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September 2013
Prize-winning Australian poet Andrew Slattery (winner, most recently, of the Cardiff International Poetry Competition, that came with a jackpot of £5000) is being stripped of many of his prizes after judges discovered that most of his poetry consists of lines lifted from the works of other poets. For instance, his poem Ransom, which won him the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize (and potentially $10,000 — he hadn't received the money yet) was a stitched-together version of "50-odd poets' work, some of them famous, such as Americans Charles Simic and Robert Bly, and one Australian, Chris Andrews."

Slattery now explains that he intended his poems to be a form of "collage poetry" written in the "cento format." Apparently this is a kind of poetry that's a patchwork of lines from other poems. He just failed to mention this fact to anyone. [Sydney Morning Herald]
Categories: Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 13, 2013
Comments (1)
Gapers Block offers the full story behind the famous "Sloth Family Portrait" revealing that yes, of course, the photo was intentionally staged. And no, it wasn't photoshopped in any way. And the sloth in the foreground was stuffed, not alive.

The story, summarized, is that the couple in the photo are Jim and Debbie Gallo, owners of Shangri-La Vintage, a Chicago vintage clothes store. They found the stuffed sloth at an estate sale in the early 1990s, bought it, and then thought it would be funny to dress up in tacky clothes and wigs and get their picture taken with it at the local K-Mart. The Sloth Family Portrait, and later internet fame, was the result.

Categories: Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 12, 2013
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Gina Perry has authored a new book about Stanley Milgram's famous obedience experiment (Behind the Shock Machine: The Untold Story of the Notorious Milgram Psychology Experiments) in which she argues that Milgram fudged his data and conclusions. Boing Boing reviews it.


Perry suggests the fudging happened in several ways:
  • First, although Milgram claimed his experiment always followed a set script, Perry reviewed the original audio tapes and found this wasn't the case. Instead, Milgram's experimenter "wheedled and nagged the subjects into turning up the shock dial."
  • Second, she argues that a substantial portion of the experimental subjects saw through Milgram's ruse and realized that they weren't actually shocking someone.
I'll have to read Perry's book to get her full argument, but it was my impression that her allegations aren't exactly new. Milgram's experiment met with a lot of skepticism from other researchers. But other researchers have conducted versions of his experiment and, for the most part, gotten similar results.

For instance, in Elephants on Acid I write about how many people suspected that Milgram's subjects saw through his ruse. Therefore, two researchers conducted a version of the experiment in which subjects were asked to shock a victim (a puppy) — and the puppy actually got shocked! ("Obedience to authority with an authentic victim" - PDF). In other words, they eliminated the ruse. And their results were similar to Milgram's. The majority of their subjects obeyed the command to shock the puppy.

I'm sure Perry must address this, but I don't know how. Looks like another book to add to the pile.
Categories: Psychology, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 12, 2013
Comments (0)
Looks interesting. I'll add it to my reading list.


An interview with the authors:

The Science Behind Bigfoot and Other Monsters
National Geographic

There's ample circumstantial evidence for all these creatures: eyewitness accounts, blurry photographs, mysterious footprints. For many cryptozoologists—the people who search for legendary animals—that evidence is enough to confirm a monster's existence. But it will take more than shadowy sightings to convince Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero that Bigfoot or any of the other monsters are real. What Loxton and Prothero want is scientific evidence. In their new book, Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids, they analyze the history of mythic beasts and the clues to their existence.
Categories: Books, Cryptozoology
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 11, 2013
Comments (1)
A red letterbox has appeared on the side of a bridge crossing the Thames in the village of Sonning-on-Thames. It's accessible only from the river. The Royal Mail says it's "a mystery to us."

What makes this story doubly strange is that spoon-bender Uri Geller happens to live in this town and was interviewed about it by the BBC. He speculates that "the ghost of a mischievous little girl" might have put the letterbox there.

Uri Geller mystified by letterbox on Thames Sonning Bridge
BBC News

Entertainer Uri Geller and other villagers say they are mystified by the appearance of a red letterbox in the middle of a bridge. The box has been placed on a buttress on the downstream side of the bridge, which crosses the River Thames.
Categories: Pranks
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 11, 2013
Comments (3)
Daniel Engber doesn't think Jimmy Kimmel's "Twerking Girl on Fire" hoax was very funny. He wrote in Slate:

I think it illustrates everything that's wrong with viral marketing. Kimmel's prank is not a biting satire, nor is it a mirror to our stupid culture. It's a hostile, self-promoting act—a covert ad for Jimmy Kimmel Live—rendered as ironic acid that corrodes our sense of wonder.

At times Engber's critique became so over-the-top that I wasn't sure if he was being entirely serious, or if he was deliberately trolling. Nevertheless, what he wrote did make me think of an ongoing controversy within the world of hoaxing. The issue is that there are two traditions within the history of hoaxing, and these two traditions have never been able to agree on what constitutes a good hoax.

The first tradition dates back to the 18th century Enlighenment — the Age of Reason. Those promoting the values of the Enlightenment (people like Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Swift) recognized that hoaxes were a great vehicle for exposing credulity and superstition. Irrationalism could be shamed (and hopefully banished) by exposing it to ridicule and laughter. So in this tradition, hoaxes were acceptable if they served as educational tools for creating an informed citizenry.

The second tradition dates to the "market revolution" of the early 19th century, when entrepreneurs (in particular, newspaper editors and showmen such as P.T. Barnum) realized that hoaxes might be a good way of exposing credulity, but they were also a great way of attracting public attention. In other words, hoaxes could be cheap and highly effective ads.

Defenders of this tradition argued that being educational shouldn't be the only standard for a good hoax — that a hoax could also be good if it was clever and amusing, and offered the public entertainment value in return for being deceived.

So, on the one hand, you have the enlightenment tradition of hoaxes as educational tools to promote reason and skepticism. And on the other hand, you have the entrepreneurial tradition of hoaxes as deceptive but entertaining publicity stunts.

Proponents of the enlightenment view of hoaxes have never been happy about what they see as cheap, self-promoting entrepreneurial hoaxes — and this sense of resentment continues to this day, as evidenced by Engber's article.

But the thing is, many of the most celebrated hoaxes since the early 19th century have been of the entrepreneurial, self-promoting kind. The Great Moon Hoax of 1835, the Cardiff Giant, and all of Barnum's hoaxes certainly fall into that camp.

Where do I stand in the debate? Well, as someone who studies the history of hoaxing, I don't have to take sides. I report on the phenomenon as a whole. (Though I have to admit I thought Kimmel's hoax was amusing, even if it didn't serve any grand, educational purpose.)

However, both the enlightenment and entrepreneurial traditions agree that good hoaxes should be created with the intention of being eventually exposed — usually to the embarrassment of their victims. If a hoaxer never intends for his deception to be unmasked, then he's simply trying to get away something. The hoax becomes a species of fraud.

So I think Engber is totally wrong when, later in his article, he suggests that Kimmel's 'Twerking Girl on Fire' hoax was no different than the hoaxes of Stephen Glass, James Frey, or Richard Heene. None of them wanted their deceptions to be exposed. They were hoping to get away with something. There's clearly a difference.
Categories: History
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 11, 2013
Comments (1)
On September 3, a small "UFO" was seen hovering outside a Vancouver Canadians baseball game at Nat Bailey Stadium. Turns out it was a fake UFO that was part of a viral marketing scheme to promote Vancouver's H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. Footage of the UFO was circulated online by an ad agency. The Space Centre has seen attendance rise by 65 percent in the last week. So apparently the viral campaign worked. [CTV News]



It certainly isn't the first time a planetarium has used a hoax to drum up business. The example that comes to mind is the time back in 1940 when Philadelphia's Franklin Institute created a panic by announcing that the world was going to end the next day. The startling announcement (which pretty much backfired on them because of all the negative publicity) was intended to promote a talk at its planetarium titled "How Will the World End?"
Categories: Extraterrestrial Life
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 11, 2013
Comments (0)
On Sep 3, Caitlin Heller posted a video on youtube that she titled, "Worst Twerk Fail EVER - Girl Catches Fire!"

She further explained: "I tried making a sexy twerk video for my boyfriend and things got a little too hot smile"



The video quickly went viral, accumulating 9 million views in less than a week, and getting airtime on numerous media outlets.

But last night, "Caitlin Heller" appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and the hoax was revealed. Her real name was Daphne Avalon. She was a stunt woman, and the entire video had been staged for Jimmy Kimmel Live.



Kimmel claims that his team didn't send it to TV stations or tweet it. He says, "we just put it on youtube and let the magic happen." I'm skeptical that they didn't do something to help spread the word, given the speed at which it attracted attention. But nevetheless, it was an amusing hoax.
Categories: Videos
Posted by Alex on Tue Sep 10, 2013
Comments (0)
The latest episode of CBC Radio's This is That show discussed how the Midlake Youth Athletic Association in Midlake, Ontario has decided to eliminate the ball from its soccer program, in order to "further address some of the negative side of competition."


Keith Schultz, head coach (aka "Imagination Captain") of the Thundercats, the Midlake ball-less soccer team, is interviewed, and he explains that the course of the game is determined by "the kids' interpretation of what went down."

Schultz admits that he occasionally misses coaching traditional soccer (with a ball), but because "injuries are down and self-esteem is up," the Youth Association has judged its experiment with ball-less soccer to be a success — so much so that it's decided to extend the concept into the hockey program, by removing the puck.

The news report has sparked angry outbursts on message boards throughout the internet. One guy complained that it was a symptom of the "Pussification of America" (he must have meant North America).

But, of course, as Wikipedia notes, This is That is a satire program "which airs comedic news stories presented in the style of a real CBC Radio public affairs program." In another words, this is yet another case of Satire Mistaken As News.

Pat Kelly, This is That co-host, told sportsgrid.com, "I guess it struck a nerve due to the sports theme. The response is still going strong."
Categories: Sports
Posted by Alex on Sat Sep 07, 2013
Comments (1)
A case of satirical prophecy? On April 1, 1931, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on its front page declaring that health can "be caught." It explained that a German scientist, Dr. Eugene Lirpa, had discovered that good health was caused by a bacteria, "Bacillus sanitatis." People who lacked this bacteria grew ill. Therefore, it would be possible to make people healthy by infecting them with the "germ of health."

The article was an April Fool's Day hoax. In fact, I think it's the ONLY April Fool hoax the LA Times has ever perpetrated, because the major US newspapers (unlike their British counterparts) tend to view themselves as being somewhat above the vulgar tradition of April Foolery.

But fast forward to the present day. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine recently published an article in Science suggesting that people who are of a healthy weight might be infected by a bacteria called Bacteroides. Obese people lack this bacteria. Therefore, infecting overweight people with this bug might help them lose the pounds.

Sounds to me a lot like the LA Times 1931 article. April Fool's Day once again anticipates reality.

Bacteria from slim people could help treat obesity, study finds
guardian.com

Bugs that lurk in the guts of slim people could be turned into radical new therapies to treat obesity, according to a new study.

The claim follows a series of experiments which found that the different populations of bacteria that live in lean and overweight people caused mice to lose or gain weight.
Categories: Health/Medicine
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 05, 2013
Comments (0)
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