Thursday, September 16, 2010

Spaghetti Trees: Greatest April Fool’s Day Hoax Ever?

Despite of a number of TV news shows debunking it as a very elaborate April Fool’s Day hoax, why do some people still believe in the existence of spaghetti trees?

By: Ringo Bones

I first saw the topic being discussed first hand in a 1980s era Ripley’s Believe it or Not when it was still hosted by Jack Palance, what fascinates me about spaghetti trees is that despite of a number of TV shows explaining to the public that they are just a product of an elaborate April Fool’s Day joke / hoax – there are some folks who still believe that spaghetti trees are for real. Given that the exact origin of spaghetti can’t be easily traced because it is inextricably intertwined during the Silk-Road era trading between Arab merchants and China, this confusion might be, in-part, fuelling the legend of the spaghetti tree.

Historically, the origin of the spaghetti tree was traced back to an April Fool’s broadcast by a rather still-reputable till this day news show by the BBC called Panorama back in 1957. The first of April “parody” news broadcast – probably the equivalent of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart or the Colbert Report of its day – have aired footage of Swiss farmers pulling spaghetti strands from trees on the BBC news show Panorama. Given that BBC’s Panorama is still a very reputable news program till this day, viewers immediately called the station demanding to know how they could grow their own spaghetti trees.

With sympathy to the victims of the hoax, the spaghetti tree hoax eventually gained “notoriety” as one of the top five best April Fool’s Day hoaxes / jokes of all time. Surprisingly, there has been no word yet on the existence of macaroni, fettuccini, or even of corkscrew pasta. Given that the spaghetti tree was supposedly said to originate from Switzerland, chocolate-sapped trees would have been more apt.

Monday, August 30, 2010

April Fool’s Color TV, Anyone?

Supposedly an extremely low-cost video tweak to convert a black and white TV set to a color TV set, is this almost-free video tweak nothing more than an “April Fool Color” tweak?

By: Ringo Bones

Imagine - back in 1962 - finding out afterwards that an almost-free video tweak to convert your existing black and white TV set to color turns out to be nothing more than an elaborately contrived April Fool’s Day joke. To the consolation of this particular hoax’s / prank’s victims, this particular April Fool’s Day joke managed to make it to the Top 5 best April Fool’s Day pranks in history according to But how come something obviously “fool-hardy” managed to fool thousands already familiar with late 1950s home entertainment technology? Unfortunately, the science of optics conspired to provide the “twisted logic” behind the prank.

The origin of this prank begins in April 1, 1962 when a Swedish TV station’s technical expert went on the news to demonstrate how viewers could convert their existing black and white TV transmissions into color – by simply pulling a nylon stocking over their TV screens. Hundreds of thousands followed suit, hoping for magic and a bit of color in their lives. Many swear on the bit of color part, but can the intended result truly be called full-color or just fool-color?

The nylon stocking being pulled over the black and white TV screen to produce “color” works on an optical principle similar to a diffraction grating – i.e. the nylon stocking’s finely-ridged weave pattern uses structure alone to “open up” the spectrum and places white light’s various wavelengths on display. The “rainbow-effect” produced by vinyl LP and CD surfaces works on a similar principle. Conspiring to the “fool color” / false color effect is the existing 600 or so scan lines of your typical black and white cathode ray tube display interacting with the nylon stocking’s fine mesh to produce a “Color TV” fit for April Fool’s Day.

The Cardiff Giant: P.T. Barnum’s Stepping-Stone to Fame and Fortune?

Dubbed as one of the best-known hoaxes of all time, was the Cardiff Giant nothing more than a stepping-stone to fame and fortune by the American showman named Phineas Taylor Barnum?

By: Ringo Bones

Even though the Cardiff Giant gained the fame as one of the best-known hoaxes of all time, at present, it now seldom registers in the national consciousness of anywhere. The writers of a certain NCIS-Los Angeles episode titled “Fame” even attempted to reintroduce the Cardiff Giant into the present-day national consciousness as using it as a conversation piece as the source of the phrase that: “A sucker is born every minute”. And yet the word Cardiff Giant was never mentioned in that particular episode. Nevertheless, was the Cardiff Giant nothing more than P.T. Barnum’s stepping stone into fame and fortune? Before we’ll get into that, here’s a brief history of both.

In the Organized Christianity's search of “desired proof” on the historicity of Jesus, details of His life, and, later a more complete history of Church itself resulted in a rash of religious forgeries and fake relics that were produced and accepted as true by a mass of believers. As late as the 19th and 20th Centuries, such religious hoaxes continued to be perpetrated, though with less lasting success.

The Cardiff Giant – widely known as one of the best-known hoaxes of all time – was the twelve-foot figure unearthed at Cardiff, New York back in 1889 by neighbors of William C. Newell, who were helping him to dig a well on his property. A day after the discovery, a tent had been erected and admission was being charged to hundreds of the pious who tiptoed in and murmured: “Lot’s Wife”, “The Scriptures are fulfilled” – or similar remarks before they left. Four local physicians pronounced the newly-dug giant’s body as petrifaction, but a fifth declared it was a statue not more than 300 years old.

The statue theory gained impetus with the discovery that the figure was made of a kind of gypsum. Because gypsum was not indigenous to the region of Cardiff, New York, a scholar from Yale Divinity School advanced the theory that the figure was a Phoenician idol. Meanwhile, proponents of the petrified man theory cited an Onondaga Squaw who was said to have declared the dug-up relic as the body of a giant Native American prophet who, centuries before, had foretold the coming of the “palefaces” (European Anglo-Saxons) and also prophesized that his descendents would see him again.

With the arrival of Yale palaeontologists, the truth began to seep out. A Chicago stonecutter had made the giant from a block of gypsum sent to him from near Fort Dodge, Iowa, by George Hull, a tobacconist and relative of the farmer George Newell. The hoax – which cost Hull several thousand dollars at the time – was partly a money-making scheme and partly as an attempt by Hull to gull an Iowa Evangelist with whom he had lost an argument on the existence of giants in Biblical times.

Phineas Taylor - or P.T. Barnum as he was more widely known became inexplicably linked with the Cardiff Giant when confusion arose between the original giant and the replica made for Barnum which he exhibited when he was unable to purchase the original. Since, 1948, the true Cardiff Giant (contradiction in terms really since it was a hoax all along) has been in the Farmers’ Museum at Cooperstown, New York.

Phineas Taylor / P.T. Barnum (1810-1891) described as a pioneer American promoter of the bizarre and unusual in amusement. Barnum’s entrance into show business was marked by his “purchase” of Joice Heth – who was represented to him as being George Washington’s 161-year-old colored (African-American) nurse. When Joice Heth died in 1836, she was thought by medical men to be about 80 years old.

After exhibiting Joice Heth, Barnum went on to the road with various other acts. When Scudder’s Museum in New York was put up for sale, Barnum managed – by clever manipulation rather than by any great payment of money – to open it as Barnum’s American Museum on January 1, 1842. The “American Museum” presented such oddities as the Feejee Mermaid – contrived from a monkey and a fish; Chang and Eng, the original “Siamese Twins” (called Siamese Twins back then since they were born in Siam, which is now called Thailand – conjoinedtwins is the current politically-correct term); and General Tom Thumb, who was actually a 25-inch tall midget / little person whose real name was Charles S. Stratton.

In 1844, Barnum began a tour of England and Europe with Stratton – which proved to be a great success with Queen Victoria and other royalty as well as the general public. In one of Barnum’s more high-brow talent promotions, he imported Jenny Lind – the “Swedish Nightingale” in 1850 and through clever promotion developed her into a front-page celebrity who grossed nearly three-quarters of a million dollars at the nation’s box offices. Barnum was offered – but declined – the Democratic nomination for governor of Connecticut back in 1852.

“The Greatest Show on Earth”, as the Barnum, Coup, and Costello Circus was then called, opened in Brooklyn in 1871. In 1873, Barnum’s first wife died and he married Nancy Fish – a young English girl – the next year. Barnum then served as the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut – his hometown – from 1875 to 1876. His last personal appearance with his circus was in 1889, at the London Olympia. He died in 1891 at his home in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Barnum’s “somewhat desperate” attempt at the acquisition of the Cardiff Giant was back then supposedly meant an additional menagerie to his entertainment empire. The menagerie or a Biblical theme was - more often than not – added to the circus to overcome the great prejudice and puritanical hostility toward this form of amusement. During the Victorian era, Churches proclaimed that circuses were immoral so Barnum thought the tie-up with a then famous Biblical era menagerie – the Cardiff Giant – would give his show an educational tone. Through the prism of time, all the education that I got from P.T. Barnum is that in religion – as well as entertainment – a sucker is indeed born every minute.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Axolotl Roadkill: 21st Century Literary Hoax?

Touted as a wunderkinder’s masterpiece of 2010, is Helene Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill nothing more than a 21st Century cut and paste literary hoax?

By: Ringo Bones

Surprise, surprise it turns out that the wunderkinder literary masterpiece of 2010 turned out to be nothing more than just another case of web 2.0-era cut and paste plagiarism, but it took awhile for the “hoax” to unravel. Surprising still is that there are still people who read books that managed to point this out in our already cynical “I don’t have the time to read a book” society of today. Well, at least burning books is better than not reading them. But why should we care?

German wunderkind novelist Helene Hegemann first gained the notice of the literary world when she made the screenplay for Torpedo before her Axolotl Roadkill got published and circulated back in the start of 2010. Axolotl Roadkill was accused of being a plagiaristic rip-off after researchers uncovered that Helene Hegemann “stole” 20 passages word-for-word from a blog novel written and posted by an on-line author who goes by the name Strobo. After being weaned on 21st Century-era Napsterization, do young people today still respect the intellectual property of others?

It seems like Axolotl Roadkill went from a wunderkinder literary masterpiece to a cut-and-paste understatement almost overnight after how the literary sensation of 2010 plagiarized another work was pointed out by researchers. The word-of-mouth reviews of Axolotl Roadkill tells of a work supposedly in tune to the 13 to 18 demographic as fairly complex philosophical bunch rather than being as previously typecasted by Hollywood - as merely passive capitalist consumers. Too bad, it has just become a mere plagiaristic dribble and a literary hoax.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wikipedia: Magnet for Online Hoaxers?

When the site’s user editable feature became a high-profile debacle when David Beckham was said to have been an 18th Century Chinese goalkeeper, has Wikipedia recently become a magnet for online hoaxers?

By: Ringo Bones

Since that almost unforgettable debacle over the rework of David Beckham’s Wikipedia fact-file about the soccer superstar being an 18th Century Chinese goalkeeper, it seems that the user-editable non-profit online fact resource has lost its infallibility? Reducing Wiki instead to mere editorial opinion status? But has this high-profile online intellectual vandalism really made Wikipedia the prime target for online hoaxers?

As a regular – but relatively recent user – Wikipedia can be more than just an online factual information depot. It can also be a very up-to-date online spellchecker for newly approved words, which your personal computer’s operating system’s built-in spellchecker has not yet adapted to.

Intentionally posting “fraudulent” facts on Wikipedia – like David Beckham being an 18th Century Chinese goalkeeper or that Slash of the rock outfit Guns N’ Roses was the inventor of the single-coil electric guitar pickups – can maybe be just passed off as high-brow-intellectual vandalism. But is there a danger for anyone – especially for hardcore hoaxers – for using Wikipedia as a platform to advance their pet causes?

There has been a recent revamp of Wikipedia’s user-editable feature to make the website more “hoax-resistant” when it comes to user-editing of more “controversial” subject matter that are prone to hoaxing by not-so-special-interest-groups, like Scientology for example. Other controversial topics on Wikipedia are no longer seen as a factual article, rather more than an editorial of prevailing social and political sentiment of some special interest groups, like the special interest group Birthers and the current status of Pluto as a member of our Solar System.

Wikipedia hoaxers are not readily revealed as such since only a comparatively small number of people have any real knowledge of what is going on in any particular field. Wikipedia’s higher mathematics used in there more esoteric topics that had recently become topical discussions – like credit derivatives and the Higgs Field Theory – has fortunately always been spot on. But people who are experts on credit derivatives and the Higgs Field Theory who are also well-versed on the current goings on of European football leagues and the rock band Guns N’ Roses are unfortunately few and far between. Thus faulty Wikipedia entries tend to last for awhile and can become “intellectual curio” for those in the know before appropriate correction measures are taken. But unfortunately can be a nuisance for those working on their school research online using online resources such as Wikipedia, especially when concerning topics outside of their purview.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Piltdown Man: Scientific or Religious Hoax?

Charles Dawson’s motivation for have created this hoax may have been to reconcile early 20th Century anthropology with Creationism, but was the Piltdown Man a scientific or religious hoax?

By: Ringo Bones

Contrary to popular belief, Charles Dawson was neither a formally trained paleoanthropologist nor a trained archaeologist. Dawson, a British lawyer and antiquarian, claimed to have dug up from a gravel pit on Piltdown Common in the south of England portions of a skull and jawbone back in 1912. Probable reasons for Charles Dawson’s motivation for initiating the Piltdown Man Hoax was primarily due to the intensive search conducted by early investigators attempts to reconcile Darwin’s theory of the descent of man with the Victorian era doctrine of a “Chain of Being” leading back to the time of “Biblical Creation” – i.e. Archbishop James Ussher’s 9 a.m. 23rd of October, 4004 B.C. Creation date. If man had indeed evolved – the reasoning ran – then somewhere in humanity’s past there must exist an original creature, a “missing link” if you will, between us and the lowly apes. An idea that’s unfortunately rife for wild surmises.

After Dawson and team washed the gravel of their dig site in the Piltdown pit, the remains were found in what can only be described by today’s archaeological standards as dubious geological circumstances when he concluded – and managed to convince the archaeologists, physical anthropologists and paleoanthropologists of the time - that the finds were over 500,000 years old. Dawson’s famous 1912 find of a cranium that resembles that of a modern human and the supposed lower jaw that came with it that was fully ape-like managed to launch an argument that lasted 40 years. Popularly known at the time as “Piltdown Man” after the English hamlet where it was found, the fossil was accepted as genuine by almost every archaeologists, paleoanthropologists and physical anthropologists at the time and was even scientifically named as “Eoanthropus dawsoni” or Dawson’s “dawn man”.

Because of his “gentleman” status, virtually nobody questioned Dawson’s archaeological finds and even got him widely acclaimed – especially after the case for Piltdown Man was further strengthened in 1915 when he came up with another find, some pieces of skull and a molar. As the years passed, Dawson’s fossils became increasingly difficult to reconcile with other unquestioningly authentic finds. Java Man and scores of African “dawn men” that have more ape-like skulls and more modern man-like jaws mad the Piltdown Man seem like an evolutionary paradox from a paleoanthropological perspective.

It wasn’t until the early 1950s that three British scientists finally determined to settle the Piltdown Man question once and for all. Post WW II dating methods can already determine a fossil’s age with accuracy. Kenneth P. Oakley applied the chemical tests while J.S. Weiner and W.E. Le Gros Clark subjected the Piltdown Man fossils to exhaustive anatomical analysis. By 1953, it was proven without a shadow of a doubt that the skull of the Piltdown Man was that of a modern human and his supposed jaw was that of an ape – an orangutan in fact – filed down to disguise them. Charles Dawson was long since dead when his elaborate hoax was uncovered and so could not be called upon to explain his intentions. Modern dating methods – especially radioisotope dating methods – make it very hard for scientific hoaxes like Piltdown Man to pass as genuine this day and age. But are hoaxes such as these really as harmless as they seem to be?

During the eight-year reign of former US president George W. Bush, America had experienced a flirtation with “Creationism” that manage to empower every white supremacist group in US soil hitherto unknown since the days of famed unabashed conservative named Ronald Reagan. The Jena-6 incident only highlights the increasing racial tension in America that had grown stronger ever since President Bush granted carte blanche to every Creationism supporters and educators. Piltdown Man has since been proven a hoax from a scientific concept, but the ideas that gave it life – the racially charged Biblical concepts of the Mark of Cain and the Children of Ham – only gives extremist groups in America more political leverage and could make racism seem reasonable due to its religious and political precedents.

Do Hoaxes Still Exist in the 21st Century?

From those “factually fraudulent” Wikipedia edits to documents purportedly proving that President Obama is not an American citizen, are hoaxes still alive and well in the 21st Century?

By: Ringo Bones

A hoax is most commonly defined as “a deception for mockery or mischief”. A term that’s often extended to include all sorts of frauds, fakes, swindles and forgeries and impostures, as well as the supposedly well-meaning practical joke or two. Such hoaxes all have one binding theme – they are deliberately concocted untruths massaged to masquerade as factual information. Being so, such hoaxes are – in the end – distinguishable from honest errors in observation or in judgment. More importantly, behind every hoax stands a hoaxer. This inventor of humbug – where he or she is successful in making us believe his or her “whoppers”, more often than not has a deeper and more far-reaching effect on the shaping of public opinion, beliefs, customs that he or she intends.

Politics, religion, science, art and literature are only few of the fields in which hoaxers have operated during most of recorded history. Since only a comparably small number of people have any real knowledge of what is going on in any particular field, it is all too easy to fool most of the general public. As our society becomes more complex knowledge wise, we became more and more dependent on others for our information, especially from fields of specialty other than our own. Thus we tend to accept as true whatever reaches us through such usually reliable channels of information as – for example – printed media, the radio, TV, or the Internet, or whatever comes to us as statements of supposed experts or pundits.

When a hoaxer simulates behavior which is usually trustworthy in his or her peer group, he or she will be believed unless actual motives for disbelief exist. Peripheral incentives to believe, such as hope or financial gain, advancement of a pet cause, vanity chauvinism, and the reinforcement of prejudices of various kinds – operate on the hoaxer’s behalf, making the unsuspecting victim to accept the hoax as factual because he or she, for the longest time, desperately wants the idea driving the hoax to be true. So don’t be hopeful that whimsical Wikipedia entries like David Beckham being an 18th Century Chinese goalkeeper or Slash being the inventor of single-coil guitar pickups will ever end.