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There are some things that everyone agrees are awful, like paper cuts, or cancer, or paper cuts from the hospital bills you receive after getting cancer. But not everything in life is that certain. It turns out that a lot of the things you've been using as synonyms for "terrible" are actually not that bad. Like ...

5
Snake Oil

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If you were sick back in 19th century America, your options were limited. The germ theory of disease hadn't caught on yet, and the ACA website was even slower than it is now. So it wasn't uncommon for salesmen to travel the country selling bottled "miracle tonics," which they touted as a cure for everything from muscle aches to syphilis. A common ingredient in these tonics was snake oil, because apparently grinding up rattlesnakes was less work than just filling the bottles with morphine or something. Unsurprisingly, these snake-based tonics were less useful than the bottles they were sold in, and the term "snake-oil salesman" soon caught on as a name for anyone selling a phony product.

collectorsweekly.com
At least they ended up with a better reputation than the kitten-oil salesmen.

The tonic pushers didn't just dream up the concept while cleaning out their grill after a snake barbecue: They got the idea from Chinese immigrants to America in the 1800s, who at the time were using their own version of snake oil. So in other words, the deathly reach of Big Snake Oil was global.

The Reality:

Well, that's what everyone assumed until someone finally got around to testing the original version of the oil, which is still in use in China. The tests showed it to be incredibly high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties and can help with pain. So when Chinese workers told Americans that their magic snake oil was the bee's knees, they were telling the truth.

nlm.nih.gov
"Good for termite tendons, beetle's elbow, and roly-poly dick."

But if that's the case, why was American snake oil so fucking useless? Well, the Chinese version was made from Chinese water snakes, which as the name implies are not easily found on the American continent. American snake-oil producers either used rattlesnakes, which have much lower omega-3 levels, or simply substituted cow fat. So the next time you call someone a snake-oil salesman for trying to sell you a homeopathic herpes remedy, remember that a more accurate insult would be "19th century entrepreneur without access to a wildlife import license."

4
American Space Pens

thinkgeek.com

If you have ever stepped into a gift or novelty store in search of a good souvenir from the local Pirate Sex Museum, you've probably seen one of these:

perpetualkid.com

In case you're on a phone and can't read the small text, the story is this: During America's space race with the Soviets, NASA spent a million dollars designing a pen that could work in a zero-gravity environment, while the crafty Soviets simply used a pencil. Other common versions of the tale have NASA spending $12 billion and researching space pens for a full decade (because apparently the American side of the space race was held up for 10 years by crucial pen research), and nobody noticed. Hell, if we'd all just been smart enough to use pencils, we could have reached the moon in 1959 and communism would have died of despair. Whatever the details, Americans love the space-pen story because it's a clear example of out-of-control government spending being defeated by simple common sense.

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"And then the Soviet guy said, Why don't you just swim across the river? Demolition starts Thursday."

The Reality:

Angry taxpayers everywhere can put down their Ron Paul stickers, because the space-pen story is bullshit. The reason NASA didn't like using pencils in space wasn't that they were a bunch of money-eating bureaucrats, but because pencils in space are dangerous. Ever have the tip of a pencil break off while you're drawing Hitler mustaches on the people in pharmaceutical advertisements? In a zero-gravity environment, surrounded by sensitive instruments that are the only thing protecting you from a horrible Battlestar Galactica-airlock-scene death, those little pencil bits suddenly become a big problem. Pencils are also flammable, which didn't endear them to astronauts living in fire-happy high-oxygen environments.

Andrey Ezhov/iStock/Getty Images
Above: more dangerous to an astronaut than poisonous helmet spiders.

But did NASA really have to spend a million dollars on the pen? Couldn't they have been doing something more useful with the money, like building us a goddamn city on the moon? Apparently not, because the pen was developed by the Fisher Pen Company, which funded it with its own money. NASA then bought the pens at $6 apiece, and within a few years the Soviets were using them as well.

NASA/Harrison Schmitt
Then America decided that the pens were communist and started using crayons.

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3
The Ford Pinto

Nakedicarus

The Pinto, a car produced by Ford throughout most of the 1970s, is famous for the badly designed gas tank that made it burst into flames after rear-end collisions. Even more notorious is the fact that Ford apparently knew the car was a hellish death trap and neglected to take it off the market: In a leaked memo, they calculated that paying out "you barbecued our relatives" lawsuits was cheaper than recalling the car (a human life was valued at $200,000). If this piece of corporate evil sounds familiar, it's because it formed the basis of Edward Norton's existential angst in Fight Club.

20th Century Fox
"Actually, the first rule of Fight Club is don't mention Ford, because they spent our legal budget on my wardrobe."

Outcry over both the safety issues and the memo caused a Pinto recall in the late '70s, and since then "Pinto" has come to refer to super-explodable cars in general. Exploding Pintos have become so seared into our consciousness that at some point Hollywood decided to apply explosions to any car hit by anything ever, and we've been dealing with the fallout ever since.

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On the plus side, it gave us fodder for about 12 MythBusters episodes.

The Reality:

Although media coverage at the time made it seem like the Pinto was littering America's highways with burned corpses, the car was actually no more dangerous than other similar cars of that era. And the notorious "$200,000 per life" figure was calculated not by greedy Ford execs, but by the National Highway Transit Safety Authority. In fact, the "memo" was actually part of a letter from Ford to the NHTSA that discussed the risks of all Ford vehicles (not just Pintos) during rollover crashes (not rear-end collisions), which is perhaps why it was ruled inadmissible in the biggest anti-Pinto lawsuit. Which is not to say that you should plan on driving a Pinto in your next local Burning Racetrack competition, but when it came to driving small cars in the '70s, you were about as safe as average in a Pinto.

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Mirror ball accidents took a greater toll.

2
Assault Weapons

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These days, you can't throw a rock in a political discussion without hitting an argument about "assault weapons" (or you could try throwing an assault weapon. That might stir up debate a bit). And this is nothing new: Controversy over assault-weapon bans has been around since before the Clinton administration. Assault weapons get flak from both sides: Anti-gun people speak of them like some sort of terrifying demon-possessed super rifle, while pro-gunners insist that the term "assault weapon" was invented by the liberal media to make law-abiding Firearm-Americans sound scary.

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They prefer to be called "deer softeners."

The Reality:

Both sides are wrong. "Assault weapon" was the name given to a military rifle developed in World War II that could switch between automatic and semiautomatic modes of firing. During the '80s, when American gun sales were slow, manufacturers started introducing these new weapons to the public, with one difference: The guns were missing the automatic-fire mode, because automatic weapons have been highly restricted in America since 1934. With that distinction gone, the only difference left between an assault weapon and a normal rifle is that one looks vaguely newer and could be marketed as more modern. Basically, assault weapons were a clever rebranding exercise done to boost sales, like when manufacturers rename prunes "dried plums" to make us stop associating them with grandmas.

Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images
The next step is rebooting adult diapers as "twerking safety aids."

My point here isn't whether semiautomatic rifles should be available to every lost soul who wanders into a gun store. It's that any gun-related argument that relies on scapegoating "assault weapons" is entirely useless, because a normal non-assault rifle without a scary name can shoot you in the face in exactly the same way. This explains why the previous federal assault-weapon ban mostly targeted rifles with entirely cosmetic features like pistol grips and barrel heat shields. It's like believing that babies should not consume alcohol, but then focusing all your time and energy on preventing them from drinking it out of those cool vodka bottles shaped like skulls.

crystalheadvodka.com
Not even a single sip. Welcome to Obama's America.

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1
Fedoras

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Unless you've been hiding from the Internet for the last few years because you're trying to avoid Breaking Bad spoilers, you probably know that the word "fedora" means far more than just a hat. It's a shorthand way of depicting a species of Internet dweller whose main trait consists of being an awful person. Fedora-related characteristics include obnoxiously militant atheism, men's rights activism, and a tendency to blame one's involuntary celibacy on "feminists" who don't like "nice guys." The guy spamming your grandmother's Facebook with Richard Dawkins quotes because she mentioned praying for you? Probably wearing a fedora. The man with week-old Tostitos crumbs in his unwashed beard complaining that the only reason model-hot women won't date him is because girls only like jerks? The fedora has made its way inside him.

Jupiterimages/Polka Dot/Getty Images
"Fool. There is no more him. There is only us."

The Reality:

You could be forgiven for believing that the fedora just materialized on a dude's head one day, perhaps after he successfully inserted 12 separate "get me a sandwich" jokes into a single piece of My Little Pony erotic fan fiction. But the hat's real origin was entirely unrelated to Applejack and Gilda discovering their repressed love: It got its name from the 19th century play Fedora, in which actress Sarah Bernhardt wore a stylish, narrow-brimmed women's hat while playing the lead, Princess Fedora. Female fans of Bernhardt picked up the style, which soon became an early symbol of women's liberation. Only later did fedoras become associated with menswear. In other words, like those Satanists who unknowingly wear an ancient Christian symbol around their necks, MRAs have picked the wrong symbol for their movement and should try adopting something new.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Maybe the bicorn? No one else is using the bicorn.


C. Coville's Twitter is here.

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