Tuesday, January 31

The Debunker: Was the Name of "HAL" in 2001 a Secret Salute to IBM?

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 Name of "HAL" in 2001 a Secret Salute to IBM?

Shortly after 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, author Martin Gardner used one of his "Mathematical Games" columns in Scientific American to publicize an ingenious theory discovered by one Mr. John Roycroft of London. Writing to IBM in Britain magazine, Roycroft noted that if you took "HAL," the name of the film's psychotic computer, and advanced each letter one step forward in the alphabet, you'd get "IBM." IBM had advised the makers of 2001 on technical accuracy, and its logo appears twice in the film, once in the cockpit of the Pan Am space-plane, and again on the wrist panel of the space suits aboard the Discovery. Ever since Martin Gardner put the word out, it's been a widespread fan theory that HAL 9000 was so named to secretly indict IBM in the actions of the evil, murderous supercomputer.

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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, January 26

The Debunker: Who Was Conceived in the Immaculate Conception?

by Ken Jennings

Do you celebrate World Religion Day, held every year on the third Sunday of January? No? What's the matter with you, don't you like world religions? There are several to choose from, it's hard to pretend you don't like any of them. To ring in the new year with some new knowledge, we've asked implausibly long-running Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to correct some of the stuff everyone gets wrong about the world's great belief systems. No matter what faith you practice—or even if it's none at all!—Ken will set you straight, chapter and verse.

The Debunker: Who Was Conceived in the Immaculate Conception?

In the Gospel of Luke, the Virgin Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that her child will be "the Son of the Most High" and will reign over Israel forever. Mary is a little taken aback: she's a virgin! It's even in her name! The angel explains further, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God." In other words, Jesus gets conceived without a mortal father. That's the immaculate conception, right?

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Tuesday, January 19

The Debunker: Do Hindus Worship Cows?

by Ken Jennings
Do you celebrate World Religion Day, held every year on the third Sunday of January? No? What's the matter with you, don't you like world religions? There are several to choose from, it's hard to pretend you don't like any of them. To ring in the new year with some new knowledge, we've asked implausibly long-running Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to correct some of the stuff everyone gets wrong about the world's great belief systems. No matter what faith you practice—or even if it's none at all!—Ken will set you straight, chapter and verse.

The Debunker: Do Hindus Worship Cows?

You've might think of it as a quasi-racist movie trope until you actually visit India, but it's absolutely true. Cattle do wander freely through the streets of Indian cities and towns, even taking mid-street naps in busy major cities. And motorists don't even honk at them. They're a real but unavoidable city annoyance, like pigeons to a New Yorker, or tourists to a Parisian.

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Tuesday, January 12

The Debunker: Does the Quran Prohibit Images of Muhammad?

by Ken Jennings

Do you celebrate World Religion Day, held every year on the third Sunday of January? No? What's the matter with you, don't you like world religions? There are several to choose from, it's hard to pretend you don't like any of them. To ring in the new year with some new knowledge, we've asked implausibly long-running Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to correct some of the stuff everyone gets wrong about the world's great belief systems. No matter what faith you practice—or even if it's none at all!—Ken will set you straight, chapter and verse.

The Debunker: Does the Quran Prohibit Images of Muhammad?

A lot of millennia-old quibbles over religious scripture fall into the "minutiae" category today. New Testament scholars may disagree as to whether the apostle called Nathanael and the one called Bartholomew were really the same guy. Devout Jews may have different opinions on whether or not it's okay to use an elevator on the Sabbath. But the doctrinal disagreement over if and how it's okay to depict Muhammad, the founding prophet of Islam, is a whole different ball game. Having led directly to death threats in Denmark, riots from Nigeria to Indonesia, and terrorist attacks in Paris, the iconography of Muhammad is very much a live issue today, almost 1,400 years after his death.

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Tuesday, January 05

The Debunker: Was the Buddha Really Fat?

by Ken Jennings
Do you celebrate World Religion Day, held every year on the third Sunday of January? No? What's the matter with you, don't you like world religions? There are several to choose from, it's hard to pretend you don't like any of them. To ring in the new year with some new knowledge, we've asked implausibly long-running Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to correct some of the stuff everyone gets wrong about the world's great belief systems. No matter what faith you practice—or even if it's none at all!—Ken will set you straight, chapter and verse.

The Debunker: Was the Buddha Really Fat?

"Rid yourself all worldly attachments," said the Buddha. "All worldly attachments." That's a list that would presumably include Twinkies and nachos. So if the founder of Buddhism was such an ascetic, if he was traveling the dusty roads of ancient India focused only on enlightenment, then—and forgive me for my bluntness here—how did he put on all that weight? Did he have, like, a glandular thing?

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Tuesday, January 27

The Debunker: Does the Word "Gringo" Come from Songs of the Mexican-American War?

by Ken Jennings

In January, we stand at the frontier of a new year. Obviously, there's no better month to remember that other mythic uncharted territory, the American frontier of the Old West! In the Western classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor famously says, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." But that attitude has led to a lot of frontier lore that's just plain loco. We've asked Jeopardy gunfighter Ken Jennings to separate fact from legend--and print only the facts. Let's see if he can clean up this town.

The Debunker: Does the Word "Gringo" Come from Songs of the Mexican-American War?

Etymology rule of thumb: as well-known stories about word origins become more and more "fun" and improbable, the likelihood that they are true approaches zero. Take the word gringo, a scornful Spanish slang word for anglo types. According to an oft-told story, gringo dates back to the Mexican-American War, when American soldiers were frequently overheard singing marching songs like "Green Grow the Rushes" and "Green Grow the Lilacs." Gringo is actually a corruption of the words "green grow," this theory would have you believe.

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