(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘hoax

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




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


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”*…




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


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


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.


Written by LW

June 15, 2014 at 1:01 am

Been there, done that…


The Associated Press reported in early February 2009 that American Jennifer Figge had just completed a 2,100-mile swim across the Atlantic. The story reported that Figge had begun at Cape Verde, in western Africa—on January 12. It took little time for sharp-eyed readers to flinch, do a double take and read that again: January 12 to early February. Not even 30 days. That would have been 80 miles daily—three miles per hour nonstop for a month—to complete the journey…

Seem impossible?  It was.  Read the full story– and eight other “stretches”– at Smithsonian‘s “Cheating Their Way to Fame: The Top 9 Adventure Travel Hoaxes.”


As we burnish our travel tales, we might spare a thought for the man who told what is arguably the most amazing (albeit avowedly fictional) travel tale of all, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; he died on this date in 1616 (though some scholars put it a day earlier)– the same day as Shakespeare died, and (most likely) Shakespeare’s birthday.  As Somerset Maugham said,”casting my mind’s eye over the whole of fiction, the only absolutely original creation that I can think of is Don Quixote.”



Written by LW

April 23, 2013 at 1:01 am

(Big)foot in the mouth…

Picture of a Ghillie suit like the one worn by Randy Lee Tenley in his attempts at creating a stir of Bigfoot sightings.

44-year-old Randy Lee Tenley of Kalispell was apparently trying to provoke reports of a Bigfoot sighting in northwestern Montana; the Montana Highway Patrol reports that he was wearing a military style “Ghillie suit” and standing in the right-hand lane of U.S. Highway 93 south of Kalispell when he was hit by a car Sunday night. A second car hit him as he lay in the roadway.  Tenley was pronounced dead.

“Alcohol may have been a factor,” Trooper Jim Schneider told press. “Impairment is up in the air.”

Read the full story in the Daily News.

[TotH to NextDraft and friend KL]


As we muse on monstrous motives, we might recall that it was on this date in 1864 that Count Leo Tolstoy, author and mystical anarchist, was seized by a panic attack in a country inn– an episode that became the basis for “Notes of a Madman.”


Written by LW

September 3, 2012 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: