Tag: Students

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History


“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.


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 832: The Anti-Farting Law That Nearly Was


Every so often a story wanders down the legal footpath, leaving in its wake the floral stench of incalculable weirdness. In the case of the 2011 Air Fouling Legislation in the tiny southern African country of Malawi, the scent is remarkably different. This is the smell of post-legume discipline and puckered determination. This is the smell of one nation doing its best to think green, to live clean and to do right by its citizenry.

This is Malawi telling people: thou shalt not fart.

Well, not really. But for a brief period this was the government’s message, and it was this message that scooted around the globe and lit up the grins of news editors everywhere. It might have all stemmed from a misunderstanding, and deeper still from a genuine desire for a nation’s self-improvement, but it was one of the first pebbles in an eventual landslide that would throw the country into chaos and prematurely end the lives of several people.

I’m sure the backstory to the violent 2011 protests in Malawi can be traced much further than an anti-farting legislation. But this all happened right at the soil level, where the roots become the tree. It’s a strange tale with a downright cheek-clenching twist.


Malawi in 2011 was not about to challenge Disneyland’s claim to being the happiest place on earth. There were fuel shortages, electricity shortages, corruption, nepotism, a controversial new national flag and a general distrust of democratically-elected President Bingu wa Mutharika. The press was struggling with partial suppression, and the tenuous thread of democracy that was holding the country together was beginning to fray from the constant pull of the people’s discontent. Read more…

Day 796: Science-Sanctioned Baby Torture


I have always been an enthused spectator to science, particularly when it aims to show off just how messed up we humans can be. I wrote about the Milgram Experiment, in which doctors talked their subjects into inflicting painful electrical jolts through innocent people, and I’ve also touched on some of the more questionably ethical ways sciencey-types have tortured people in the name of figuring stuff out. It’s fun!

And there’s no shortage of potentially awful ideas in the psychological wheelhouse: hypotheses to explain our deviancy, antiquated pseudo-torture to test our malleability, and even borderline clinical dares, just to see how weak is our collective resolve. Prior to the drafting of the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics, all sorts of shenanigans were on the table.

Just as McDonald’s has successfully proven that our culture will go mad for a grotesque slab of questionable meatstuff, provided it’s a “limited time special” (a phenomenon I call McRibitis), a handful of strange experiments have exposed our tendencies for conformity in disturbing and stomach-swooshing ways.


Dr. John B. Watson, founder of behavioral psychology and apparently a part-time sadist, developed an exercise in experimental classical conditioning back in 1920. Working out of Johns Hopkins University, he and his assistant Rosalie Rayner wanted to see if they could implant an unnatural fear in an otherwise normal child’s mind. Watson observed that a child’s natural unconditioned response to a loud noise was fear. He wanted to use that un-doctored terror to condition a child to develop new fears.

I know, what an asshole right? Wait until you hear how he did it. Read more…

Day 727: The Great Tree Caper Of ’98


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.


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 647: Les Youths En Revolt


During my recent studies at the University of Alberta, the level of student activism was remarkably low. I’ve told the tale before, of how an organized protest against rising tuition costs was thwarted when the school handed out free ice cream outside the Administration Building.

This didn’t bother me as much as it might have when I was 18. Back then I was still naïve enough to believe a few well-crafted picket signs and expertly-penned folk songs were what ended the Vietnam War. I romanticized my parents’ age. It seems magical; even if the 1960’s counterculture didn’t change the world like they wanted to, they believed it would. I’d take that brand of blind optimism over the snarly pessimism that splashed its cold limp carcass all over the 1990’s.

But there wasn’t just magic and hope in the eyes of the youth in America. Over in France they had their own cultural awakening. And in May of 1968, it very nearly brought the entire system down.

This means "The Fight Continues". There's nothing about lute music implied.

This means “The Fight Continues”. There’s nothing about lute music implied.

Earlier in the year, the French Communists and French Socialists decided to team up and try to oust President Charles de Gaulle. They weren’t looking to stage a coup, but they did rally a number of poets and students at Paris University at Nanterre to discuss class discrimination and the unsympathetic bureaucracy that ran the school. The University’s admin called the cops. This was the beginning of the unpleasantness on campus. Read more…