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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