Tag: Skeptic

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 955: Conquering The Energy Problem, Wang-Style

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What if I told you that I’d recently unlocked a treasure of scientific magic so potent and transformative it would affect the way everyone on the planet conducted their everyday lives. “But wait,” you might say, “haven’t you been spending the past 955 days writing a bunch of hastily-researched yet irrepressibly delightful articles?” “Okay,” I’d probably admit, “you have a point.”

But if the year was 1983, and “you” were the Chinese government and “I” was Wang Hongcheng, an uneducated bus driver from Harbin, you might actually listen. This was supposed to be the game-changer that would propel China from a communist non-player into the driver’s seat of the global economic Hummer. China would win the energy game; the Middle East would need to find something besides bubblin’ crude to keep their gazillions rolling in; the entirety of everything would be flipped.

All because of Wang’s magic liquid. The stuff that dreams are made of – the stuff that could build an empire whilst crumbling several others.

Also, if someone ends up making a movie out of this story, I hope they call it Wang’s Magic Liquid. But they probably won’t.

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Wang Hongcheng made it through ninth grade, served some time as a soldier, then became a bus driver – just another faceless cog among the Harbin masses, toiling at a day job and doing his obligatory service for the collective, in accordance with Maoist principles. But clearly Wang wanted more. Wang wanted to be known for something extraordinary. Despite his complete lack of scientific training, Wang claimed he had invented a liquid that could transform a bland liter of water into a spectacular fuel, simply by adding a few precious drops of his secret serum. 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 804: The Dance Sensation That Swept The First Nations

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As a fiercely devout skeptic I have little patience for incorporating any spiritual routine into my life apart from my daily dose of Otis Redding and/or Etta James, both of whom possessed vocal talents that by their very nature taunted non-believers with their otherworldly oomph. Religious rituals, from Cree to Christianity and all points in between, hold little appeal for me. But as a professional anthropologist (and by ‘professional’ I mean the exact opposite of that), I possess a healthy curiosity for the spiritual to-do list of all my fellow humans.

I have been to a couple Native American round dances, and while I can’t speak with any praise to the music – there’s no backbeat, no groove, no emphasis on the ‘1’ – I admire the grace and harmonious tranquility in the process. It really jounces my think-meat to learn that this same dance directly led to an unthinkable slaughter.

I suppose it’s the old cliché of fearing what one doesn’t understand. Perhaps one can attribute the Wounded Knee debacle to abject stupidity or the tense national atmosphere due to the wretched economy under that spend-heavy rascal president, Benjamin Harrison. Mostly I think the massacre came about due to that tragic chemical collision between two of the most devious elements in the universe: ignorance and assholery.

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By 1889, the bulk of the hostile skirmishes between Natives and Americans had subsided. The “old west” was beginning to peter out, and the new president was stubbornly set on filling in all that ‘territory’ space in the nation’s abdomen with legitimate states. On that list was South Dakota, which at the time was loaded with Sioux who had been “cordially assigned” chunks of land there by the US government. The government’s plan was to integrate the Native Americans by whatever means necessary. Read more…

Day 668: Canada’s Dead Won’t Shut Up Either

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For an old building, the rumor of spectral haunting is a compliment. It’s one thing to have a turn-of-the-20th-century gothic hotel in your town, creeping out passing pedestrians. But if you can pepper the building’s history with the tale of a chambermaid whose head was decapitated by the dumbwaiter door in 1906, with hundreds of tourists swearing they’ve heard her muffled screams through the walls or spotted her headless spectre dusting the ballroom ever since… well, now you’ve got a municipal landmark.

It doesn’t matter if the so-called haunting is real. Like I pointed out in yesterday’s batch of five creepy spots lurking around the continental United States, our collective imagination and willingness to buy into paranormal lore will continue to feed these tales. Those among us who are cynics and skeptics can draw our own conclusions.

But this is not the time for debunking. It’s the time for spelunking, by which I mean we should traipse through the shadowy cave of that which tightens our veins and sets our skin a-crawlin’. There’s something tragically anti-visceral about embarking on a quest to expose the illusions behind the unexplained. In this spirit I’m going to poke and prod around my own Canadian backyard for some quality Halloween-week spookery.

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To do this right I’m going to start with a notoriously spirit-heavy spot in Edmonton, just a five minute walk from where I went to high school. Once upon a time it was the Charles Camsell Hospital, but in the 1990’s the crown of urban decay was hoisted on its asbestos-laden frame. Naturally, hundreds of locals have crawled about the wreckage, looking for whatever it is people look for in toxic abandoned building-bones. But some have reported hearing screams from the fourth floor, where the psych ward used to be. Read more…

Day 667: Five Spine-Tickling Must-Sees Of Haunted America

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As you may or may not be aware, you are required by law to scare yourself at least once between now and Thursday. Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to have plunked your belongings into a house with a ghoulish past. Maybe like most of us you’ll shirk your requisite tribute to the universally spooky and placate yourself with the hopes that few children will show up at your door, leaving more fun-size Snickers bars for your weekend snacking.

But where’s the fun in that? Even if you thumb your nose at tales of the paranormal, they still make for some great tales. I took a ‘Haunted London’ bus trip a couple years ago, and while the legends of the spirit-based residents of London Tower and the sites of murder and bloodshed and arson failed to convince me there were long-dead Brits hanging around to spook up the night, it was a darkly hilarious way to spend an hour.

And with so many Americans who are eager to buy into the absurd and logically impossible (hey! You elected George W. Bush twice! <rimshot for this politically dated joke, thank you very much>), there are hundreds of quality haunted spots to visit. These are best enjoyed if you’re not a skeptic, not a pragmatic buzz-kill, and have at least a twinge of imagination. Let’s start at Boy Scout Lane.

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You’re walking along a quiet country road in rural Wisconsin in the area known as Stevens Point. The bony branches of the balding trees swoon in the crisp, tempered wind. This is Boy Scout Lane, named for the Boy Scout camp that was supposed to be built here but never was. Why not? It depends which story you want to deal from the deck of urban legend surrounding the place. Read more…

Day 616: Top Floor – Ladies’ Wear, Shoes, And The Cold Dark Void Of Space

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A scientist looks at a problem and asks, “How?” A skeptic looks at a problem and asks, “Why?” A caribou looks at a problem and just keeps on moseying along because a caribou has no damn problems. When faced with the dilemma of constructing a viable and dependable space elevator, the caribou will show no interest, exhibit no signs of stress, and simply carry on eating whatever it is that a caribou eats (I’m guessing raccoons?).

But humankind didn’t get where it is by giving up and eating. No, we packed that food into a quickly-consumable paste of protein and insulating chemicals, threw on our paisley thinking-vests, and addressed the issue with imagination, innovation, and ridiculously difficult math.

Certainly if we can transplant one’s butt hair to one’s head, if we can process cheese into shiny, single-wrapped squares, if we can teach a frog to play “The Rainbow Connection” on the banjo, we can figure out how to build an elevator into space. How hard can it be?

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That crazy-looking Russian is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, scientist, theorist, and professional crazy-looking Russian. His work in astronomic theory paved the way for all those people-packed tubes of steel we’ve tossed beyond the sky. One day, Konstantin was checking out the newly-minted Eiffel Tower and he thought,  “Hey… why can’t we build another one of these, except bigger? Like, all the way to outer space?” Read more…

Day 605: The Meaning(lessness) Of Dreams

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“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”

This quote beautifully sums up how easy it is to find quotes about dreams by using a search engine. Actually, you can learn a lot about interpreting your dreams on the internet, just as you can find a thousand contradictory horoscopes or even insane fan-fiction in which Donnie Darko sleeps with that woman from Medium.

But the thing about dream analysis is that people often believe the first site (or book or Cosmo article or whatever) that they read, as though there’s some repository of knowledge when it comes to dream analysis, and that source is simply tapping into the same vein of information as all the others.

Ever the skeptic, I don’t buy it. And I want to have some fun with it.

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I was going to do a run-down on the history of dream interpretation, from the ancient Greek belief that dreams predict the future to the Freudian concept of dreams being residue from the previous day’s experiences, to the modern psychoanalytic precept that everything in your dreams probably represents a penis. Then I got an idea. What if I selected three ‘dream dictionary’ sites and skimmed through them in search of weird or contradictory information? Read more…

Day 493: Combing The Chemtrails Conspiracy

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The typical hierarchy of a conspiracy theory is that there are the people with the facts and those who are in on the conspiracy. Those with the facts are eager – some may say ravenously eager – to share them, to bring more of the public “into the know”. Conspiracy theories generally require the dismissal of a considerable amount of evidence to support their cause. I read so much about the 9/11 conspiracy – for and against – that I finally had to shake my head free of the yellow dust and declare that I simply don’t care anymore – it was a tragedy, end of story.

I’m still on the fence about the whole JFK thing though.

Today I’m venturing into the murky chemical mire known as chemtrails. You’ve seen these before; they’re the “deadly” “poisonous” “gases” that spew from the back of commercial airliners as they rocket above our nation, blanketing us all in some government-orchestrated set-up of some kind.

Like manipulating our brains to accept and enjoy the worst possible entertainment.

Like manipulating our brains to accept and enjoy the worst possible entertainment.

The first rumblings of this overhead danger emerged in the mid-90’s, when the US Air Force was forced to issue an official statement, claiming the matter was a hoax. In August of 1996, a handful of officers drafted a paper for the Air Force’s Air University, one which posits a number of sci-fi situations in which the United States could control and manipulate the weather in order to achieve atmospheric dominance over their enemies. This includes creating storms over enemy territory, jamming their communication systems, and signing a non-aggression pact with the evil cloud jellyfish.

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Read more…