The Navigator

Casting a Skeptical Eye

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 30 1997; Page E05
The Washington Post

One of the newest hoaxes on the Internet is the Deeyenda Virus. Warnings tell folks not to open any e-mail or messages containing the word "deeyenda" or their computers will implode.

The alert claims to be from the Federal Communications Commission.

The truth is, the FCC doesn't issue virus alerts, the Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie Mellon University does, and computers cannot be felled by simple e-mail, only by downloaded files. Gullible people, on the other hand, can be hornswoggled by anything.

That's why Charles Hymes, 31, a designer at Hewlett-Packard, has a Web site called Don't Spread That Hoax!

He lists a handful of false virus alerts and urban myths.

An old hand at the Internet, Hymes said, "I've seen so many of these hoaxes and legends go around; 10 years ago I saw the Neiman Marcus cookie story."

He's referring to the popular Net myth about a woman who allegedly was charged $250 by the Dallas-based store for a cookie recipe. Out of revenge, supposedly, she e-mailed the recipe to any and everyone. The cookies are delicious; the story is not to be swallowed.

Those sort of online shaggy-dog stories don't concern hoaxbuster Hymes too much. But the kidney harvesting story, he said, goes too far.

The tale: A business traveler meets a seductive woman in a hotel bar. They return to his room. He passes out. When he wakes he discovers that he's in the bathtub, packed with ice. Taped to the wall is a note instructing him to call 911 and to be careful of the tube extruding from his lower back because his "kidneys have been harvested."

Last Friday, Hymes said, his Web site received hundreds of hits as the kidney-harvesting hoax flared up again -- among the recipients were MCI employees and scientists at the National Institutes of Health. This particular yarn, Hymes said, "is insidious. The fact is: There is a terrible shortage of organ donations. This kind of thing makes donations seem so gruesome."

Mary Ann Wirtz of the Richmond-based United Network for Organ Sharing, a clearinghouse for organ donations, said, "This story clearly is untrue. In reality, there is a great shortage of donated organs, but organ donation is a careful, well-documented medical procedure. The truth -- that one donor can help as many as 25 people -- is more interesting than this fiction."

But all the warnings and disclaimers in the world won't keep a good lie down. "It is only a matter of time," Hymes writes, "before someone's reputation, career or bank account is ruined by some out of control e-mail message."

Once an untruth is posted, it's immediately multiplied a gazillion times. That not only ensures overnight notoriety, but credibility (especially when forwarded by reputable folks) and permanence.

The Net, thought to be a perishable medium, is proving to be everlasting. One idea, as Mao Zedong said, lets a hundred flowers blossom. Or more apropos, one bird splat spreads forevermore.

Thank goodness for the debunkers like Hymes who ferret out the frauds and expose the poseurs. But even Hymes has his blind spots. To wit, in another popular Net hoax, a "hominid skull" is sent to the Smithsonian as "conclusive proof of the presence of Early Man in Charleston County 2 million years ago." In the clever reply, which is plastered all over the Internet, curator "Harvey Rowe" identifies the skull as the plastic head of a "Malibu Barbie."

When asked about the Smithsonian letter, Hymes laughed. "According to my understanding of it," Hymes said, "that really happened."

It didn't. Randall Kremer, spokesman for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, said, "We don't have a paleo-anthropology division. And there's no curator named Harvey Rowe."

According to folklorists, the myths and legends of the Internet can be traced back to fax machines, letters and traveling salesmen. In other words, the dangers of the Internet are as old as cave paintings.

So are the proper responses: Use common sense. Don't talk to, or about, strangers. Don't believe everything you read. And, above all, remember the first rule of reporting: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

GETTING THERE: Computer Emergency Response Team at http://www.cert.org; Don't Spread That Hoax! at http://crew.umich.edu/~chymes/Hoaxes/Think.html and the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup, at http://www.urbanlegends.com where urban legends are discussed and skewered.

SURFING

Perturbations, pleasures and predicaments on the I-way:

But Listen to Phil

So why was Feb. 2 designated as a traditional day for determining how much longer winter would last? And how come a big-toothed little critter called a groundhog (or woodchuck) got named the chief prognosticator? Why is a little town near Pittsburgh called the Weather Capital of the Nation? A visit to the Punxsutawney Phil Web site provides answers to these questions, and much more.

Groundhog Day on Feb. 2 has its origin in European religious history and the Christian feast day called Candlemas. It can be traced to the 4th century and is the day set aside to commemorate the presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple of Jerusalem. Lighted candles quickly became a popular Candlemas custom, as did the verse:

If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Come, winter, have another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Go, winter, and come not again.

As Candlemas traditions evolved, many people embraced the legend that if the sun shone on the second day of February, an animal would see its shadow and there would be at least six more weeks of winter. Bears or badgers are watched in some European countries, but the German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania found an abundance of groundhogs.

Late in the 19th century a few residents in Punxsutawney began celebrating the groundhog as weather prophet, and in 1887 Punxsutawney Phil made the first of his annual forecasting appearances. Since that time he has failed to see his shadow only 12 times. In addition to the lore of Punxsutawney and the groundhog, the Web site has numerous weather links, including one to the National Weather Service.

-- Bobbye Pratt, pratt@washpost.com

GETTING THERE: Click on http://www.groundhog.org. For current weather information go to http://www.nws.noaa.gov/.

Eat Hearty!

For those of you trying to turn over a new leaf after holiday revelry, the Web can come to the rescue with low-fat menus, shopping lists, and ways to calculate calories, fat, sodium, carbohydrates, protein and nearly any other nutrient your heart desires.

If it's variety you're searching for, you'll want to check out Mymenus, a crafty little Web site for which no dietary restrictions appear to be too daunting or extreme. Need to go on low-fat, high-calcium, sodium-restricted fare? Just plug it into the site's search engine and voila! Faster than you can say "deprivation," there is a list of foods that can be categorized alphabetically, by cooking time, nutrient content or preparation time.

Among the offerings are maple beans, complete with dark rum but very little fat, a lot of fiber and just 158 calories per serving. There is pickled carp (very high in selenium, an essential nutrient). And there was a comprehensive nutrient list, including counts for such things as zinc and iron. It can search for specific ingredients for single servings or a crowd of 20 and it can be set to calculate recipes in metric units, Australian, British or New Zealand measurements as well as standard U.S. cups and tablespoons. Mymenus, which is sponsored by grocery stores nationwide, also provides a handy grocery list with every recipe.

For a back-to-basics regimen, the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers the Food and Nutrition Information Center Web site. Here you can discover exactly how out of whack your daily holiday intake actually was. And for anyone who groans at the thought of carrying around a calorie counter to look up the amount of fat and calories in every little morsel, the government now provides that information online. Click on Food Composition Data after lunch and you can calculate the the number of calories in that turkey sandwich you ate, not to mention those tasty celery sticks.

Just be prepared to wade through a plethora of entries first, since this listing is comprehensive and includes such nuggets as turkey eggs, baby food with turkey and turkey fat, not to mention turkey that comes from the young tom as well as the old hen (and of course that turkey sandwich sans the mayo that you ate to become your new svelte self.)

Better yet, download the Dietary Analysis Program -- that's DAP, for short. Created by the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, it contains 27 nutrients and minerals as well as a data base of some 850 foods. It will analyze and graph your daily intake and compare it with the recommended dietary allowances set by the government. This often very depressing information then can be saved to your very own disk for later use at home with any IBM compatible computer.

-- Sally Squires, squiress@washpost.com

GETTING THERE: Reach the USDA Web site at http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/. Find new recipes for any type of diet by surfing to http://www.mymenus.com.

Found something intriguing, improbable, insane or especially useful on the Net? Write it up and send it to Karen Marrero, marrerok@washpost.com, or Joel Garreau, garreau@well.com. Linton Weeks can be reached at navigator@washpost.com. Rob Pegoraro can be reached at rob@twp.com.

CLICK

http://www.kd.qd.se/~griffon/ferrets/

For small rodents, ferrets sure are cute. So cute, in fact, that some might say that "You cannot live without them!" You could say that, except somebody else has beaten you to it. We speak of this Web essay on the joys of ferrets, brimming with the author's obvious affection for his family of four ferrets and expressed in that self-consciously goofy style so characteristic of the Web. Did you know that ferrets are related to polecats? That they enjoy hiding in sweaters? That they "like to steal loose objects and disorganize parts of your home, especially house plants"? You will. The page also features a "ferret site of the week" and practical tips about keeping these furry folk ("Ferrets who aren't going to be used for breeding should be neutered. . . . males are easily stressed when they're in heat." Hmmm . . . sounds like some other species I know). The site also contains this tantalizing statement about ferrets' investigative talents: "There are also indications that they would be very proficient at finding socks." Maybe I should throw one in my clothes dryer.

-- Rob Pegoraro

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company