Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reflections on Glory Eluded

I could have been a contender, instead of a lousy bum.

I could be eyeball deep in internet bucks right now, but my own dilly-dallying has given another sufficient time to snatch my glory away from me.

Since 2001, I have been painstakingly chronicling the appearances of one of the worst TV and movie extras ever to grace celluloid. This extra is not only a strange looking man-child, he's an overactor who pulls attention towards the background that his participation is supposed to immerse the viewer in. And sadly, because of this internet video, you've probably heard of him:

I first noticed Jessie Heiman, the 'World's Greatest Extra', when his odious acting skills ruined one of the crucial scenes in 2001's Spider Man (a YouTube viewer also noted it and put it online here). Ever since then, Jessie has been haunting my films and TV shows. There he is in Goldmember. Now he's in Old School. I could pull one of my DVDs off the rack, and if I paid enough attention, he'd appear in the background. Holy Christ, there he is in Catch Me If You Can.

I started a Word Document with a list of all his appearances, years before I had a blog to share it on, but eventually, I just had to stop. I was obsessed, turning on films just to scour the background. "That Fat Extra" is in here somewhere. I'd terrify new girlfriends during movie-time by jumping up from the couch and pointing at the screen - "IT'S THE SAME FAT EXTRA FROM SPIDERMAN! HE'S TERRIBLE!"

Things eased off when I moved to the States in 2006, until I saw that he was in a mobile-phone commercial. I took to YouTube and found his profile. The fat extra had a name. He was just some kid earning a crust, and not some demon that only I could see. For a while, I was at peace.

But then he started showing up in the TV shows I was watching. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Arrested Development. Heroes. He was there, and he was taunting me:

I started a new list chronicling his every move, as the old file was three-computers ago. The monomania was back. I started a blog entry draft called "that fat extra". I scrawled down timestamps from episodes of his appearances. It grew and grew and grew, and since it kept growing, I thought it best to sit on it for a while longer.

This decision was follysome. The YouTube embedded above video came out in March of this year, and 2 million hits later, Jessie's a guest on Jay Leno. This obscure flush-faced fattie just went mainstream, and the screengrabs and scrawled notes now amount to naught.

Still, I can take some solace knowing that I wasn't the only one bothered by his ubiquity, and even though his newfound fans are flooding his YouTube page with gushing comments about how great he is, there's one comment there that predates all the others by a good few years; mine:

And in case you're curious, he wasn't kind enough to reply, the talentless prick.

Right for the Wrong Reasons

In the past year or two, I've been referring to myself as a 'skeptic' on this blog with increasing frequency. So what's that all about then?

A 'skeptic', in the sense that the online community around it intends, refers to a person who arrives at their beliefs and conclusions via the scientific method. Listen to any of the myriad podcasts, or browse the countless blogs and you'll see again and again that the skeptical community will not tell you what to think, but how to think (and not in the scary, cultish way). [Primateus advises you to be be wary of self-proclaimed skeptics]

I discovered the skeptical community in April 2008, by way of Richard Dawkins - his website linked to a interview on the Skepticality podcast discussing a creationist PR debacle. I kept listening to the show after the interview ended, and have been listening ever since, emboldened to by the knowledge that a quasi-organised community of freethinkers were sinking their teeth into much more than just endorsing a humanist agenda.

However, before I had developed a robust framework for evaluating claims, I was a bit of a jackass. Still sceptical, and sometimes right, but often for the wrong reasons.

I've always enjoyed being a pot-stirrer, and I learned early on that subjecting religion to criticism and exposing its logical fallacies is a surefire way to upset most of the population. Religion was my favorite class as a young 'un, because it was an introduction to rhetoric, and the grown-ups would get flustered when presented with questions that undermined any of its framework.

I recall not being terribly interested in rituals as a child - and I can vividly recall that I spent my confirmation mass muttering to the classmate next to me about how disgusting it was to have to pray about 'not being worthy', and other statements my narcissism couldn't reconcile. Rather than just conclude that all religion was a pile of nonsense, I spent the next few years wasting brain power by living through a different religious prism (albeit hugely watered down). I'd precociously chide my friends about 'bad karma', and catalogue their past transgressions as evidence of why the universe was being mean to them lately. Similarly, I'd attribute good fortune to acts of kindness. Even though I presented it to my friends as a thought experiment, my efforts were motivated by a desire to make them doubt their own beliefs, and not to push towards a more valuable set of humanist beliefs.

Similarly, and most shamefully, when the twin towers fell, I peddled the worst information I could get my (fifteen-year old) hands on. One example is the e-mail forwards that told users that the flight number (or plane number, in varying stories) of the vessel that first struck the Word Trade Center was Q33-NY, then implored readers to view those characters in the Wingdings font, which revealed the following:

Spooky coincidence, or proof of Microsoft's involvement? It wasn't until a schoolmate showed up to class with the same printout that I bothered to actually investigate the claim so that I could expose his blind belief as the gullibility it was. [Snopes link for the curious]

My next 9/11 related nonsense was fuelled in part by the 'documentary' Zeitgeist. Split into three acts, the first was a takedown of Christianity by highlighting its many plagiarisms from older belief systems, the second examined the possibility that the Bush Administration orchestrated the attacks, and the third went off the deep end in conspiracy nonsense about one-world governments that would only titillate those with extensive tinfoil collections.

Since I was more interested in seeing people react to uncomfortable information rather than propagating good information, I mined whatever probable 'factoids' I could from the video and similar sources and presented them to my friends, not necessarily as my beliefs, but as 'compelling' information.

So why have I shared these disparate examples of my peddling of nonsense? As much as I feel as it's repentance, I hope it will serve to illustrate that there are intelligent people out there who will be excited by information that purports to be clandestine, or contradicts the boring reality, even if it's out of sheer boredom.

If you find yourself in a conversation with someone who is defending the indefensible, take a step back. Ask them if they really believe what they're saying, because some conversations aren't worth having. A friend of mine once got quite worked up trying to refute the infinite monkey theorem. We're talking a good fifteen minutes of flushed red cheeks. Arguing against infinity. That's pretty intense. Try to keep your mental masturbation in check when you're in public.

Getting people to stop engaging in harmful practices motivated by stupid beliefs that impair the human race's progress is a Sisyphean task, but it's one that intelligent, free-thinking people can and should rally behind, particularly if they know that their one voice is part of a worldwide chorus. Those who get in your way with naive notions may be your future allies who just haven't perfected their critical thinking skills yet, so help them along. Rabid allegiance to established beliefs safeguarded by emotional arguments and illogical rhetoric is the ultimate enemy, and open, intellectually-honest debate is the goal.

Gosh, my brain lights up with implausibly utopian notions every time I consider such a thing!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bullshit hunting at the Wisconsin State Fair: Part 2

As time was working against my noble efforts to document more perversions of common-sense, I was unable to interact with any of the shillers of snake-oil in any meaningful way.

Much like how the 'Acupressure' [read: backrub] stands were a franchise available on every row, I passed a number of signs reading a variation of 'Got pain? Have a seat!'

Whatever this product is, it implies that it's an efficacious remedy for pains caused by 'diabetes', 'restless leg', 'degenerated disk', and 'sports injuries'. In an effort to tick the box of every possible customer, it seems as though they just brainstormed afflictions until they ran out of space on the sign.

Sure enough, a few people had taken a seat (possibly because it was the only place on the showroom to sit), but there was only one woman who was availing of the product on offer:

Neither of these ladies seemed terribly impressed by what they're witnessing
So what is the machine? A calculator-sized device with wires coming out of it that are connected to pads that stick to the skin. Not entirely sure what happens from there, but since I was snapping pictures and running, I just took a blind guess that a product that promised so much and was being advertised in such a hucksterish fashion would be utter rubbish.

In truth, I had hoped to find a similar stall in a less-crowded area of the salesfloor so I could get some more info. I'm not sure if the affiliation is the same, but I did find the following device at a similar booth that invited attendees to sit down and have their ailments cured;

The Rhythm Touch 2-Way! Its website describes it as an "Electrical Muscle Stimulator", which sounds like a fancy way to say 'massager' to me. Sure enough, buried beneath the woo about 'acu-therapy' and how Koreans (glad to see the Koreans represented in the ancient Asian wisdom) have pioneered the technology. How much would you pay for a massager. $20? $50? These pricks want to sell you this and some janky accessories for $299.95 US!

But back to the fair. Have a look at the info sheet available:

Show Special $299.00? (And that's without half the accessories available online). Sheer madness. It also irks me that this tattered piece of paper doesn't have the decency to specify which 'show' this 'special' applies to. Embiggen the picture if you want to strain your eyes reading about how acupuncture has existed for over 5000 years, thereby making it better than every medical practice devised since. To prove how sciencey this product is, they've included the obligatory acupressure map:

[Click here to read about my encounter with a therapeutic touch practitioner]

My favourite bit is the bit right above the pricing details:

"We are looking for people who want to make extra income. Please call us after the show for more information. Ask the sales person for more information"

Not only do they want you to buy their lies and preposterously priced vibrator, they want you to shill them too!

It heartened me to see that in the minutes I spent observing the people of Wisconsin in this arena, they were generally more interested in buying meat-snacks and curious tchotchkes than dumping money into the stupidest of stupid nonsense, so I was able to enjoy the rest of my time at the fair without that lonely feeling of being a sensible man in a mad world that grips me from time to time.

This at-peace feeling shattered just as I was leaving the fair. 9/11 Truthers were set up on the sidewalk right outside the park's pedestrian entrance - a scrawny chap in his 50s was screaming his lungs out to nobody in particular, directing half his sentence at passing groups of fairgoers, then the rest towards the cars stopped at the traffic lights. His agitated nature didn't do his cause any favours; he was waving his literature so furiously it was as if he was battling demons only he could see with it.

The snippets of rhetoric I caught were "They lied to you about the Iraq war, they lied to you about the twin towers". Again, I'm happy to report that he was almost universally greeted by groans of dismay and head-shaking, and I felt as though I should be ashamed in being the only one to approach him and gingerly take the literature he was waving around. Sadly, despite telling my stalwart ladyfriend to snap a picture as I approached the gentleman, she failed to take the shot, but I can't blame her - nobody wants to piss off a feral 9/11 truther.

So what kind of BS did I walk away with? Well, for one, I got a sweet copy of 9/11 Investigator [PDF here], a well-designed four-page broadsheet-style newspaper that's like a bullshit bible for 9/11 Truthers.

As well as that, I got an insert with more information about the Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth Organisation and their strongest evidence. WTC 7 is their monomania, and the lack of publicity its received compared to the twin towers seems to be what fuels their fury. Nutters.

Brilliantly, one of the inserts was a less-slickly produced, photocopied page entitled "Take A Second Look Investigate/Research What Happened On Sept. 11th, 2011" - a 41-point list of miscellany that features a few gems. Here's my favourite:

35. Eyewitness testimony about toasted cars, instant disappearence of people by "unexplained" waves
"Unexplained waves"? Hah? Let's read on to the bottom:

"* Is it possible that such a technology exist? Since invention of the microwave for cooking in 1945 and lasers in 1955, comercial and military development of directed-energy technology has proceeded apace, so use of directed-energy technology is likely to exist -- and the data tells us it does exist.
So not only was 9/11 an inside job, but the government also has a device capable of making people disappear. And we know that this exists, because microwaves were invented long ago. By now they've surely improved the technology, so I can conclude that this data set proves that eraso-rays exist.

Your move, lizard-people.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Bullshit hunting at the Wisconsin State Fair

After 5 years or so of visiting Wisconsin regularly, I finally got to experience the Wisconsin State Fair for the first time this week. I was hoping to lift an official paragraph from the State Fair's website that would explain to the uninitiated what it's all about, but there was none to be found. Hopefully this Q&A lifted from the FAQ page will accurately set the tone.

"Will there be food on a stick? 
  Yes, our vendors will supply a delicious variety of your favorite foods on a stick. For a list of foods on a stick, please visit our Food tab[Note: This is a long ass list]

For the sake of expediency, let's just call it a ten-day long celebration of Wisconsin's food and culture presented in a carnival / street-festival / outdoor market hybrid. With concerts. And livestock.

I'm getting bogged down in details here, but the point is, it's a big deal (attendance is regularly over 800,000 each year), and there's stuff for sale there, so I knew that there'd be plenty of woo on sale.

It didn't take too much wandering around in the Expo Center before I hit paydirt:

Extreme Balance Bands!
Extreme Balance Bands! Awesome example of total bullshit, right there. These bands are a ripoff of the original Power Balance Bands from an Australian company who got into a spot of bother with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for claims made bout their snake oil, and they've since had to scrap their stock, cease the misleading marketing, and reimburse customers who felt ripped off.

Can't touch your toes? It's a balance issue that this accessory can remedy!
I've encountered and documented their cousins in Limerick City already, so I won't go into the tired reasons as to why the claims are nonsense, but I wanted to share the woo-porn.

Where these scammers have shown some originality, however, is the sports watch accessory, which according to the front of the package is a "Tourmaline power minus ion Healthy Sports Watch", so while you're getting a big fat load heaping of codswallop, you're at least getting a timepiece.

If you have a rigorous scientific mind, you might want to view the actual specifications though, so you'll be glad to hear that the back of the box boasts "1 ATM Water Resistanee", "Minus Ion(above 1900ions/cc), Far Infrared Ray (above 90%)", and of course, the "HQ silicone rubber is no harm to skin". [All of these typos are accurate, but read the back of the box yourself if you think it'll help to read this tripe in context:]


I asked one of the ladies shilling these products for the cost - she started by telling me that they sell in malls for up to $75 (I failed to suppress my scoff), but they were selling them for $20, and would throw in the watch for a few dollars more. If the watch keeps time okay, it's probably not an obscene price, but judging by the disposition of the salesgirls, and the decidedly unimpressed looking member of the public testing out the band, I think they were having a tough time flogging their wares. Taking this into consideration, I decided that toying with them by asking awkward questions about research and scientific concepts they had zero interest in seemed like a waste of time.

Since I was under serious time constraints, I zig-zagged through the 200,000sq ft.  Expo Center at random looking for more woo (passing only one table giving out free-samples, sadly), hoping to find some more nonsense to document. It rankled me that the stalls set up for massages were big, red, mega-Chinesey affairs, with Chinese lettering surrounding the word 'Acupressure'. Paying money to have a wizened old Asian person rub my shoulders is magical enough without all the 'ancient-wisdom' mumbo-jumbo.

As I pushed my way through the throng of people, choosing directions on instinct alone, I turned to my girlfriend and proclaimed: "I know there's more bullshit in here. I can smell it. And I'm going to find it if it's the last thing I do."


Thursday, August 04, 2011

Sweet Chocolate Jesus

In this age of RSS I’m a bit old-school in my browsing habits, typing URLS from memory into the address bar, which often leads to misadventure. Last night, when I wanted to go to my friend Cait’s blog at, I forgot about the “.tumblr” part, and found myself at

Word Is King? It's not too much of a stretch that it redirects to a site called Biblical Black Art, is it?

Picture the Last Supper. Hard not to think of Leonardo Da Vinci's version, isn't it? Let's see if this becomes your new go-to image:

Sweet chocolate Jesus!

These images might seem 'out there', but is it any more offensive than the white, European look of Biblical characters that are drummed into the consciousness of most in the West?

I'm not going to try and make a point here, I'm just going to post these pictures in the hopes that someone stumbles across them and contemplates the tacit racism in claiming culturally significant Middle-Easterners for ones own ethnicity. Or preferably, some racist gets brain-pain from seeing Jesus with cornrows.

(More after the break)