An all-too-common behavior of the digital era -- and not limited to Americans -- is the impulse to forward e-mails. People may find them hilarious, clever, cute -- but also frightening and ominous.
In that case, the forwarders may think they are doing friends and family a favor to spread such electronic warnings: after all, the messages sometimes say, "Send to as many people as possible!" Forwarding had become second nature to people accustomed to communicating through the Web.
The emergence and propagation of urban myths also was magnified by the mainstream use of e-mail systems. An urban myth (or urban legend) is a dramatic tale of tragedy or great joy, sometimes epic in its unfolding plot. There often is a moral at the end. The story sounds credible on the surface, with its source being a knowledgeable "friend of a friend," but inevitably it is total fiction. As Miami University of Ohio's Folklore on the Internet stated:
Computers and the Internet in general have also proved to be a fertile ground for the spread and development of folklore. Computer mediated channels, such as Web pages and electronic mail, have aided in the rapid transmission of specific types of folklore, especially urban myths ... and chain letters. In some cases, the computer and Internet itself have themselves provided the stuff of which folklore is made. (1)
A famous example of an e-mail based urban myth was the Neiman-Marcus customer who asked for the recipe for the tasty Mrs. Fields chocolate chip cookies sold there. This person was furious to later find they had been billed nearly $300 on their credit card for the service. The angry person then sent out the recipe all over the Web so everyone can have the pricey recipe for free. Engaging story, but it never happened. And a lot of people now have an additional cookie recipe for their files.
A study by Stanford and Duke University professors and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 2001 found that urban legends that caused anger, fear or disgust most likely were the ones to be remembered and propagated. The myths generating the greatest emotions also survive. (2)
"There are situations where truth does not win out," Chip Heath, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford and study co-author, was quoted in The Washington Post. "Legends that punch more emotional buttons are more widely spread. What we've been able to show is as long as something has emotion, it doesn't need content. It will survive." (3)
The shock and drama of 11 September 2001 led to a rash of these forwarded e-mails, some based upon text, and others with startling images. This article examines some of most famous of the myths -- and true peculiarities -- that turned up in people's e-mail inboxes in the weeks after 9-11.
In 1992, Microsoft Corp. released Wingdings, created by Kris Holmes and Charles Bigelow of Holmes & Bigelow, a font design house. This font set -- coinciding with the release of Windows 3.11 -- contained 255 icons matched to the upper and lower case letters, numerals and symbols on the computer keyboard. Themes included computers, travel, religion, the zodiac, hand gestures, business and office, faces and bullet points.
In that same year, someone discovered that if you typed "NYC" in Wingdings, you got a skull and crossbones, a star of David and a thumbs-up gesture. Some people interpreted it as anti-Semitic and anti-New York. Microsoft repeatedly denied any such intent, adding that it was an unfortunate coincidence.
"It's completely random," Microsoft spokeswoman Kimberly Kuresman told USA Today. "If you fix 'NYC,' it could lead to another combination that could be equally offensive." (4)
A friend of Bigelow and Holmes also said the creators had no malicious intent. "These are two of the most peace-loving people on the face of the Earth. There's no way it was anything other than an unfortunate coincidence," Don Hosek, a typographer, told Wired magazine.
"We have enough symbols and combinations that it's almost inevitable that you'll find something that's a little sinister," added Hosek, editor of Serif magazine. (5)
In 1992, Microsoft went so far as to investigate after receiving numerous complaints about the NYC oddity from the Anti-Defamation League, a group that crusades against anti-Semitism and other biases. The software giant found no ulterior motives.
Another NYC coincidence occurred with Microsoft's Webdings font, released in 1997. The symbols produced by typing "NYC" produced a human eye, a heart and an urban skyline. It bore some resemblance to Milton Glaser's famed "I Love (Heart) NY" graphic used by the New York state government since 1976 (and somewhat also by the city).
Microsoft said its typographer worked to avoid the NYC flap produced by Wingdings by using "positive" symbols for them in Webdings, Kuresman said.
David Mikkelson, an urban myth researcher, was aware of the NYC images, and thought Microsoft left them alone because there was nothing terrible intended, despite many people's beliefs about the computer company and founder Bill Gates being evil and rapacious.
"If Microsoft had thought there was anything to it, they've had 10 years to change the keyboard mapping, but haven't. I'm sure they (appropriately) consider it too silly to bother with," Mikkelson said. (6)
The company's decision to leave the Wingdings alone led to a return of e-mails screaming about the NYC death message. They surfaced several days after the attacks. A new wrinkle also appeared in the e-mail:
Apparently "q33ny" - supposed to be the flight number of one of the crashed planes - gives an aeroplane, two buildings, a skull and crossbones and the star of david. Again, no comment, although whether this is in fact the number of one of the planes seems unlikely. I've heard a few people suggesting that this is a sign that Microsoft were involved in the terrorist attack.
The language usage suggests this e-mail came from a nation where British English either was spoken or was taught to the writer ("aeroplane"; "Microsoft were..." instead of "was").
The e-mail was quickly dismissed as a fake, as none of the doomed jets' flight or registration numbers were Q33NY. If there were any code, it might have been based on the flight number; for example, AAL11, for American Airlines Flight 11, or UAL93, United Airlines Flight 93.
The so-called skyscraper icons are actually pieces of paper with writing on them, not the Twin Towers.
The second terror of fall 2001 had been the very real deliveries of anthrax-tainted letters to members of the US Congress, major mass media with New York City offices, and a Florida tabloid publisher. However, e-mail warnings of another mail-based microbe turned out to be a dark prank that predated the anthrax letters by more than a year.
The Klingerman virus was supposed to arrive in innocuous blue envelopes that appeared to be from a charitable foundation. As the e-mail claimed:
This is an alert about a virus in the original sense of the word ... one that affects your body, not your hard drive.
There have been 23 confirmed cases of people attacked by the Klingerman Virus, a virus that arrives in your real mail box, not your e-mail in box. Someone has been mailing large blue envelopes, seemingly at random, to people inside the US. On the front of the envelope in bold black letters is printed, "A gift for you from the Klingerman Foundation." When the envelopes are opened, there is a small sponge sealed in plastic. This sponge carries what has come to be known as the Klingerman Virus. As public health officials state, this is a strain of virus they have not previously encountered.
When asked for comment, Florida police Sergeant Stetson said, "We are working with the CDC and the USPS, but have so far been unable to track down the origins of these letters. The return addresses have all been different, and we are certain a remailing service is being used, making our jobs that much more difficult."
Those who have come in contact with the Klingerman Virus have been hospitalized with severe dysentery. So far, seven of the 23 victims have died. There is no legitimate Klingerman Foundation mailing unsolicited gifts.
If you receive an oversized blue envelope in the mail marked,"A gift from the Klingerman Foundation," DO NOT open it. Place the envelope in a strong plastic bag or container, and call the police immediately. The "gift" inside is one you definitely do not want.
Not only was there no Klingerman virus, but no Sgt. Stetson of any Florida police department or public health officials were actually quoted as reported. The letter virus e-mails dated back to May 2000 and had mutated into other forms, such as the Leberman, Kinderman and Lineman Foundations and Kricker Group. The Klingerman version specifically appeared after 9-11. (7)
A French astrologer and mystic somehow knew that the World Trade Center was going to be demolished -- at least that's what several e-mails claimed.
Michel de Nostredame, better known as Nostradamus (1503-1566), who also was a doctor, wrote a series of prophecies in the form of quatrains, or four-line poems. These are the Centuries, 942 quatrains grouped in sets of 100.
Up through the 21st century people were fascinated enough in them to produce floods of reports, books and videos that purported to explain the prophecies.
Here was the French seer's supposed prediction of the WTC's end that was in the e-mail:
"In the City of God there will be a great thunder,
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos,
while the fortress endures,
the great leader will succumb,
The third big war will begin when the big city is burning"
The first problem that immediately arises is that somehow Nostradamus made this prophecy 88 years after his death. Quite remarkable for any astrologer.
The second problem was, these words actually were plagiarized from Canadian college student Neil Marshall, who made up a phony Nostradamus prediction. Marshall, a student at Brock University in Ontario, wrote "A Critical Analysis of Nostradamus" in 1997 to show how ludicrous it was to read current events into the quatrains.
If I make, say, a thousand prophecies that are fairly abstract ... for example:
In the City of God there will be a great thunder
Two brothers torn apart by Chaos
While the fortress endures
The great leader will succumb
Well, let us analyze this. For example, what does "City of God" mean? It could be Mecca, Medina, Rome, Jerusalem, Salt Lake City or any holy city, depending on your religion. What do I mean by thunder -- a storm? War? Earthquake? Lots of stuff can be described by thunder. There are a lot of two brothers on this world (I think the number runs among the billions). And "fortress endures" what? Besiegement, famine, etc.? What "Great Leader"? How will he succumb? To what? (8)
Marshall's fake quatrain was further embroidered and stretched to sound like a prophecy, as shown in this versions:
"In the City of God, there will be a great thunder. Two brothers torn apart by Chaos, while the fortress endures, the great leader will succumb. The third big war will begin when the big city is burning. Nostradamus 1654
...on the 11th day of the ninth month that ... two metal birds would crash into two tall statues ... in the new city ... and the world will end soon after."
--From the book of Nostradamus
Another variation was actually a Nostradamus quatrain that was reshaped to fit 11 September 2001.
Subject: Re: Nostradamus
Century 6, Quatrain 97
Two steel birds will fall from the sky on the Metropolis. The sky will burn at forty-five degrees latitude. Fire approaches the great new city.
[New York City lies between 40-45 degrees]
Immediately a huge, scattered flame leaps up.
Within months, rivers will flow with blood.
The undead will roam earth for little time.
The real Nostradamus in Century 6, Quatrain 97, reads in English as follows:
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees latitude,
Fire approaches the great new city
Immediately a huge, scattered flame leaps up
When they want to have verification from the Normans.
No "steel birds" or "undead roaming the earth" in the real quatrain. Considering the mention of the "Normans," this poem was actually aimed at Nostradamus' homeland of France, rather than the USA. New York City, I might also add, is just slightly north of 41 degrees latitude, not 45.
This is the final bogus Nostradamus prediction, which uses elements of two of his real quatrains.
Nostradamus' prediction on WW3:
"In the year of the new century and nine months,
From the sky will come a great King of Terror...
The sky will burn at forty-five degrees.
Fire approaches the great new city..."
"In the city of York there will be a great collapse,
Two twin brothers torn apart by chaos
While the fortress falls, the great leader will succumb
Third big war will begin when the big city is burning.
He said this will be bigger than the previous two. 2001 is the first year of the new century, and this is the ninth month. New York is located at the 41st degree Latitude.
Again, this was not true Nostradamus. York also could be the city in England, and the "two twin brothers" could be two human beings -- not two monolithic skyscrapers! (8)
TO 9-11 E-MAIL HOAXES & TRUE ODDITIES, PART 2 >>
NOTES (PART 1)
(1)PSY 380K, Folklore on the Internet, Miami University, Miami, Ohio, spring 1998. (http://miavx1.muohio.edu/~psybersite/cyberspace/folklore/intro.htmlx)
(2) Shankar Vedantam, "Legends of the Fall: Sept. 11 Myths Abound, The Washington Post, 4 January 2002.
(4) Janet Kornblum, "Wingdings don't translate into hate," USA Today, 27 September 2001.
(5) Joanna Glasner, "MS denies Wingding Thing, Again," Wired News, 22 September 2001. (http://www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,47042,00.html)
(7) Barbara and David P. Mikkelson, "Klingerman Virus," Urban Legends Reference Pages (http://www.snopes2.com)
(8) Neil Marshall, "A Critical Analysis of Nostradamus," 1997. Marshall's original article was deleted from the Web in early 2002 due to overwhelming traffic. The page was reprinted at The AFU and Urban Legends Archives (http://www.urbanlegends.com/ulz/xmarshall.html).
(9) The Nostradamus e-mail variations were collected by David Emery, Urban Legends Guide for About.com (http://urbanlegends.about.com)
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