Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

I think we’ve heard enough fake cries of “fake news” over things that are true, but here are five times in the past that people just made things up and pawned them off as real.

The Mechanical Turk

In 1769, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungray, invited her trusted servant, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to a magic show. Von Kempelen knew his physics, mechanics, and hydraulics. The empress wanted to see what he’d make of a stage illusionist.

In short, he was not impressed, and said so in front of the court, claiming that he could create a better illusion. The empress accepted his offer and gave him six months off to try.

In 1770, he returned with his results: An automaton that played chess. It was in the form of a wooden figure seated behind a cabinet with three doors in front and a drawer in the bottom. In presenting it, von Kempelen would open the left door to show the complicated clockwork inside, then open a back door and shine a lantern through it to show that there was nothing else there.

When he opened the other two doors, it revealed an almost empty compartment with a velvet pillow in it. This he placed under the automaton’s left arm. The chess board and pieces came out of the drawer, and once a challenger stepped forward, von Kempelen turned a crank on the side to start it up, and the game was afoot.

Called the Mechanical Turk, it was good, and regularly defeated human opponents, including Benjamin Franklin.  and Napoleon Bonaparte — although Napoleon is reported to have tried to cheat, to which the Turk did not respond well.

Neither its creator nor second owner and promoter revealed its secrets during the machine’s lifetime, and it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Although many people assumed that it was actually operated by a human and was not a machine, playing against it did inspire Charles Babbage to begin work on his difference engine, the mechanical precursor to the modern computer.

In the present day, a designer and builder of stage illusions built a replica of the Turk based on the original plans, and watching it in action is definitely uncanny.

Moon-bats and Martians!

This is actually a twofer. First, in August 1835, the New York Sun ran a six part series on discoveries made by the astronomer John Herschel on the Moon. The problem: The press flat out made it all up, reporting all kinds of fantastical creatures Herschel had allegedly seen and written about, including everything from unicorns to flying bat-people, all thanks to the marvel of the fabulous new telescope he had created. When Herschel found out about it, he was not pleased.

The flipside of this came sixty years later in 1895, when the astronomer Percival Lowell first published about the “canals of Mars,” which were believed to be channels of water that ran into the many oceans on the planet.

In reality, they were just an optical illusion created by the lack of power of telescopes of the time. This didn’t stop Lowell, though, and he went on in the early 19th century to write books that postulated the existence of life on Mars.

Of course, Lowell was not trying to perpetrate a fraud. He just had the habit of seeing what he wanted to see, so it was more self-delusion than anything else.

The Cardiff Giant

This would be Cardiff. The one in New York, not the capital of Wales. The year is 1869. The “giant” was a petrified 10-foot-tall man that had been dug up on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell. People came from all around to see it, and that did not stop when Newell started charging fifty cents a head to have a look. That’s the equivalent of about ten bucks today.

The statue was actually created by George Hull, who was a cousin of Newell’s. An atheist, Hull had gotten into an argument with a Methodist minister who said that everything in the Bible had to be taken literally. Since the Bible said that there had been giants in those days, Hull decided to give him one, and expose the gullibility of religious types at the same time.

Cardiff, after all, wasn’t very far from where Joseph Smith had first started the Mormon religion, and that sort of thing was not at all uncommon in the area during the so-called Second Great Awakening.

Although a huge hit with the public to the point that P.T. Barnum created his own fake giant, the Chicago Tribune eventually published an exposé with confessions from the stonemasons. That didn’t seem to make one bit of difference to the public, who still flocked to see the statues. Hull and his investors made a fortune off of the whole adventure.

Piltdown Man

Less innocuous was a hoax that actually sent a couple of generations of anthropologists and evolutionists down the wrong path in tracing the ancestry of humans. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown human species in Piltdown, Sussex, England.

The key part was that while the skull had a human-like cranium, it had an ape-like mandible, or lower jaw. In other words, having traits of both species, it could easily have been the long-sought “missing link,” a transitional form that provides the evolutionary bridge between two species.

The first so-called missing link, Java Man, had been discovered twenty years prior to Dawson’s. Unlike Dawson’s Piltdown Man, Java Man, now known as homo erectus, has been accepted as a legitimate transitional form between ape and man.

Dawson’s downfall came after the discovery of more transitional forms and improved testing methods that authenticated many of these. When researchers finally turned their attention back to the original Piltdown Man fossils, they determined that the skull was only about 500 years old, the jaw, only a few decades. Both had been stained to simulate age.

In 1953, they published their findings, which were reported in Time magazine, but the damage had been done, setting back anthropological studies, because more recent, legitimate discoveries were doubted because they conflicted with the fake evidence.

It seems likely that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. What was his motive? Most likely, he wanted to be nominated to the archaeological Royal Society, but hadn’t yet because of a lack of significant findings.

In 1913, he was nominated because of Piltdown, proving yet again that it’s possible for a fraud to profit — if they’re white and connected.

Vaccines and autism

We’re still feeling the repercussions of this fraud, which was first perpetrated in 1998 by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield. This was when he published results of studies he carried out which, he said, showed an undeniable link between childhood vaccinations, particularly measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.

In Wakefield’s world, “undeniable link” meant “cause and effect,” and a whole bunch of parents proceeded to lose their minds over the whole thing. We’re still dealing with the fallout from it today, with diseases like measles and whopping cough — which should have been eradicated — suddenly causing mini-epidemics.

Eventually, when they could not be replicated, it came out that Wakefield had flat-out falsified his results, and his papers and findings were withdrawn and repudiated by medical journals.

What was his motive for falsifying information without any regard for the lives he endangered? Oh, the usual motive. Money. He had failed to disclose that his studies “had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.”

But, as with Piltdown Man, we’re still seeing the effects and feeling the damage a generation later. This is why now, more than ever, we need to rely on actual scientific findings that have been replicated through peer review instead of rumors, myths, or memes.

Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things COVID-19 lately for obvious reasons. The last year and a half have been an absolutely surreal experience, and now we have the delta variant to deal with. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I wanted to take a quick look at some words related to things like this pandemic, and explain where they came from.

Some of them are straightforward, and some took more circuitous routes. Let’s consider them in logical order.

Corona

Corona comes from the Latin word coronam, which means crown. If you’ve ever looked at the printing on a bottle of Corona beer, there’s a crown right there as the logo, and in Spanish corona is the word for crown as well. You may have heard the term “coronary artery,” They get this name because they encircle the heart, much the way a crown encircles a monarch’s head.

The corona is also a part of the Sun (well, any star). It’s the outer atmosphere of the star. Our Sun’s is usually invisible because of the glare of the star itself, but it becomes visible during a solar eclipse.

Coronaviruses as a class were given the name because the spikes on their surfaces resemble the spikes on a crown.

Virus

Virus comes from another Latin word, virus. In case you’re wondering why so many medical terms come from Latin, it’s because this was the language that physicians used for centuries in order to create terms that would be universal despite a doctor’s native language. Greek is also common due to the roots of western medicine going back to the likes of Hippocrates.

In Latin, the word can variously refer to things like poison, venom, slime, a sharp taste, or something’s pungency. The use of the word in the modern sense began in the 14th century, which was long before the invention of the microscope near the end of the 16th century. Even then, germ theory didn’t develop until the middle of the 19th century, and viruses themselves were not discovered until the 1890s.

So while the idea that “virus” was something that caused a disease may have gone back to the late Middle Ages, it was probably consider to be more like a toxic liquid in food or water, or perhaps an imbalance of the humors. Or just divine punishment, like pestilence.

Pandemic

This one is all Greek to you. It comes from two words: pan and demos. The former is the Greek prefix meaning “all.” You might recognize it from a word like “Pantheon,” with the second half coming from the Greek word theos, meaning gods. It can be a building dedicated to the gods of a particular religion, or just refer to that collection of gods in general. It can also be a building dedicated to national heroes, or a mausoleum in which they are entombed.

Another pan word is panacea, with the appendage, -akes, meaning a cure, and a panacea is supposed to cure everything — even a pandemic.

The second half of the word comes from demos, as noted, which is the Greek word referring to a village or a population, or group of people. It’s the root of the word democracy, rule by the people. However, it is not related in any way to the word demonstrate.

So a pandemic is something that comprises all of the population.

As an aside, my personal favorite pan word is Pandemonium, which was actually created on this model by John Milton for Paradise Lost. It refers to the capital of Hell — the place of all demons. I’m kind of disappointed that Dante didn’t think of it first. He only gave us the City of Dis in the sixth circle. And when it comes to religious fanfic, Dante’s is far superior. Well, qualification: his Inferno is, especially in the original Italian. Purgatorio and Paradiso are kind of boring. But still better love stories than Paradise Lost.

Pox

Despite popular misconception, this is not what Mercutio wished on the houses of Montague and Capulet before he dies in Act III of Romeo & Juliet. That would have been a plague. A pox was something different, more like a symptom, and this brings us to the first English word on the list. Pox is the plural of the old English word pocke, which referred to any kind of pustule, blister, or ulcer. The Black Plague was full of those.

Now you’re probably wondering: How does an English plural end in “X?” Simple. At one time, the plural form of words that ended in –k or –ck didn’t take an s. They changed to x. The most famous example of this is the New York borough of The Bronx. It was named for a Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck. Originally, the term was possessory: Bronck’s Land and Bronck’s River. The “x” spelling crept in, and “the” was retained although land and river were dropped to indicate that they were specific entities instead of just an abstract place name.

Pox don’t have a lot to do with corona virus, but one particular type of pox has everything to do with how we came up with the next item on our list.

Vaccine

In the 18th century, a particularly nasty viral disease was circulating: smallpox. (No, there’s not a large pox.) At best, it left its victims horribly scarred. At worst, it killed them. But there was an urban legend going around: milkmaids, who often caught the non-lethal and minor disease called cowpox (for obvious reasons), never contracted smallpox.

A physician named Edward Jenner decided to test this theory in the most ethical way possible. No, I’m kidding. He found an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, inoculated him with gunk from a milkmaid’s pustule and then, after a while, inoculated him with smallpox.

Luckily for Jenner, the kid didn’t get sick, and so the idea of a vaccination was born. The name itself comes from part of the Latin name for the smallpox virus, Variolae vaccinae. The second word, vaccinae, is an inflected form of the Latin word for cow.

And vaccination works, kids. It doesn’t cause autism, and it’s safe. Case in point: smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979. Although, keep in mind, it could always come back, and the culprit could be climate change.

Sorry about that downer. But this is why we have to be so vigilant and serious about communicable diseases. Stay home, stay safe, and don’t forget the tip jar!

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy of Alpha Stock Images, used unchanged. Original author, Nick Youngson.

Momentous Monday: Where we are now

This time last year, California was just over four months into lockdown due to COVID-19, with only essential employees able to work and limitations on store hours and capacity. Bars, restaurants, clubs, theaters, and arenas were all shuttered.

Towards the beginning of July, that was all about to change and everything was going to loosen up. But then… well, I published these words exactly a year ago, on July 19, 2020:

“But then July rolled around and just a few days ago, the state of California and the city of Los Angeles announced, “Oops. Y’all screwed it up, so we’re pushing reset and starting over.”

Sound familiar? Well, if you’re in L.A. County or the Bay Area, at least, it probably does, because we’re now going back to at least being required to wear masks in public after a very brief foray of not requiring them for vaccinated people.

It looks like we might be right on time, too, because today, I saw social media posts from a handful of friends who were all fully vaccinated but who nonetheless have tested positive for COVID-19, most likely due to the delta variant — and for every friend who posted, at least two friends of theirs reported knowing one or more people in the same circumstances.

The delta variant is more contagious. People who’ve been fully vaccinated can also get it, although their odds of severe illness and hospitalization are still reduced. The situation this year comes right down to the same thing that caused it last year: Authorities bowed to pressure and ended mask mandates too soon.

In 2020, it was in time for the 4th of July holiday, and there was a spike in new cases right after that. This year, it was because it seemed like it was time to unmask because so many people were vaccinated, and the number of new cases had dropped below the thresholds set to trigger various levels of precautions.

The problem is that there are still far too many people who cannot or will not get vaccinated. Some have sound medical reasons — compromised immune systems, chemo patients, and the like. Some haven’t yet qualified because they’re too young.

But far too many people who should get vaccinated won’t get vaccinated because they have a poor understanding of science and medicine, what vaccines are and how they work, and how this one was developed.

A big complaint people have is that they don’t know what’s in the vaccine, but that’s just because they’re lazy. A simple web search for COVID vaccine ingredients will quickly lead to the answer, and the CDC website has the exact ingredients for the three vaccines being used in the U.S.

If chemical names scare you by their very nature, compare the contents of any of those vaccines to what naturally occurs in, e.g., a banana to see how different they really are. And remember: One banana is a lot bigger dose than one vaccine.

Another anti-vax argument I hear is that it was rushed in production and approval. And while the approval process was expedited because, pandemic, the development of the vaccine technique itself goes back decades.

This technique uses messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) in order to make our body’s cells produce certain proteins, and it was being proposed as a therapeutic method at least as early as 2000. The first clinical trials happened in 2008.

So no, this vaccine was not developed overnight. The technology was there. We just needed a target for it.

Something piggy-backed on this argument goes like this: The vaccine will alter your DNA forever! And, again, this is just wrong. An mRNA vaccine works like this. It enters the body and then enters cells near the injection site. Once inside the cell nuclei, they cause the cells to do what they do: Transcribe the mRNA into proteins.

In this case, the instructions given are to create the spikes on the outside of the COVID-19 virus that allow them to infiltrate our cells. But here’s the big difference in function. When a virus gets into your cell, it completely highjacks the nucleus, shreds the existing DNA, and turns the cell into a factory for making nothing but more virus until the cell explodes and dies and sends more virus out into the body to repeat the process.

An mRNA vaccine just uses an existing function to create a particular protein without disrupting cell function otherwise, and then those proteins go into the bloodstream. Once there, the body’s immune cells find them, recognize them as not belonging, and create antibodies to destroy them.

Unlike other vaccines, mRNA shots do not contain any of the actual DNA of the virus its being used against. Compare this to things like vaccines for small pox, measles, or polio, which do use the genetic material or weakened or killed versions of the actual virus.

If anything, an mRNA jab I actually safer, because at no point are you ever exposed to the complete virus itself.

The idea was that recreating the protein spikes that identify the virus would be enough to give someone immunity, and normally it should have. The problem is that the COVID-19 virus is principally mutating in those spikes. This actually makes sense, because as we vaccinate away certain strains, the ones that aren’t recognized will persist and become the new dominant variant.

That’s how evolution works, and we’re seeing it in real time.

Now, granted, just because a virus is mutating doesn’t mean that it’s becoming more virulent or fatal. There are probably COVID variants we don’t even know about because they never actually cause any disease or symptoms.

But here’s how the unvaccinated contribute to helping the more infectious strains evolve: If someone is vaccinated against any of the strains from Alpha to Gamma, then they’re probably not going to get infected and their body will not become a virus factory.

But if someone is not vaccinated, then their bloodstream is going to become a viral playground, and the more times something copies its DNA, the more chances you have for random mutations. Some will go nowhere, some will outright kill the virus itself — but some will stumble upon some trick that defeats the vaccines and also makes it easier for them to invade new human cells.

And that’s where COVID-19 delta and humanity seem to be.

We made some strides in 2020 despite official inaction and denial on the Federal level, with only more forward-thinking governors helping their states avoid the worst, but selfishness, impatience, and scientific ignorance held us back.

It seemed like we were pulling out of it by spring of this year, with vaccines finally being rolled out in mass numbers and people actually getting them, but then the vaccination rate tanked, and we are right now back at exactly where we were one year ago.

Of course, this is why plagues are never a single-year thing. The flu pandemic of 1918 actually lasted for about two years and two months, starting with a fairly virulent strain, and then a much deadlier second wave a little over a year later.

If COVID follows this pattern, then we’re going to be masked, socially distanced, and isolated until at least May of 2022, so get used to the idea, because we’re just starting to sail into that deadlier second wave.

And, personally, all of this comes in the context of my having gone to an engagement party a good distance away that took place mostly inside in a house and among mostly strangers, and it was the first time I felt comfortable taking my mask off under such circumstances since this all started.

I don’t know yet whether that was a big mistake or not because I’m not quite sure what the incubation period is. But the vaccines appear to not give 100% immunity to the delta variant, so my mask is staying on.

Anyone who thinks that a mask mandate equals tyranny is a complete idiot — and doubly so if they won’t get vaccinated.

I’ll have to remember to come back with a July 19, 2022 post to comment on this one and its predecessor.

Sunday Nibble #64: Out of the ashes

As of today, it will have been fourteen days from my second Moderna vaccination, so I am now technically immunized against COVID — well, at least most strains, although it’s not clear yet whether this vaccine also works against COVID-19 variants alpha, beta, or gamma.

In case those designations don’t look familiar, it’s because they’re new, and are designed to follow the same recently introduced guidelines that ended the practice of naming a virus or flu strain for the area it was first spotted.

So I’ll be keeping my mask on in public for a while even though California is set to end the requirement on June 15th. It’s still not clear whether Los Angeles County is going to follow suit, though.

But the main thing is that it does feel like we’re reaching the beginning of the end, at least in some places in the U.S. But even as we slowly emerge back into some form of more public and social life, the signs of what we lost are starting to become apparent.

It reminds me of another great plague, the bubonic plague that struck London in 1665. It hit the cities particularly hard because they were crowded and unsanitary. A lot of people who could fled to the countryside as the city of London basically shut down.

This included a 23-year-old Isaac Newton, who found himself isolated in his country home in Woolsthorpe. As a result, he started to develop his theories of optics and gravitation, as well as create (or possibly rediscover) calculus.

Then, in September of 1666, London burned down. The Great Fire, as it became known, devastated everything within the old Roman walls as it tore through the city over the course of four days. The problem was a lot of wooden construction, jammed together haphazardly, but the actions of the Lord Mayor didn’t help at all.

Fire-fighting practice at the time was to create firebreaks by demolishing adjacent buildings that weren’t burning so that the fire couldn’t jump, and then focus on the structures that were on fire. But Mayor Thomas Bloodworth was having none of that. In a classic and short-sighted case of “buildings are worth more than people,” he refused to authorize the tearing down of a lot of warehouses because they couldn’t contact the owners.

Ironically, if he’d just had two houses torn down at the beginning, they might have stopped the thing at the bakery in which it started.

That’s not the only irony, though. The fire itself actually helped end the plague because it either killed or drove out the rats that were infested with the fleas that spread the infection.

Now, Los Angeles hasn’t burned down. Sure, lots of Southern California likes to burn up regularly, but our irony is that we tend to only lose rural neighborhoods while the cities, which are mostly concrete and steel, stay intact. But the city has burned metaphorically and, in a lot of ways, what we lost over the last year may have inadvertently helped slow down the spread of our plague as well. And, unlike Bloodworth, our mayor actually did the right thing, even if far too many people got selfish and bitched and complained instead of following the rules from the beginning.

Yes — if we had all just completely locked down and stayed at home for the first six weeks, we probably would have slowed things way down. But we didn’t learn the lesson that Bloodworth ignored as well: Sometimes, in order to save a lot of businesses or properties or homes, you have to intentionally destroy a few.

In fact, as of February 2021, Los Angeles County had lost the most small businesses of any county in the U.S. These were mostly restaurants and bars, small retail stores, salons, and gyms. The general category of “personal services business” was particularly hard-hit, especially because there were so many such businesses in the county.

But there were bigger victims. Larger retailers like Fry’s Electronics folded, and K-Mart and Sears shuttered a lot of locations. A huge movie chain, Pacific Theatres and Arclight Cinemas, shut down permanently, putting the status of L.A.’s historic Cinerama Dome in limbo. (That one particularly hurts because my dad was one of the architects involved in its creation early on in his career.)

Surprisingly, AMC survived despite rumors of it going bankrupt in 2020, and it’s now re-opened and thriving. And at least some of the arthouse cinemas live on, like the New Beverly, which just re-opened this past week. Of course, that one is owned by Quentin Tarantino, who’s got the money to have kept paying for the lease while it was dormant.

Just too bad he insisted on opening it with one of his history-mangling messterpieces.

As an antidote to that, the Nuart also survives, and that’s good news, although they do seem to be focusing on longer runs of obscure documentaries instead of the “you can’t find this online” arthouse stuff they used to thrive on. And, sadly, nary a sign of the return of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yet.

Then again, that film is rapidly creeping up on 50 years old. On the other hand, it was so far ahead of its time and so much in tune with current attitudes that I don’t see why it wouldn’t still play with current Gen-Z audiences.

Don’t dream it… be it.

Between the original film and the 2016 TV remake (which decidedly does not suck), it covers all of the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC bases. Although the fact that they missed getting that remake done during the 40th anniversary year is just sad. But bonus points for casting Tim Curry as the Criminologist.

So… do I think that everything is going to go back to normal in a couple of weeks? Oh, hell no. And I’m going to be keeping my mask on for a good while after this. Why? Because being able to unmask depends entirely on having been fully vaccinated, and I still don’t trust people enough to not lie.

I mean, come on. People have no problem lying about their untrained mutts being “therapy dogs” in order to bring them everywhere — even though, legally, “therapy dogs” are not a thing, and it’s only trained service dogs that should be allowed.

Not to mention that the anti-vax crowd actually crosses political lines. You’ll find just as many on the far right as on the far left. Yes, for different reasons, but same end results. They’ll refuse the shot, but then lie about it in order to regain their “freedom.”

So even as Southern California and Los Angeles pull that phoenix trick and rise from the ashes, I’m still going to take precautions. Meaning that this mask is staying on my face in public until we’ve vaccinated the fuck out of everyone and/or there have been no new cases of COVID-19 of any form diagnosed in the state for at least three months.

So… see you next fall, maybe?