Tag: Prank

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 901: Yapping With The Dead – The Fabulous Fraud Of The Fox Sisters

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The perpetual gullibility of the human race provides an unending cavalcade of hilarity. We believe – sometimes because we want to, sometimes because the hoaxsters and peddlers of smarm know how to take advantage of our weak moments. For the born-again skeptics, no phenomenon travels in this world without an accompanying explanation stuffed into its baggage. Most folks believe there might be something to the unseen – that’s where the scammers step in.

When Kate and Margaret Fox discovered at a young age (12 and 15 respectively) that with tremendous ease they could convince their family and community that they could communicate with the deceased, it must have been a revelation. The world is ripe and ready for free-form plucking once you convince it that your fingertips hold a quiver of magic. The Fox sisters learned this when they were young enough to be gobsmacked by their success, yet old enough to work it into a career.

Or maybe it’s all true. Maybe they did possess the gift of gab with the dearly departed. After all, the spiritualism movement that ensued in their wake included a number of intellectual heavyweights and revered luminaries. Though when push comes to push-overs, I think I’ll side with the skeptics on this one.

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Kate and Margaret lived in an allegedly haunted house in a place called Hydesville in northwestern New York. In 1848, when the girls were the ages I mentioned above, strange noises began oozing through the floorboards. The girls began communicating with this mysterious spirit: Kate would snap her fingers and the ghost would repeat the sequence. The spirit would tap out the girls’ ages. Eventually, a system developed by which the ethereal stranger could answer yes-no questions through its otherworldly tapping. Read more…

Day 822: Pitying The Fools

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My wife hates April Fools’ Day.

She has a legitimate reason, stemming from the scar-worthy childhood trauma of watching one of her friends get April-Fooled into a lengthy scavenger hunt for a brand new puppy by his parents, only to discover the final prize was nothing but a prank. Were she not the empathetic soul I know her to be, I might assume this to be an elaborate act of transference on her memory’s part, that this may have happened to her; thankfully my in-laws aren’t quite so cruel.

I have always maintained an appreciation for a meticulously blueprinted ruse, provided the only perpetrated harm is the gloppy egg of embarrassment upon the face of one’s target. Every few years some news outlet or public pulpit successfully melds a crafty sense of humor with their automatic public earpiece and delivers a delicious morsel of weirdness to justify April Fools’ Day’s presence on our calendars.

A quality media prank is a rickety bridge above the chasm of banality and/or outright stupidity. One needs to find the threshold of credulity and glide one’s words upon it without causing a rupture in believability. We see this every so often when an article from The Onion or The Daily Currant makes its way as gospel into people’s Facebook feeds. When executed poorly, it’s a bad joke. When done right, it’s art.

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That Swiss lady plucking fresh pasta from her spaghetti tree was the talk of the British water coolers on the morning of April 2, 1957, after the BBC had run a story about the popular agricultural phenomenon the night before. The show was Panorama, a current-affairs, 60 Minutes-style show that’s still on the air today, and the gag was delivered without punchline. The segment focussed on a family in Ticino, northern Switzerland, as they reaped the bounty of a hearty winter spaghetti harvest, having defeated the nasty spaghetti weevil. Read more…

Day 808: Gnomes Akimbo

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Somehow I have resisted the overwhelming urge to adorn my lawn with kitschy trinkets and cutesy personalization. I prefer to express my individuality with my neighbors via the curious stench of empty liquor bottles and spring-thaw dog poo that meanders with the wind around my block. If someone opted to drop a plastic flamingo, a giant painted ladybug rock or a foot-high windmill replica into my possession as a gift, I would not display it in my yard.

I wouldn’t worry about offending that someone either – obviously if they gave me a gift like that they don’t know me at all.

But I don’t judge. Some people like to scatter tchotchkes around their yard like arbitrary sprinkles on a big green donut. That’s their thing, and as long as they don’t overdo it, I won’t criticize. Hell, it’s probably an effective way of giving people directions (“Turn right at the gas station, left at the tree shaped like two copulating ferrets, and mine is the brick house on the left with the sexy flower goddess out front.”).

So simple! And so disturbing.

So simple! And so disturbing.

But what really gets me is the gnomes.

Garden gnomes. They’re mythical creatures, I get it. But you don’t see a lot of homes with a minotaur or a three-testicled bat-wing unicorn out front (hey, I make up my own myths. So what?). The gnome phenomenon is no more offensive or weird than the pink plastic flamingo displays, except that they have inspired a bizarre wave of deviance among those who feel the lawn statuettes should be “liberated” in order to grant them the freedom that their mythical equivalents would treasure. Read more…

Day 727: The Great Tree Caper Of ’98

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It was a crime chiseled from the musty grey stone of infamy. In its weary aftermath, a nation would rub its sweat-stung eyes, check itself in the mirror and know that nothing would ever appear the same again. The air would forever be bathed in a perpetual murk, and where once strangers could pass one another without subconsciously clenching a suspicious knobby fist, now all that remained was an atmosphere of collective mistrust.

The foolhardy among us paused mid-chortle to label this a ‘victimless crime’. Those flippant voices have grown dusty and cracked in the years since. We exist in a world of tinted light and soul-slicing angular shadows now. Our distractions have come to serve as our collective therapy. Not a tear-choked throat among us will ever forget where they were the night the Tree went missing.

The Stanford Tree. That chlorophyll-oozing bastion of our humanity that was forever desecrated by the heinous actions of the Phoenix Five. It pains me so much to relive this agony-soaked affair I must bite down on a gauze-wrapped Nerf dart just to keep from crying out in anguish as my words stab the screen. But this is how we cope. We tell the story.

Let’s start at the beginning.

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The Stanford student body decided in 1972 to purge their sporting community of its symbolic racism by abandoning its Indian mascot and seeking something more universal and less genocide-y. The mighty Tree arose as a student body joke, mocking the administration’s lack of commitment to a new identity beyond the color ‘cardinal’. Since then the Stanford Tree has come to symbolize harmony, warmth and joyous flora. The Tree was more than a symbol – it was the very embodiment of all that was good and positive in the world. Read more…

Day 722: Santa A-Go-Go

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While shopping for a pair of Christmas socks for my personal cheese carver at the mall yesterday, I was overwhelmed by the straggling line of drooling children awaiting their turn on Santa’s lap. The expressions on their parents’ faces was one of zombified exhaustion and haunted anticipation that their kids will beg the old man for something they had neglected to buy.

I was reminded of when I stopped believing in Santa; it was about five minutes after I started asking questions. “He comes down the chimney,” they told me. But I spent every Christmas eve at my grandmother’s house, and she had no fireplace. “Oh,” they said.” “Well, he slips under the door then.”

Bullshit. Had my family been better liars I might have kept up with the fantasy a little longer. Maybe the flaws inherent in the Santa legend itself need to be addressed. Had Santa’s concoctors infused a bit of Gene Rodenberry-type imagination into the tale (“Lieutenant-Commander Blitzen beams Santa into every living room..”), they might have sold me. But Santa is a locally-brewed phenomenon – maybe one of the legends or traditions performed elsewhere has it right.

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Saint Nicholas is the celebrity gift-giver throughout most of Europe, dropping his goodies almost three weeks before Santa makes his run here. His sidekick is a guy named Zwarte Piet, or literally ‘Black Pete’. He showed up in an 1850 book published by Jan Schenkman, an Amsterdam school teacher, as Saint Nick’s humble servant. Over the years the slave-boy got a name: Pete. Traditionally he is portrayed by a person in blackface. Read more…

Day 705: Legends Of Urbania

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The beauty of the Internet Age is how information – or more entertainingly, misinformation – oozes like honey-sludge, coating the globe in a glossy sheen of non-truths and insidious punks. Mischievous urban legends have been inspiring tizzies for as long as there have been folks around to lend their ears, but email and social media are like kerosene-swamped kindling, spreading the flames of tall tales from send-click to send-click in triple-time.

Those who have been burned by generous Nigerian princes or some such costly buffoonery are no doubt tuned in to the deceptive nature of online ‘info’. But I am still baffled on a regular basis how many people are unaware of snopes.com or the Museum of Hoaxes, two sites that are invaluable for cramming that valuable hiccup of pause between reading and believing.

Below I’ve included a half-dozen urban legends, often relayed in hushed tones around a high school cafeteria table or an office email circle. You probably know them, and if you’ve done your homework you probably know how much fiction has been shoveled atop any grain of actual fact that might be contained therein. But in case you haven’t tried to debunk ‘em, now’s your chance to learn the truth.

Which is taken from the internet, so… well surely you can trust me, right?

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McDonald’s Operates A Shadow Company To Fool Us

McDonald’s is an easy target. We know it’s bad for us, but eventually the tales of unsaturated fats and unfathomable calories get a little stale, which is why the company has had to deny using eyeballs in their burgers and chicken feathers in their shakes. The phrase “100% Pure Beef” has been slapped on McDonald’s containers since they were made out of crunchy McStyrofoam. So if we know faulty advertising is an easy crime for the FDA to snag, what if the phrase wasn’t bogus but simply misleading? What if they simply purchased their filler-infused beef from a company called “100% Pure Beef”? Read more…

Day 524: In Praise Of The Mighty Doughnut

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The month of June is one often scowled at by office drones such as myself every year. Sure, we dads get a little love on the third Sunday, but there isn’t a single day off throughout the entire month. Where’s the joy? What do I do with that innate vibration in my gut that always wants to celebrate something, yet never gets around to telling my employer that I want to take all the Jewish holidays off, even though I don’t celebrate them?

The answer is simple: National Doughnut Day.

This is not some arbitrary corporate-concocted product of Big Dunkin’, looking for an excuse to move a hefty sum of Marble Frosted Cocoa goodness out the front door in June. This is a real thing stemming from good intentions.

And it gives me an excuse to write about doughnuts, so even if I don’t get the day off, I’m happy.

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Leave it to the good people of Chicago to come up with something as fantastic as a day to celebrate the simple doughnut. The tale actually begins back in 1917 when the US wandered onto the stage of the first World War. The Salvation Army, looking to ease the burden for the troops, set up special ‘huts’ that would serve them baked goods, stitch up their torn uniforms and provide them with stationary and stamps to send notes to their families back home. One problem – it wasn’t easy setting up ovens and bringing in supplies to bake fresh treats for the soldiers every day. Read more…

Day 519: Shaq Fu & Other Ridiculous Celebrity-Endorsed Video Games

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If you’re a struggling video game developer, looking for some kind of hook to propel you into the elite ranks of… of various elite video game developers (sorry, no names come to mind here), there’s a simple answer. Find yourself a celebrity who’s willing to slap their name on your product. That derivative basketball game you created would sell a lot more copies with LeBron James allowing his face on the cover. Made a tennis game? Negotiate with a  Williams Sister. Want to move a few million units of that realistic skeet shooting simulator? See of you can snag the rights to 2011 world champion Juan Jose Aramburu. It probably won’t be hard.

But this is all old news. Every gamer has probably invested a few hours in a Madden Football game, Tiger Woods Golf, or if they’re old enough, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. But I’m more interested in the stranger celebrity video games.

Stuff like Shaq Fu.

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Most people remember Shaquille O’Neal as one of the greatest basketball players of the 1990’s, or perhaps as the guy who popularized size-22 shoes. But to adherents of GameBoy, Super Nintendo, Game Gear and Sega Genesis, he was also a master of kung fu. In this poorly-conceived game – which happened around the same time Shaq was also pretending to be a rapper and a movie star – you play as Shaq, trying to rescue a boy from an evil mummy in another dimension. Read more…

Day 491: Paper Towns

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Welcome to beautiful sunny Argleton! While this gorgeous English village won’t appear in many tourist guide books, you’ll nevertheless be impressed by its stunning… minimalism. In fact, Argleton is so profoundly minimalist, one could say it doesn’t actually exist. But it must, right? I mean, it shows up on Google Maps, so how could the place not be there?

But it’s not. If you followed the trail on Google through West Lancashire, slightly northeast of the civil parish of Aughton, you’d find that Argleton is a visual disappointment. All you’ll have to show for your journey is this:

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This is because Argleton is in fact nothing more than a strange glitch in the lore of Google mappery. Head of Edge Hill University’s web services Mike Nolan first caught this anomaly in 2008, which piqued a modicum of media interest in the non-existent town. It became a running Twitter punchline, and even sparked the creation of an Argleton website, complete with an extensive town history, upcoming events, and a 6-day travel guide to the area.

Argleton may have been a simple mistake, either by Google or by Tele Atlas, the company that supplies Google with their map information. It may have been a common metasyntactic variable, a placeholder used by the computer program that powers the map. It could be a typo as well, a misspelling of ‘Aughton’, which is right next to it on the map. It’s also quiet likely that Argleton is a paper town. Read more…