But even when nothing stands out as extraordinarily suspicious—a missed meeting, or even two, isn’t that much in the grand scheme of a president’s calendar—research shows people at the bottom of the pile are most able to weave meaning and motive into what little information is available. Our brains perceive illusory patterns in everything from images to stock market information, concluded University of Texas researchers in 2008, when we lack control.

The Kremlin of course is the arbiter of the majority of state-sanctioned information in Russia, directly controlling two of Russia’s three major news channels. State-owned company Gazprom owns the third. As if purposefully parodying the administration’s extreme information control, Russian-language website Putinumer.com now allows visitors to “check” for themselves whether Putin is dead or not by clicking a button. The answer is always negative, ranging from a simple “no” to the bitterly wishful: ”Look out the window. Are people happy, are they dancing, have fireworks started yet? No? Then he’s not dead yet.”

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