Archive for the ‘People’ Category

The Real Last American Pirate

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

Now the truth can be told.

The students in this course created a hoax called the Last American Pirate — the story of one student’s (her name is Jane Browning) attempt to find out as much as possible about a man named Edward Owens who was, supposedly, a pirate in Virginia in the late nineteenth century.

The hoax launched during the first week of December and between then and now more than 1,200 unique visitors came to the hoax website. Almost 200 visited Jane Browning’s YouTube channel. A few bloggers — most notably one at USAToday — picked up the story. The Wikipedia entry on our pirate was edited by several people not in the class — mostly to fix issues with the Wikipedia syntax.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on the class in its Friday, December 19, 2008 edition [premium access only, alas].

If you are at all outraged or offended by this hoax, please go to the hoax website where you can read the class mea culpa. You can also download a copy of the syllabus for the course from this website or from the hoax website if you want to know more about the class.

Research Paper on Hoaxes

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I found this online and thought it was interesting- it’s actually more about virus hoaxes, but it still definitely applies to what we’re talking about. It was presented at the 7th Virus Bulletin International Conference in 1997- looks at a number of reasons hoaxes fool people.

Cottingley Fairy Pictures

Monday, October 6th, 2008

We talked about this in class today- The full page on the hoax can be found at the Museum of Hoaxes page.

The First Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1917. 10-year-old Frances Griffiths in the garden with the fairies.

The second Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1917. 16-year-old Elsie Wright in the garden with a gnome.

The second Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1917. 16-year-old Elsie Wright in the garden with a gnome.

The third Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Frances with a leaping fairy.

The third Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Frances with a leaping fairy.

The fourth Cottingley Fairy Picture. Elsie with a fairy.

The fourth Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Elsie with a fairy.

The fifth Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Elsie and Frances insisted later (in 1981) that this was the only photo they had not faked.

The fifth Cottingley Fairy Picture, taken in 1920. Elsie and Frances insisted later (in 1981) that this was the only photo they had not faked.

There are further descriptions of the photographs on the link above. Enjoy!



Monday, October 6th, 2008

aka sandals, thongs, and originally JANDALS.

Jandals were created by Morris Yock, but this is a disputed fact as it may also have been John Cowie, in New Zealand in 1957.

Who knew? Who would care to look this tid-bit information up? Does it really matter?

Well, apparently someone did their homework to find out who owned the copyrights for jandals. I wanted to look it up because Professor Kelly and I were thinking about everyday items that probably very few people are likely to know the origins of or think to dispute the information if told, but could possibly get passed around. And the most important thing from this story is that the originator is disputed! So, in all actuality, it could be anyone still. (if you catch my drift..)

The Case of the Missing Memoirs

Friday, September 26th, 2008

Because we’ll be reading the history of the “Hitler Diaries” for next week, I thought I would tell you a story I know well of a missing autobiography/memoir that I tried to track down once upon a time.

When I was an MA student back in the 1980s I wrote my thesis on the diplomatic mission of an American named Ambrose Dudley Mann to Hungary in 1848. When the Civil War began, Mann (a Virginian) chose the Confederacy and became a Confederate diplomat in Europe. After the war he was an “irreconcilable” who refused to return to the United States, lived out his life in Paris, and died there. His obituary in various American newspapers said he was preparing his memoirs for publication at the time of his death. I couldn’t find his memoirs in print [See Google Books for works by him], so at first I assumed they didn’t exist.

Then I found an obituary for his son, who was a judge in Chicago. His son’s obituary said that just prior to Judge Mann’s death, he had been to Paris, where he had helped his father complete the editing of the memoirs, the manuscripts of which he had brought back with him to Chicago.

Ah ha! They do exist. But where?

Using the tricks of the geneaologist, I looked up Judge Mann’s will in the Cook County (Chicago) Courthouse. The will said that all of Judge Mann’s worldly effects had been bequeathed to his wife Minerva Meyers Mann. I then asked for a copy of her will, only to find out that her will had been destroyed in a fire at the Courthouse annex where it was stored.

A dead end.

That was in 1988 that I ran into the dead end. Since that time, the Internet has appeared and I’ve tried various tricks to see if I can unearth the missing memoirs. I’ve posted to geneaological society websites, I’ve written to people who count old Ambrose in their family trees. About once a year I do a Google search on him just in case someone has come up with something.

I’m just positive that the missing memoirs are sitting in a trunk in someone’s attic somewhere just waiting for me (or you) to find them. Whoever does find them will have an instant book contract, if only because any book about the Civil War finds a contract.

My experiences with this particular document helps me sympathize with those trying to authenticate the Hitler Diaries. Given all the chaos at the end of the war in Europe, it’s quite possible that a set of diaries, even Hitler’s, were lost, only to be found at some later date.

Swiss Spaghetti Harvest

Thursday, September 25th, 2008

Hello. I hope you all enjoyed your day off. Here is the actual video of the Swiss Spaghetti Harvest we heard about in class…

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!

Monday, September 15th, 2008

Over the weekend my wife and I were in State College, PA for a wedding. We stayed in the University’s conference center hotel and with us in the hotel were lots of youngish people, mostly with lots of piercings, interesting hair choices, and plenty of visible body ink–and most wearing black, black, and black. At one point we were riding down the elevator with a group of them–all of whom were wearing conference badges–and my wife asked what group they were with.

One of the young women promptly pulled out a business card and said “We’re here for the paranormal conference.” She was the “Case Manager for Myths and Urban Legends” at Long Island Paranormal Investigators. If we hadn’t been rushing off to the wedding, I would have told her that just the day before my students and I had been discussing myths and urban legends in class.

What do you think? Should we invite her to Fairfax?

Rocket Car

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

Why the story works:

On the first page he admits that it sounds a little off the wall and crazy. “I’m sure this sounds pretty ridiculous” He’s telling the reader that the story sounds absurd but bare with him and he will explain how everything flows together.

He admits that he’s not a rocket scientist, car expert or has must interest in urban legends. He’s careful on how he writes the story and how he builds the story up gradually. He talks about being a biology teacher, how he found the story on the internet and why he decided to write his version.

To make his story sound more believable he finds flaws in the Darwin’s version. He points the flaws out in his story about how Darwin’s version wouldn’t work or just plain stupid to even attempt “What strikes me as incredible silly about the Darwin Award version of the story is that the pilot chose to test his vehicle on a road with a c curve in it”.

The background information was very thorough. He’s extremely careful to include everything (plus more) to make the story plausible. He talks about his father owning a scrap yard and how they obtained their materials “we lived near a major US Army storage facility, a lot of the scrap my father bought and sold came from government auctions . . . Of course I’m telling you this because it’s how I managed to get hold of the JATO bottle we used for our rocket car” (how convenient). He also went in great depths about his friends that helped him build the rocket car and why he decided to choose them. “Jimmy and I met in the third grade and were best friends for most of our growing up . . . Jimmy went to college to study ‘mechanical engineering’”.

Even though he gave information on how everything came together – on choosing his friends, how they put the rocket car together, and where they did the test run I feel he went too far in depth with the information. It made me feel that he thought too long and hard on the process of how to make the story sound believable. Listing details was a great idea but he over did it on the number of details he used. The story was extremely drawn out.

He was also vague in certain parts of the story which made the reader doubt the creditability. “I won’t specify except to say it was somewhere in the desert”. Red flag goes up. There’s no way to prove that this story was true or not.

The critical elements in the story that convinced me that it was made up were the amount of details he added to the story. He wanted the story to sound believable and in order to do that he thought he had to add a step-by-step description of how he came about to build the rocket car and how they pulled it off. There’s a fine line of how much detail one should add to a story to make it sound plausible. The story was drawn out and I admit it made me lose interest half way through. Another critical element was the lack of evidence the story had. There was no way of finding out if this really took place or not, especially since he just said it happened in the desert somewhere. What we can learn from this is to make a story believable it does not need to be drawn out nor does it need an excessive amount of detail.

Assignment for Friday

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

For Friday’s class, I want you to write a brief analysis of the Rocket Car story from Wired. As yourself (a) why does this story work, (b) why doesn’t it work, (c) what are the critical elements in convincing you that it is the true story or a made up one, and finally (d) what we as a class should learn from this story. Post your analysis in the blog before class on Friday so everyone else will have a chance to read and think about what you had to say before class.

Butter Churns and Plagiarism

Monday, September 8th, 2008

I think it’s good we’re talking about plagiarism in class tomorrow- but I’ll have to admit I’m half dreading the conversations sure to come up in it.

I am a journalist- a profession much maligned by the general public at large for inaccuracy, immorality, and yes, plagiarism, among many other misdeeds. I pride myself in the fact that in my professional journalistic life, I keep my ethics high, but despair at the many out there who don’t feel as strongly or are not as careful as I usually am.

See- I know how easy it can be sometimes. I’ve seen people do it and I worry about it in my own notes. You do background research on a topic- take notes sometimes with exact quotes from sources- then use it as reference when you’re writing the story. I do my best to always set these exact quotes apart and never to use them in my own writing- but I can see how it can happen.

Back as a young overachieving perfectionist child in fourth grade- I did a science project on different butter churns and which one worked better. I’m not exactly certain what drew me to this subject except for my fascination with Laura Ingalls Wilder from an early age. While writing up the background information paper, I copied portions from a book describing pasteurization, knowing it was wrong, but not knowing how else to phrase the information. My mother caught me at it- apparently she figured out that I didn’t really know what all those long words meant- and gave me a stern lecture that’s stayed with me since.

However, it’s not so easy to tell plagiarism most of the time. As we grow older, our obvious vocabulary or writing deficiencies aren’t as obvious- and our editors and bosses are less likely to notice our errors. It’s hard- unless the piece is obviously not in the writer’s style, or the reader googles each and every sentence- sometimes it can be impossible to tell.

I know. I have myself missed plagiarism in a writer’s work not so long ago. It was a simple error on her part- a mess-up with notes and mental exhaustion- that I just missed completely. It got published and caught- she was derided as a liar and a bad reporter who could not be trusted. The entire publication fell under suspicion and a witch hunt began- many of my other writers were accused of plagiarizing in cases that they had not- some readers called for the firing of the writer and every editor who missed the mistake. The worst part is how this ended up really affecting the writer- her credibility was shot for good- she is not put in any position of authority even now- not because of a lack of trust from her bosses, but because of the knowledge that the readers can not and would not trust her or give her a chance to regain that trust in such a position.

To this day, I feel so guilty- like I let her down completely. I wish with my whole heart I had checked a little closer- saved her from all the grief that’s befallen her. I do my best to keep my journalistic ethics clean from any spot or need for reproach to avoid her fate.

It makes me wonder- how do I, who work to keep my ethics in my profession so high, justify the fact that by participating in this class, I will be creating a hoax designed to fool the people around me? What higher purpose is being served here? Is in fact, there any at all?

I don’t know yet- I just don’t know.



Here’s a fascinating article on plagiarism from Slate, coincidentally published on my 14th birthday. It actually analyzes why plagiarists do what they do, how society doesn’t have any prescribed punishments for plagiarism, and why many writers live in fear of accidental plagiarism.