Tuesday, January 24

The Debunker: Was eBay Founded as a Way to Trade Pez Dispensers?

by Ken Jennings

January 1, 2017 isn't just New Year's Day… it's also the Internet's 34rd birthday. On January 1, 1983, all the computer systems on the ARPANET, created by the Department of Defense in 1969, were required to switch over to the TCP/IP network protocol that it still uses today, giving birth to the Internet as we know it. But how well do we know it? Onetime computer programmer (and Jeopardy! computer victim) Ken Jennings is here to do a complete systems update on all the Digital Age spam in your mental inbox.

The Debunker: Was eBay Founded as a Way to Trade Pez Dispensers?

In 1995, Pamela Wesley was a collector of Pez candy dispensers looking to add to her collection. You or I might hit garage sales and flea markets, but Wesley was lucky enough to be engaged to Pierre Omidyar, a computer programmer and early Internet entrepreneur. Omidyar decided to build a website where Wesley could trade Pez to her heart's content, and within two years, he was running AuctionWeb, one of the fastest growing sites on the Internet. In 1997, he renamed it eBay, and the rest is history.

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Tuesday, January 17

The Debunker: Are Apple Products Really "Virus-Proof"?

by Ken Jennings

January 1, 2017 isn't just New Year's Day… it's also the Internet's 34rd birthday. On January 1, 1983, all the computer systems on the ARPANET, created by the Department of Defense in 1969, were required to switch over to the TCP/IP network protocol that it still uses today, giving birth to the Internet as we know it. But how well do we know it? Onetime computer programmer (and Jeopardy! computer victim) Ken Jennings is here to do a complete systems update on all the Digital Age spam in your mental inbox.

The Debunker: Are Apple Products Really "Virus-Proof"?

Fans of Apple devices are a proud and loyal bunch, and for years they've been a little smug about the barrage of viruses and other malware faced by the less fortunate among us who use Windows machines. They thought their beloved Macs were virus-proof, and Apple was happy to let them go right on believing that. "It doesn't get PC viruses!" bragged one Macintosh ad campaign. At best, this is like saying that oak trees don't get Dutch elm disease: technically true, but suspiciously silent on other, oak-specific diseases.

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Tuesday, January 10

The Debunker: Was the QWERTY Keyboard Designed to Slow Down Typists?

by Ken Jennings

January 1, 2017 isn't just New Year's Day… it's also the Internet's 34rd birthday. On January 1, 1983, all the computer systems on the ARPANET, created by the Department of Defense in 1969, were required to switch over to the TCP/IP network protocol that it still uses today, giving birth to the Internet as we know it. But how well do we know it? Onetime computer programmer (and Jeopardy! computer victim) Ken Jennings is here to do a complete systems update on all the Digital Age spam in your mental inbox.

The Debunker: Was the QWERTY Keyboard Designed to Slow Down Typists?

Look at the keyboard on your computer or mobile device. Whose idea was this random jumble of letters? Why not put the alphabet in the A-Z order that all beginning typists already know, or, if you're more interested in speed than ease of use, why not put the most common letters on the "home" finger keys? It seems crazy that someone wanted it to be easier to type an uncommon letter like 'J' or 'K' (the home positions of the strongest fingers of the right hand) than to reach for the 'O,' 'E', or 'N', right?

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Tuesday, January 03

The Debunker: Was a Moth in a Navy Computer the First "Bug"?

by Ken Jennings

January 1, 2017 isn't just New Year's Day… it's also the Internet's 34rd birthday. On January 1, 1983, all the computer systems on the ARPANET, created by the Department of Defense in 1969, were required to switch over to the TCP/IP network protocol that it still uses today, giving birth to the Internet as we know it. But how well do we know it? Onetime computer programmer (and Jeopardy! computer victim) Ken Jennings is here to do a complete systems update on all the Digital Age spam in your mental inbox.

The Debunker: Was a Moth in a Navy Computer the First "Bug"?

Grace Hopper was one of the greatest computer pioneers of the 20th century. "Amazing Grace" was a math whiz with a Ph.D from Yale who joined the Naval Reserve during World War II and worked on the early computers that made the Manhattan Project possible. After the war, she helped create UNIVAC, America's first commercial computer; wrote the first compiler in history; and was instrumental in developing early programming languages like COBOL and FORTRAN. By the time she retired from the Navy in 1986, she had achieved the rank of Rear Admiral. Last November, President Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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Tuesday, December 27

The Debunker: Did America Hate "New Coke"?

by Ken Jennings

You're not just imagining it: the 1980s are back! It's not just Netflix drowning us in nostalgia with Stranger Things and Fuller House. Women are wearing scrunchies, Ghostbusters and Blade Runner are returning to the multiplex, Hulk Hogan is back showing off his moves on videotape, and Teddy Ruxpin is returning to toy stores. Just for fun, we even elected a 1980s curio as President of the United States! But is everything we remember about the eighties the totally tubular truth? "Just say no," says Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings, so we've asked him to take us on a DeLorean ride back in time, separating the "Straight Up" facts from the "sweet little lies" of our foggily remembered Bartles & Jaymes youth. As they say, knowing is half the battle.

The Debunker: Did America Hate "New Coke"?

It's the go-to marketing textbook test case for "how to @#$% everything up at once." In April 1985, the Coca-Cola Company tweaked the flavor of its flagship soda for the first time since it got rid of cocaine in the 1920s. Everyone remembers this as a disastrously tone-deaf misstep by executives who apparently knew nothing about their own product or customers. By summer, Coke announced that its original formula would be coming back as "Classic Coke," and the much-touted "New Coke" was consigned to the dustbin of history. But maybe you can imagine a parallel universe where almost everyone preferred the taste of New Coke and sales actually rose in 1985? Well, my friends, that universe…is ours.

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Tuesday, December 20

The Debunker: Was Michael Jordan Cut from His High School Basketball Team?

by Ken Jennings

You're not just imagining it: the 1980s are back! It's not just Netflix drowning us in nostalgia with Stranger Things and Fuller House. Women are wearing scrunchies, Ghostbusters and Blade Runner are returning to the multiplex, Hulk Hogan is back showing off his moves on videotape, and Teddy Ruxpin is returning to toy stores. Just for fun, we even elected a 1980s curio as President of the United States! But is everything we remember about the eighties the totally tubular truth? "Just say no," says Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings, so we've asked him to take us on a DeLorean ride back in time, separating the "Straight Up" facts from the "sweet little lies" of our foggily remembered Bartles & Jaymes youth. As they say, knowing is half the battle.

The Debunker: Was Michael Jordan Cut from His High School Basketball Team?

It was the most shocking high school failure since Einstein flunked math. Looming large in Michael Jordan's legend is the 1978-79 basketball season at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, where 15-year-old Mike Jordan famously did not make his varsity team. No one mentions this more than Jordan himself, who says the sting of the rejection motivated him for his entire career. The Bulls MVP even used to check into hotels using the name of "Leroy Smith," his sophomore friend who did make varsity that same year. At this point, it's pretty much his superhero origin story.

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Tuesday, December 13

The Debunker: Did "Patient Zero" Spread AIDS to North America?

by Ken Jennings

You're not just imagining it: the 1980s are back! It's not just Netflix drowning us in nostalgia with Stranger Things and Fuller House. Women are wearing scrunchies, Ghostbusters and Blade Runner are returning to the multiplex, Hulk Hogan is back showing off his moves on videotape, and Teddy Ruxpin is returning to toy stores. Just for fun, we even elected a 1980s curio as President of the United States! But is everything we remember about the eighties the totally tubular truth? "Just say no," says Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings, so we've asked him to take us on a DeLorean ride back in time, separating the "Straight Up" facts from the "sweet little lies" of our foggily remembered Bartles & Jaymes youth. As they say, knowing is half the battle.

The Debunker: Did "Patient Zero" Spread AIDS to North America?

One of the most memorable elements of And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts's best-seller about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, is the case of Gaëtan Dugas, a flight attendant from Quebec whose coast-to-coast travels—and recklessly prolific sexual habits—spread AIDS across the continent. Shilts called him "Patient Zero," and the media ran with the story, calling Dugas "the Columbus of AIDS" and taking it as fact that he was the index case, the disease's vector from Europe to America.

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Tuesday, December 06

The Debunker: Is "In the Air Tonight" about Phil Collins Watching a Man Drown?

by Ken Jennings

You're not just imagining it: the 1980s are back! It's not just Netflix drowning us in nostalgia with Stranger Things and Fuller House. Women are wearing scrunchies, Ghostbusters and Blade Runner are returning to the multiplex, Hulk Hogan is back showing off his moves on videotape, and Teddy Ruxpin is returning to toy stores. Just for fun, we even elected a 1980s curio as President of the United States! But is everything we remember about the eighties the totally tubular truth? "Just say no," says Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings, so we've asked him to take us on a DeLorean ride back in time, separating the "Straight Up" facts from the "sweet little lies" of our foggily remembered Bartles & Jaymes youth. As they say, knowing is half the battle.

The Debunker: Is "In the Air Tonight" about Phil Collins Watching a Man Drown?

This rumor, in one of its dozens of variations, is so persistent that no less a scholar than Eminem cites it as fact in his hit "Stan":

You know the song by Phil Collins, "In the Air of the Night" [sic]
About that guy who coulda saved that other guy from drownin'
But didn't, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?    

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Tuesday, November 22

The Debunker: Did All of Custer's Men Die at Little Bighorn?

by Ken Jennings

When most Americans think about American Indians in November, it's probably as part of Thanksgiving pageantry: the Wampanoags who gave the hapless Pilgrims food during their first winter at Plymouth and taught them how to grow corn the following spring, the ninety Indians who attended the "first Thanksgiving" feast in 1621. You may not know that, ever since 1990, November has officially been "Native American Heritage Month" in the United States, a time to recognize "the rich ancestry and traditions" of the nation's first inhabitants. But Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings has some reservations about the accuracy of our Native American knowledge. It's never too late to set the record straight!

The Debunker: Did All of Custer's Men Die at Little Bighorn?

It's hard to say anything about the 1876 U.S. cavalry defeat at Little Bighorn without running afoul of history. General Custer (bzzz!) with his trademark flowing blond hair (bzzz!) led his troops into battle with Sitting Bull's Sioux, only to have his entire 7th Cavalry wiped out (bzzz!) by a Sioux ambush (bzzz!). That's four strikes already.

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Tuesday, November 15

The Debunker: Where Did The Inaccurate Stereotype Of Native American Drunkenness Come From?

by Ken Jennings

When most Americans think about American Indians in November, it's probably as part of Thanksgiving pageantry: the Wampanoags who gave the hapless Pilgrims food during their first winter at Plymouth and taught them how to grow corn the following spring, the ninety Indians who attended the "first Thanksgiving" feast in 1621. You may not know that, ever since 1990, November has officially been "Native American Heritage Month" in the United States, a time to recognize "the rich ancestry and traditions" of the nation's first inhabitants. But Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings has some reservations about the accuracy of our Native American knowledge. It's never too late to set the record straight!

The Debunker: Where Did The Inaccurate Stereotype Of Native American Drinking Even Come From?

The word "firewater," probably a translation from the Ojibwa word for whisky, was popularized by James Fenimore Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans. Like many racist stereotypes of Native Americans, this one was invented by settlers back in the earliest days of the frontier. Most Natives had never previously brewed anything stronger than wine from fruit or a mild beer from corn, so European fur traders found that they could barter more successfully with Native Americans who had been plied with kegs of liquor.

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