Tag: Practical Joke

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History

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“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.

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Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 710: Wolfgang Pauli – Physicist, Genius, Breaker of Stuff

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Do you sometimes feel as though you’re haunted by bad mojo? Do you sense a crinkly shadow slurping up your footsteps, stalking you with hand-wringing deviousness and an insidious yen to muck up your days with the swift slap of a paranormal brute? Well, I have good news for you. You are almost definitely wrong, and it’s entirely possible that you’ve been soaking your brain too long in the tart brine of unjustified paranoia.

Maybe.

While it’s true that some people appear dogged by a mystical and unspoken conflict with their electronic devices, watching them break down at a rate far exceeding average, no one sporting an official science-badge in the brim of their hat has stepped forward and confirmed this phenomenon. There is no bio-electronic battlefield, no psychic-binary clash of DNA and circuit-board synapses. Yet most of us can relate stories of friends or relatives whose luck with electronics is notoriously foul. Folks who cycle through crapped-out cell phones more frequently than shampoo bottles, or whose computers are swimming in a vortex of perpetual blue-screen mayhem.

Maybe there’s something to this madness. It’s not like all of science has ruled this out. Take, for example, Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli.

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Wolfgang was no slouch. Nominated by Albert Einstein, he snagged the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which has to do with quantum mechanics, spin theory, and a star-studded cast of concepts I won’t pretend to understand. Pauli’s lasting reputation among those of us whose brains aren’t tuned to the frequency of theoretical physics is his bizarre effect on lab equipment. Read more…

Day 530: The Bestselling Hoaxes

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The notion that ‘sex sells’ is a concept older than advertising itself. The beauty within that tiny catchphrase is that, for a long time, advertisers could manipulate the concept and the public really had no idea that they were merely succumbing to the prodding of their most base urges. We now live in an age of cynicism, where nothing is true unless snopes.com says so, where doubt and suspicion line the walls of our world-view, and where grand hoaxes upon the masses might be a little trickier to pull off.

Well, maybe. It’s impossible to say whether or not the great hoaxes – in particular the great literary hoaxes of the past could fool people today. It didn’t take long before everyone knew that the book topping the bestseller list last year was an adapted piece of Twilight fan-fiction, sprinkled with rough sex. But in the end, it didn’t affect sales.

In fact, it probably helped sales. It’s not a far cry from what went down some 34 years ago, back when the paperback-loving public went ga-ga over Naked Came The Stranger.

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Mike McGrady, a columnist for Newsweek, was sifting through the bestseller list one day in 1966. He was… well, disgusted might not be the right word. He was saddened by the current state of American literary culture. Where once the upper tier of book sales consisted of works by J.D. Salinger or F. Scott Fitzgerald, now it was dominated by what he saw as low-brow work by Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susann. A book needed no intrinsic value – it only needed sex. Throw in enough swarthy, sweaty men and buxom, sensual women and the faceless denizens combing the nation’s bookstores will slap down their cash. Read more…

Day 471: The Millar Will & The Heaps Of Sex It Instigated

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Those of us in the comedy writing game are always looking for a new medium through which we can impart our twisted view to the world, in hopes someone will laugh, maybe give us some kind of response, and perhaps even validate what we have gathered to be an otherwise directionless and futile existence. Tweak your Twitter feed to follow nothing but comedy writers and the site is a joy to visit. Some have channeled their talents into writing amazon.com reviews or witty Youtube comments.

But what about legal documents? Not a lot of opportunity to impart chuckles there. Not unless you’re a prank-loving lawyer like Toronto’s Charles Vance Millar.

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Charlie was a well-known practical joker. When a fatal heart attack came a-knockin’ in 1926, Charlie also went to his grave a life-long bachelor with no children and no close relatives. He knew things would wrap up this way, so Charlie took special care to ensure his will would keep his name in the press for a while after his death.

First, there was the matter of the Ontario Jockey Club. Charlie left the club to three men – two upstanding members of the community who were vehemently opposed to horse racing, and one who was  a ‘colorful’ character whose reputation would have barred him from being a member of the club. Then there was the Kenilworth Jockey Club. Charlie bequeathed one share of the club to every practicing minister in three towns in the greater Toronto area. These ministers agonized over the moral conundrum of accepting these shares. No doubt hushed debates over the implications of this ownership in a gambling facility circulated from pew to pew in each congregation. Read more…