Friday, December 29, 2006

The World's Museums Contain Innumerable Fakes

The next time you're marveling at a painting by Picasso, a statue by Michelangelo, or a carving
from ancient Egypt, don't be absolutely sure that you're looking at the genuine article. Art fakery
has been around since ancient times and is still in full swing — museums, galleries, and private
collections around the world are stocked with phonies. This fact comes to us from an insider's
insider — Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
City. In his book False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, he writes:
The fact is that there are so many phonies and doctored pieces around these days that at
times, I almost believe that there are as many bogus works as genuine ones. In the decade
and a half that I was with the Metropolitan Museum of Art I must have examined fifty
thousand works in all fields. Fully 40 percent were either phonies or so hypocritically
restored or so misattributed that they were just the same as forgeries. Since then I'm sure
that that percentage has risen. What few art professionals seem to want to admit is that the
art world we are living in today is a new, highly active, unprincipled one of art fakery.
Ancient Egyptian objects are particularly likely to be bogus. Furthermore, Hoving estimates that
the fraud rate for religious artifacts from pagan and early Christian times is literally 99 percent.
As many as 5,000 fake Dürers were created after the master's death, and half of Vienna master
Egon Schiele's pencil drawings are fakes.

But it isn't just current con artists making this junk; the ancients did it, too. For around a
millennia, Romans couldn't get enough of Greek statues, gems, glasses, and other objects, so
forgers stepped in to fill the demand. Hoving writes:
The volume was so great that Seneca the Elder (ca. 55
BC - AD 39) is recorded by a contemporaneous historian
as remarking that there were no fewer than half a dozen
workshops in the first century AD working full time in
Rome on just colored gems and intaglios. Today it's
almost impossible to tell what's genuinely ancient Greek
and what's Roman fakery, because those gems and
intaglios are made of material that dates to ancient times
and the style is near perfect.
Art forgery isn't the realm of nobodies, either. During
certain periods of their lives, Renaissance masters
Donatello and Verochio put bread on the table by creating
faux antiquities. Rubens painted copies of earlier artists. El
Greco's assistants created five or six copies of their boss'
work, each of which was then passed off as the original (and
they're still wrongly considered the originals).
Hoving reveals that pretty much every museum has at one time or another been suckered into
buying and displaying fakes, and many are still showing them. Of course, most of the examples
he uses are from the Met, but he also says that phony works still sit in the Louvre, the Getty, the
British Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Vatican, among others. (Hoving
estimates that 90 percent of the ancient Roman statues in the Holy See's collection are actually
eighteenth-century European knock-offs.)
Revealing further examples, the Independent of London catalogs three Goyas in the Met that are
now attributed to other artists; Rodin sketches actually done by his mistress; Fragonard's popular
Le baiser à la dérobée (The Stolen Kiss), which seems to have been painted by his sister-in-law;
and many Rubens works actually created by the artist's students. According to the newspaper:
"The Rembrandt Research Committee claims that most works attributed to Rembrandt were in
fact collaborative studio pieces."
It's enough to make you question the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Advertisers' Influence on the News Media Is Widespread

In 1995, the San Jose Mercury News almost went under because of a boycott by all of its car
company advertisers. Why were they so irate? The Merc had published an article telling
consumers how to negotiate a better price with car dealers.
When the executive editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, Larry Green, was challenged for
displaying editorial favoritism toward advertisers, he openly declared: "We have to take care of
our customers."
Tales like this bubble up every once in a while, so it shouldn't come as a shock that advertisers
sometimes try to influence the news outlets that run their ads. The real shock is how often this
In its 2002 survey, the Project for Excellence in Journalism asked 103 local TV newsrooms
across the US about pressure from sponsors:
In all, 17 percent of news directors say that sponsors have discouraged them from pursuing
stories (compared to 18 percent last year), and 54 percent have been pressured to cover
stories about sponsors, up slightly from 47 percent last year.
Of the stations that investigated auto companies that were sponsors, half suffered economically
for it, usually by the withdrawal of advertising. One car company cancelled $1 million of ads it
had planned with a station.

In a classic 1992 survey (that desperately needs to be repeated), Marquette University's
Department of Journalism tallied questionnaire results from 147 editors of daily newspapers.
Among the findings:
■ 93.2 percent said sponsors had "threatened to withdraw advertising from [the] paper because
of the content of the stories." (89 percent replied that the advertisers followed through on this
■ 89.9 percent responded that advertisers had "tried to influence the content of a news story or
■ 36.7 percent said that advertisers had "succeeded in influencing news or features in [the]
■ 71.4 percent said that "an advertiser tried to kill a story at [the] newspaper."
■ 55.1 percent revealed that they had gotten "pressure from within [the] paper to write or tailor
news stories to please advertisers."
In the decade since this poll, the media have become even more corporate and more
consolidated, so it's hard to imagine that the situation has improved.

You Can Mail Letters for Little or No Cost

I may never receive another piece of mail, but I have to let you in on a secret: It's possible to
send letters for free or for well below current postage rates. Information on beating the postal
system has been floating around for decades, but it wasn't gathered in one place until outlaw
publisher Loompanics put forth How To Screw the Post Office by "Mr. Unzip" in 2000.
Not content to theorize from an ivory tower, Unzip put these methods
through the ultimate real-world test: He mailed letters. He also
examined the envelopes in which hundreds upon hundreds of
customers had paid their utility bills. Based on this, he offers proof
that letters with insufficient postage often make it to their destinations.
The key is that the machines which scan for stamps work incredibly
fast, processing ten letters per second. They're also fairly
unsophisticated in their detection methods, relying mainly on stamps'
glossy coating as a signal. Because of this, it's possible to successfully
use lower-rate stamps, including outdated stamps, postcard stamps,
and even 1-cent stamps. Beyond that, Unzip successfully sent letters
affixed with only the perforated edges from a block of stamps. Even

those pseudostamps sent by charities like Easter Seals or environ-mental groups can fool the
Another approach is to cut stamps in half, using each portion as full postage. Not only does this
give you two stamps for the price of one, but you can often salvage the uncancelled portion of
stamps on letters you receive. In fact, the author shows that sometimes the Post Office processes
stamps that have already been fully cancelled. This happens more often when the ink is light, but
even dark cancellation marks aren't necessarily a deal-breaker.
Then there's the biggie, the Post Office's atomic secret that lets you mail letters for free. Say
you're sending a letter to dear old mom. Simply put mom's address as the return address. Then
write your address in the center of the envelope, where you'd normally put hers. Forget about the
stamp. The letter will be "returned" to her for insufficient postage.
Unzip covers further techniques involving stamp positioning, metered mail, 2-cent stamps, and
other tricks. Except perhaps for the reversed address scam, none of these tricks will guarantee
your missive gets to its destination, so you wouldn't want to try them with important letters. But
if you want to save a few cents once in a while — or more likely, you want to have fun hacking
the postal system — it can be done.

The Word "Squaw" Is Not a Derisive Term for the Vagina

It's widely believed that "squaw" is a crude word for the vagina. Whether people under this
misapprehension believe that the word is Native American (specifically from the Mohawk
language) or was made up by Europeans, they think that calling a woman "squaw" is the same as
calling her "cunt." Activists are on a crusade to stamp out the word, which is part of over 1,000
placenames in the United States, and they've met with some success. A 1995 Minnesota law, for
example, ordered the changing of all geographical names containing the misunderstood word.
William Bright— UCLA professor emeritus of linguistics and anthropology, and editor of the
book Native American Placenames of the United States — writes:
All linguists who have commented on the word "squaw," including specialists on Indian
languages and on the history of American vocabulary, agree that it is not from Mohawk, or
any other Iroquoian language. Rather, the word was borrowed as early as 1624 from
Massachusett, the language of Aigonquians in the area we now call Massachusetts; in that
language it meant simply "young woman."
Several languages of the Algonquian family — including Cree, Objibwa, and Fox — still use
similar words for "woman."
The confusion might have come from the fact that the Mohawk word for a woman's naughty bits
is "otsiskwa." But since Mohawk belongs to a different language family (Iroquois), the
etym-ologies of the words are completely separate. Bright notes that current speakers of Mohawk
don't consider "squaw" in any way related to their word for vagina.

Still, there is no doubt that "squaw" has been used as an epithet by white people, starting at least
in the 1800s. It even appears this way in the work of James Fenimore Cooper. However, given its
meaning of "woman," when used in a mean-spirited way, it's probably more equivalent to
"broad" or "bitch" than to "cunt." Even this is a corruption of the word's true definition.
The many places across the US with names incorporating "squaw" were labeled that way to
honor female chiefs or other outstanding Native women, or because women performed
traditional activities at these locations. In an essay that earned her death threats, Abenaki
storyteller and historical consultant Marge Bruchac wrote:
Any word can hurt when used as a weapon. Banning the word will not erase the past, and
will only give the oppressors power to define our language. What words will be next?
Pappoose? Sachem? Pow Wow? If we accept the slander, and internalize the insult, we
discredit our female ancestors who felt no shame at hearing the word spoken. To ban
indigenous words discriminates against Native people and their languages. Are we to be
condemned to speaking only the "King's English?" What about all the words from other
Native American languages?....
When I hear it ["squaw"] spoken by Native peoples, in its proper context, I hear the voices
of the ancestors. I am reminded of powerful grandmothers who nurtured our people and
fed the strangers, of proud women chiefs who stood up against them, and of mothers and
daughters and sisters who still stand here today.

The Auto Industry Says That SUV Drivers Are Selfish and Insecure

People who tool around in hulking, big-ass sport utility vehicles have been getting dissed a lot
lately, but no one has raked them over the coals like the people who sold them the SUVs in the
first place. The multibillion-dollar auto industry does extensive research into its customers, and
lately that research has focused quite a bit on the people who buy SUVs.
Investigative reporter Keith Bradsher of the New York Times has looked into the SUV
phenomenon for years. He's read marketing reports meant only to be seen within the industry;
he's interviewed marketing executives from the car companies and from outside research firms.
The industry has come to some unflattering conclusions about the people who buy its SUVs. As
summarized by Bradsher:
They tend to be people who are insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their
marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their
driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little
interest in their neighbors and communities....
They are more restless, more sybaritic, and less social than most Americans are. They tend
to like fine restaurants a lot more than off-road driving, seldom go to church and have
limited interest in doing volunteer work to help others.
David Bostwick, the director of market research at Chrysler, told Bradsher: "We have a basic
resistance in our society to admitting that we are parents, and no longer able to go out and find
another mate. If you have a sport utility, you can have the smoked windows, put the children in
the back and pretend you're still single."
Bostwick says that compared to those who buy similarly large minivans, SUV drivers are selfish:
Sport utility people say, "I already have two kids, I don't need 20." Then we talk to the people
who have minivans and they say, "I don't have two kids, I have 20 — all the kids in the
One of General Motors' top engineers also spoke of the difference between minivanners and
SUVers: "SUV owners want to be more like, 'I'm in control of the people around me.'" He went

With the sport utility buyers, it's more of an image thing. Sport utility buyers tend to be
more like, "I wonder how people view me," and are more willing to trade off flexibility or
functionality to get that.
The executive VP for North American auto operations at Honda revealed: "The people who buy
SUVs are in many cases buying the outside first and then the inside. They are buying the image
of the SUV first, and then the functionality."
Jim Bulin, a former Ford strategist who started his
own marketing firm, told Bradsher: "It's about not
letting anything get in your way and, in the extreme,
about intimidating others to get out of your way."
Daniel A. Gorell, who also used to market for Ford
and now has his own firm, says simply that SUV
drivers are "less giving, less oriented toward others."
Defenders of SUVs have attacked Bradsher for
reporting these things, but they always forget the crucial point: Bradsher isn't the one slamming
SUV owners — it's the auto industry itself.

One of the Heroes of Black Hawk Down Is a Convicted Child Molester

The movie Black Hawk Down was one of the biggest box office draws of 2001, and it earned its
director, Ridley Scott, an Oscar nomination. (He didn't win, but the movie got two Academy
Awards for editing and sound.) Based on Mark Bowden's nonfiction book of the same title, it
concerns the disastrous raid of Mogadishu, Somalia, by US elite soldiers in 1993.
One of these Special Forces soldiers underwent a name-change as he moved from the printed
page to the big screen. Ranger John "Stebby" Stebbins became Ranger Danny Grimes when
played by Scottish heartthrob Ewan McGregor. Why? Because in 2000, Stebbins was court-
martialed and sent to the stockade for rape and sodomy of a child under twelve.
This decidedly unheroic turn of events was confirmed by the Army, the Fort Leavenworth
military prison (Stebby's home for the next 30 years), and Black Hawk Down's author. Bowden
told the New York Post that the Army asked him to change Stebbins' name in the screenplay in
order to avoid embarrassing the military.
In an email to the newspaper, Stebby's ex-wife, Nora Stebbins, wrote: "They are going to make
millions off this film in which my ex-husband is portrayed as an All-American hero when the
truth is he is not."

Carl Sagan Was an Avid Pot-Smoker

When you're talking about scientists who achieved rock-star status in
the second half of the twentieth century, the late astronomer and
biologist Carl Sagan is right up there with Stephen Hawking. His
Cosmos (1980) is one of the most popular science books ever written,
planting itself on the New York Times bestseller list for 70 weeks and
staying perpetually in print ever since. It was a companion for the PBS
television series of the same name, which — along with numerous
Tonight Show appearances — introduced Sagan and his emphatically
stated phrase "billions and billions" into pop culture. His sole novel,
Contact, was turned into a love-it-or-hate-it movie starring Jodie
Foster as an erstwhile scientist searching for extraterrestrial life, with
Matthew McConaughey as a New Age flake who, inevitably, makes his own form of contact
with her.
Besides his pop-culture credentials, Sagan was pals with numerous legendary Nobel
Prize-winners while still in college, picked up a Pulitzer Prize for his book Dragons of Eden, and
consulted for NASA, MIT, Cornell, and RAND. He designed the human race's postcards to any
aliens that might be out there — the plaque onboard the Pioneer space probes and the record on
the Voyager probes.
So it might come as a bit of a surprise that Sagan was an avid smoker of marijuana. Some might
even call him a pothead.
In his definitive biography of the celebrity scientist, Keay Davidson reveals that Sagan started
toking regularly in the early 1960s and that Dragons of Eden — which won the Pulitzer — "was
obviously written under the inspiration of marijuana." Davidson says of Sagan:
He believed the drug enhanced his creativity and insights. His closest friend of three
decades, Harvard psychiatry professor Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a leading advocate of the
decriminalization of marijuana, recalls an incident in the 1980s when one of his California
admirers mailed him, unsolicited, some unusually high-quality pot. Grinspoon shared the
joints with Sagan and his wife, Anne Druyan. Afterward, Sagan said, "Lester, I know
you've only got one left, but could I have it? I've got serious work to do tomorrow and I
could really use it."
Perhaps letting Sagan bogart the pot was Grinspoon's way of returning a favor, since Sagan had
contributed an essay to Marihuana Reconsidered, Grinspoon's classic 1971 book on the benefits
and low risks of reefer. For almost three decades, the author of this ode to Mary Jane was
anonymous, but in 1999 Grinspoon revealed that "Mr. X" was Sagan.

In the essay, Sagan wrote that weed increased his appreciation of art, music, food, sex, and
childhood memories, and gave him insights into scientific and social matters:
I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an
idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of Gaussian distribution curves. It
was a point obvious [sic] in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew curves in soap on the
shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of
about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide
range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics.... I have used them in
university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.
The staunchly atheistic/humanistic Sagan comes perilously close to mysticism in some passages:
I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect
to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with
my surroundings, both animate and inanimate. Sometimes a kind of existential perception
of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of
myself and my fellow men. And at other times, there is a different sense of the absurd, a
playful and whimsical awareness....
I am convinced that there are genuine and valid levels of perception available with
cannabis (and probably with other drugs) which are, through the defects of our society and
our educational system, unavailable to us without such drugs. Such a remark applies not
only to self-awareness and to intellectual pursuits, but also to perceptions of real people, a
vastly enhanced sensitivity to facial expression, intonations, and choice of words which
sometimes yields a rapport so close it's as if two people are reading each other's minds.