Monday, September 15, 2008

Pareidolia Mondays: Ghost in My Window

A slight change of pace for this week's Pareidolia Monday: a story from a Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom news service (The Evening News) reporting on a picture snapped of an alleged ghost in the window of a Norwich church. Why does this count as pareidolia, you may ask? Because while it might not be a religious figure this time, the woman who took the picture still claims to see a human figure in the window of the old church.

Posted on Sept. 8, the story tells of a woman named Janice Mark who was taking photographs of the historic Norwich region, where the St Peter Hungate Church is located. Once she got the pictures home and downloaded them to her computer, she noticed what looked remarkably like a human figure in the church's window. See the above link for the photo.

The article goes on to quote Mark, who works for the company that owns The Evening News, extensively. Mark creates and entire picture of a "medieval preacher" from the glare produced on the window (more on that later):

“'If you zoom into the top window of the church, you can see an image of a white figure with a long bushy beard. If you look closely, you might be able to see his eyes, nose, mouth and ears.
You may just about be able to make out that the figure is wearing something on his head, which also goes down his back,' Mark said”

Rory Quinn, the chairman of the organization that maintains Norwich's historic churches, said he had never heard stories of any ghosts haunting this particular church, but that did not stop him from offering a suggestion as to who the ghostly figure might be:

“It could be the spirit of Mordecai Hewett, who gave his name to the Hewett School in Norwich. It's the 50th anniversary of the Hewett School next week so it could be something to do with that. There's a memorial to Mordecai in the church,' Quinn said”

Now, this is where the article takes a refreshing twist. Most of the time in paredolia stories like this, a believing witness and token skeptic are called in to offer two sides to the story. Granted, the skeptic is usually shoved in at the end of the piece and given one, two paragraphs tops. But, the people at The Evening News were able to find believer and skeptic in the same person: paranormal investigator and author Dominic Zenden.

Zenden, a self-proclaimed spiritual medium who has been practicing his "art" for 25 years, offered a surprisingly sensible explanation for the figure in the window:

“'It is the light relaxing back from the angle of the window to the camera. This is a very common misconception when it comes to photographs of ghosts.'”

Yes, of course. The classic case of a purveyor of the paranormal debunking some ghost sighting to provide an air of authenticity to his or her own business. You'll often see self-proclaimed mediums (media?) and psychics showing faux-skepticism toward paranormal claims that are obviously illegitimate. That way, they can rail against the dangers of "fake" psychics while drawing more business toward themselves. The Queen of Darkness herself, Sylvia Browne, has adopted this ploy several times.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Washington-Based "Channeler" Sues Former Student

I have Dr. PZ Myers' blog Pharyngula to thank for bringing this story to my attention. The story was originally posted on the website of The Seattle Times.

The Times reported last Wednesday that alleged channeler J.Z. Knight, (full name: Judy Zebra Knight) has brought a lawsuit against a former student of hers who allegedly started teaching Knight's spiritually-themed material without Knight's permission. Knight is the founder of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment located in the small town of Yelm, Washington, approximately 63 miles southwest of Seattle. The case was heard in Thurston County Superior Court in Olympia, WA.

Knight testified last Tuesday that the lawsuit against her student, Whitewind Weaver, was nothing Knight wanted to do. But, as Knight claims, she was so disturbed that Weaver had "moved next door, taken my school's teachings, changed them around a little and then started teaching them," that Knight authorized the lawsuit. The "next door" of which Knight speaks is the town of Lacey, WA, 14 miles northwest of Yelm where Weaver owns and operates Art of Life Coaching Inc.

Weaver's San Diego-based attorney Robert Kilborne asked Knight on the stand why Knight took such strong legal action against Weaver when Weaver had been so supportive of Knight's teachings and school. According to Kilborne, Weaver advised her students in Oregon to follow her lead in moving to Yelm and becoming a student of Knight's. Weaver has since enrolled in more than $8,000 worth of classes. From the article:

"'If you were aware of all the facts, would you have still done what you did?' Kilborne asked Knight during intense cross-examination. 'Why couldn't you have just called her (Weaver)?'"

Who or what does Knight claim to channel and who is this mysterious Ramtha, you may be asking? Apparently, Ramtha is a 35,000-year-old male spirit warrior entity who first contacted Knight in 1977. Among other things, Ramtha has allegedly revealed to Knight that God is within everyone, and that every human being is divine. Knight has apparently made millions of dollars from lectures, books and classes at the School of Enlightenment.

So it's really no surprise that Knight got upset when Weaver allegedly horned in on her action. From the article:

"Knight was the second witness in her case accusing Weaver of breach of contract in connection with a seminar Weaver taught in August 2006. Knight claims the seminar violated terms of a registration form Weaver signed that says teachings at the Ramtha school are for the students' personal use only and cannot be disseminated or taught for commercial gain. Weaver's attorneys deny the allegations."

The second attorney representing Weaver, David Spellman of Seattle, cross-examined Knight's school administrator, Mike Wright. Spellman attempted to show that the registration form in question was inconsistent from year to year, and that the teachings allegedly used by Weaver could be items of public domain. The article goes on to detail one of the teachings, and a particularly humorous exchange between Spellman and Wright:

"Knight's attorneys claim Weaver copied seven school processes, including Fieldwork, an exercise designed to improve the ability to focus attention and intuition by finding a symbolic card on a fence while blindfolded.

'Is "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" focused attention?' Spellman asked Wright.

"'It could be,' Wright replied.

"'So, then is it Fieldwork?' Spellman said.

"'No, it's "Pin the Tail on the Donkey" ' Wright said."

The article reports that the case was expected to continue through last Thursday. No stories in the Times since then have provided any updates on the ruling.

For anyone reading this who may have felt a tinge of familiarity when they read the names "J.Z. Knight" and "Ramtha," that was most likely because both played heavily in the 2004 quasi-metaphysical docudrama What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?. In fact, the film's producers, writers, directors and a number of its stars are members of Ramtha's School of Enlightenment. A full review of the movie can be found at the bottom of the page which is linked above.

Since the college I attend is in Bellingham, WA, it seems I'm going to have to take a drive and see this School of Enlightenment for myself within the next year.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

LHC Fired Up, World Still Here

Some personal issues with which I've had to deal over the past few days have kept me from posting everyday. But most of them are cleared up now, so it's back to blogging.

As I'm sure most of you have noticed, the world did not end on Wednesday when the $8 billion Large Hadron Collider was turned on for the first time. Since most other science/geek blogs have already written about this fact ad nauseam, most more eloquently then I, I'll keep this post short and touch on two points which deserve more media attention then they are currently receiving.

The first piece comes from the blog of astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, of which I was made aware by the blog Universe Today. Since most news reports talking about the LHC have managed to shoehorn in the fallacy that the collider could create a black hole large enough to destroy the Earth, Dr. Siegel took it upon himself to determine the worst case scenario of the actual particle-smashing that will take place in the months to come. Siegel describes what would happen if every single collision created a tiny black hole:

"Let’s assume that one million of these collisions occur, and all of them make black holes, which can then merge together (again, this is incredibly, unrealistically optimistic, but let’s go for it). For the maximum collision energy at CERN (14 TeV), E = mc2 tells us that the end black hole would have a mass of 2.5 x 10-14 grams. That’s 25 femtograms, which means this black hole would have an event horizon trillions upon trillions of times smaller than the size of a proton."

The event horizon being the point from which nothing, including light, would be able to escape the tremendous gravity of the black hole. So, if the LHC were to create a black hole, it would only suck in particles within a radius trillions upon trillions of times smaller than that of a proton. To put it mildly, that's really small.

Siegel goes on to describe what would happen if one of these microscopic black holes were to start eating it's way into the Earth:

"As it falls into the Earth, it starts running into protons, and let’s assume whenever it runs into one, it gobbles it up. By time it gets to the center of the Earth, it will have eaten about 10-16 grams of matter, which means it can grow by about 0.4% in the 30 minutes or so it takes to get to the center of the Earth. It will then head towards the other side, gobbling up that matter until it stops in the upper mantle, and then heads back towards the center of the Earth. It should do this over and over, each time gobbling up more matter (at a constant rate of about 4 x 10-16 grams per hour), each time getting farther and farther away from the Earth’s surface, never to quite reach it again. "

How dangerous would such a black hole be? According to Siegel, at this rate it would take 3 billion years for this black hole to consume even one gram of matter. I repeat, that's one gram of matter every 3 billion years. Even then, Siegel's calculations are assuming the LHC can create a black hole. A claim he goes on to refute in the last part of his post:

"Even if you managed to make this 25 femtogram black hole, it would decay into normal matter incredibly fast. How fast? According to Hawking radiation, this black hole will be gone in 10-66 seconds, which means, unless there is some incredible new physics (like extra dimensions), we can’t even make a black hole! Why not? Because anything that happens in a time less than the Planck time (10-43 seconds) cannot physically happen with our current understanding of physics."

So, every single news story reporting the possible danger the LHC posed to humanity was completely and utterly out of touch with reality. Physicists working at the LHC released statement after statement telling everyone that the experiment posed no danger. Why did reputable news outlets such as MSNBC even mention the possibility of the world ending? Just to grab the attention of readers? Was reporting on the most important science experiment in recent memory not enough?

Maybe more responsible reporting could have prevented the next item about which I'm going to write: the story of a girl in India who took her own life for fear of the world ending at the hands of the physicists working at the LHC.

I first read about this on Dr. Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog. reported the story Wednesday. The 16-year-old girl named Chayya Lal reportedly drank pesticide last Tuesday and was rushed to the hospital. Once there, doctors were unable to save her.

Lal's parents repeatedly tired to "divert her attention" from the myriad fear-mongering stories about the LHC. From the article:

"Her father, identified on local television as Biharilal, said that his daughter, Chayya, killed herself after watching doomsday predictions made on Indian news programs."

Apparently, many Indian programs have been airing discussions regarding doomsday predictions over the past few days. Chayya's parents were quoted as saying that they tried to convince their daughter there was nothing to worry about, but to know avail.

The MSNBC article said reassurances by physicists as to the safety of the LHC fell on mostly deaf ears in the "deeply religious and superstitious India." East Indian temples saw thousands more devotees than usual last Tuesday due to the Wednesday start-up of the LHC, according to a temple official in Orissa state quoted in the article.

Dr. Plait writes much more passionately about this then I am able to
. While it pains me to see the effects of superstition and irresponsible journalism taken to this extreme, Dr. Plait speaks on the importance of critical thinking and skepticism from his position as a father:

"I’m a parent. I sometimes think the most important thing I can do for my daughter is love her, keep her healthy, protect her. But in all of those, there is an overarching responsibility for me to teach her how to live in the real world. And that means showing her how to think. Not
what to think, but how. Question authority. Be skeptical of claims. Ask for evidence. Apply good logic. Avoid bad logic. Analyze the results. Look for bias. And doubt. Doubt doubt doubt. It’s one of the greatest strengths of the human mind, and perhaps the least used of all"

Dr. Plait speaks of the blame to be placed upon the girl's superstitious culture, the media and science-illiterates who pushed the "LHC=death garbage," but maintains the majority of the blame lies with us:

"Too many people choose not to think. But our technology, our society, our impact is vast, and now, today, in this world, that choice is one we can no longer afford."

To paraphrase a particularly apt Shakespeare line, "The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

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Monday, September 08, 2008

Pareidolia Mondays: Woman With a Sense of Humor Finds Mary on a Grape

I'm sorry for the lateness of this edition of Pareidolia Mondays. There have been a number of recent thunderstorms in my hometown which, for safety's sake, have not allowed me to turn on my computer until recently (I'm also blaming the paltry length of this post on its lateness).

An NBC affiliate in Dallas, TX reported last Wednesday on a woman with a refreshing attitude toward her particular example of pareidolia. Becky Ginn, 24, of Arlington has apparently found an image of the Virgin Mary on a grape. See the above link for the picture.

Ginn posted a photo of her discovery on her LiveJournal account, and was subsequently beseeched by friends to contact the local news media. The Dallas NBC affiliate was proud to report that Ginn contacted them first. From the article:

"'I haven't made a shrine to it, nor prayed to it, nor done much of anything except e-mail the picture to a few friends and roll it around in the bowl in the fridge,' Ginn said."

A bowl in the fridge?! Blasphemy! Ah wait, Ginn provided an explanation for her cavalier attitude toward the grape earlier in the brief article:

"'I thought this stuff just happened to Catholics?' she said. 'Mom and I had a laugh about it at first, seeing as how we're Baptists and all and we generally don't expect to see holy people popping up in our foodstuffs.'"

Now it all makes sense. Of course a Baptist wouldn't know how to treat such a holy sign from God. All kidding aside, this is the kind of attitude I would like to see more often portrayed in pareidolia-related stories. All this article really needs is a proper explanation of the phenomenon, and it would be completely acceptable; to me anyway.

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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Allegedly Fossilized Bigfoot Print Found in Tennessee

An NBC affiliate in Nashville posted a story Friday about a Cookville, TN man who claims he found a large, humanoid footprint on his property. What makes this story different from the dozens of others telling tales of people finding large, five-toed tracks? This Cookeville resident claims his footprint is fossilized.

Harold Jackson, a self-proclaimed amateur archaeologist, came across the remarkable discovery while taking a walk near the Caney Fork River on his property in Cookeville, about 70 miles east of Nashville. The article claims he had stepped on the rock near his house "for months" until he finally decided to take it inside and wash it off. From the article:

"'I don't know anything about archaeology or anything, but if you look at it, it's a footprint. No animal footprint looks like that. Now, if it's a Native American, an Indian, then he was a big Indian,' said Jackson. '(The print) is about 11 inches wide and about 15 inches long.'"

Jackson is also quoted as saying the print, "[has] got to be thousands of years old." Why does that not surprise me? Not only does this statement most likely reveal the nature of his spiritual beliefs, I'm going to go out on a limb and say he's of the opinion that God the created the earth 6,000 years ago, it also reveals how truly amateur he is when it comes to archeology. According to the San Diego Natural History Museum's website, fossilization takes at least 10,000 years. Also, how do we know into what material the alleged footprint has been pressed? Did the reporter even ask that very basic question? It could be concrete for all the picture on the news site shows us.

Apparently, "about half-a-dozen scientists" have expressed interest in examining the footprint, although the article only names one: Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum. If that names sounds familiar, it's most likely because he was quoted extensively in my post about the news media's reaction to the Bigfoot press conference a few weeks ago. Laughably, and a bit embarrassing for Dr. Meldrum, the article calls him, "a famous Bigfoot professor at Idaho State University." A Bigfoot professor? That description hardly does Dr. Meldrum justice. According to Idaho State University's website, he's a real, live associate professor in the department of biological sciences. While Dr. Meldrum and I may disagree on the existence of a certain bipedal primate allegedly living in North America, his achievements certainly deserve more respect than to be written off with the moniker "a famous Bigfoot professor."

Even before these scientists can way in, Jackson has apparently already made up his mind about the existence of Bigfoot:

"'It was just hard for me to believe. But listen, after I found this print, there's a Bigfoot out there somewhere. I don't know what kind of Bigfoot it is, but there's a Bigfoot out there somewhere,' said Jackson."

To any of my regular readers, if I can be hopeful enough to presume that some exist, this story should sound a bit familiar to you. Alleged fossilized footprint found by someone in the southern states? Check. Less-than-subtle religious overtones? Check. Discoverer waiting a while before revealing the find? Check. Yes, this story shares many traits with the alleged "dinosaur over human" footprint about which I wrote at the end of July. The only real difference between the two articles is that a slightly more credible scientist is mentioned in the Bigfoot track piece. There must be a huge fake footprint market in the South. I wonder how one would go about getting into such a racket.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Bible Courses To Be Offered in Texas Public Schools

The Dallas Morning News reported August 29 on a statement released by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott clarifying a Bible study bill approved by the Texas state legislature last year. Abbott's statement said the bill does require some instruction on the Christian Bible and its historical impact as a piece of literature, but that more intensive elective Bible courses will only be offered if the local school boards vote for them. From the News article:

"The legislation 'authorizes but does not require school districts and charter schools to offer elective courses on the Hebrew Scriptures and its impact, or on the New Testament and its impact,' the attorney general said."

The statement, released August 28, has apparently cleared up some confusion regarding among Texas lawmakers, teachers and education advocates.

"Lawmakers and various citizen groups had been waiting for the opinion to clear up confusion over what the 2007 law required. Most legislators, including the Republican chairman of the House Public Education Committee, said the Bible course was optional for school districts, but some of the original sponsors of the bill said it was mandatory."

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a Texas group advocating religious liberties and the separation of church and state, expressed agreement with the bill's clarification. The article quotes her as saying, "Local school boards can now breathe a sigh of relief." She went on to say:

'The State Board of Education threw them under a bus last month by refusing to adopt the clear, specific standards schools need to give the Bible the respect it deserves and help them stay out of court. Now schools won't be required to maneuver through a legal minefield without a map.'"

The article also quotes Jonanthan Saenz of the Texas Free Market Foundation, whose mission statement reads:

"To protect freedoms and strengthen families throughout Texas by impacting our legislature, media, grassroots, and courts with the truth. To do this we are guided by the principles, which limit government and promote Judeo-Christian values."

Saenz expressed support for the bill and Abbott's clarification. The Foundation was apparently in support of a mandatory Bible course. Saenz went on to say:

"'For too long, Texas school districts have been threatened and oppressed by enemies of academic freedom for simply daring to offer instruction on the Bible,' said Jonathan Saenz of the foundation."

However, an article posted on the website of the San Antonio Express-News claims a bit of confusion still exists. From the Express story:

Some legislative leaders insisted that schools 'may' offer the course if enough students request it, but others contended that schools are obligated to offer a class if at least 15 students want it. Lawmakers approved the Bible bill last year."

Whatever the exact truth may be, it appears this bill and the subsequent "clarification" have to the potential to cause quite a stir within the Texas educational community. If the bill does indeed require "some" course material on the Bible as a piece of literature, then the holy books of other religions, such as the Qu'ran, ought to be at least mentioned. Granted, the Bible has had the heaviest influence on American literature and culture of the all the major religions' holy books, but a comparative study could and should be offered. The biggest problem I could see arising is what version of the Bible school boards would decide to teach. The viewpoint of the Texas Education Agency toward evolution also make me wary of how they would handle such curricula.

However, if the bill merely offers the Bible as an elective course, I see absolutely no problem with it. No matter what stance one may have on religious faith, the Christian Bible has had a tremendous impact on American culture. Understanding its history can only help students who chose to take the class. But, the curricula used in such elective courses would need to be carefully monitored so that the religious beliefs of the teachers or school board members aren't injected.

Whatever the case, this is definitely a matter that needs to be handled delicately, so as not to incite costly lawsuits from either the secular or religious ends Texas' belief spectrum. As with all other similar education issues, the minds of the children in Texas schools need to be put first. Is the state up to the challenge? Only time will tell.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Haunted Vegas Tour (Part 2)

When we last left our heroes, they were intrepidly boarding a tour bus bound for the most haunted locales Las Vegas has to offer. Will the spirits of Sin City's most famous dead seek their revenge on the two sarcastic skeptics? Read on to find out.

The first thing that struck me about the inside of the Haunted Vegas Tour bus was its lack of offensive odor. All my previous experience with tour buses, as small as that may be, prepared me for the recognizable smell that humans seem to produce when seated anywhere for an extended period of time. Fortunately, this particular tour bus was noticeably devoid of that. I took that as a good sign.

Kelsea and I were greeted instead by the amicable tour guide; the man in the top hat we had previously seen while driving past the bus. The tour guide (whom I would later find out was named Jac thanks to the guide bios on the Haunted Vegas Tours website) had since removed his slightly overly-dramatic head gear to reveal a head covered half-way with wispy, white hair. Jac's overall undertaker-like image was furthered by the all-black suit he wore, and by his stature (He was taller than my five foot eight frame, which really isn't saying much). To my surprise, Jac did not make as big a deal of our late arrival as I had expected. He only inquired where we were from, and what had held us up. I repeated the whopper that got us on the bus in the first place, to which Jac reacted with a surprising amount of concern. He asked if Kelsea and I were okay, and even made sure our car was in good-enough condition to get us home. I sheepishly responded, "Yeah, we're fine," to all these questions.

After Jac was done making me feel bad for even telling the lie, he went on with the speech he had been giving before Kelsea and I interrupted him. Jac's general introduction of the haunted sites we would be visiting was aided by a roughly 13-inch television monitor at the front of the bus. The screen seemed to be showing as a slide show of sorts, adding a visual component to Jac's tales of deceased Las Vegans. As I had familiarized myself with the sites on the tour beforehand, I took this time to shift my gaze to my fellow tour-goers. The walk from the entrance to our seat revealed the approximately 12 rows of the half-full passenger compartment. The rows were split by a short aisle, with two seats on each side of the aisle and next to a window. The seats were filled by mostly couples, with a few loners and a pair of young women; approximately 15 people in all. Quite laughably, a Halloween-store plastic skull hung from the rear wall of the bus. From Kelsea's and my vantage point, roughly the middle of the bus, the ones who thought themselves serious ghost hunters were easy to pick out. Their intentions were revealed by the expensive-looking cameras slung from their necks. In general, though, this particular tour seemed to be serving as date night for a number of boyfriends and girlfriends; all equipped with a digital camera of some kind.

With Jac's introduction winding down, the bus lurched to life and began its journey to the first spot on the tour: the Flamingo Hotel and Casino. Jac filled the approximately 15 minutes it took to get there with the story of mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. I'll spare you all the non-ghost-related details Jac provided to the group. The only bits of history you really need to know are that Bugsy , along with some mobster buddies, invested in the fledgling casino in the mid-1930s. After skimming too much money from the mob-run operation (you'd think he would know better), he was killed on June 20, 1947 in the house of actress and girlfriend Virginia Hill. Hill, it turned out, had told the mob exactly where Bugsy would be so they could "collect." After Jac got all the history business out of the way, he told of the various place's Bugsy's ghost has been sighted in the Flamingo. In addition to the garden which contains a memorial to the slain mobster (the first stop on the tour),Siegel is also said to haunt one of the suites at the top of the Flamingo's hotel tower. Bugsy refuses to leave this room, Jac said, because it contains the toilet from Bugsy's original apartment in the Flamingo.

The bus jerked forward a bit as the driver applied the brakes and made the right turn into the Flamingo's tour bus parking area. Jac told us that the memorial to Bugsy , located in the Flamingo's garden/pool area, would be our first stop. Not surprisingly, the ghost of the deceased gangster has also been spotted in this area. A brief walk through a bit of the Flamingo's casino, oddly devoid of the usual throngs of eager tourists feeding the ubiquitous one-armed bandits, brought the group to the garden. The odd combination of live bird smell and that of scrambled eggs met my nose as Jac led us outside. I knew beforehand about the live birds, mostly flamingos, the hotel casino kept by the pool, but the al fresco diners enjoying a late-night breakfast were a surprise. Jac lead the group on a winding concrete walkway through decorative bushes drenched with the water of sprinklers working over time until we reached the memorial. Once there, he practically begged everyone to take as many pictures as possible. Undoubtedly in an attempt to get the tour-goers to capture evidence of Bugsy's ghost on camera in the form of the laughable "ghost orb." With cameras flashing everywhere, one tour-goer did manager to capture a mysterious streak of light over Bugsy's roughly eight-foot tall memorial. He eagerly showed it to Jac, as if the discovery would win him some kind of gold star. I managed to sneak a peek of the photo in question on the man's camera display: it looked to me like nothing more than the small light at the top of the memorial being blurred by the movement of the camera in the longer exposure "night shot" mode with which most all digital cameras come equipped. Jac said it could be something, or it could be a blur. The man turned away with the slightest look of disappointment on his face.

It's as this point in my re-telling where I must apologize for the lack of detail, and the failure of my memory, I fear may infest my writing from here. You see, Kelsea and I had been furiously jotting down notes all through our walk to Bugsy's memorial. However, once the picture-taking had subsided a bit, Jac pulled me aside and politely told me such note taking was not allowed on the tour. I later found out that this regulation was due to the detailed notes a patron had taken a few years ago while on the tour and had used to start his own. I know return you to the story.

With Kelsea and I musing over the then-unknown reasons for such a ban on note taking, Jac lead the group back through the casino and onto the tour bus. The bus began its journey up the small incline which lead out of the parking area, and Jac began his next story. He told us we would next be driving past the lamp post where rapper Tupac Shakur was shot while riding as a passenger in his manager's BMW. Jac filled the approximately 15 minutes it took to get there with the rather uninteresting, at least to me, events leading up to of Shakur's death. Of course, the rapper's shade had been seen by a few people walking past the infamous lamp post. Unsurprisingly, the ghost failed to make an appearance for us.

With my interest in the darker side of Las Vegas history waning slightly, as opposed to the ghost stories I was expecting, the bus took us past the so-called "death motel". Jac regaled us with the tales of two B-list television actors who had committed suicide there. Apparently, guests who have rented that particular room, utilized for the last time by both actors, often complained of noise coming from upstairs. But, the motel manager would say, the building is only one story! BUM BUM,BAAAAAHHH!! Yeah, I know, not very scary.

By this time it was about 10:30 pm; roughly an hour in and no ghost sitings. On our way to our next stop, the mansion owned by Shakur's manager and allegedly haunted by the deceased rapper, Jac inexplicably told the tale of Bonnie and Clyde. Now, more than a week after the tour, I still cannot figure out why he brought this story up. The only real connection Bonnie and Clyde have to Nevada is that their "death car" now sits in a hotel casino on the Nevada/California border. I don't remember if Jac mentioned if it was haunted or not, but I'm sure someone, somewhere thinks that it is.

As Jac wrapped up the Bonnie and Clyde story, the bus pulled up to the darkened street on which Shakur's former mansion sits. According to Jac, the rather wealthy denizens here have negotiated with the city to: (1) take all the street lights down and (2) prevent all commercial traffic from using the street. This latter ban, unfortunately, includes tour buses. So, we didn't even get to see Shakur's house up close. Jac did encourage us to come back on our own time and seek the mansion since, according to the neighbors, Shakur's ghost walks the grounds at night. With my eyelids growing heavy, the bus lumbered on to our next stop.

Jac's mention of a haunted park shook me out of almost sleep. Could we really be going to the infamous Fox Ridge, the park I had spent so much time investigating? Well, no. Apparently, Vegas is home to two haunted parks, and the ghost tour switches between them. This night, the bus was headed to a park in the Green Valley area of Las Vegas ( a park's whose name has unfortunately left me). Tonight's next stop allegedly contained a brick barbecue which seemed to attract the ghosts of two young boys. To the excitement of most everyone on board, the group would be allowed to disembark here and search for ghosts using "ghost finder" dowsing rods. That's right: dowsing rods. Here's a picture of the marvels of ghosthunting technology:

Can you believe we got to take these home? They must cost a fortune to make! All sarcasm aside, the dowsing rods were made up of bent medal rods in plastic holders, held there by white beads which had been glued on. When held in the hands and in the presence of ghosts, the rods begin to move. According to Jac , the rods crossing, moving apart or one rod moving alone meant that ghosts were nearby. So basically, if the rods moved at all, there were ghosts around. Jac failed to mention the real cause of the "instruments'" movement: the ideomotor effect. This physical phenomenon also accounts for the movements of Ouija boards.

With most of the group chomping at the bit to once again set foot off the bus, Jac passed around a picture allegedly taken by a former tour-goer in the park. He said it showed the ghosts of the two boys standing by the barbecue. All I saw was a lens distortion producing a milky mist. Once the photo made its rounds on the bus, the group disembarked with dowsing rods in hand. The warmish night air was a relief to the overly-air conditioned bus interior. Jac gave a short demonstration with the dowsing rods, teaching us how to hold them: plastic holders in our up-turned fists, arms roughly eight inches out in front of our chests, giving the rods enough room to swing freely. He then let us loose on the barbecue and surrounding area. Like a school teacher telling his children how much time they had on the playground, he told us we could only spend about 15 minutes ghosthunting. The park soon echoed with the oohs and ahhs of tour-goers experiencing dowsing rod movement. There really is nothing like seeing a bunch of adults wandering around a brick barbecue with the there hands held out in front of them, fists pointing toward the sky as if balancing an invisble serving dish. Cameras flashed and soon, just like at Bugsy's memorial, someone called Jac over to see the picture displayed on their camera. The woman had caught the same type of blur as the man at the Flamingo, this time of a far off street light, but somehow illicited a much stronger reaction from Jac. Even as Jac herded us back onto the bus, he was marvelling at the amazing picture the woman had took.

The last three stops now seem a blur to me. I'm sure part of this was due to the fact that it was approximately 11:15 pm, and I did not get a nap that day. The bus took us past the former house of 70s television star Redd Foxx, allegedly haunted by the comedian's ghost. Jac's story and the accompanying slide show on the bus's television monitor told me more about Foxx's rise to stardom and eventual near-penniless death than I ever wanted to know. Employees of the real estate company that now inhabits the house still tale tales of mischievous goings on which are attributed to Foxx's poltergeist.

The next stop, roughly 20 minutes away, took us the past the Italian restaurant, Carluccio's Tivoli Gardens, once owned by flamboyant piano-player and Las Vegas regular Liberace. The place is allegedly haunted by the late performer's ghost, as several employee's there have apparently testified. Kelsea and I ate dinner there a few nights later, and we can only vouch for the quality of the establishment's food. My audible denial of the existence of Liberace's ghost, which has apparently caused wine bottles to be thrown across the room in the past, elicited now noticeable reaction.

At long last, the flashing lights of the Las Vegas Hilton signaled our final stop, and the end of our tour. I don't want to make it seem like the tour was an ordeal, I was just tired. While Jac's take on Vegas history was interesting, his presentation left something to be desired. That is, is was hardly riveting. It seems no story of Sin City's past can be complete without a mention of Elvis. Well, guess what? His ghost allegedly haunts the freight elevator and backstage area of the Hilton's theater. After a show, Elvis would take said elevator to discreetly reach his massive suite at the top of the Hilton. With a final anecdote about Liberace designing Elvis's famous white jumpsuit, Jac's stories came to an end.

The bus rumbled back to the parking lot from whence it had departed. Jac asked Kelsea and I a final time if my car was okay to get back home. A weary "it's fine" escaped my lips, and Kelsea and I ambled back to my waiting PT Cruiser. Two and one half hours spent on a ghost tour, and all we had to show for it were some fun stories and dowsing rods. An experience in which I'm glad I took part, but perhaps not completely worth the $56.25 per ticket.

My final review: three out five candles flickering in the dark.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Haunted Vegas Tour (Part 1)

In the final days of my two-week long vacation, I was lucky enough to attend a Haunted Vegas Tour with my girlfriend, Kelsea. The experience was memorable, to say the least, even if it did not completely live up to my expectations. A brief bit of background: the two and one-half hour tour takes eager tourists and ghost hunters, both amateur and, well, amateur, to 21 of Sin City's allegedly most haunted sites.

The balmy, desert night marked on most calenders as August 27 started like most memorable nights do: with a lie. Kelsea and I left my house at approximately 8:30 pm, giving us enough time, we hoped, to fight our way through Vegas traffic and make it to the small hotel/casino from which the tour bus departed at 9:30 pm. The trip there went rather smoothly and, serendipitously enough as you shall see, we arrived at approximately 9:05 pm. For any readers of mine who may live in Vegas, the hotel was located on Convention Center Dr. and Paradise, just north of Desert Inn. As you can probably guess, not the best part of town. I found a parking space across from the presumed tour meeting spot (the bus had yet to arrive) and I figured now might be a good time to make sure I had both $56.25 tickets with me. Why I chose this moment, even I never quite understood. An increasingly frantic search of my pockets and all the nooks and crannys my PT Cruiser had to offer failed to turn up the much needed tickets. As Kelsea, who has the patience of the proverbial saint, calmed me down, my cell phone rang. It was my dad telling me I had left the tickets on the kitchen counter. A wave of simultaneous relief and fresh panic washed over me: I at once new where the tickets were, and that Kelsea and I were most likely going to miss tonight's tour. Fortunately, I was able to talk my dad into meeting me halfway in between the tour meeting spot and my house with the tickets; an approximately 30-minute drive. This spot turned out to be the 1st-8th grade school I had attended in my first years as a Las Vegan. It was now 9:10 pm.

Due to some rather skilled driving on the part of both me and my dad, Kelsea and I were able to make it back to the tour meeting spot by 9:40 pm. Sadly, as I had expected, the tour bus had already departed. But, as Kelsea pointed out, on our way to the hotel/casino we had driven by a small tour bus stopped on the side of the street on which the meeting place was located. We both noticed the bus's tinted windows, and the man inside decked out in a top hat standing in front of the seated passengers. We both agreed, this had to be the bus we had missed. After some discussion, we decided to try our luck and approach the stopped tour bus, tickets in hand. I made a quick u-turn and parked in the lot of the next hotel casino up the street, a few yards from the stopped bus.

The brisk walk of two young suburbanites not quite comfortable in a slightly shady part of town at night brought us to the cab of the bus. The vehicle was one of those van-in-the-front, short-bus-in-the-back numbers; resembling a small RV camper from the outside. I tentatively knocked on the passenger side window of the bus, the side closest to the sidewalk. Once I got the driver's attention, I pressed the tickets up against the window. He motioned for me to come to the driver's-side door. I asked if this was indeed the Haunted Vegas Tour bus, to which the driver replied that is was. This is when the lies started pouring out of me. I told him that my girlfriend and I had been rear-ended on our way to the tour's meeting spot. He seemed genuinely concerned and asked if anyone one had been hurt. I said no one had, and that the accident had barely scraped the paint on either car. He asked me if I had any police report or other such documentation, to which I replied no. I said I had told the driver who rear-ended me that I was in a hurry, and didn't want to make a big deal out of this minor accident. He reacted to this as if it was a sensible answer, and asked to see the tickets. I eagerly showed him my I.D., anxious to let him know that I was indeed the Jeremy who paid for the tickets. With the slightest of nods, he called back to the tour guide letting him know he had two late-comers who were scheduled to take the tour. I flashed an excited thumbs-up to Kelsea waiting on the curb, and we made our way onto the dimly-lit tour bus.

In tomorrow's second and final installment, the nature of people on the tour, loads of dead Las Vegans and fooling around with dowsing rods.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Bigfoot Body Proved a Hoax, No One Surprised

This may have happened more than a week a ago, but better late then never as the saying goes. I could not resist writing a third post about the Bigfoot body in a cooler story; the third and final installment in what has become a trilogy of credulity, arrogance and, it turns out, enough rubber to excite most people with an S&M fetish.

Yes, as has been reported by the Associated Press and National Geographic News, among others, the Bigfoot body allegedly found by Georgia natives Matthew Whitton and Rick Dyer (Larry and Curly to any frequent readers of my blog) turned out to be a rubber suit in a block of ice. This astonishing revelation, (I mean really, who could have seen it coming?), was uncovered by self-described Bigfoot detective Steve Kulls, executive director of Kulls posted a statement on the web site of Searching For Bigfoot Inc., the company of Tom Biscardi; the "real Bigfoot hunter" to whom Whitton and Dyer allegedly first showed the body. From the National Geographic story:

"In a statement posted on the Web site of Searching for Bigfoot Inc., 'Sasquatch Detective' Steve Kulls said he realized the Bigfoot 'corpse' was a fake when the frozen body began to thaw—after the press conference had already taken place."

In his statement, Kulls said he first felt suspicious of the body's authenticity when he and a colleague burned a hair sample for analysis. Apparently, the sample "melted into a ball uncharacteristic of hair." Uncharacteristic of hair? How about the alleged hair turned out to be some form of plastic? It's interesting to me that even after Whitton and Dyer may have perpetrated this hoax against Biscardi, and maybe even stolen his money, a "Bigfoot detective" Biscardi sent to check out the body still chose to parse his words about the hoax. The Nat Geo story continues:

"'Within the next hour of thaw, a break appeared up near the feet area,' Kulls wrote. 'As the team and I began examining this area near the feet, I observed the foot, which looked unnatural, reached in and confirmed it was a rubber foot.'"

Once Biscardi confronted Whitton and Dyer about Kulls findings, the pair admitted it was a hoax. But, Biscardi must not be mistaken for the victim here. There is evidence to suggest that Biscardi was in on the scam from the beginning. The Nat Geo story points out that Biscardi claimed at the press conference to have personally flown to Georgia to authenticate the body. With Whitton and Dyer by his side, Biscardi kept a straight face will proclaiming the body ""was not a mask sewn on a bear hide." Technically, he was correct. How did such an obvious hoax escape the allegedly trained eyes of the "real Bigfoot hunter"?

Further research done by the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, a source used by the Nat Geo story, implicates Biscardi even further. From the BFRO report:

"Biscardi didn't start this hoax, but instead latched onto to it once it was presented to him by his dubious associate Steve Kulls. Biscardi's plot was to hype the "discovery" as legitimate, then collect money in various ways as the world grew eager to get a look at the specimen ... then later claim he was 'hoodwinked' about the body so as redirect blame away from himself."

And collect money Biscardi did. The BFRO claims he was asking a $2 fee to see pictures of the costume in the freezer on his website during the approximate week when this story was all over the major news media. Judging by how much hoopla this thing caused, Biscardi may have raked in a considerable chunk of money.

The BFRO report also points out Biscardi's 2005 Bigfoot-related embarrassment:

"After Biscardi was publicly busted and humiliated in 2005 for a different version of a bigfoot body hoax, he claimed he was "hoodwinked" by some bad people who had deceived him (all the while he was raking in money from a phony pay-per-view "surveillance" project). Roll forward to 2008. Biscardi now claims he was 'hoodwinked' ... again ... This time by some ludicrous liars from Georgia. He claims he is 'planning to take legal action against them' ... in an attempt to distract legal action against himself, by prosecutors, for fraud."

As you can see, the BFRO is seriously pissed about this. They have been quoted in numerous articles expressing a desire to see Whitton, Dyer and Biscardi arrested. The report from which I have quoted even calls upon anyone who has wasted money on this scam to contact the police department in Palo Alto CA, where the press conference was held, so a formal investigation can be commenced. The BFRO report describes the legal options left to the police departments under whose jurisdiction this fraud would fall:

"The police department in Palo Alto, California, will move forward with an investigation and arrest if they receive complaints from people who ripped off by Biscardi. Palo Alto police have thankfully recognized a few very important things: 1) Their department (among others), and Santa Clara County, have jurisdiction to investigate the matter as a wire fraud crime, because the press conference was held in Palo Alto. 2) Biscardi has done this same scam before. 3) If Biscardi profited at all from this scam, then it is indeed a wire fraud crime that can be prosecuted. 4) It is quite obvious to everyone that Biscardi was not only complicit in this hoax/scam, but was also the mastermind behind it, after it was delivered to him by Steve Kulls. This last factor is self-evident due to Biscardi's current and past actions, and his current and past statements."

While a police investigation may never happen, the AP story claims Whitton is in the process of being relieved of his duties at the Clayton County Police Department in Georgia:

"On Tuesday (August 19), Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner said he has not spoken to Whitton but processed paperwork to fire him. 'Once he perpetrated a fraud, that goes into his credibility and integrity,' Turner said. 'He has violated the duty of a police officer.'"

So, to recap, what has now become of the "three stooges of cryptozoology"? Whitton is most likely still unemployed, having recently lost his job as a Georgia police officer. Dyer was always described as a "former corrections officer," and will probably remain so for some time after this debacle. Biscardi is probably laughing all the way to the bank, as long as no one complains to the Palo Alto Police Department. Presuming not that many people were credulous enough to pay to see photos that were literally all over the internet, I think this story may have turned out for the better. The news media covering the story from the beginning, if seldom showing serious skepticism, always seemed to approach the farse in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek manner. As Dr. Steve Novella, host of "The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe" podcast, writes on his blog NeuroLogica:

"On a positive note I did get the sense that the public was generally skeptical of this event - or at least were waiting for actual evidence. Maybe they are starting to catch on, and this event will help the process - especially since the turnaround from suspected hoax to definite hoax was short enough to be within the public attention span."

Though somehow, I doubt we have seen the last of Mr. Biscardi.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Pareidolia Mondays: Holy Mary, Mother of Log

For my first post after my two-week hiatus, I was delighted to find a relatively recent pareidolia-related story from Britain's Telegraph. The article, posted on the Telegraph's website last Thursday, tells of a likeness of the Virgin Mary appearing on a tree in a suburb of Toronto, Ontario. Christopher Moreau, 47, first spotted the tree's feminine features as he was sitting down to enjoy a freshly opened beer in his backyard. From the Toronto Sun article, to which the Telegraph story linked:

"'I don't know why it's there, but I think it's a blessing,' said Christopher Moreau, 47, who discovered the tree-bound Mary last week. 'It raises the hair on your neck, it gives you chills.' 'I'm not a wacko,' Moreau said yesterday, adding he was stone-cold sober. "

Moreau claimed at first he wasn't sure what he was seeing. He went inside his house to fetch his mother-in-law in order to find out if she also saw the likeness of the Virgin Mary invitingly holding her arms open.

"'At first I thought I was seeing things,' Moreau said. 'Then I went and got my mother-in-law to tell her. She was overwhelmed by it. She was crying.'"

Moreau believes this miraculous image may have cured his 70-year-old mother-in-law of her lymph node cancer. But, since neither articles offers any context at all for the woman's condition, no solid conclusions can be made about this claim. The Sun article reports that the unnamed mother-in-law received test results a week prior to Moreau's discovery showing that her cancer appears to have cleared. Would Moreau have attributed the cancer's remission to the tree sans alleged sacred image? I think not.

Moreau has generously offered the tree to others seeking salvation, or perhaps a cure for whatever may ail them. He is quoted as saying that Mary is not there just for him, but that she's there to share.

"Moreau said he doesn't want a lineup of thousands of gawkers coming to visit the tree. However, he said he hoped the tree could possibly help those who are ill or in need of a potential miracle."

While Moreau's invitation does seem rather charitable, he really has no right to make such an offer since it is not his tree, but his neighbor's. Fortunately, the Telegraph found the legal owner of the tree who provided a slightly more sensible response to the arboreal Virgin:

"Laughing off suggestions that it was a sign from God, Eulalee Hamilton, Mr Moreau’s neighbor and the owner of the tree,said that the Virgin Mary image was just the scarring from a limb that was cut off the tree a year ago."

Hamilton said she doesn't care how many people come to Moreau's back deck to see the holy tree scar, as long as no one crosses onto her property and damages her garden.

While Hamilton appears to remain agnostic on the subject of tree-born religious icons, Moreau said the sighting has only strengthened his Catholic faith. But, not even the Virgin Mary waving at him from the trunk of a tree can make him attend mass for often.

"'Why do I need to go to church?' Moreau added. 'I feel that God has come to me.'"

I think the aspect of this story that stuck out to me the most was the attitude of Ms. Hamilton, the neighbor and owner of the tree. In a nutshell, her reaction to the alleged Virgin Mary sighting encapsulates my feelings toward religion in general. I don't believe in any gods, but I'm not forcing it on anyone. People should be allowed to believe whatever they want, as long as it does not seriously affect my life or the lives of my friends and family. So to any believer who may be reading this, don't trample on my garden, and I won't trample on yours.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

Press Conference Doesn't Even Convince Fellow Bigfoot Hunters

Matthew Whitter, Rick Dyer and Tom Biscardi promised conclusive DNA evidence, put produced that of a human and a possum. All the "Three Stooges of cryptozoology" had to offer at today's much-hyped press conference were two blurry pictures and a message of conservation. That message? They didn't want to reveal any further information about Bigfoot in order to safeguard this "endangered species." Bullshit.

There are so many news article about this farce of a press conference that it is almost embarrassing. Both for the three stooges and the news agencies involved. Each story offers something little different about the story; more background here, a few more quotes from the press conference there. The only way I can take a truly "fair and balanced" look at this story is to touch on each article individually. So as not to play favorites, I will present the articles in alphabetical order based on the name of the news agency.

Let's start with the Associated Press piece. The AP story quotes Bigfoot researcher and Idaho State University professor Jeffrey Meldrum as not being at all convinced by the "evidence" presented at the press conference:

"'What I've seen so far is not compelling in the least, and I think the pictures cast grave doubts on their claim. It just looks like a costume with some fake guts thrown on top for effect.'"

If you decide to read any further, Meldrum's name will become very familiar to you. Nearly every story I found quotes him at least once. The AP story also brought up the three separate stories Whitter and Dyer (whom I've decided to call Larry and Curly, since Biscardi is clearly the brains of the operation) have presented describing their "discovery" of the body:

"In one, the animal was shot by a former felon, and the men followed it into the woods. In a second version, they found a "family of Bigfoot" in North Georgia mountains. In the third, the two were hiking and stumbled upon the corpse with open wounds."

A story from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution paints a pictures of these two rubes that does not lend them any more credibility. I wonder how hard they had to stifle their laughter after releasing this gem:

"Still 'we’re now the best Bigfoot hunters in the world,' said Whitton, 31, of Ellenwood, who with Dyer, 28, wore ballcaps advertising their Web site."

The AJC article also reveals some the pair's antics before they hit the big time, talking in front fancy reporters and their cameras:

"They previously posted a video of the purported bigfoot on YouTube in which Whitton’s brother pretended to be a scientist, then announced it was all done in fun. And a recorded greeting on Whitton’s phone formerly claimed he and Dyer were leading expeditions to find not just bigfoot but also the Loch Ness monster and leprechauns."

Larry and Curly's excuse for this? They wanted to throw off all the "psychos" who were apparently hounding them after the first spoke of their discovery on a Bigfoot-themed radio show.

The AJC report also offers more information on the hoax Biscardi (Moe) perpetrated in 2005:

"In 2005, Biscardi claimed he had come across a woman in Nevada who had captured two living bigfoot creatures. He charged about $15 for visitors to his Web site to see blurry streaming video claiming to show the captured creatures."

The next story from the CBC offers little we haven't heard before, but does provide a concise explanation of the fruits of the DNA tests, and Moe's tortured explanation:

"Biscardi vowed that DNA evidence would vindicate the men. But he later said that one of the three samples sent for examination came back as human DNA, another was inconclusive, and a third came back as the DNA of a possum, which he said could have been from something the Bigfoot ate."

But since Moe never says from which part of the Bigfoot "body" the DNA samples were taken, this explanation doesn't seem to have a leg on which to stand. Even if the sample was taken from the alleged stomach of the beast after just enjoying a hearty meal of possum, the DNA would most likely have been destroyed in the digestion process.

The CBC article also reiterates the AP claim of Larry and Curly's three different "discovery" stories:

"Whitton and Dyer have so far offered three different tales about how they came to find the creature: In one, the animal was shot by a former felon, and the men followed it into the woods. In a second version, they found a "family of Bigfoot" in North Georgia mountains. In the third, the two were hiking and stumbled upon the corpse with open wounds."

The article posted on the Discovery News website quotes Meldrum much more extensively, clearly showing how laughable he, a self-described Bigfoot researcher, thinks this whole thing is:

"'What they are claiming to be Bigfoot in a photograph doesn't look natural,' Jeffrey Meldrum, a professor of anatomy in the Department of Biological Sciences at Idaho State University, told Discovery News. 'When the photo is juxtaposed next to an off-the-shelf costume, the resemblance is remarkable,' Meldrum added."

The Discovery article also offers some context for this situation. Georgia resident Charles Doyle, who is a noted folklorist and an associate professor of English at the University of Georgia describes the reasons why such an outlandish tale is proving popular in his region:

"'Much of the lore of Bigfoot, I suspect, is what one eminent folklorist a generation ago called "fakelore" -- invented figures with little or no basis in actual oral tradition that are passed off as local folklore, figures like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill -- for purposes of PR, attracting tourists, selling tabloid newspapers and magazines, creating children's literature, etc.,' Doyle explained."

The article is only worthy of mention because the reporter actually sought out a Halloween costume seller to comment on the alleged picture of the "body" lying in a freezer:

"'It definitely looks like our costume,' Jerry Parrino, owner of, told"

When even Fox News sees fit to rag on your credibility like this, you know you have a serious problem.

At last we come to the final article in my alphabetical hall of shame. This one comes from Scientific American, and presents a full-on interview with our good buddy Jeff Meldrum. In it, Meldrum actually identifies the scientist who preformed the DNA tests, but does not let any credibility seep into the story because of it:

"All the rumors about the bigfoot DNA results are just that: rumors. I spoke to Curtis Nelson (a biologist from the University of Minnesota) who is doing the DNA tests, and he all he could say is that there are no results yet—he can't say anything more due to a nondisclosure agreement. Apparently Curt just received a vial of tissue in the mail, and there's no chain of custody, no validation that this tissue came from the corpse in question. Since there is no known Sasquatch genetic material to compare it to, he may just end up with a gene sequence that doesn't match any other primates, at best."

The SciAm article was posted before the actual press conference, explaining Meldrum's description of the DNA samples as "rumors."

Meldrum's phone must have been ringing off the hook because of the three stooges. I feel a bit sorry for the guy. I cannot wait to see where Larry, Moe and Curly turn up next after being raked through the coals of critical thinking by so many news organizations. A few articles mentioned Moe claiming more test results will be revealed on Monday, but I somehow doubt it.

A side note, Jeremy the Skeptic will put on hold for the next two weeks. I'm glad I had to chance to write about this hilarious story as my last post for a while. Nothing makes me happier than to see blatant hoaxers get their asses handed to them by the news media.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Alleged Bigfoot Body to be Unveiled Friday, August 15

This story has been bouncing around on various cryptozoology-themed blogs and websites for the past few days. Two self-proclaimed bigfoot hunters from Georgia (the US Georgia, not the one under siege by Russia) have apparently found their very own Bigfoot body. The team of Matthew Whitton and Rick Dyer issued a press release on August 12 announcing that they would be revealing DNA and photographic evidence at a press conference to be held in Palo Alto, CA on Friday. The event will be opened to verified members of the news media only.

The link to the press release takes you to the website of Searching for Bigfoot Inc, the company of man named Tom Biscardi. In a recent radio interview, Whitton and Dyer described Biscardi as a "real bigfoot hunter" and because of this, Whitton and Dyer have only let Biscardi analyze the body so far. From the article:

"'The only person we would allow to come down and verify the body was 'the real Bigfoot Hunter,' Tom Biscardi,' Dyer said."

Whitton and Dyer claim in the press release that a team of scientists, all of them unnamed, will be studying the body in detail:

"Extensive scientific studies will be done on the body by a team of scientists including a molecular biologist, an anthropologist, a paleontologist and other scientists over the next few months at an undisclosed location. The studies will be carefully documented and the findings will be released to the world, according to Biscardi."

I imagine by now some readers may find something a bit fishy about the clandestine manner in which Dyer and Whitton are handling this matter. They don't name the experts that are in line to examine the body, they keep the location a secret and they promise to present only "DNA evidence and photo evidence" at the press conference. Why wouldn't they want to bring the actual body? Pictures of it, which can be found at the press release link, already show it residing in a cooler. Why couldn't they arrange to have it flown to the press conference in California. For that matter, why even have the press conference in California?

Benjamin Radford, managing editor for Skeptical Inquirer, brings up another interesting point in an article posted on Apparently, Biscardi was involved in a similar "unveiling" in 2005:

"A man named Tom Biscardi, founder of something called the Great American Bigfoot Research Organization, once claimed he had captured a Bigfoot. On Aug. 19, 2005, Biscardi appeared on the radio show "Coast to Coast with George Noory." Biscardi claimed his group had captured a Bigfoot a week earlier, a male beast that weighed over 400 pounds and stood 8-feet tall. He said he would be presenting photos of it several days later. It turned out to be a hoax."

The press release also mentions a documentary released by Biscardi in 2006 called "Bigfoot Lives." Could this whole thing be an elaborate publicity stunt? Even if a hoax is revealed, I'm sure the attention already drawn to Biscardi has increased sales of his documentary.

No matter what this turns out to be, genuine scientific discovery or monkey suit in a cooler, I would love to be able to go to that press conference tomorrow. I'll just have to be content to sit on the sidelines and wait for CNN to bring the earth-shattering discovery to me.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

University of California's Rejection of Creationist Textbooks Ruled Constitutional by a California Federal Court

The National Center for Science Education reported yesterday the defendants in Association of Christian Schools International et al. v. Roman Stearns et al. have prevailed. The lawsuit, originally filed on August 25, 2005, was focused around the Association of Christian Schools International's disapproval of the University of California system's policies and statements relevant to evaluating the qualifications of applicants for admission. The Association, along with Calvary Chapel Christian School in Murrieta, California, and a handful of students at the school, sued the defendants, claiming the UC system unconstitutionally denied the applications of students from Christian schools. UC deemed the Christian high school course work inadequate preparation for college. The UC system claimed Christian school biology courses which used textbooks entitled Biology: God's Living Creation from A Beka Books and Biology for Christian Schools from Bob Jones University Press were, "inconsistent with the viewpoints and knowledge generally accepted in the scientific community."

On March 26, 2008, Judge S. James Otero ruled in favor of the defendants' motion establishing the constitutionality of the university system's policies and statements relevant to evaluating the qualifications of applicants for admission. However, the plantiffs' claim that UC policies and statements relevant to the specific cases cited in the lawsuit were unconstitutional was still unresolved. The defendants' motion for a judgment on the plantiffs' specific cases was granted in the ruling Judge Otero set down on August 8, 2008. The ruling ended: "Because Plaintiffs fail to raise any genuine issue of material fact to support their as-applied claims, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED" (emphasis in original).

The August 8 ruling addressed UC's rejection of a biology course submitted by Calvary Baptist school which used Biology: God's Living Creation as its textbook. The book was evaluated by Barbara Sawrey, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education, and faculty member in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at UC San Diego. Sawrey described the book as taking an "overall un-scientific approach to the subject matter." Expert witnesses for the defense Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, and Francisco J. Ayala, University Professor and Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at UC Irvine's School of Biological Sciences, had similar reactions to both Creation and Biology for Christian Schools. From the NCSE article:

"Kennedy wrote, 'the problem is not ... that the creationist view is taught as an alternative to scientific explanations, but that the nature of science, the theory of evolution, and critical thinking are not taught adequately.'"

A little more research on the books themselves turned up some interesting excerpts from each of them. On A Beka Book's website were Creation can be ordered, a snapshot of two pages describing the human skeletal system can be found. Here are two of eight questions offered to students as a section review:

" 7. In a paragraph, describe how the structure of the skull is an example of God's design and provision for man."

"8. Men and woman both have exactly twelve pairs of ribs. Why is this not a contradiction of Genesis 2: 21-22?"

Also, excerpts of Biology for Christian Schools found through a Wikipedia explanation of the case (I didn't rely solely on Wikipedia's description, the quoted text can be found on page 40 of the PDF of the ruling) prove Kennedy's description of the book is accurate. From the Wikipedia article:

" Plaintiff's evidence also supports Defendants' conclusion that these biology texts are inappropriate for use as the primary or sole text. Plaintiffs' own biology expert, Professor Michael Behe, testified that 'it is personally abusive and pedagogically damaging to de facto require students to subscribe to an idea. . . . Requiring a student to, effectively, consent to an idea violates his personal integrity. Such a wrenching violation [may cause] a terrible educational outcome.' (Behe Decl. Para. 59.)

Yet, the two Christian biology texts at issue commit this 'wrenching violation.' For example, Biology for Christian Schools declares on the very first page that:

  1. 'Whatever the Bible says is so; whatever man says may or may not be so, is the only [position] a Christian can take. . . .'
  2. 'If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.'
  3. 'Christians must disregard [scientific hypotheses or theories] that contradict the Bible.' (Phillips Decl. Ex. B, at xi.)"
Intelligent design proponent Dr. Micheal Behe's testimony on behalf of the defendants did not prove convincing to the judge, even though he was the plantiffs' expert witness. Judge Otero wrote in his ruling:

"'Plaintiffs offer little admissible evidence to the contrary. Plaintiffs' Biology expert, Dr. Michael Behe, submitted a declaration concluding that the BJU text mentions standard scientific content. ... However, Professor Behe "did not consider how much detail or depth" the texts gave to this standard content. ... Therefore, Professor Behe fails to refute one of Professor Kennedy's primary concerns that the nature of science, the theory of evolution, and critical thinking are not taught adequately. Accordingly, there is no genuine issue of material fact as to this issue. Defendants had a rational basis for rejecting Calvary Baptist's proposed Biology course.'"

I'm sure it's obvious by now, and by my previous posts, that I whole-heartedly agree with Judge Otero's ruling. It's hilarious to me that the textbooks in question did not even pretend to be non-religious. No ambiguous "designer" mentioned there; the books unabashedly gave the Christian god credit for creation of the universe. A case like this shows how incredibly free private schools in this country are to teach pretty much anything they want. They really have no fear of any angry "evolutionists" coming in and trying to squelch their beliefs. However, if these private schools want their students to be accepted in the real world, like the UC system, they clearly have to do better. It's ironic that scientists never try to sue anyone to get evolution taught in these private schools, while the reverse is all too prevalent. If the theory of evolution is really this huge conspiracy to get "god" out of the classroom, as some fundamentalist Christians claim, wouldn't evolutionary scientists be trying their hardest to get their theory into the schools where it is least accepted?

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Alleged Chupacabra Caught on Video by Texas Police

A video originally posted on a San Antonio news station's website(KEN 5) has made it all the way to the CNN Video News site. The video of the alleged chupacabra was captured in the small town of Cuero, Texas, just southwest of San Antonio, by DeWitt County Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Riedel.

On August 8, Riedel and his partner were checking fence lines on a dirt road near Cuero when they saw a strange, coyote-sized creature running alongside the road. Riedel, who has been on the job for eight years, had the presence of mind to turn on his patrol car's dashboard camera, in order to capture video of the creature. From the approximately minute-long glimpse of the animal, Riedel said he noticed several unusual features, such as its short front legs and long back legs, hairless skin and long snout. A snout, the San Antonio reporter claims, is the, "type of feature that legends are made of." Riedel said he has never seen anything like this in his many years of patrolling Cuero's dusty back roads.

Here's a still I made from one of the videos, where the snout in question is clearly visible:

Dewitt Count Sheriff Joe (or Jode, the two videos use different first names) Zavesky said the animal is most likely some sort of coyote hybrid, but expects many "experts" to be asking for the video. Despite his explanation, he also claimed, "We still don't what it is." It appears Zavesky might be more interested in the media attention sightings of similar creatures have recently brought to Cuero than finding out what the animal truly is. Quoted from both videos:

"I love this for DeWitt county." Zavesky said, "It has brought alot of attention to us,and I believe there's something to it."

Stories of the chupacabra first caused a stir in the small Texas town when a rancher named Phylis Canion found the carcass of a coyote-like animal on her property in July 2007. Canion's neighbors claimed the deceased creature was responsible for their missing cats and chickens in recent years. Some livestock carcasses were allegedly found with their blood drained. Riedel claims the animal in the video is identical to the creature found on Canion's ranch, or at least identical to the animal about which he has read in the newspapers.

In November of 2007, a story posted on KEN 5's website reported that a DNA test performed by biologists at Texas State University had revealed the true identity of the carcass: a coyote. From the article:

"'The DNA sequence is a virtually identical match to DNA from the coyote,' Mike Forstner, a Texas State University biologist, said in a news release Thursday night. 'This is probably the answer a lot of folks thought might be the outcome. I, myself, really thought it was a domestic dog, but the Cuero chupacabra is a Texas coyote.'"

Only the video on CNN's site mentions this information, while both reports refer to the creature as anything but what it really is. "Goatsucker" and "creature of the night" were terms used by the CNN reporter, with the San Antonio reporter calling it a "legend" more than once. Why did neither of these reports call it a coyote? It's also interesting to note that the San Antonio report misspells Riedel's name. The dashboard camera's time clock in the upper right hand corner spells it "Riedel," which would presumably be the correct spelling since it is Riedel's patrol car. However, the San Antonio report attributes the officer onscreen as "Corp. Brandon Reidel." Is this how journalism is done in Texas?

Forstner admitted the DNA test on the carcass found one year ago did not explain the coyote's hairless skin or other unusual features, but sees those unexplained traits as just more questions to be answered:

"'That is the best part about science. The first answers often lead to more questions and then better explanations of the world in which we live,' Forstner said. 'We've taken additional skin samples and we will try to determine the cause of the hair loss. Folks fear what they don't understand, and a big part of the goal in science is to explain the natural world,'"

I like the way this Forstner guy thinks. Science can still be filled with mystery without propagating tales of a hairless, bloodsucking beast. There are so many more interesting, if less sensational, stories here. Is this a new species of coyote? Has a particularly virile male coyote been knocking up family dogs over the last few years? Is there some unknown mutation making its way through the local coyote gene pool? Is it some combination of all three? All these would have made great news stories, and could prove to be legitimate scientific questions. But of course the local news team chose to go for the "chupacabra" angle. When did science become less interesting than mythology?

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Pareidolia Mondays: Is Jesus in Your Five?

A story posted on the Pensacola News Journal website on August 8 tells of a local woman who has supposedly found a picture of Jesus on her cell phone. Linda Square, 47, was working a volunteer shift at a local laundromat when she decided to take some time for herself and scroll through the numerous pictures of family and friends on her cell phone.

She came across a photo that at first appeared blurry to her. However, a 90 degree shift revealed something she had never noticed before: the alleged image of Jesus Christ. From the article:

"She made out what appeared to be silhouette of her in the foreground on the right, next to an unknown figure. Taking a closer look, she soon was convinced who had made an appearance on her cell phone. It was Jesus Christ."
The above image is an extreme close-up of Square's picture. The article claims that "Shadows of a face and the highlights of what appears to be a beard clearly can be seen," but the only thing that is clear to me is the fact Square most likely attempted to take a picture with her finger in the way of the lens. Square apparently said she does not remember taking the photo or where she could have been at the time. She even took her phone to the store where she purchased it, to make sure everyone knows the photo is genuine. The employee at the phone store assured her that the image was created by her phone, and that no one had sent it to her.

Square claims "she isn't concerned about skeptics," not that the reporter who wrote the article went to the trouble to find any. All she cares about is what the photo means to her:

"'I feel that His message to me is that He is coming back, and He wants me to be ready when He comes. And He's letting me know that He's with me and that He's beside me and He wants me to follow Him. And I'm going to follow Him.'"

The funniest bit of this whole story, for me at least, is what Square decided to do with the photo after she realized its significance:

"Square says discovering the image already has had an impact on her life. So excited was she about this, in fact, that she had T-shirts made with the image and the words 'Jesus & Me.'"

She may be mistaken, just like every other case of pareidolia about which I've written, but at least she's proud of it. And, as far as the article says, Square is not trying to sell the shirt design she came up with; although I might be tempted to buy one were she inclined to do so. I would have loved to see the look on the person's face who made the shirt.

Employee at t-shirt shop:
"You want what written under this picture?"

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Fox Ridge Park Ghost

While it has been fun trolling through various news websites, scanning them for news fit to write about for this blog, there is nothing quite like writing your own story. Checking on sources, talking to people, doing real investigative work. The thrill produced from such endeavors is really hard to describe, but it's a feeling I find simply intoxicating. But, enough waxing poetic about doing what amounts to exciting homework, let me tell you what I've been up to the past few days.

All this started with the discovery of Haunted Vegas Tours. Driving all over my hometown in a bus, stopping at nearly all the alleged ghost hangouts Sin City has to offer immediately jumped out at me. What experience would be more appropriate to write about for a blog called "Jeremy the Skeptic"? All the sites the tour visits offer an opportunity to interview eyewitnesses, research a bit of Las Vegas history and really exercise my investigative reporter muscles. Fortunately, I'll be taking this very tour on August 27, accompanied by my beautiful girlfriend, who seems just as excited about the experience as I am. I plan to write a full account of my experiences on the tour, alongside background on each of the allegedly haunted sites. A few days ago, I started research on the stories that will be told on the tour. What follows are the fruits of my efforts so far.

The first site that seemed ripe for investigation was Fox Ridge Park in Henderson, approximately one mile from my house. To those who don't live in Nevada, Henderson borders Las Vegas, and holds the distinction of being Nevada's fastest growing city. The Haunted Vegas Tour advertises Fox Ridge as a chance to get off the bus and stretch your legs a bit, and to capture the alleged ghost of a boy killed in a drunk driving accident on film. From the "ghost blog" on the tour's website:

"The swing at Fox Ridge park in Henderson Nevada is home to the ghost of a little boy who likes to swing late at night. It seems that the ghostly youngster doesn't like to be bothered while swinging. If you look him in the eyes his face turns into a "demon" and he vanishes."

The drunk-driving account comes from a book entitled Weird Las Vegas and Nevada, which happens to be co-written by Tim Cridland, one of the Haunted Vegas Tour guides. The book cites an unnamed Las Vegas paranormal investigation group as the source for the story. Finding which Vegas paranormal investigative group provided the book's information would be my next objective.

Both the authors of Weird Las Vegas and the Haunted Vegas Tours website cite a woman named Janice Oberding as a historian and paranormal investigator with whom they consulted regarding the most well-known ghost stories in Vegas. Oberding is the author of Haunted Nevada, a book published in 2003 recounting all the various ghost stories that permeate Nevada's past. I looked up Oberding's name and found her website, which describes her as a member of Las Vegas Paranormal investigations (LVPI). (LVPI's website has an elaborate Flash animation intro that might take a while to load over some connections. Just a warning.) LVPI appeared to be just the Vegas paranormal group for which I was looking.

The first e-mail sent off in this entire endeavor went to the head of LVPI; a Mike C. I asked if LVPI was indeed the group mentioned in Weird Las Vegas and if they were, would he be able to provide me with any details regarding the alleged ghost. This is what Mr. C. told me:

"I can tell you that the park is haunted by the boy who was killed by a drunk driver. Boy's name is unknown and a woman who was killed by an axe. The boy plays on the swings and the lady walks the perimeter of the park looking for her kids."

While the little boy story fit with Weird Las Vegas's account, the murdered woman was an addition I had never heard. I replied to Mike C. asking if he knew when the boy or woman were killed, and if he knew of any police reports or newspaper articles that supported the stories. He has yet to reply to me.

I sent out a flurry of other e-mails asking about the Fox Ridge story, one to Oberding, others to various ghost-themed websites listing Fox Ridge as one of many haunted sites in Henderson. All contained the question, phrased basically the same, "Where did you hear this story?" (I have yet to receive replies to any of them.) With those sent, I decided I could only do so much with my face 12 inches from my computer screen and my mouse furiously finding its way through links, as if it was searching for some elusive piece of digital cheese. I needed to see this place for myself. So, equipped with camera, pen and notebook, I drove the approximately 20 minutes to Fox Ridge Park.

What first greeted me as I turned the corner onto the street adjacent to the park was a flood of childhood memories. It turns out I had spent more than one hot, summer day with my friends at Fox Ridge as a fourth-grade student. At that time, I don't remember hearing any tales of deceased children or women cleaved by axes inhabiting the park. I suppose that's for the better. At that age, such stories would have never let me return to the playground and swing sets I found so enjoyable.

With the nostalgia fading, I found a parking space and made my way across the street to the well-tended grass of the park. I was searching for some sort of memorial to a child killed in a drunk-driving accident. All the tales never said where the boy was killed, but I felt it was safe to presume it was somewhere near the park. Why else would the boy's ghost bother to haunt the place? What I found were 10 memorial plaques placed at the base of 10 trees; one plaque to a tree. Each plaque was about the size of a phone book, and seemed to be professionally placed. Some subsequent research found that a memorial tree and plaque could be bought from the Henderson Department of Parks and Recreation for $250 US. Some of the plaques described people that could have been the boy or murdered woman, so I took pictures of those and continued my trek around the park. While decidedly not frightening during the day, I could see how Fox Ridge could take on a haunted air in the middle of the night. The slightest breeze made the chains of the swing sets clink and the leaves of the numerous trees rustle ominously. However, I heard nothing but cars passing by and the drone of lovesick cicadas. If the park is indeed haunted, no ghost saw fit to make its appearance known to me.

With the names of some possible ghosts in hand, I returned home and delved into the online archives of the Las Vegas Review Journal (RJ), the city's largest newspaper. I hoped to find any article describing deaths similar to the ones told in the story. I was able to affirmatively rule out five of the 11 memorial plaques whose names I recorded. One story ruled out three plaques at once: those of Esther, Cynthia and Cathy Perez. All three women were killed in 1996 in a car accident. No drunk driver was reportedly involved. From the RJ article:

"Esther Perez was killed on Interstate 15 near the California-Nevada border when the sport-utility vehicle she was traveling in with her daughters Cathy, 16, and Cynthia, 17, veered out of control and then flipped, California Highway Patrol officer Ed Martinez said."

The forth plaque held the name of a woman who could have fit the description of the murdered ghost. Her name was Brenda Stuart-Rowsell. I was able to find her obituary in a 2005 edition of the RJ:

"BRENDA STUART ROWSELL We would like to say to our beloved wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, cousin, and friend, Brenda Lynn (Stuart) Rowsell, 28, a homemaker, of Henderson, who was called to be with her Heavenly Father Monday, Feb. 7, 2005, in Henderson; that we love you very much and we will see you later. Brenda was born April 23, 1976, in Salt Lake City. Brenda is survived by her husband, Eric; children, Eric, Ashley, Kara and Katie; mother, Karen; father, Jim (Scherry); brothers, Richard (Mindy) and Bryan; sister, Rachel; grandparents, Al and Genette Taylor and Don Cole; aunt, Janice (Ron); uncles, Roger and Ray (Sherri); and numerous cousins, nieces, and nephews who will miss her always. Brenda has been reunited with her grandmother, Joann Cole."

No mention of a murder in the obituary, nor could I find any news story describing such an occurrence.

The fifth plague contained the names of two men: Steve M. Szany and Dave A. Bender. No age was given for either of them on the plaque, so I thought either one of them could have been the boy allegedly killed by a drunk driver. It turned these two men were murdered in 2000 by Stephen Ciolino. From the RJ story describing Ciolino's sentencing in 2005:

"In a sentencing hearing, Stephen Ciolino acknowledged in the courtroom of District Judge Jennifer Togliatti that he participated in the murders of David Bender, 21, and Steve Szany, 22, at a Henderson apartment complex in 2000."

Searches of the names of the rest of the plaques turned up absolutely no news stories, nor any records from the Clark County Coroner's office. In fact, I found no stories telling of any drunk driving accident near Fox Ridge Park. I called the elementary school bordering the park, Estes McDoniel Elementary School, on Friday to see if any teachers there had heard the stories. The school was unfortunately closed for the day. I plan to try again Monday.

After I went as far as I could go with the names on the memorial plaques, I decided to search for further retellings of the Fox Ridge ghost tale. This is where the story gets a bit interesting. I could find no account of the alleged haunting before 2005. The earliest record of it I found was a story in the RJ about the Haunted Vegas Tour. From the article:

"A highlight of the tour comes at the halfway point, when visitors leave the bus to take a nighttime walk in Henderson's Fox Ridge Park where, some say, a deceased boy still visits. According to a tour guide, a swing in the park occasionally can be seen moving, even when there's no breeze."

The Fox Ridge ghost is also absent from Oberding's 2003 book, Haunted Nevada. Why did she not see fit to include it? How did the story make it into Weird Las Vegas, which was published in 2007? Did the people at LVPI simply make it up, or is everyone involved? These sorts of questions, though asked in a less accusatory tone, made up the various e-mails to which I have yet to receive replies. I was amazed at how many ghost-themed websites just list this story with absolutely no sources. Doesn't anyone do any research? It also bugs me how the majority of stories in Haunted Nevada cite that ubiquitous bastion of credible information, "some." But that's a whole separate post.

I'm determined to get to the bottom of this. I have no idea how long it will take for the people mentioned above to reply to my e-mail questions. Perhaps a call to Estes McDoniel Elementary will clear some of this up, but I somehow doubt it. The tour itself may provide the answers I seek, though it might be difficult to talk to the guides while they're working. The best lead I have so far is a tentative interview I have with Haunted Vegas Tour guide and Weird Las Vegas co-author Tim Cridland tomorrow. I will of course post any further developments here.

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