SHip of fools Pieter_van_der_Heyden_Die_blau_Schuyte_1559

Ship of Fools – Pieter van der Heyden  (fl. 1551–1572)

In our current era of globalised stupidity it seems fitting to take a look at the folklore of fools. Pretty much every culture has them and the same tales of their stupidity often turn up in different traditions. The Turkish Hadji, the Italian Bastienelo, the Cambodian Kong, the Chinese Wang and the Arabic Djuna typify this class of heroism, which seems to be largely restricted to males. Hmm.

Numskulls, as these characters are often known, characteristically perform foolish tasks through misunderstanding a verbal communication or taking one too literally. The English Lazy Jack simply does whatever he is told, regardless of the circumstances. The Drongo is the Australian nincompoop, a heroically stupid figure who interprets whatever he is told literally. When the boss tells him to ‘hang a new gate’, the Drongo takes the gate out to the nearest tree and hangs it in a noose.

Jean Sot is a character in French and French diaspora lore. In the Louisiana French versions Jean is a fool who usually misunderstands instructions and shoots the cow instead of milking it. Or he may take what he is told literally and throw a dog named Parsley into the broth instead of the herb parsley, as his mother has requested. On other occasions Jean may remove and take with him a door he has been asked to guard and sometimes makes a fortune when he accidentally frightens off the robbers who have stolen it.

Some cultures have so many fools they have to keep them all in areas or towns designated for the purpose. In ancient Greece those who lived in the province of Boetia were treated as hopeless hayseeds and hicks. The English town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire has been the focus of numskull tales since at least the fifteenth century. One story told of the Wise men of Gotham is that twelve of them went fishing in a boat but returned in a state of great despair believing that one of them had drowned. They knew this because they could each only count eleven fishermen: each forgot to count himself.

Other fooltowns include Chelm or Helm in Poland, where even the intellectually-challenged Berel the Beadle seems like a mental giant; Altstätten in Switzerland, and Emesa in what used to be Persia. Other towns of clowns are found in Pakistan (Buneyr) and Sri Lanka, (Kadambawa), as well as in Japan, Finland and elsewhere.

In German tradition, the inhabitants of Schwarzenborn and Mutschingen are said to be foolish, as are those of the mythic German town of Schild. Here, the people were so stupid they built a council house without windows but were unable to understand why it was so dark inside. Eventually they realised that no light was able to enter the building, but instead of putting windows in, the people of Schild tried to carry beams of sunshine into the building. This did not improve the lighting and so they next took the advice of a passer-by to take the roof off, richly rewarding him for his assistance. This was fine and the people of Schild were very happy – until it rained. They had to replace the roof and consider what they might do next.

Groping around in the darkness of the council house, one of the fools noticed a small beam of daylight lancing in through a crack between roof and wall. After looking at the light for a while and giving the matter a good deal of thought, he suggested to the others that it might be possible to brighten the building by adding some windows. After considering this suggestion for quite a long while there was general agreement that it just might be worth a try.

Many of these tales are more or less affectionate and the characters in them often much loved. What is there to like about stupidity? Perhaps folk fools are reflections of ourselves. With rare exceptions, few of us are actually fools, we just sometimes do foolish things. It’s all part of being human and if we can find a way to weave an enjoyable and witty yarn around foolish deeds of trivial as well as gargantuan dimensions, we will, just as we have done for thousands of years.

What a pity that foolishness seems to have now broken out of folkloric fantasy and into reality.


William Wallace Denslow’s illustrations for Three Wise Men of Gotham, from a 1901 edition of Mother Goose





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This spoof letter is a piece of modern folklore. It appeared in photocopied and early internet forms while George W Bush was POTUS (2001-2009) and purports to be the work of the famous English comedian, John Cleese. Unlikely though that is, the sentiments expressed were commonly heard at the time. Although it gives a clear view of British prejudices against America, it has an uncanny relevance to the situation from 2017 onwards. Read on, and see if you agree:

To the citizens of the United States of America:

In the light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your Independence, effective today. Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy.

Your new prime minister (The Right Honourable Tony Blair, MP for the 97.85% of you who have until now been unaware that there is a world outside your borders) will appoint minister for America without the need for further elections.

Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire will be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed. To aid in the transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

  1. You should look up “revocation” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then look up “aluminium”. Check the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘favour’ and ‘neighbour’, skipping the letter ‘U’ is nothing more than laziness on your part. Likewise, you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters. You will end your love affair with the letter ‘Z’ (pronounced ‘zed’ not ‘zee’) and the suffix “ize” will be replaced by the suffix “ise”.

You will learn that the suffix ‘burgh’ is pronounced ‘burra’ e.g. Edinburgh. You are welcome to respell Pittsburgh as ‘Pittsberg’ if you can’t cope with correct pronunciation. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up “vocabulary”. Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as “like” and “you know” is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication.Look up “interspersed”.

There will be no more ‘bleeps’ in the Jerry Springer show. If you’re Not old enough to cope with bad language then you shouldn’t have chat shows. When you learn to develop your vocabulary then you won’t have to use bad language as often.

  1. There is no such thing as “US English”. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter ‘u’ and the elimination of “-ize”.
  2. You should learn to distinguish the English and Australian accents. It really isn’t that hard. English accents are not limited to cockney, upper-class twit or Mancunian (Daphne in Frasier). You will also have to learn how to understand regional accents – Scottish dramas such as “Taggart” will no longer be broadcast with subtitles. While we’re talking about regions, you must learn that there is no such place as Devonshire in England. The name of the county is “Devon”. If you persist in calling it Devonshire, all American States will become “shires” e.g. Texasshire, Floridashire, Louisianashire.
  3. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as the good guys. Hollywood will be required to cast English actors to play English characters. British sit-coms such as “Men Behaving Badly” or “Red Dwarf” will not be re-cast and watered down for a wishy-washy American audience who can’t cope with the humour of occasional political incorrectness.
  4. You should relearn your original national anthem, “God Save The Queen”, but only after fully carrying out task 1. We would not want you to Get confused and give up half way through.
  5. You should stop playing American “football”. There is only one kind of football. What you refer to as American “football” is not a very good game. The 2.15% of you who are aware that there is a world outside your Borders may have noticed that no one else plays “American” football. You will no longer be allowed to play it, and should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. It is a Difficult game.

Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American “football”, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or  wearing full kevlar body armour like (nancies). We are hoping to get together at least a US Rugby sevens side by 2005.

You should stop playing baseball.  It is not reasonable to host an event called the ‘World Series’ for a game which is not played outside Of America. Since only 2.15% of you are aware that there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. Instead of baseball, you Will be allowed to play a girls’ game called “rounders” which is baseball Without fancy team strip, oversized gloves, collector cards or hotdogs.

  1. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry guns. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous in public than a vegetable peeler. Because we don’t believe you are sensible enough to handle potentially dangerous items, you will require a permit if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.
  2. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 2nd will be a new national holiday, but only in England. It will be called “Indecisive Day”.
  3. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. All road intersections will be replaced with roundabouts. You will Start driving on the left with immediate effect.

At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

  1. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips. Fries aren’t even French, they are Belgian though 97.85% of you (including the guy who discovered fries while in Europe) are not aware of a country called Belgium. Those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called “crisps”. Real chips are thick cut and fried in animal fat. The traditional accompaniment to chips is beer which should be served warm and flat. Waitresses will be trained to be more aggressive with customers.
  2. As a sign of penance, 5 grams of sea salt per cup will be added to all tea made within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this quantity to be doubled for tea made within the city of Boston itself.
  3. The cold tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all, it is lager. From November 1st only proper British Bitter will be referred to as “beer”, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as “Lager”. The substances formerly known as “American Beer” will henceforth be referred to as “Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine”, with the exception of the product of the American Budweiser company whose product will be referred to as “Weak Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine”. This will allow true Budweiser (as manufactured for the last 1000 years in Pilsen, Czech Republic) to be sold without risk of confusion.
  4. From November 10th the UK will harmonise petrol (or “Gasoline” as you will be permitted to keep calling it until April 1st 2005) prices with the former USA. The UK will harmonise its prices to those of the former USA and the Former USA will, in return, adopt UK petrol prices (roughly $6/US Gallon – get used to it).
  5. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns, lawyers or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you’re not adult enough to be independent. Guns should only be handled by adults. If you’re not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist then you’re not grown up enough to handle gun.
  6. Please tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us crazy.
  7. Tax collectors from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all revenues due (backdated to1776).
  8. Last, but not the least, and for heaven’s sake…’s Nuclear as in “clear” NOT Nucular.

Thank you for your co-operation and have a great day

John Cleese

See previous posts on The Bullshit Detection Bureau and The Last Great Act of Defiance


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A couple of follow-ups to ‘The Bullshit Detection Bureau’:

The triage of truth: do not take expert opinion lying down | Aeon Ideas
How Fiction Becomes Fact on Social Media – The New York Times



Finding Truth in the Age of Obfuscation


The unwelcome ability of the WWW to amplify error, delusion and straight-out lying has made us all potential victims of falsehood and flimflam. This includes, but is not limited to, disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, fake news, urbanmyths, rumour, moralpanics advertorials, and more!



Thereare a fewthings you can doto protect yourself from thenonsense.






Wheredoes the informationcome from? Howcan you knowit is it a reliable source andnot someone or somethinghoping to hoodwink you?


Someproviders of information are morereliable than others, usually because they havesome form ofbuiltin checkingprocess, such as peerreview in the caseof academic research or factchecking carried out by reputablemedia sources.


Itfollows that the bestsources of independently researched (not unsupported and uninformedopinion or biased market surveys) and objectively evaluated information are universitiesand quality print and/or digital media. Theseare increasingly being broughttogether in quality platforms such asThe Conversation, Aeon and other operationsthat publish quality research with alevel of editorialoversight.


Openslather platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and thelike are finefor chatting but docarry not reliableinformation. They are easilymanipulated by governments wishing to spreadpropaganda or rig elections,by vested commercialinterests and ideological zealots, as recent events have demonstrated.





Whenyou access anitem of information,try to workout the intentionof the author/s. Does thewriting try to putyou, the reader,into a particularposition or mindset? Ask yourselfwhy. Are theytrying to convince you ofa point ofview, sell youa product or anidea? Alarm youeven?


Aclassic giveaway in digital messages attempting to frightenyou into doingsomething, like chain letters,drug or otherscares LINK, are these– ! ! ! ! !. Themore of themthat follow a statement, themore you shouldignore it.


Andnever pass themon, as theyalways insist you should. Theirintent is to spreadfear, uncertainty and panic. Why certain individals have aneed for thissort of behavioris a mysterybest left topsychologists. They have alwaysbeen with usbut, again, theWeb has greatlyincreased their ability to spreadthe nonsense they getoff on.





Thelanguage and style ofthe message are relatedto its intent. If the languageis overheated, intemperate or otherwiseover the topyou can besure the individualwho composed and distributedit is likewise. These messages are designedto play uponour perfectly reasonable fears andare presented as actualexperiences, as in thisemail example from Australiain 2007 (Slightly edited for coherence on thepage):


I was approached yesterday afternoon around 3.30 PM in the Coles parking lot at Noranda by two males, asking what kind of perfume I was wearing. Then they asked if Id like to sample some fabulous Scent they were willing to Sell me at a very reasonable rate. I probably would have agreed had I not received an email some weeks ago, warning of this scam.
 The men continued to stand between parked cars, I guess to wait for someone else to hit on. I stopped a lady going towards them, I pointed at them and told her about how I was sent an email at Work about someone walking up to you at the malls, in parking lots, and Asking you to sniff perfume that they are selling at a cheap price.
 THIS IS NOT PERFUMEIT IS ETHER! When you sniff it, youll pass out and theyll take Your wallet, your valuables, and heaven knows what else. If it were not for this email, I probably would have sniffed the perfume, but thanks to The generosity of an emailing friend, I was spared whatever might Have happened to me, and wanted to do the same for you. These guys hit Sydney and Melbourne 2 weeks ago and now they are doing it in Perth and Queensland.
 I called the police when I got back to my desk. Like the email says, LET EVERYONE KNOW ABOUT THIS, YOUR FRIENDS, FAMILY, COWORKERS,whoever!!!!!
 Have the best day of your life!!!!!


Notice how this one begins calmly and with a matter-of-fact, reporting tone. This draws the reader in. But the gradually increasing tone of exclamation mark-assisted hysteria in this message is a reliable indicator of bullshit.





Accuratenames, numbers, dates and other‘factual’ data have alwaysbeen hard tocome by, whichis why theencyclopedia was invented. Tomes likeEncyclopedia Brittanica and the likehave largely done theway of thedinosaurs. Despite its virtues and crowdediting model, Wikipediais no substitutefor ancient but usuallyaccurate authorities and is susceptibleto special interests, ideologies and goodoldfashioned errors offact.


Infact, Wikipedia represents the best andthe worst ofthe Web. Itsstrengths are also itsweaknesses. Use it withdiscretion. Always check at leasttwo other sourcesof information before committingto information on Wikipedia, especially anything faintly statistical. Preferably find anoldstyle printsource, useful for facts upto around 2000. Thesewere written by expertsand exhaustively factcheckedbefore the internet made allinformation slippery.





Acommon way of validatinginformation is to haveheard it froma ‘friend’, a friendof a friend’or other apparentlytrustworthy source. We invest highcredibility in those weknow, often unwisely,as they areas susceptible to receivingand transmitting bullshit as anyoneelse.


Urbanmyths (or contemporarylegends) are spread byword of mouth,through the media (printand digital) and throughemail and socialmedia in general. Their validation is oftenthat the storyis true becauseI heard itfrom a friendof a friend’, or something similar. There are innumerableyarns of thistype in circulationand many havebeen for avery long time,providing them with theveneer of authenticity and ‘truth’. How often haveyou heard that antiVietnam War protesters spat onreturning veterans? Not only isthere no evidence of this ‘fact’,what information does existsuggests that nothing of thesort ever happenedor, even ifit did, wason a minisculescale.


Legendsof this typeoften provide apparent validation of theirclaims by referring to ahospital, police department, local government authority, etc. (Seethe kidney legendabove, which mentions the police). If you takethe trouble to check and youshould if you are concerned you’ll discoverthat these authoritieswill have no record of the allegedevent.





Noteven this article. The best defenceagainst obfuscation is a criticalview of everything. Don’t take anyone’s word for anythingwithout validating it for yourself. Even experts make mistakesand suffer fromunconscious biases. Always look for a range of sources and views.


In the end, we are all our own best bullshit detectors.



It sure is!

The history and folklore of the workplace is long and often unhappy, as the crude cartoon above strongly suggests. But one aspect of working life that has remained constant is the need to laugh off the impositions and aggravations of earning a crust. From the inanities of the ‘system’ to the bastardries of ‘the boss’, workplace humourists have always found ways to lighten things up – though not in ways necessarily appreciated by the management.

Since the industrial revolution delivered the typewriter we have found creative ways to satirise, criticize and take the piss out of work through fake forms, satirical memos, cartoons and a host of other send ups that have brought a smile to the harried faces of employees everywhere.
This form of covert humour was well developed by World War 1, and continued to evolve. When photocopier or Xerox technology came into general use from the 1950s this way of getting back at the boss exploded with the ability to quickly and surreptitiously make as many copies as required for distribution to fellow sufferers and posting on tea room notice boards. The facsimile machine, or ‘fax’ that came towards the end of the 20th century allowed you to send these mirthful missives far and wide. ‘The Problem-Solving Flow Chart ‘was a firm favourite (and still is in one form or another):
Then, as now, stress was a feature of the workplace:



The development of the World Wide Web from the late 20th century into the present has opened up vast new possibilities for creating, recreating and distributing items like this:

Or maybe this one:



This kind of humour is perhaps best understood as laughter that bites – usually to the discomfort of someone else. It operates through transgression, satire, parody, even cruelty. It is the voice, pen or computer of the workaday underdog biting back at the system that controls many waking hours. Most of us have to work for a living, but we don’t have to like it!

 And finally, in a modern take on Aesop, proof positive of what you long suspected:
When God made man all the parts of the body argued over who would be the BOSS.
The BRAIN explained that since he controlled all the parts of the body, he should be the BOSS.
The LEGS argued that since they took the body wherever it wanted to go, they should be the BOSS.
The STOMACH countered with the explanation that since it digested all the food, it should be BOSS.
The EYES said that without them, the body would be helpless, so they should be BOSS.
Then the ARSEHOLE applied for the job.
Then other parts of the body laughed so hard that the arsehole got mad and closed up.
After a few days the BRAIN went foggy, the LEGS got wobbly, the STOMACH got ill and the EYES got crossed and unable to see.
They all conceded defeat and made the ARSEHOLE the BOSS.
This proves that you don’t have to be a brain to be a BOSS …