SWIFT March 21, 2008 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

He Has Passed Away, Compulsive Grubby, One Faker Endorses the Other, It’s a Start, Another Epiphany, Interesting, A Potential Applicant, Commendable, Jamy Speaks, Readers Digest Gets Its Lumps, In Closing…

Arthur C Clarke

I lead off this SWIFT entry with sad but rather expected news. Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, who was kind enough to write a flattering introduction to my book, “An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural,” has passed away at his adopted home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the age of 90. He left written instructions that his funeral be strictly secular, and had directed that "Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral."

Table of Contents
  1. He Has Passed Away

  2. Compulsive Grubby

  3. One Faker Endorses the Other

  4. It’s a Start

  5. Another Epiphany

  6. Interesting

  7. A Potential Applicant

  8. Commendable

  9. Jamy Speaks

  10. Readers Digest Gets Its Lumps

  11. In Closing…



HE HAS PASSED AWAY

Arthur C Clarke

I lead off this SWIFT entry with sad but rather expected news. Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, who was kind enough to write a flattering introduction to my book, “An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural,” has passed away at his adopted home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the age of 90. He left written instructions that his funeral be strictly secular, and had directed that "Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral."

Sir Arthur was a polymath, an avowed skeptic, a rationalist, and the visionary science fiction writer who wrote "2001: A Space Odyssey" and won worldwide acclaim with more than 100 books on space, science and the future, both factual and fiction. He’d been battling an increasingly debilitating post-polio syndrome for years, though the actual nature of his ailment was only determined late in his life.

The 1968 story "2001: A Space Odyssey" was written simultaneously as a novel and screenplay with the participation of famed film director Stanley Kubrick. It was a scary tale of Artificial Intelligence run amok. Shortly after the film debut, Sir Arthur appeared on TV accompanied by Walter Cronkite anchoring television coverage of the Apollo mission to the Moon. Clarke was even more famous in the annals of technology for originating the concept of communications satellites. In 1945, decades before they became a reality, he wrote about geosynchronous orbits, in which satellites would be placed in fixed positions relative to the ground – these are now called Clarke orbits, in which a satellite orbits the Earth once every 24 hours, giving it a view that always shows the same face to the Earth. This is where we place most of the weather and communication satellites today.

Some of Sir Arthur’s best-known books are "Childhood's End," 1953; "The City and The Stars," 1956, "Rendezvous with Rama," 1973; "Imperial Earth," 1975; and "The Songs of Distant Earth," 1986. To me, the greatest of all his many short stories was "The Nine Billion Names of God," 1967, which I recommend my readers download and read. It can be found at lucis.net/stuff/clarke/9billion_clarke.html. I must tell you that when I first read it – some 40 or so years ago – I was stunned enough that I slowly turned back to the beginning and re-read the entire story just to savor the delight of coming upon the closing line…

Clarke had recently reviewed the final manuscript of his latest novel. "The Last Theorem," co-written with Frederik Pohl, also a friend of mine, which will be published later this year.

I visited twice with Arthur at his Sri Lanka home. I recall that the first time – as part of a filming venture for my TV Special, “Magic or Miracle,” in 1983 – I found him somewhat subdued by the fact that his huge satellite dish – at that time the only one in all Sri Lanka – had been blown down in a storm, thus rather spoiling the almost-weekly visit of then-President Jayewardene, who enjoyed sporting events that were thus brought into Arthur’s living-room for his pleasure. And, I volunteered to wriggle under a huge desk to re-plug a small transformer that powered and re-charged Arthur’s mobile phone – one of only a dozen or so of such instruments to be found on the island. A man who had envisioned one of the most revolutionary technical advances in the history of electronics and space engineering, was a victim of petty malfunctions… An account of the wildlife that I met while under that desk would provide my readers with much entertainment, though I was not too thrilled with it, face-to-face, I assure you…

Clarke, who’d battled debilitating post-polio syndrome since the 1960s and recently was reduced to using a wheelchair, ran a scuba-diving school and facility on the east coast of the island, and told us that scuba-diving approximated the feeling of weightlessness that astronauts experience in space. "I'm perfectly operational underwater," he told us.

I had a delightful exchange with Arthur back in 1981, when I e-mailed him:

Arthur! I’ve just had an asteroid named after me! #3163 is now known as “Randi,” and I’m suitably thrilled!

A few days later, I heard back from Arthur:

Yes, it is exciting, indeed. I had one named after me some years ago.

Not content to be one-upped by this man, I did some research, then responded:

I find that asteroid Clarke is estimated to be about 6 kilometers on a side, while asteroid Randi is about 11 kilometers on a side. It appears that my asteroid is bigger than your asteroid, Arthur…

It took some time for Arthur to get back in touch with me, but I’m sure that all was forgiven…

At a 90th birthday party thrown for him this last December, Arthur said that he had three wishes: first, for Sri Lanka's raging civil war to end, then for the world to find and accept cleaner sources of energy, and lastly for evidence of extraterrestrial beings to be discovered. He was always dismayed over the strife within his adopted country, for which he held great respect and love. I recall that when I went through the immigration services upon entering Sri Lanka, I was asked the purpose of my visit. When I said that I was Arthur’s guest, I was passed through and past both immigration and customs, and straight to my waiting car; his name was magic there because the people of Serendip loved him as much as he loved them. My condolences go out especially to his business partner and close friend Hector Ekanayake, and his family. I know that Arthur’s loss has been very difficult for them.

I, for one, decline to weep over the passing of Arthur; rather, I celebrate the fact that he was with us for so long, and brought us so much joy and knowledge…




COMPULSIVE GRUBBY

A strange person is using the name “Mabus” – taken from the ravings of Nostradamus, Century II, Quatrain 62, where the grandly-failed prophet wrote:

Mabus puis tôt alors mourra… [Mabus then will soon die…]

No one knows who Mabus is or was, neither the Nostradamus version nor the grubby one, nor does anyone really care much. This weird person had us all in stitches this last week as he compulsively posted literally hundreds of repetitions of the weird canards that Victor Zammit, the Australian lawyer who can’t quite manage to get my name straight, once published to amuse the rest of the world. So the material “Mabus” used wasn’t even original, just a re-hash of old errors. For some reason, he seems to be fixated on me as someone who stands in his way – though even his destination is not at all clear.

The strange one is a Dennis Markuze, of no particular talent except that he’s a used-computer salesman in Montreal – or used to be, since he seems to have a lot of time on his hands currently. As a prophet, he’s also a big bust, having predicted – 11 years ago! – an imminent nuclear war in Korea. Gee, I don’t remember that news item at all, and I’m sure I’d have noticed…

I strung him along a bit, and he felt noticed, so he got nuttier by the hour, until I blocked him, as I’m sure everyone else also did. These are weird folks, needing attention and hoping to have some effect – any effect – on the world.




ONE FAKER ENDORSES THE OTHER

Sylvia Browne has chosen to support a recent book by Wayne Dyer, who is allowed by Public Broadcasting to plug his products on their fund-raising appeals – one reason that I withdrew my support of that network long ago. She writes:

In this beautifully designed book, “Living the Wisdom of the Tao,” Wayne has gathered together easy-to-read translations of all 81 verses of the Tao Te Ching and created an affirmation for each one to help you apply them to your own life.

And she gushes:

By consciously changing your thoughts, you'll begin to see major changes taking place in your life.

Yes, I’m sure. Once you’re on one of these mailing lists, the appeals will drain your bank account and you won’t have to worry about having too much money…




IT’S A START

tan

In Naperville, Illinois, Tracy and Eric Tan have been arrested and charged on eight felony counts of theft, forgery and possession of fraudulent identification. They operated a “Psychic Tarot Card Reading” parlor. Said arresting officials:

The couple used the business to prey on the misfortune of people who came to get their (Tarot) cards read. Tracy Tan would convince the customers that they had a curse on them, and (that) she was the only one who could fix their problems. During this “counseling,” she would charge her victims thousands of dollars for her services and products – crystals, candles and related paraphernalia – which provided them with a false sense of hope.

The Tans were released on bonds of $750,000 each.

But hold on. This sort of thing is in operation all over the USA – and the rest of the world – every day, in every city and town, via the Internet and by mail. Never mind the tons of quack medicines being openly – knowingly – sold over the counters in leading pharmacies, the fraudulent services such as indulgences and exorcisms regularly offered by the churches, the ghost-cures promised by those who advertise in tabloid publications, or the myriad of “advisors” who peddle astrology, palmistry, or other fortune-telling services to individuals and/or businesses. Why don’t local, state, or federal agencies come down on these fakers, as the Naperville cops did on the Tans?

Funny you should ask, and here’s the answer. First, the chances that Tracy and Eric Tan will do jail time for their racket, are miniscule; the court, if it does anything at all, will listen to the very expensive lawyers summoned by the Tans, and opt for a fine, so that they will be appropriately punished. Duh. The Tans don’t care a whit about any fine. They just want to get the court case settled so that they can get back to business. Time is money, and this is just an inconvenience for them, nothing more. If anything, the publicity they receive will introduce them to more suckers who will happily hand over their money to be told Good News about lifted curses and better “vibrations” that they’ll be expecting. The Tans will spend much more on legal help, than on paying any fine, and that’s all part of operating expenses. If the cops got $750,000 from each of them for bail, can you imagine their assets…?

Second, to get any agency or official to actually reach out and DO something about the psychic fakers, is next to impossible. Any individuals who dare to offend religious or “spiritual” feelings, find voters and/or the various boards and agencies who might re-elect or re-appoint them, unwilling to do so. Real pursuit of scam-artists cannot be expected from anyone not heavily protected and supported by a framework of legal and administrative authorities. It might be the “right” thing to do, but it’s not the “wise” move, if survival is of any importance…

So far, we’ve seen each and every candidate for political office fervently affirming their dedication to religious values and notions. Not one has chosen – or dared – to neglect mentioning Higher Powers and/or mystical influences, and wisely so, when addressing the public. Of course, we cannot know just how much, or if at all, any candidate values supernatural affiliations, and that’s where “reading between the lines” becomes impossible.

When I step into the voting-booth, I’ll just hope that I press the right keys, but I assure you that my selection will be made as a direct consequence of my perception of the lack of woo-woo acceptance on the part of the candidates. I hope that this principle will guide more of us…




ANOTHER EPIPHANY

At randi.org/joom/content/view/172/27/#i5 we ran a piece by Sam Opuku in which he described how we’d made a difference in his life. Now, this happy news has arrived from reader Travis Mataya:

I don't know how many of these you get from people who were sucked into that paranormal/religious/dogmatic mess, but thanks to all your work, you gave me my life back.

I was slightly mentally ill for many years after an accident right out of high school where I suffered head trauma – everything from dementia to blackouts, memory loss and delusions – and I was taken advantage of by all those con artists. I went from being in love with science and mathematics, especially computer programming, to “New Age” myths and the occult.

Though over time I got better, for six years after, my life became a complete mess. I believed I had powers, that I was possessed by a demon, that I could talk to the dead – just all of it. I lost many friends and ruined relationships, and I am sure you know all the harm it can do to people with obsessive personalities.

“My mind wants the truth,” it was screaming at me, and then one day I saw a video of you and Project Alpha. I saw how easy it was to be tricked, I looked deeper, and the walls came down. And it snowballed.

Not only that, but I feel more intelligent than I have ever felt in my life. I have been racing for a year now, going through mathematics books and science books, catching up with the world and just in love with it all over again. I have a great grasp on reality, my logic and critical thinking have never been this sharp, and I just love it. It's really amazing, and I now have a chance at a decent life.

I am an atheist, and I do go around fighting the good fight whenever I find it.

So again, thank you for that and for all the great work you have done!

Thank you, Travis. We at the JREF are always pleased to learn that our efforts have served someone well. That’s why we’re here....




INTERESTING

Reader Tony Purcell comments re randi.org/joom/content/view/174/27/#i16 of last week:

In response to the Adelaide library case, I saw a documentary on some research showing that feelings of unease, of "being watched" and "someone being in the room" can be produced by low intensity electrical fields. I am afraid I can't give a direct reference but the initiating investigator experienced exactly such feelings in his work room and eventually tracked it down to a dodgy air-conditioning or heating fan below his room producing a small electric field with an intensity spike at about head-height when he stood over his bench.

Michael Persinger

Randi comments: Yes, I also recall some such research. Apparently such fields can produce these effects, and a Dr. Michael Persinger, in Canada, has demonstrated this effect. Tony continues, on another matter:

A few weeks ago you quoted the King James Bible to dispute a fundamentalist's claims about highway I-35. Most modern biblical scholars think that while undeniably pretty, the King James is a shoddy translation, so that any more recent version is probably more accurate. That having been said, the numbering system for verses is an a posteriori artifact intended to aid biblical scholars in the study of a book whose contents were chosen by committee from a much wider selection of works, most of which were written down decades (or centuries) after the events they purport to describe, and all of which have been repeatedly mis-translated and mis-transcribed, sometimes in ways that completely alter the sense of the original. It is remarkable that the Bible remains completely divinely inspired throughout all these vicissitudes. Anyone waving a Bible and claiming significance of any particular word choices or phrasings is on a futile quest. Seeking meaning in verse numbers is sort of like looking for messages in page numbers.

Good observation, Tony! That hadn’t occurred to me, and I’m happy to have your input!




A POTENTIAL APPLICANT

Gary Mannion

I’ve been informed that there has been a £50,000 challenge issued to one Gary Mannion, a twenty-year-old British "psychic surgeon" who is rapidly gaining recognition in the UK. Mannion claims to effect miraculous healing on his patients through the intervention of his spirit friend “Abraham” and he says that this isn’t just any old Abraham, but the very same one of Biblical fame, and that he – Gary – knows this to be true because when he Googled the name, the Google image he got he recognized as that of his friend Abraham from the Old Testament! Mannion is very careful to stay on the right side of the law, qualifying his extravagant assertions with disclaimers such as "I am not a doctor," and "I don't claim to cure cancer," although the many testimonials on his many websites tell a different story.

Growing increasingly concerned about Mannion, UK skeptic Jon Cohen has offered to give him £50,000 if he can prove that his claims are genuine. Professor Chris French from Goldsmiths, University of London, has offered to carry out the test. Mannion has agreed to be tested, and a meeting has been scheduled to discuss protocols. I may even be able to meet this “surgeon” in person when I travel to the UK in April…!

What a rich life I lead!

However, I must admit that I’m surprised to learn that Google’s images of long-dead Biblical personages are so accurate…!




COMMENDABLE!

From reader Joseph Niedbala comes this refreshing item:

This is a few years old, but this wonderful acticle from Gourmet magazine circa 2004 is deserving of your attention if you aren't already familiar with it: tinyurl.com/29bs5o. As Riedel Glassware is an advertiser, I have to give the editors extra kudos. It was brought to my attention by this blog entry at Chowhound which also contains several other commendable links: www.chow.com/grinder/5047

Happily, I've alway bought my glassware based upon how pretty and affordable it was!

Good decision, Joseph!




JAMY SPEAKS

Our good friend Jamy Ian Swiss – who TAM-goers will recall with great delight – informs us:

The Monday, March 17th issue of The New Yorker includes a lengthy in-depth piece exploring the contemporary art and culture of magic, entitled "The Real Work," and written by Adam Gopnik, an award-winning journalist and veteran New Yorker writer who has spent more than a year researching this subject. In the article he provides insight into the work of those who approach magic not merely as a novelty entertainment, but as a legitimate art built on ideas as well as aesthetics. This is likely one of most substantive items ever to appear in mainstream journalism about magic as an art. And I am a definite presence in the piece, having partly served as Adam's guide through the magic community.

Yes, Jamy is featured prominently in this article, and gets to expound on his profession at length. I urge our readers to look into this piece…




READER’S DIGEST GETS ITS LUMPS

From reader Stephen Falk, in Winnipeg, Canada:

I love the SWIFT newsletter and read it eagerly every week. Thank you so much for all the good work the JREF does! Anyway, I work in a library and, as you can likely imagine, I come across all types of kooky books every single day. A while back, I came across a book published by Reader's Digest called "Forbidden Advice (1,703 Rarely Divulged Secrets to Save Time, Money and Trouble)" – hereafter referred to as "FA" – to be seen at tinyurl.com/yorrnh.

I peered inside and checked out the chapter on Medicine, which contained a small section on homeopathy called "What your doctor doesn't want you to know about homeopathy." Here's a link to the JPG file: tinyurl.com/2ea4st. Notice the glowing assertion: "Homeopathy... has some serious scientific backing behind it." The brief article goes on to cite three studies. The first study was published by the British Medical Journal in 1991. FA claims that this meta-analysis "found 81 trials whose positive results couldn't be attributed to placebo." However, according to the abstract I located on PubMed – tinyurl.com/25lonc – the study reached the following conclusion:

At the moment the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias.

“Not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions”? That's hardly "serious scientific backing," methinks! The second study cited was published in Lancet back in 1997. According to FA, this meta-analysis concluded that homeopathy "provided twice the therapeutic benefit of a placebo." But if you look at the study's abstract – at tinyurl.com/yqnrrf – you will see that the study's final interpretation is slightly different:

The results of our meta-analysis are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homeopathy are completely due to placebo. However, we found insufficient evidence from these studies that homeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition. Further research on homeopathy is warranted, provided it is rigorous and systematic.

Hmm. I really wonder what homeopathy's value is if insufficient evidence shows that it can help with any single condition! At best, this meta-analysis concludes that homeopathy deserves further research... but that's still a far cry from "serious scientific backing"!

The third and final study cited was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2003. FA asserts that.

while more and better research is needed, it is important that physicians be open-minded about homeopathy's possible value...

yet when one reads the study's abstract at tinyurl.com/2w99dm, one should probably pay greater attention to the final two lines:

There is a lack of conclusive evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for most conditions. Homeopathy deserves an open-minded opportunity to demonstrate its value by using evidence-based principles, but it should not be substituted for proven therapies.

Again, this doesn't look like "serious scientific backing" to me!

Don't get me wrong: I don't expect much scientific literacy from the people who publish Reader's Digest. But I do think this is an interesting example of how proponents of homeopathy view the world through severely rose-tinted glasses! Unfortunately, the majority of FA's readers will probably emerge with the notion that homeopathy is strongly supported by "serious scientific backing." So sad ...

On a similar and satisfying note, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals have announced that their motion for summary judgment in the case of Blackwell, et al. v. Sigma Aldrich, Inc., et al has been granted. This was an alleged vaccine injury case claiming that Jamarr Blackwell’s exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines caused him to become autistic. In his Memorandum and Order pertaining to Wyeth’s evidentiary motion, Judge Berger found that

It is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community that thimerosal in vaccines does not cause or contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism… and it is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community that autism is genetic in origin except in rare instances of prenatal exposures to certain substances at defined periods during pregnancy.

Of course, I doubt that this will influence those parents who are convinced that thimerosal – a preservative used for multiple-dose vaccines – C9H9HgNaO2S, is a cause of autism, a claim for which no solid evidence exists, autism being a genetic, inheritable, disease.




IN CLOSING…

I can use some help in deciding the Annual April 1st Pigasus Awards, and I’ll accept nominations starting right now. There are four categories, all relating to our major subjects of discussion:

Category #1: The scientist or academic who said or did the silliest thing related to the supernatural, paranormal or occult.

Category #2: The funding organization that supported the most useless study of a supernatural, paranormal or occult claim.

Category #3: The media outlet that reported as factual the most outrageous supernatural, paranormal or occult claims.

Category #4: The "psychic" performer who fooled the greatest number of people using the least talent.

I just know that your heads are a-buzzing with the possibilities! Please respond to randi@randi.org, and not to the “comments” column… Thanks!

tam55

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