 2008
Comments (7)
A Broomfield, Colorado man got his name in the local newspaper for claiming he had named his new son Carter Barack Obama Sealy. He also said that his two other children were named Brooke Trout Sealy and Cooper John Elway Sealy. Supposedly he had a deal with his wife. She got to choose the kids' first names, and he got to choose their middle names.

The children's grandmother spilled the beans on the father, notifying the paper that the names were not real. The guy's wife explained that the fake names were her husband's idea of a joke. She added, "My husband's an idiot."
Categories: Birth/Babies, Journalism, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Fri Nov 21, 2008
Comments (5)
Here's one for the "If you're this stupid, you deserve to be conned" file: The victim encounters two people in a Wal-Mart parking lot who are engaging in a transaction involving a diamond. The buyer (a man) offers the seller (a woman) $20,000 for the diamond. A normal person would think, "This is an odd location to be having this kind of transaction." Instead, the victim asks if she can buy a diamond also, and gets $1900 from the bank to pay for it. Surprise! She later discovers the diamond is fake. Link: Recordnet.com
Categories: Con Artists, Scams
Posted by Alex on Fri Nov 21, 2008
Comments (2)
A study published in the October issue of Psychological Science has found that people who feel rejected are significantly better at spotting fake smiles than are other people. (Link: US News & World Report.) Those who feel rejected can accurately detect fake smiles 80% of the time, versus only 50% for other groups.

According to the author of the study, "It's not clear why rejection may boost the ability to figure out when someone else is faking an emotion. It may have something to do with a primitive need to fit in with others and to detect what they're really thinking."

I think it may have something to do with a concept long recognized in psychology: that people with a slightly negative self-image are better at spotting BS than people with high self-esteem. Why would this be? As my college social psychology textbook explains:

Individuals with negative self-concepts do not engage in the kinds of self-justifying behaviors that are typical of people with relatively high-self-esteem.

Still, I suspect the vast majority of the people in the world would much rather be happy and self-deluded than sad and good at spotting fake smiles.
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 19, 2008
Comments (8)
Britain's Financial Services Authority has found a new group to blame for the financial crisis: naive traders spreading rumors. It cites one example of a trader who "spread a piece of 'hot news' to 10 to 12 of his friends over a messaging system without making clear that it was a rumour. One of his contacts then did not hesitate to spread the message on to 150 of his contacts."

To counter the problem, the FSA is urging companies to adopt policies "on how to deal with rumours and monitoring chat sessions, phone calls and emails from traders."

Good thing it's tackling this problem. And once it's succeeded in making the stockmarket perfectly sane and rational, perhaps it would consider cleaning up the internet as well.
Categories: Business/Finance, Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Nov 19, 2008
Comments (2)
The story of the 18th-century contest (sponsored by the British government) to find a solution to the problem of how to determine longitude at sea has received much attention, mostly due to Dava Sobel's best-selling book about it.

But Pat Rogers argues in the Times Literary Supplement that Sobel (and just about every other historian who has written about the subject) has fallen for a hoax. Specifically, all of these historians have described one Jeremy Thacker as an inventor who, early in the contest, almost found the solution to longitude. But Rogers argues that Thacker didn't exist. He was merely a literary joke, probably created by John Arbuthnot.

The evidence for this thesis: 1) Thacker's pamphlet, Longitudes Examin'd, is the only evidence of his existence. He doesn't pop up anywhere else in the historical record. 2) The pamphlet is written in an "absurdly grandiose style." 3) "His unblushing admission that he only cares about the £20,000, with no figleaf claims of benefit to mankind, is equally untypical."

Rogers connects Thacker to Arbuthnot because the pamphlet was later included in a collection of The Miscellaneous Works of the Late Dr. Arbuthnot.

I haven't read any counter-arguments to Rogers' thesis, so I'll leave this as undetermined.
Categories: History, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 18, 2008
Comments (7)
We've seen quite a few dubious devices that claim to enhance the performance and mileage of automobiles. The BioPerformance pills come to mind. However, the Magic Power System (aka MPS Power Shift Bar) is something special because it's a product that's not even vaguely plausible. It's on sale on eBay UK for the low buy-it-now price of £34.99 (about $52). All you do is plug it into the lighter socket of your car, and here's the improvements you will see:
  • enhance fuel efficiency - saves gasoline (10-30%)
  • increase engine torque - increase power (2-5ps)
  • reduce car emissions - contribute to the environment unconsciously
  • improve car audio sounds
  • the small device cleans the entire car electrically including its body
  • battery level check function: LED blue light for normal, LED red light for caution
  • silent, no more noise
What a bargain! (via jalopnik)
Categories: Scams, Technology
Posted by Alex on Tue Nov 18, 2008
Comments (10)
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