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Posts Tagged ‘hoax

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed!”*…

As a teenager I was completely suckered in by a television documentary hoax (Forgotten Silver, by Peter Jackson pre-Lord of the Rings). For many years it was quite a sore spot for me that I was duped. I imagine the many people who believed that The War of the Worlds depicted an actual Martian invasion felt the same way. And twelve years before Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio play another hoax on the airwaves was terrifying the innocent public.

Broadcasting the Barricades by the mystery writer [and Catholic priest] Ronald Knox was performed on BBC Radio in early 1926. Styled like a news report, it described a Bolshevik revolution running through the streets of London. Government ministers were captured and strung up; the Savoy Hotel and the Palace of Westminster were both blown up (thus toppling the Clock Tower and Big Ben too).

Now, there were plenty of clues that it was a hoax. Not least of which was that they told everyone it was not real at the start. Not everyone caught that [as was the case with World of the Worlds], or the many announcements to the same effect on the same channel later that night. Complicating matters, a snowstorm prevented the next day’s newspapers getting out of London, stoking fears that the capital city was in ruins or occupied by revolutionary forces. And 1926 UK was a tense place already: four months after Broadcasting the Barricades, 1.7 million workers joined a general strike in support of locked out coal miners…

The radio hoax that presaged– and inspired– Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds: “From the Barricades.”

The BBC’s own account of the occasion (the source of the image above) is here. And here is the amusing tale of an Australian variation on the theme, broadcast a year after Knox’s pioneering effort.

Oh, and Forgotten Silver is wonderful!

* “Reporter Carl Phillips” (Frank Readick), The War of the Worlds

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As we check our sources, we might recall that it was on this date in 1843 that John Browne Bell published the first of his London-based newspaper, The News of the World. Bell’s competitive strategy was to focus on the sensational and the lurid– basically, crime and vice… a strategy that served him and subsequent owners, most recently Rupert Murdoch and News Corp., extremely well. Indeed, its long suit in celebrity scoops, gossip, and populist news– especially its somewhat prurient focus on sex scandals– gained it the nickname News of the Screws.

In 2011, 25 years after Murdoch had made it into the Sunday edition of his paper The Sun, The News of the World was closed… sort of. In its last decade it had developed a reputation for exposing celebrities’ drug use, sexual peccadilloes, or criminal acts, by using insiders and journalists in disguise to provide video or photographic evidence, and covert phone hacking in ongoing police investigations. Many of these allegations proved true. On July 4, 2011 it was revealed that, nearly a decade earlier, a private investigator hired by the newspaper had intercepted the voicemail of missing British teenager Milly Dowler, who was later found murdered. Amid a public backlash and the withdrawal of advertising, News International announced the closure of the newspaper three days later.

After a brief hiatus, the fun continued in The Sunday Sun (with many former News of the World staffers), but without several senior News of the World editors, who were arrested and indicted for illegal wiretapping, bribing police officers for information, and other offenses.

Front-page of the first issue

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“Loki’d!”*…

January 2, 1961: 100,000 spectators filled Pasadena’s Rose Bowl stadium to watch the Minnesota Golden Gophers take on the Washington Huskies in the New Year’s Day game (played that year on January 2 because the 1st fell on a Sunday). Millions more watched around the nation, crowded in front of tv sets in living rooms, restaurants, and bars.

NBC was providing live coverage of the game. At the end of the first half the Huskies led 17 to 0, and the audience settled in to watch the half-time show for which the Washington marching band had prepared an elaborate flip-card routine.

Sets of variously colored flip cards and an instruction sheet had been left on seats in the section of the stadium where the Washington students were located. When the students heard the signal from the cheerleaders, they were each supposed to hold up the appropriate flip card (as designated by the instruction sheet) over their head. In this way different gigantic images would be formed that would be visible to the rest of the stadium, as well as to those viewing at home. The Washington band planned on displaying a series of fifteen flip-card images in total.

The flip-card show got off to a well-coordinated start. Everything went smoothly, and the crowd marvelled at the colorful images forming, as if by magic, at the command of the cheerleaders. It wasn’t until the 12th image that things began to go a little wrong. This image was supposed to depict a husky, Washington’s mascot. But instead a creature appeared that had buck teeth and round ears. It looked almost like a beaver.

The next image was even worse. The word ‘HUSKIES’ was supposed to unfurl from left to right. But for some reason the word was reversed, so that it now read ‘SEIKSUH’.

These strange glitches rattled the Washington cheerleaders. They wondered if they might have made some careless mistakes when designing the complex stunt. But there was nothing for them to do about it now except continue on, and so they gave the signal for the next image.

What happened next has lived on in popular memory long after the rest of the 1961 Rose Bowl has been forgotten. It was one of those classic moments when a prank comes together instantly, perfectly, and dramatically.

The word ‘CALTECH’ appeared, held aloft by hundreds of Washington students. The name towered above the field in bold, black letters and was broadcast to millions of viewers nationwide.

For a few seconds the stadium was plunged into a baffled silence. Everyone knew what Caltech was. It was that little Pasadena technical college down the road from the Rose Bowl stadium. What no one could figure out was what its name was doing in the middle of Washington’s flip-card show. Throughout the United States, a million minds simultaneously struggled to comprehend this enigma.

In fact, only a handful of people watching the game understood the full significance of what had just happened, and these were the Caltech students who had labored for the past month to secretly alter Washington’s flip-card show…

More on one of the great pranks of all time: “The Great Rose Bowl Hoax,” via The Museum of Hoaxes.

See also this explication of one of the more successful imitators.

* Tom Hiddleston

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As we treasure tricksters, we might recall that on this date in 2006 the City Councils of Reykjavik and its neighboring municipalities agreed to turn off all the city lights in the capital area for half an hour, while a renowned astronomer talked about the stars and the constellations on national radio.

(Ten years later they dimmed again to allow unpolluted viewing of the Northern Lights.)

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Written by LW

September 28, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it… Geniuses remove it.”*…

 

complexity

 

World War II bomber planes returned from their missions riddled with bullet holes. The first response was, not surprisingly, to add armor to those areas most heavily damaged. However, the statistician Abraham Wald made what seemed like the counterintuitive recommendation to add armor to those parts with no damage. Wald had uniquely understood that the planes that had been shot where no bullet holes were seen were the planes that never made it back. That’s, of course, where the real problem was. Armor was added to the seemingly undamaged places, and losses decreased dramatically.

The visible bullet holes of this pandemic are the virus and its transmission. Understandably, a near-universal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to double down on those disciplines where we already possess deep and powerful knowledge: immunology and epidemiology. Massive resources have been directed at combating the virus by providing fast grants for disciplinary work on vaccines. Federal agencies have called for even more rapid response from the scientific community. This is a natural reaction to the immediate short-term crisis.

The damage we are not attending to is the deeper nature of the crisis—the collapse of multiple coupled complex systems.

Societies the world over are experiencing what might be called the first complexity crisis in history. We should not have been surprised that a random mutation of a virus in a far-off city in China could lead in just a few short months to the crash of financial markets worldwide, the end of football in Spain, a shortage of flour in the United Kingdom, the bankruptcy of Hertz and Niemann-Marcus in the United States, the collapse of travel, and to so much more.

As scientists who study complex systems, we conceive of a complexity crisis as a twofold event. First, it is the failure of multiple coupled systems—our physical bodies, cities, societies, economies, and ecosystems. Second, it involves solutions, such as social distancing, that involve unavoidable tradeoffs, some of which amplify the primary failures. In other words, the way we respond to failing systems can accelerate their decline.

We and our colleagues in the Santa Fe Institute Transmission Project believe there are some non-obvious insights and solutions to this crisis that can be gleaned from studying complex systems and their universal properties…

The more complicated and efficient a system gets, the more likely it is to collapse altogether.  Scientists who study complex systems offer solutions to the pandemic: “The Damage We’re Not Attending To.”

See also: “Complex Systems Theory Explains Why Covid Crushed the World.”

* Alan Perlis

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1835 that the New York Sun began a series of six articles detailing the discovery of civilized life on the moon.  Now known as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles attributed the “discovery” to Sir John Herschel, the greatest living astronmer of the day.  Herschel was initially amused, wryly noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting.  But ultimately he tired of having to answer questioners who believed the story.  The series was not discovered to be a hoax for several weeks after its publication and, even then, the newspaper did not issue a retraction.

The “ruby amphitheater” on the Moon, per the New York Sun (source)

 

“The Master’s tools will be used to take apart the Master’s house”*…

 

Abel

 

Alan Abel, a professional hoaxer who for more than half a century gleefully hoodwinked the American public — not least of all by making himself the subject of an earnest news obituary in The New York Times in 1980 — apparently actually did die, on [September 14], at his home in Southbury, Conn. He was 94…

Long before The Onion began printing farcical news articles, long before the Yes Men enacted their first culture-jamming political pranks, there was Alan Abel. A former jazz drummer and stand-up comic who was later a writer, campus lecturer and filmmaker, Mr. Abel was best known as a perennial public gadfly, a self-appointed calling that combined the verbal pyrotechnics of a 19th-century flimflam man with acute 20th-century media savvy.

He was, the news media conceded with a kind of irritated admiration, an American original in the mold of P. T. Barnum, a role model whom Mr. Abel reverently acknowledged…

An American Original: “Alan Abel, Hoaxer Extraordinaire, Is (on Good Authority) Dead at 94.”

For more on the equally-glorious Yes Men, see here and here.

* Anonymous

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As we find our way through fake news, we might spare a thought for John Augustus Larson; he died on this date in 1965.  A Berkeley, California policeman, he was the first American police officer to have an academic doctorate and to use polygraph– which he invented– in criminal investigations.

220px-John_Larson_in_1921 source

 

Written by LW

October 1, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I prefer the monsters of my fancy to what is positively trivial”*…

 

In the summer of 1937, stories started appearing in the local papers on and around Nantucket illustrated by photographs of giant footprints found on a local beach. Given the region’s long history of sea-serpent sightings, rumors quickly spread suggesting that, at last, one of the elusive creatures had come ashore.

Soon, indeed, a gigantic creature was spotted on Nantucket’s South Beach.  People came flocking to investigate; but instead of the long awaited New England Sea Serpent, they found something quite different – a serpent of the inflatable balloon variety.

The whole thing had been an elaborate publicity stunt staged by the puppeteer Tony Sarg (pictured, smiling, in the center of the picture below).  Over the preceding decade, Sarg (working with his protege Bil Baird) had pioneered inflatable puppets for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair– as a result of which he was widely known as “the father of modern puppetry” and as “America’s Puppet Master.”  His sea-serpent was an attempt to get Nantucket in the news (and, no doubt, drum up a bit of business for Tony Sarg’s Curiosity Shop).  In the event, it worked.  After several weeks drawing crowds to Nantucket’s beaches, the installation made its way to New York City, where it starred in that year’s Macy’s Parade.

More at “The Nantucket Sea-Serpent Hoax.”

* Charles Baudelaire

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As we decide that it’s finally safe to go back into the water, we might recall that this date is Saint Vitus’ Day. Vitus was a martyr in the very early 4th century, who became the patron saint of actors, comedians, dancers, and epileptics, and is said to protect against lightning strikes, animal attacks, and oversleeping.

Given his attachment to both terpsichore and tremors, it’s no surprise that he’s the namesake of a phenomenon– St. Vitus’ Dance (AKA Dancing Mania)– that affected thousands in Europe for centuries.  The condition involved groups of people dancing erratically, sometimes thousands at a time– a mania that affected men, women, and children, who danced until they collapsed from exhaustion.  While the first recorded outbreak was in the 7th century, the first major event was in 1374, in Aachen, Germany, from which it quickly spread throughout Europe; and perhaps the most notable outbreak occurred in Strasbourg in 1518.  St Vitus’ Dance appears to have completely died out by the mid-17th century.

Engraving by Hendrik Hondius portrays three women affected by the mania. The work is based on an original drawing by Peter Brueghel, who reportedly witnessed an outbreak of St Vitus’ Dance in 1564 in Flanders.

 source

Written by LW

June 15, 2014 at 1:01 am

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