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, December 29

The Debunker: Does the Mississippi River Divide All the 'K' Radio Stations from the 'W' Ones?

by Ken Jennings

On December 12, 1901, Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi stood on a hill overlooking St. John's, Newfoundland, and received the first radio message ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful message was just a few Morse pulses—the letter 'S', in fact—but it changed the face of the twentieth century. This month marks the 114th anniversary of Marconi's milestone, so we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to get on the air and clear the air about some of the most appalling misconceptions from radio's first century.

The Debunker: Does the Mississippi River Divide All the 'K' Radio Stations from the 'W' Ones?

This may mystify Millennials, but TV and radio stations haven't always been able to call themselves anything they wanted. Wait, let me go back further. There used to be a thing called "local TV and radio," and broadcasters used three- or four-digit letter combinations to ID their stations. Growing up in the western United States, all our local stations started with a 'K'; it was only by watching Mr. Rogers and other PBS shows from back east (and, obviously, WKRP in Cincinnati) that I realized that other, weirder parts of the country used 'W' as their station prefix. My parents explained that 'K' was used west of the Mississippi River and 'W' in the east. They meant well, but it turns out that's not exactly the case.

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Tuesday, December 22

The Debunker: Was the Titanic the First Ship to Issue an "SOS"?

by Ken Jennings

On December 12, 1901, Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi stood on a hill overlooking St. John's, Newfoundland, and received the first radio message ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful message was just a few Morse pulses—the letter 'S', in fact—but it changed the face of the twentieth century. This month marks the 114th anniversary of Marconi's milestone, so we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to get on the air and clear the air about some of the most appalling misconceptions from radio's first century.

The Debunker: Was the Titanic the First Ship to Issue an "SOS"?

James Cameron's Titanic taught its fans two things. First, never trust Billy Zane. Second, the standard radio distress call in 1912 was not the familiar Morse SOS in use today. Cameron is careful to explain this little historical curio to his late-'90s, Hanson-listening audience.

WIRELESS OPERATOR:
CQD, sir?

CAPTAIN SMITH:
That's right. The distress call. (Looks at camera.)
CQD. (Does "Jim Halpert face.")

In movie theaters, the scene ended there. On the DVD, a deleted scene shows the wireless crew deciding to mix in the new-fangled distress signal SOS as well. "It may be our only chance to use it," one jokes.

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Tuesday, December 15

The Debunker: What Does "Over and Out" Mean?

by Ken Jennings

On December 12, 1901, Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi stood on a hill overlooking St. John's, Newfoundland, and received the first radio message ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful message was just a few Morse pulses—the letter 'S', in fact—but it changed the face of the twentieth century. This month marks the 114th anniversary of Marconi's milestone, so we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to get on the air and clear the air about some of the most appalling misconceptions from radio's first century.

The Debunker: What Does "Over and Out" Mean?

James Bond in Goldfinger. Captain Quint in Jaws. On TV, Maxwell Smart's "Chief," Major Frank Burns, and Rod Serling. These are among the thousands of on-screen icons of authority and competence who have ended a radio communication with the immortal phrase "Over and out." It's a cliché of movie military men, TV cops, and kids with walkie-talkies. When you want to sound cool and official over the radio, "Over and out" are the prepositions you use to sign off from transmitting.

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Tuesday, December 08

The Debunker: Did Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" Cause a Mass Panic?

by Ken Jennings

On December 12, 1901, Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi stood on a hill overlooking St. John's, Newfoundland, and received the first radio message ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That fateful message was just a few Morse pulses—the letter 'S', in fact—but it changed the face of the twentieth century. This month marks the 114th anniversary of Marconi's milestone, so we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to get on the air and clear the air about some of the most appalling misconceptions from radio's first century.

The Debunker: Did Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds" Cause a Mass Panic?The night before Halloween 1938, boy genius Orson Welles used his CBS Mercury Theatre on the Air program to broadcast a radio play of H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds. The clever adaptation took the form of mock news bulletins from the tiny New Jersey village of Grover's Mill, where a Martian army was supposedly beginning its conquest of Earth. Banner headlines in front pages across America the next day recorded that the faux-news conceit was even more convincing than Welles had expected. "Radio Listeners in Panic," reported The New York Times. "Radio Play Terrifies Nation," said The Boston Globe.

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Tuesday, December 23

The Debunker: Did Someone Else Write the Works of Shakespeare?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Did Someone Else Write the Works of Shakespeare?

It was Francis Bacon! Or Christopher Marlowe. Or could it have been Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford? With all the hype that alternate theories of Shakespeare authorship have received lately (including Anonymous, a big budget movie by Independence Day director and Shakespeare skeptic Roland Emmerich) you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is an actual academic controversy. Could someone else have written the plays of Shakespeare? It would certainly be big news if the most celebrated writer in the history of the language--of any language maybe--were revealed as a fraud.

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Tuesday, December 16

The Debunker: Does the Gulf Stream Keep Britain Warm?

by Ken Jennings

If you're an anglophile, a lover of all things British, then this time of year must be like Christmas for you. Well, it's real Christmastime as well, but you know what I mean, right? If you have a soft spot for Dickensian carolers, candlelit mince pies, snow-covered country villages, special episodes of inexplicably popular TV shows like Downton Abbey and Doctor Who... well, in December, we all become a tiny bit British, don't we? But not everything we think we know about life across the pond is strictly "pukka." We've enlisted Sir Kenneth Jennings, VC, GBE, DJO (Distinguished Jeopardy! Order) to help us "mind the gap" between fact and fiction when it comes to Merrie Old England.

The Debunker: Does the Gulf Stream Keep Britain Warm?

Travel due west from the United Kingdom, and what's the first U.S. state you'd hit? Virginia? Massachusetts? Maine, maybe? A quick look at a world map will probably surprise many: the whole of the British Isles lies to the north of the northernmost point in the contiguous 48 states. Due west from London, you'd reach the New World at the subarctic forest of southern Labrador, Canada. The only state you could hit traveling west from anywhere in the U.K. is actually Alaska! In short, Britain is a lot farther north than a lot of people think.

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