Sock puppet has been used a lot in regards to the Microsoft-financed SCO suit against major distributors of Linux. It's been used by Wired and the illustrious Eric S. Raymond. It's curious to note that the term has its origins in one of the weirder kook flame wars to ever be waged on Usenet. Even better it was kooking that actually moved off the net (sci.skeptic to be exact) and into a Toronto court room.

Gather round.

It all began around 1995 when a Toronto psychic by the name of Earl Curley (a.k.a. Earl Gordon Curley) started claiming on sci.skeptic he won The Amazing Randi's famous "$100,000" paranormal challenge and Randi was trying to stiff him. (It was actually $10,000 back then and no one is sure how or why Curley inflated the prize by 10x1 other than accuracy, whether in making actual psychic predictions2 or reading simple numbers, was never Curley's strong suit.)

Eventually Curley's claim he won got filtered back to Randi.

Randi noted in one of his email newsletters that Curley had never even applied for the award so he claim was, naturally, false. Randi noted Curley had at one point challenged him to appear on some Toronto radio show and prove he wasn't a psychic. Randi, although Canadian, lives in Florida and wasn't willing to pay his way to Toronto to watch some two bit local strip mall psychic do a cold reading on a Toronto housewife. One could hardly claim a win if Randi did not want to waste time and money on someone unwilling to even fill out the challenge's basic paper work.

Readers of Randi's newsletter and sci.skeptic informed Curley he was fulla crap. Curley immediately concluded Randi, too pussy to face him down in Toronto, was now too pussy to face him down on Usenet and was sending his mewling sycophants to stalk and harass the Great Psychic. The war was on.

Curley had a lot of character flaws that made him a Great Kook. Lots of kooks make outlandish claims -- like inventing the quicksort algorithm, being a rich lawyer, finding a way to seduce women with ease, a willingness to kill if denied tenure -- but few kooks claimed actual supernatural powers.

Curley also claimed a level of intelligence, business acumen3, web design skills, sexual prowess, and rhythm on the dance floor that were obviously and patently false based on even the most cursory reading of any one of his posts to Usenet. For example, Curley claimed to be a published author4, having written a couple books, but it was obvious from his Usenet posts Curley struggled to craft a single sentence that wasn't loaded with typos, malapropisms, tautologies, improper subject/verb agreement, improper articles, improper prepositions, and other examples of a poor mastery of the English language.

Curley was also a huge drunk, which would eventually prove to be his undoing. Finally, Curley had a perverse and all consuming need for his doubters to actually believe his grandiose claims. Curley was caught in a weird spiral. More he was doubted and jeered at, more outlandish his claims got, greater his need to convince those laughing at him he really was everything he said he was.

To that end, Curley started to create various accounts on dejanews (which was eventually bought out by, nay rescued by, Google) to substantiate his claims. For example he created a woman named "Mary Jo Willy" who claimed to have a PhD and could confirm Curley's vast intelligence. One of her initial posts included this gem:

"I have an educaction {sic} that would pail {sic} in comparison to your intellect. Besides having a phd {sic} in english {sic}, I have tought {sic} people with a higher education which you can only dream of. Now that I put you in your placego {sic} find that rock that all the groupies come from, and crawl back from {sic} under it."

It was pretty clear to all, based on the fact this "phd" in "english" wrote just like Curley (that is, poorly), Mary Jo Willy was a creation of Curley.

At some point an unknown reader of sci.skeptic with a vendetta against Randi himself decided to use Curley to propagate a tape he had of Randi engaged in phone sex with another male. Randi made the tape to aid a police investigation of a stalker. The unknown user claimed it was a tape of Randi engaged in phone sex with a minor5. (A transcript of the tape Curley himself posted has the so-called minor describing himself as what sure sounds like an adult male, being something like 6' tall and 220 lbs of solid muscle… not many underage 15-year-old boys might describe themselves that way.)

At this time Randi was one of the many people trying to calm the child abuse hysteria gripping America. He gave voice to the idea that therapists were creating false memories in children. Being a recent recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, Randi was a high profile spokesman and consequently something of a target. If Randi was so quick to endorse this false memory notion, isn't it possible he was endorsing it because he himself was abusing young boys and it would provide future cover in any defense? (An influential Toronto Star feminist writer named Michelle Landsburg herself advanced the theory in the page of the Star that Randi was a pedophile and was a strong supporter of false memory syndrome for this reason. She provided no actual evidence aside from alluding to the tape.)

Anyway this tape got sent to Curley and Curley started calling Randi a pedophile on Usenet, claiming the tape as evidence. Randi asked Curley to retract. Curley refused. Randi filed a defamation suit against Curley. Curley was initially full of bravado, claiming he's going to launch a counter suit. He created yet another identity ("Allan Fairbridge") to support his wild claims. Curley went so far as to claim his Allan Fairbridge identity was going to join his counter suit.

And this then is the true genesis of the sock puppet term. A Usenet user named Philippe Schnoebelen likened Curley's various made up Usenet personalities to puppets Curley was pulling out of his shoe box to bolster his spirit and tell him what to do. Many took pleasure in Curley's dire situation, pointing out it was obvious to all (but maybe him) that Curley was without friends, without funds to fight a lawsuit, and apparently without a place to live (he was sleeping on the couch of a Toronto ISP that was employing him). In this most desperate hour, he was inventing people.

Curley responded he was not inventing people. He was at that very moment in a room full of friends (including homosexuals to answer another charge that he was a homophobe since one of his favorite insults was to call another user gay… or "jo boy" in his words).

A sci.skeptic user by the name of "LazzWaldo" responded to this with:

Why does the image of a person infinitely uglier and more awkward than Mr. Bean come to mind, sitting in a room strewn with crumpled printouts, empty cola cans, smashed beer bottles, and greasy pizza boxes? The chairs are arranged in a circle, with Earl in one of them, wearing 3 day old boxer shorts. On each of the other chairs is a sock puppet, with those silly googly eyes and a name tag scotch-taped on them. One of the sock puppets has a gay chat line ad from a sleazy weekly paper scotch taped to the back of its' chair.

The sock puppet term stuck. Not only did it seem silly and kooky but the socket puppet allegory, that is a rather badly done simulacrum of a human being that would fool no one, dove tailed nicely with Curley's poorly executed and obvious attempts at duping Usenet readers.

As I hinted at above, Curley was a problem drinker. Shortly before Randi's defamation suit was to go to trial, Curley had drunk himself to death. Along with him died half a dozen sock puppets.


1 It was upped to 100K and then finally a million.

2 Curley would publish his annual psychic predictions on his gruesomely laid out web site (Curley was a big believer in setting everything in centered tables and putting 20 point ruling lines around everything with matching 20 point inter cell spacing). Every year readers of sci.skeptic would post last year's predictions an analyze them for accuracy. Curley tended towards obvious predictions, like predicting tornados to hit nebulous stretches of America's Tornado Alley in spring and summer. Tossing those out, he never managed to hit a single prediction. To quash this sort of critical abuse from Randi's "jo boys" Curley started threatening to sue anyone who posted his predictions to sci.skeptic, even for the purposes of critical academic debate.
"If you ever post anything off my web site which explicitly states 'Copyright' I'll sue you ass off, your service provider, you company that you work for and anyone else who thinks they are as dumb as you. Got it ass-hole. Try it one more time."

3 At one point Curley, in answer to a challenge that he was living in some run down airport motel, claimed him and a business associate (a "Dr.Romberg" who Curley claimed was a "top behavioural scientist ") were in the process of raising millions in funds and breaking ground on a massive factory to manufacture some quack medical device. Curley provide a link to a web site advertising the device. Readers of sci.skeptic emailed the "Dr. Rombert", who turned out to be some confused 75-year-old man. They asked him if he was aware Curley was in the process of raising millions of dollars from investors by using his name and "invention". If no and Curley was indeed raising money in the man's name, this was clearly a case of fraud. The old man barely knew Curley. He paid him to design his web site and because he was, by his own admission, nearly illiterate, he paid Curley a fee to answer his business email. It's worth noting again this "top behavioral scientist" was by his own admission nearly illiterate. One wonders how you get to be a doctor and a top scientist in your field by being illiterate. Romberg noted Curley was certainly not a business partner and had no knowledge millions were being raised.

4 When people questioned Curley's intelligence, he was always quick to point out he was a two-time author. Curiously, none of his books could be found on or in Books In Print. And although he was quick to talk about the books he authored, he grew noticeably silent when asked to talk about his books ISBNs. Now, one of Curley's books was called "Psychic Mind Stalkers", which he claimed documented his extensive work with Canadian and American intelligence services, helping them to win the psychic cold war being waged with Red psychics. As ready as Curley was to claim he was an author, he was also quicker to claim he was highly involved with the CIA. Now most CIA operatives don't go around telling everyone on the wide open Internet that they're CIA, especially if they make it easy, as Curley did, to figure out their route home from work. And this gave rise to one never adequately explained incident in the entirely short and weird life of Earl Gordon Curley. He recanted this lie in public. He posted a message noting he was never a CIA agent and any claims he made were an outright lie. Some one must have scared him in a terrible way.
"Okay, someone decided to be a smart ass and posted my previous involvelment wiih the C.I.A. It's false. I have no recollection of any involvement nor do I admit being involved with them. I lied through my teeth and therefore am innocent of any reports stating otherswise. I know this won't suffice, but be cognizant t that I do have a family and please don't put them in jeoprady." (Curley post dated 1997/04/17)

5 Another favorite Curley insult, aside from alluding that a person was homosexual and took part in circle jerks, was that the person spent much of his time on IRC trying to pick up a "child of tender years" by "hot-chatting" them.
"It was more surprising that Darwyn surfaced pretending to protect another kid who he was hot-chatting on an IRC channel as Steve Sebastian was doing." (Curley post dated 1998/01/11)

"Hey asshole, you got caught romancing a child of tender years and that's a criminal offense in Canada." (Curley post dated 1997/12/31)