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Urban Legends
There's one final news item I've received a lot of emails about in the past week -- and so deserves a place on the front page (though it's already in the forum). The Gloucester Pregnancy Pact.

Seventeen girls at Gloucester High School are pregnant. According to Time magazine, they all made a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. From Time:

School officials started looking into the matter as early as October after an unusual number of girls began filing into the school clinic to find out if they were pregnant. By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, "some girls seemed more upset when they weren't pregnant than when they were," Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together. Then the story got worse. "We found out one of the fathers is a 24-year-old homeless guy," the principal says, shaking his head.

My first thought was that this reminded me of the prom babies rumor I posted about last year. According to this rumor, girls try to get pregnant on prom night so they won't have to go to college. With the Gloucester pregnancy pact, we again have the notion of teenage girls conspiring to get pregnant.

Teenage girls (like teenage boys) are capable of incredibly stupid behavior, but the pregnancy pact has the whiff of urban legend. Sure enough, school officials are now throwing cold water on the idea, claiming they never heard of such a pact until it appeared in Time. Which isn't to say that group psychology didn't play a powerful role in influencing the girls' behavior. It obviously did. But did the girls make a premeditated pact, and then act on it? That seems highly unlikely to me.
Categories: Birth/Babies, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Jun 24, 2008
Comments (13)
There are many rumors about casinos. One I posted about earlier is the belief that casinos pump in oxygen to encourage people to gamble more. (It's not true). Another rumor focuses on the carpets in casinos, which are often noticeably ugly. The theory is that there must be some diabolical reason why they're so ugly.

David Schwartz, a historian of gambling, writes, "Casino carpet is known as an exercise in deliberate bad taste that somehow encourages people to gamble." He's collected an extensive gallery of photos of casino carpets.

There are four main theories to explain the carpets:

1) Colorful carpets better hide the stains (blood, vomit, etc.)

2) The carpets have subliminal themes and messages in them that encourage gambling. Schwartz (again) writes, "Many of the carpets use flowers and wheels, both suggestive of a cyclical life: flowers bud, bloom, and then die, and their beauty is only ephemeral. The wheel was famous to the Romans (note its prominence at Caesars Palace) as a symbol of the relentless capriciousness of fortune. Could both be subtle reminders to casino patrons that life and luck are fleeting, and one should eat, drink, and be merry before the morrow brings a swing in fortune?"

3) The ugliness of the carpets encourages people to look away from the floor and up at the gambling tables.

4) The intricate patterns are designed to conceal chips that gamblers accidentally drop. The High On Poker blog writes, "Rumor has it, casinos make lots of money with a machine not traditionally on the casino floor: the vacuum. The rumor goes that every night/morning during clean-up the vacuums pick up all sorts of chips that have fallen on the casino floor. The kaleidescope vomit [pattern] with its reds ($5 chips) and greens ($25 chips) would serve as a perfect way to fool patrons into losing their dropped chips."

I think theories 1 and 4 are the most convincing. I've accidentally dropped chips on a casino floor, and it is hard to see them amid the swirling patterns. (via High On Poker)
Categories: Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Fri May 23, 2008
Comments (24)
I've previously posted about the issue of placebo walk buttons -- that is, the widespread suspicion that the walk buttons at intersections don't have any effect on traffic lights. (There's also a separate theory that you can control the traffic lights by pushing the button in a special way.)

An article on canada.com addresses the issue of placebo buttons at some length. They insist the idea of placebo buttons is a myth (at least for the city of Victoria), and they interview a traffic planner to discover what really happens when the button is pushed:

Brad Dellebuur, city transportation planner, says pushing the button sends a signal to the intersection's traffic controller that a pedestrian is present and enters the "walk" signal into the system's cycle.
"If you don't press it, some intersections won't give a walk signal," Dellebuur says. The traffic light timing is also determined by the amount of vehicular traffic, which is picked up by sensors imbedded in the road.
In other words, pushing the button won't make the light change right away, or within a certain time from when the button is activated. You'll still have to wait, but a shorter period as the traffic light interval is shortened.
If you don't push the light, the pedestrian walk signal still comes on, but, for instance, after 60 seconds instead of 40.

Of course, many people insist on pushing the button even if it's already been pushed, in which case it isn't having any effect. Why do they do this?

It's not just distrust that makes people push a crosswalk button that has probably been pushed already. It's also ritual, says Jim Gibson, social psychologist at UVic, and very much like pushing an elevator button that is already illuminated.
"It's part of crossing the intersection," Gibson says. "We want to cross, and pushing the button first is part of that ritual.
"We go on automatic pilot because ritual behaviour saves our brains from having to think about activities that are very routine."

(via Legends & Rumors)
Categories: Psychology, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Thu May 08, 2008
Comments (11)
Many British papers have reported the humorous story of a young woman who called the operator trying to order a cab, but instead had a cabinet delivered to her home. Her problem was too much Cockney, and too little Queen's English. From Ananova:

the Londoner, 19, wanted a taxi to take her to Bristol airport, and first used the Cockney rhyming slang "Joe Baxi". When the operator told her she couldn't find anyone by that name, the teen replied: "It ain't a person, it's a cab, innit." The operator then found the nearest cabinet shop, Displaysense, and put the girl through. She then spoke to a bemused saleswoman and eventually demanded: "Look love, how hard is it? All I want is your cheapest cab, innit. I need it for 10am. How much is it?" The sales adviser said it would be £180 and the girl gave her address and paid with a credit card. The next morning, an office cabinet was delivered to her South London home.

Two things make me suspicious of the story. 1) It sounds a lot like the classic "lost in translation" urban legend. 2) It originated from a Displaysense press release, which means that it's probably the invention of a press agent.
Categories: Literature/Language, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 15, 2008
Comments (14)
Paul Collins has an interesting article in New Scientist about the Mundaneum, a mid-twentieth century effort to create a vast, interlinked archive, like a "proto-internet," using index cards. But what caught my eye was the first paragraph:

UNLIKELY as it sounds now, the hottest thing in information technology was once the index card. In the US, for instance, the War Department struggled with mountains of medical files until the newfangled method of card filing was adopted in 1887. Soon hundreds of clerks were transcribing personnel records dating back to the War of Independence. Housed in Ford's Theatre in Washington DC - the scene of Abraham Lincoln's assassination a generation earlier - the initiative succeeded a little too well. Six years into the project, the combined weight of 30 million index cards led to information overload: three floors of the theatre collapsed, crushing 22 clerks to death.

It's like the old urban legend about a library sinking because the engineers forgot to include the weight of the books in their calculations. Though I'm not sure that the weight of the index cards was the cause of the collapse of Ford's Theater. The wikipedia article about the Ford's Theater disaster (I was surprised to discover there is a wikipedia article about such a now obscure event), notes that workmen had removed part of the theater's foundation and had failed to shore up the building above it. Thus, it came crashing down.

So the Ford's Theater disaster may not be a real-life example of the sinking-library urban legend. But I'm sure there's an example somewhere of a library that collapsed because of the weight of its books.
Categories: Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 09, 2008
Comments (17)
Do casinos pump extra oxygen into the air in order to make gamblers feel more energized? I've heard this rumor quite often. The Betfirms.com blog uses some common sense to debunk it:

According to my Captain at the local Fire Department, “pumping oxygen into a casino would be a tremendous fire hazard that would greatly increase the flammability of all other objects. Any small fire, anywhere in the hotel, would be fanned and magnify itself by pumped oxygen.” As for the risk/reward opportunity, no casino would ever entertain the thought.

That makes sense. It wouldn't be good for a casino to encourage fires to spread, especially since people like to smoke a lot while gambling.

Betfirms.com traces the legend back to Mario Puzo's book, Fools Die, in which Puzo described a fictional Las Vegas Casino, Xanadu, that pumped in oxygen.

But casinos definitely do pump in smells, which they believe encourage people to gamble more. (They tend not to identify the smells, because they don't want to give away trade secrets.) In Elephants on Acid I described a 1991 experiment conducted on the gaming floor of the Las Vegas Hilton, in which it was found that gamblers exposed to a pleasant odor spent 45% more money at the machines than those who were not exposed to the odor. A lot of retail stores have also bought into the "smell sells" theory. Though I think it's more marketing hype than reality.
Categories: Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Mar 10, 2008
Comments (9)
Last week the Daily Mirror reported that 67-year-old singer Tom Jones had insured his chest hair for £3.5million:

With tough tour schedules and big money at stake, It's Not Unusual for stars to insure their bodies. So it should come as no surprise to learn that Sir Tom Jones, 67, whose mop of luxurious curly brown hair has made him a hit with the ladies, has had his chest hair insured - for the princely sum of £3.5million!
Top insurance house Lloyd's of London was approached about the deal and, after initial concerns that it might prove too much of a risk, went ahead.
"Like a vintage wine, Tom just gets better with age," says our body hair mole.
"Even at the grand old age of 67, the ladies love his hip-thrusting moves and catching a sneaky peak of his famously rugged chest hair."

The story was soon picked up by other media outlets including AOL, Fox News, and the Miami Herald.

I remember seeing the headline and thinking it sounded odd, but I figured it was a publicity stunt. Turns out it's not even that. David Emery of About.com has debunked the report. He writes:

I contacted Lloyd's of London and they said no such policy has been issued. A note from Tom Jones' management on the singer's official website confirms: "No such insurance policy exists or has ever been considered." The story is based, in fact, on years-old scuttlebutt about a policy drafted for an anonymous male celebrity who never actually purchased the coverage.
Categories: Business/Finance, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 11, 2008
Comments (2)
I don't check out CollegeHumor.com very often, but I came across this short movie they put together called "Urban Legend ER," which I thought was amusing. It imagines what an ER might look like if all the most popular urban legends were real. Warning: It's a little gory in a few places.



Update: Posted previously in the forum by Tobester.
Categories: Photos/Videos, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Thu Jan 31, 2008
Comments (8)
Yahoo! Games has an article about urban legends involving video games. Though half the legends they list are true. Here's a summary:

Donkey Kong was a mistranslation of Monkey Kong.
False. Donkey Kong was the original title. "Donkey" was apparently meant to indicate stubborn stupidity. "Kong" was a reference to King Kong.

Saddam Hussein tried to build a supercomputer out of Playstation 2s.
False. The rumor was offered as an explanation for a shortage of Playstation 2s, but if an evil dictator did want to build a supercomputer, using game consoles would be a bad way to do it.

Sony first developed the Playstation for Nintendo.
True. Back in the late 1980s Nintendo and Sony were considering a partnership, but negotiations fell apart and the two went their separate ways.

Million of Atari games are buried in the New Mexico desert.
True. Atari buried millions of games it couldn't sell.

A video arcade game called Polybius was actually part of a military mind-control experiment.
False. I posted about the Polybius legend back in 2004.

A man died by playing video games nonstop.
True. Apparently this has happened more than once. Technically, they died of exhaustion.
Categories: Technology, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Jan 29, 2008
Comments (8)
A kidney transplant ring has been busted in India. Hundreds of poor people were forced into having their kidneys removed. ABC News reports that victims were promised a job, then taken to a private house and forced at gunpoint to sell their kidneys.

One victim's story sounds just like the kidney-transplant urban legend:

"I was approached by a stranger for a job. When I accepted, I was taken to a room with gunmen," Mohammed Salim told India's local NDTV television channel. "They tested my blood, gave me an injection and I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I had pain in my lower abdomen and I was told that my kidney had been removed."

The kidney transplant ring was found out when suspicious neighbors "noticed blood running out of the house's gutters." Yeah, that would kind of be a giveaway. (Thanks, Stephen)
Categories: Health/Medicine, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Jan 29, 2008
Comments (4)
Last week this story was EVERYWHERE. A pair of twins in Britain, who had been adopted into different families, met and fell in love... without realizing they were twins. They then got married, only to discover the terrible secret they shared. Their marriage was promptly annulled.

When I first read about this, it sounded pretty fishy to me -- very much like an urban legend being reported as news -- but on a cursory reading of the story I also got the impression that there were officials involved who knew about the case but couldn't disclose the identity of the twins. So I accepted the news as true. I think the paragraph in the BBC report linked to above that got me was this one:

Mo O'Reilly, director of child placement for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, said the situation was traumatic for the people involved, but incredibly rare.


To me, this sounded as if Mo O'Reilly actually knew about the case first-hand. Unfortunately, I didn't read the article closely enough. Apparently the only person who knew about the case was Lord Alton who used it as an example during a House of Lords debate on the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill. Lord Alton had heard about the case "from a judge who was involved." In other words, the source is a FOAF (friend of a friend), one of the classic signs of an urban legend.

Jon Henley of the Guardian summarizes the situation:

Here's the thing: it all came from a single remark more than a month ago by the vehemently anti-abortion Roman Catholic peer and father of four, Lord Alton, in favour of all children having the right to know the identity of their biological parents.
He had heard about this particular case, he said, from the judge who handled the annulment. Or perhaps (he later admitted) a judge who was "familiar with the case". Britain's top family judge, Sir Mark Potter, has never heard of the story. And, as the excellent Heresy Corner blog notes, the whole thing is statistically improbable, procedurally implausible (for 40 years, adoption practice has been to keep twins together) and based on the equivalent of a friend in the pub saying, "Hey, I heard the most amazing story the other day."


So it looks like this piece of news needs to be categorized as an urban-legend-reported-as-news until proven otherwise. (Thanks, Joe)
Categories: Birth/Babies, Journalism, Sex/Romance, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Tue Jan 15, 2008
Comments (15)
This story sounds suspiciously like an urban legend being reported as news. It could, of course, be true, though the source (a Polish tabloid called Super Express) makes it difficult to fact check:

WARSAW (Reuters) - A Polish man got the shock of his life when he visited a brothel and spotted his wife among the establishment's employees.
Polish tabloid Super Express said the woman had been making some extra money on the side while telling her husband she worked at a store in a nearby town.
"I was dumfounded. I thought I was dreaming," the husband told the newspaper on Wednesday. The couple, married for 14 years, are now divorcing, the newspaper reported.
Categories: Sex/Romance, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Mon Jan 14, 2008
Comments (6)
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