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December 2008
The Curse of Oprah Winfrey has struck again. The Curse is that anyone who appears on her show to tell about their painful yet inspiring personal history, later is revealed to be completely full of BS. People who make multiple appearances on her show are even more likely to be struck by the curse.

The latest flap is that Herman Rosenblat and his wife, who claimed to have met when he was a child in the Buchenwald concentration camp and she was a town girl who would throw food over the fence for him, made up their tale of young romance. The truth is that they first met on a blind date in New York. Rosenblat's publisher has canceled his forthcoming book, The Angel at the Fence.

I think skeptics have questioned the Rosenblat's story for a while. After all, how could a young girl possibly get close enough to the fence of Buchenwald to throw food over it? Yeah, he was in a sub-camp. But even so, it doesn't make sense.

As my wife and I were watching this story on the evening news, she asked why people like the Rosenblats don't simply publish their stories as fiction. After all, no one is denying that they're good stories and might make a great book. The answer, I guess, is that if you call a story true it has a lot more emotional power than if you call it fiction. So the Rosenblats (and other fake memoirists) are basically using a cheap trick to manipulate the emotions of readers and attract more attention to their books.

Links: BBC News, Telegraph. (Thanks to everyone who emailed me about this.)
Categories: Literature/Language, Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 30, 2008
Comments (37)
Pranksters have placed signs in various places around Nottingham stating: "Public Urination Permitted After 7.30pm".

The Nottingham City Council wants everyone to know that the signs are not telling the truth: "It is an offence to urinate in public and these signs have been put up illegally, for whatever reason."

This prank is basically the opposite of one I reported on over a year ago in which pranksters placed signs in public lavatories that read: "Think Green. Think Safe. Do you really need to go?"
Categories: Gross, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Wed Dec 24, 2008
Comments (3)
A NY Times article about the biology of deceit notes that among primates there's "a direct relationship between sneakiness and brain size." It offers this story:

chimpanzees or orangutans in captivity sometimes tried to lure human strangers over to their enclosure by holding out a piece of straw while putting on their friendliest face.
“People think, Oh, he likes me, and they approach,” Dr. de Waal said. “And before you know it, the ape has grabbed their ankle and is closing in for the bite. It’s a very dangerous situation.”

Apparently dolphins are also capable of deceit:

After dolphin trainers at the Institute for Marine Mammals Studies in Mississippi had taught the dolphins to clean the pools of trash by rewarding the mammals with a fish for every haul they brought in, one female dolphin figured out how to hide trash under a rock at the bottom of the pool and bring it up to the trainers one small piece at a time.

My cat is definitely capable of deception. Sometimes she'll pretend to be sleeping, but when you walk by her, Whack!, she gets you with her paw.
Categories: Animals, Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 23, 2008
Comments (10)
The NY Times apologized for printing an email from the Mayor of Paris in which he criticized Caroline Kennedy's bid for Clinton's senate seat. You see, it's easy to put a fake email address in the "From" field, so it's the Times's policy to always check that the person who seems to have sent them an email actually did so. But they didn't do that in this case, and now the Mayor is denying he wrote the email.

The Times is "reviewing procedures" to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. Which probably means some underpaid intern is getting yelled at. Link: NY Times. (Thanks, John!)
Categories: Email Hoaxes, Identity/Imposters, Journalism
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 23, 2008
Comments (2)
An inflatable santa outside, artificial spray-on snow frosting the window, a plastic Christmas tree standing in the corner, and round out the mood by slipping a hi-def fireplace video into the DVD player.
Categories: Products
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 23, 2008
Comments (0)
From Cabela's you can buy actual Jackalope Sausage:

The jackalope is nearly impossible to find, yet, we've successfully located the elusive animal and captured its wonderful flavoring. Jackalope (i.e. antelope, rabbit and beef) are mixed together and smoked slowly for mouth-watering results. An amusing gift for the skeptic and believer alike. Contains three 6-oz. "jackalope" summer sausages.

Eating this would be kind of contrary to the idea of trying to Save the Jackalope. Nevertheless, I've ordered some to find out what it's like.
Categories: Animals, Folklore/Tall Tales, Food
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 23, 2008
Comments (2)
How to play the "pimping" game: Print a fake license plate on glossy paper using license-plate-like fonts downloaded off the web. Tape this fake license plate over your real license plate. Then purposefully speed in an area where you'll get photographed by speed cameras. Whoever owns the license-plate-number you faked will then get mailed a ticket.

If you really want to get fancy, make sure the car you're driving is similar to the car you want to prank.

Police report that kids are increasingly using this technique to get tickets sent to parents, teachers, and other victims. Says one unnamed parent: "This game is very disturbing."

I don't know why it's called the "pimping" game.

Link: Daily Tech
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Mon Dec 22, 2008
Comments (5)
When Scottish tourism officials first unveiled the promotional poster for next year's Homecoming Scotland campaign (whose purpose is to get people of Scottish descent to visit the homeland), people looked at it and remarked, "You know, not everyone in Scotland is white."

So a second version of the poster was sneaked out, with one small change: an Asian guy had been photoshopped in. (He's on the left side of the bottom image).

But most people seem to think the change is even worse than the original, calling it "tokenism" and blasting the government tourism agency for having to "think about it after the event."




The most famous case of cut-and-paste diversity was the cover of UW Madison's 2001-2002 undergraduate application.
Categories: Advertising, Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Mon Dec 22, 2008
Comments (10)
I'm sure everyone has heard by now of Bernard Madoff's $50 billion Ponzi Scheme, which is being described as the biggest scam in Wall Street history. It's already old news. So here are some other scam-related links:

• Slate offers a brief Guide to Financial Scams, explaining the difference between a Ponzi Scheme and a Pyramid Scheme. (Ponzi schemes funnel money to a single person; pyramid schemes distribute the money among a larger group of people.)

• The Wall Street Journal tells the story of the Ponzi Scheme that wiped out the fortune of President Ulysses S. Grant.

• It doesn't compare to Madoff, but a payroll manager has been accused of embezzling $3 million by depositing wages into the accounts of non-existent employees.

• A California woman had a website on which she was offering bargain rates for advertising space in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But it wasn't that much of a bargain considering the ads never appeared in either publication.
Categories: Scams
Posted by Alex on Fri Dec 19, 2008
Comments (1)
Two years ago I made my own hoax-themed Christmas tree ornaments. But that was before I discovered Bronner's sells Bigfoot tree ornaments. So yeah, I had to buy one.
Categories: Cryptozoology
Posted by Alex on Fri Dec 19, 2008
Comments (7)
John Brady has been charged with second-degree aggravated harassment for calling random people and trying to convince them to perform a rectal exam over the phone. He got at least one person to do this.

His modus operandi: "I would go through the phone book and pick random numbers and make telephone calls." Then he would ask them personal questions about their digestive system, and try to get them to follow his instructions.

Prank calls of this nature (and victims dumb enough to fall for them) are definitely a recurring theme. Remember the strip-search prank caller from a few years ago? He would call restaurants, pretend to be a detective, and convince managers to strip-search female employees. There's also the Satellite Medical Exam Scam, in which a caller convinces their victim that if they stand outside naked a satellite flying overhead will provide them with a free medical scan.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 18, 2008
Comments (4)
Yesterday (Tuesday) there was a helicopter buzzing around in the sky outside my window for about half an hour. I was speculating what it might be: bank robbery, accident, men in black? No, turns out it was just a local, neighborhood hoax. (I live about 2 blocks from Helix High School in La Mesa, a San Diego suburb):

A report of an armed man at Helix High School that prompted a lockdown on the campus Tuesday was a student hoax, police said.
An investigation by school staff and the La Mesa Police Department determined that the student who reported seeing a man with a gun had fabricated the report, La Mesa police Lt. David Bond said Wednesday.
The school and two neighboring schools were locked down for about an hour while about 15 officers and and a police helicopter searched the campus and surrounding neighborhood.
It is not yet known why the student lied, Bond said.

This is the same school that can boast that, within the past two years, four teachers have been accused of sexual misconduct with students. Let's hear it for the La Mesa educational system!
Categories: Hate Crimes/Terror, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 18, 2008
Comments (5)
Dani Garavelli, writing for Scotsman.com, examines the psychology of urban legends. The article doesn't offer any new insights into urban legends. There's the standard observation: urban legends "hold a mirror up to our culture, giving us an often unflattering reflection of our preoccupations and prejudices." But what I found interesting is that the article listed some urban legends specific to Scotland:
  • For several days, [north-east Scotland] was gripped by a rumour that pop star and convicted paedophile Gary Glitter – who was recently deported from Vietnam – was staying at the Findhorn Foundation, a new age spiritual community. Suddenly, Glitter was being spotted across the North-east, from the Asda cafe in Elgin, where he was said to be tucking into egg and chips, to the streets of Forres. Sightings of the sex offender began to outnumber sightings of Elvis, until the authorities were forced to reassure the local community, he was not, in fact, in the area.
  • Red Road flats are the highest in Europe.
  • Deep-fried Mars Bar originated in Glasgow.
  • The tale about the maths Higher which was so hard pupils all over Scotland staged a walk-out played on another major childhood fear: that of failure. Pupils and even teachers were said to have been reduced to tears by the very sight of the examination in 2000, although the SQA strenuously denied there had been any protest and the pass rate was said to be slightly up on the year before.
  • The rumour that Jimmy Chung's restaurant in Dundee was serving seagull affected trade so adversely the restaurant was forced to issue a formal denial.
  • One of the most common post-9/11 stories involved the shopper who, noticing a Muslim man dropping his wallet, picks it up and hands it back to him. "Thank you," the Muslim says. "And now I am going to return the favour. Do not go to Braehead/Silverburn/Princes Street in the week before Christmas." This anecdote gained such currency in Inverness in 2006, that Northern Constabulary Police had to reassure the public shopping arcades such as the Eastgate Centre were safe. [Same legend as we had here in America, but with different place names.]
  • There are those... who are convinced traffic police play "speed snooker", targeting particular colours of car in a particular order, but interspersing each with a red one. This, they insist, explains why drivers of red cars are more likely to receive a fine or prosecution than others. [I doubt this is specific to Scotland.]
Categories: Places, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Dec 15, 2008
Comments (9)
Apparently in Las Vegas pretty much anyone can get a license to perform weddings -- Elvis impersonators, faux Liberaces, etc. -- except atheists. The rules are that in order to get a license you need to have ties to a congregation. The congregation can be as small as two people. But still, that's the rule. If you're not willing to lie and invent some kind of pseudo-religion that you're a member of, as atheist Michael Jacobson was unwilling to do, then you're barred from performing weddings.

Seems like a clear entanglement of church and state to me. Here in San Diego anyone is allowed to be registered to perform weddings for a day. No religious affiliation is required. So my sister was able to sign up as the "minister" and conduct the ceremony for me and my wife.

Link: Chicago Tribune
Categories: Sex/Romance
Posted by Alex on Mon Dec 15, 2008
Comments (19)
A film director in Bangladesh has announced plans to build an exact replica of the Taj Mahal. He's going to use the same marble and stone as the original, but to save time he's using machinery (rather than thousands of peasant workers) to construct it. His reason for building it: "Everyone dreams about seeing the Taj Mahal but very few Bangladeshis can make the trip because it's too expensive for them."

All of this has upset officials in India who have threatened to sue for copyright infringement because "You can't just go and copy historical monuments."

Personally, I think I'd find the fake Taj Mahal more interesting than the real thing. Link: Times Online
Categories: Places
Posted by Alex on Mon Dec 15, 2008
Comments (6)
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