SWIFT August 10, 2007 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   
Stunning News, More Beastly Stuff, Krazy Kat, South Africa - Again?, Ask the Psychics, Attenborough Not Concerned, A Good Experience, Shermer Scores, In Conclusion.

Have you ever wondered whether there was any measurable effect of the phases of the Moon on human affairs? Well, Dr. Robert Seeberger, a physicist and astronomer at the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Austria, apparently has cared enough to look into this question – though it’s hard to imagine where the funding came from, or why. He has now reported that his team of experts analyzed 500,000 industrial accidents in that country between 2000 and 2004, and found no link to lunar activity. Says he:

The full moon does not unfavorably affect the likelihood of an accident.

Table of Contents
  1. Stunning News

  2. More Beastly Stuff

  3. Krazy Kat

  4. South Africa – Again?

  5. Ask the Psychics

  6. Attenborough Not Concerned?

  7. A Good Experience

  8. Shermer Scores

  9. In Conclusion…



STUNNING NEWS

Have you ever wondered whether there was any measurable effect of the phases of the Moon on human affairs? Well, Dr. Robert Seeberger, a physicist and astronomer at the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Austria, apparently has cared enough to look into this question – though it’s hard to imagine where the funding came from, or why. He has now reported that his team of experts analyzed 500,000 industrial accidents in that country between 2000 and 2004, and found no link to lunar activity. Says he:

The full moon does not unfavorably affect the likelihood of an accident.

Hold on. That word “unfavorably” worries me. How about “favorable” influences, Dr. Seeberger? Would it not have been more informative to investigate whether phases of the Moon have any effect on our activity, let alone accidents? Simply setting up a double-blind examination of births, auto accidents, and other factors, then asking the “experts” – astrologers, of course – to “call their shots” – to tell us in advance where stellar and/or lunar influences should provide an effect – would be much more useful, I think. Of course, the seers don’t care for such tests, but I’m sure they could be coaxed into participating… Another approach would be to simply try to match – again, double-blind – the phases of the Moon to any of these events…

The study, done for an insurance agency, said that on average there were 415 workplace accidents registered per day, yet on days when the Moon was full – which is supposed to be a critical condition – the average actually dipped down 7% to 385, though this difference was not statistically significant. There have been many other similar tests done. In 1984, the British Medical Journal looked into the incidence of crimes reported to police in three locations in India, and found a spike in crime on full Moon days. Now, that’s a “loaded” test, right there. Crimes such as burglary and bicycle thefts are greatly facilitated by a full Moon; the need for a flashlight is much lessened… Crime is easier when the site is illuminated! Duh?

Dr. John Hillier, professor of astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh, carries off the "sensible observation” prize in this matter. Says he:

It's often probably just cases of people remembering that there happened to be a full Moon when something occurred. When nothing special happens, they tend not to notice what the Moon is doing, so this selective memory just keeps the legend going.





MORE BEASTLY STUFF

Reader Frank Womble has sent in these interesting variations on last weeks item at randi.org/jr/2007-08/080307conjuror.html#i13, showing that we missed the boat on that one. Says Frank:

666 = number of the Beast
665 = older brother of the Beast
660 = approximate number of the Beast
66600 = zip code of the Beast
$665.95 = retail price of the Beast
DCLXVI = Roman numeral of the Beast
666.0000 = Number of the High-Precision Beast
0.666 = Number of the Millibeast
/666 = Beast Common Denominator
-666½  = Imaginary number of the Beast
6.66e3 = Floating point Beast
1010011010 = Binary number of the Beast
6, uh . . . what was that number again? = Number of the Blonde Beast
1-666 = Area code of the Beast
666 mph = Speed limit of the Beast
$699.30 = Price of the Beast plus 5% state sales tax
$769.95 = Price of the Beast with all accessories and replacement soul
$656.66 = Walmart price of the Beast
$646.66 = Next week's Walmart price of the Beast
Phillips 666 = Gasoline of the Beast
Route 666 = Way of the Beast
666 F = Oven temperature for roast Beast
352 – Oven temperature for roast Beast in Europe
666(k) = Retirement plan of the Beast
666 mg = Recommended Minimum Daily Requirement of Beast
6.66% = 5-yr CD interest rate at 1st Beast of Hell Nat. Bank, $666 min. deposit
$666/hr = Beast's lawyer's billing rate
Lotus 6-6-6 = Spreadsheet of the Beast
Word 6.66 = Word Processor of the Beast
i66686 = CPU of the Beast
665.9997856 = Number of the Beast on a Pentium
666i = BMW of the Beast
DSM-666 (revised) = Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the Beast
1232 Octal, Apt. 29A = Beast's hexed address
668 = Next-door neighbor of the Beast
333 = The semi-Christ

Note: some of the above are only approximations, and should not be used in religious invocations or other such woo-woo applications…





KRAZY KAT

The recent media news has exulted over a full-blown and vigorously exploited woo-woo story that cats – or at least one named “Oscar” – can sense when people are about to die. This particular feline lives in a nursing home in Providence, R.I., and he “awakens from his nap, opening a single eye to survey his kingdom," according to an article by Dr. David M. Dosa of Brown University. Oscar, Dr. Dosa reports, cuddles up with patients in the moments just before they expire – an uncorroborated account that provides somewhat mystical claims about the cognitive abilities of animals, though certainly animals have some special non-human senses that can provide them with data that might surprise a human, through such factors as scent, breathing patterns, and distinctive movements. It’s well known that some animals can even detect the Earth’s magnetic field, and elephants communicate by means of infra-sound signals that humans cannot sense. However, well-experienced nurses – mere humans – are often skilled in such perception from simple observation.

Of course, the news media were seriously titillated by the fact that this report originated with the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, and it took on the atmosphere of a sure thing by that affiliation. However, it turns out that the popular press accounts of Oscar the Cat actually provided more scientific analysis than the NEJM article, quoting animal behavior experts who speculated on the many ways that he might accomplish his feat. Nor do we know Oscar's success rate. Were records kept of the number of times he visited people who didn't die? I think not. That’s not the sought-after corroborating data, and take a look back at Dr. John Hillier’s observation on the full Moon matter, above…





SOUTH AFRICA – AGAIN?

It’s hard to believe, but this nation seems once again to be entertaining woo-woo ideas about reality, this time a South African invention – the Matter Orientation System (MOS) – that claims to have found live as well as dead bodies, and to have been used on the internationally-famous mystery case of the missing little girl, Madeleine McCann. A S.A. TV program titled “Carte Blanche” related how this miraculous invention had also possibly solved the disappearance of six young girls who are believed to have perished at the hands of an infamous pedophile named Gert van Rooyen and his accomplice, Joey Haarhoff, in the late 1980s.

The “inventor,” a former police colonel named Daniel Krugel, head of security service at the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein, seems shy about commenting on the Madeleine issue, but that’s not the only question being asked of him. Far more basic are the technological claims he offers for this device, claims that make Tom Swift notions seem sensible. His invention, he says, uses a small sample of “signature” and "like" material – such as a single hair – to "geographically pinpoint the main body from which it was sourced," as Carte Blanche explained to their eager viewers. Krugel claimed to have “pinpointed” Van Rooyen's home in Capital Park, Pretoria, with this piece of technological flummery, though that just happened to be less than two kilometers from the last place where the missing girls were thought to have been… How did he know, we must wonder!

Carte Blanche viewers were told:

The invention is thought to be based on quantum physics, and a global positioning system, or GPS, is used to define the search area.

Well, that does it for me! When the word “quantum” appears, we know that an invention is genuine, right? Unfortunately for us, but very fortunately for Colonel Krugel, the suspects Van Rooyen and Haarhoff died following a police chase. Drat! But whether there’s a GPS contained in the MOS, could be determined by a simple examination – yet the device has never been examined! Why not, we ask?

Says Krugel:

It is anticipated that the MOS will have far reaching application, being able to identify and locate like for like matter, to assist with matter detection in criminal investigations, forensic and medical applications, geology and mining as well as bio-chemical matter detection.

And, we’re told, controlled environment testing of the MOS is currently under way. All this leads us to enthusiastically offer Colonel Daniel Krugel, and Carte Blanche, the JREF million-dollar prize, if the MOS can operate as claimed. Tests would take less than an hour, and we already have experts standing by on site to spring into action as soon as Krugel or Carte Blanche give us the word. Now, we understand, a clairvoyant named Marietta Theunissen [see randi.org/jr/043004bad.html#2] has been called in, so this could be a major validation of both mystical powers and/or advanced technology!

However, knowing how reluctant South African wonder-workers are to accept our million-dollar prize, we at the JREF rather doubt that we should hustle to prepare for action, even though R7,015,250 is a rather nice amount of currency…

As we go to press, South African ministry official Charles Nqakula has appeared on e.tv's “3rd Degree” in South Africa expressing his enthusiasm for the device and speculating that the police could make good use of it, and some of Krugel's former police colleagues in Bloemfontein and the small Free State town of Brandfort, believe it's all “a gift from God.”

How could we possibly have doubted…?

That very loud silence you hear is from Colonel Krugel and Carte Blanche…





ASK THE PSYCHICS

Reader Ray Trinidad, of Tauranga, New Zealand, says:

I'd like to share with you and your readers the decline into superstition and nonsense of our local paper, The Bay of Plenty Times. Well, either that or they've clicked on to a great new marketing gimmick in pursuit of the woo-woo dollar...

On Saturday, 4 August 2007, the paper trumpeted the arrival of a new column called "Ask the Psychics" featuring three (!) "clairvoyants, mediums, spiritual healers, psychics and spiritual channeler, and have a lifetime of experience of the spiritual and psychic worlds between them." Readers were requested to write in with their pressing problems and the trio (I can't seem to shake the image of the three witches in Macbeth out of my mind) will do their best to provide answers. After all, as one of them said:

We want people to meet their challenges and find inner peace.

The first column came out in the same edition and contained such earthshaking psychic gems as:

(re a lost hearing aid) Check lost property where the owner has been.

(re lost diamond rings) Try to relax and think about the last time you saw them and you may find them more easily. Check the laundry, even the basket and washing machine.

Wow, people needed psychics to tell them that?

The rest of the questions were answered with the usual cop-outs: "We feel...", "We have the impression..." and the vague but mysterious sounding, "The ...purpose has been served..."

Sadly, this mirrors a continuing descent into wackadoodle land, with a side trip to Woo-wooville here in New Zealand. Oh well, The Bay of Plenty Times has lost one paying reader, but I wonder how many it will gain from the inclusion of this nonsense?





ATTENBOROUGH NOT CONCERNED?

Re our lead item last week at randi.org/jr/2007-08/080307conjuror.html#i1, reader Tom Cole, Editorial Assistant at Radio Times Digital Media, tells us:

Alas, it appears that the Beeb [BBC] is unconcerned about the edits EO have made. I was forwarded this as part of an email earlier today, apparently a suggested approach to BBC employees when confronted with inquiries:

Q&A guidance – “Life of Mammals”

Q: Are you aware of this case in the Netherlands? What is your policy on broadcasters editing your programs?

A: Yes we are aware. It is not unusual for slight edits to be made. BBC Worldwide allows broadcasters to make a minimal amount of edits for scheduling reasons.

Q: What do you mean by scheduling reasons?

A: Issues such as differing lengths of commercial breaks, conforming with local regulations (eg nudity, swearing).

Q: What is BBC Worldwide's view of these edits made by EO?

A: Scheduling edits are made by the broadcaster, not BBC Worldwide, so any queries about them should be directed to EO.

Q: What does David Attenborough think about his program being changed?

A: Attenborough is not involved in this matter. EO's license for the series is held with BBC Worldwide.

Further, apparently Attenborough is specifically said in this email to have no comment to make on the issue. To be candid, I'm a bit disappointed by this reaction but I guess that's big business for you. Anyhow, that's where we stand on the EO issue...

How disappointing. This is classic issue-dodging, official and evasive. I really think that any other TV authority anywhere in the civilized world – with the exception of Venezuela, as we’ve recently learned – would be not only alarmed, but seriously concerned about such blatant bowdlerization, and I’d still like to see better evidence that Attenborough is really placidly accepting this editing of his work…

Re the Attenborough aspect, go to youtube.com/user/Obdurodon and see several versions of this video showing just how drastically cut the meaning and intent was…





A GOOD EXPERIENCE

Last week I was privileged to attend and speak at the second annual “Science Foo” conference in Mountain View, California, sponsored by Google, Nature Magazine, and O’Reilly Media, Inc., at Googleplex – which is a carnival in itself. See Scienceblogs.com Sci Foo Recap. Our friend Eugenie Scott was there, along with Martha Stewart, who suffered through a couple of nifty tricks I forced on her. It was a heady experience, indeed.

 

 

 

Inventor Dean Kamen was also there, and though he promised me a test run on a Segway Transporter, I have yet to have that thrill… Sigh. I was more than a little excited to hear from Dean that his robotic arm invention – of which I saw an early version at the TED conference back in March – has been perfected to the point that one of them can be strapped to the person, and the connection to the nervous system can be made by means of simple adhesive stickers! He told me that it takes less than 24 hours for a user to master the use of this marvel. Really, I confess, tears gathered in my eyes as I recognized the boon that this invention will be to the armed forces of the USA, 1600 of whom are missing limbs due to involvement in Iraq… Dean Kamen certainly ranks among the humanitarian benefactors of our age…




SHERMER SCORES

Go to skeptic.com/eskeptic/07-08-08.html and see Michael Shermer’s site – as usual, excellent – and go to the very bottom, where you’ll find “Michael Shermer Spoonbending.” Click on “Watch the video” and see a ludicrous session of otherwise sensible people trying to bend spoons with their minds, directed by a chap named Houck. I direct your attention to a few important spots. First, at 3:52 in the video, a man shows a bent utensil, and says:

There is no way I could have bent this just by physical force.

Nonsense. My question to him would be: “Do you frequently try to bend spoons and forks between your hands without applying mystical powers to the task?” Of course he doesn’t. No one knows how easily such utensils can be physically bent, particularly the cheap, rather junky ones supplied by Houck. Then, at 4:05, a woman declares:

…and these started to feel like metal after I got to this point.

She's trying to tell us that before that, they felt like something less than metal, then suddenly got hard again. What she doesn't know is something that all of us utensil-benders know full well: once a utensil is bent over double – as hers were – it is remarkably difficult to straighten it out again. A little knowledge would have helped her to understand this deep mystery.

At 4:25 in the video, another woman says:

…they do bend pretty easily, but… umm… not… I can't bend it back as easily as I got it in that position.

This victim of the scam has the same problem as the previous person, not knowing what to expect while performing a very unusual task.

The suckers pay hundreds of dollars to take entire courses in the art of spoon-bending, believe it or not. Just think about it for a moment: there are literally thousands of people out there who will pay to listen to a huckster and be convinced that they can subvert nature and confound the science of metallurgy, somehow causing cutlery to bend merely by using their minds! And, as I need hardly point out, the instructor or any of his pupils, are most certainly eligible to apply for the JREF million-dollar prize.

But none of them do…

I’ve been sent a photo of the ridiculous button that is awarded to those who manage to mangle cutlery at these sessions. And, I’ve attached my own version of that prestigious medal…





IN CONCLUSION

Ross Sargent reminds me that Richard Dawkins’ new TV series starts in the UK next week. And he writes:

Go to tinyurl.com/2hzdwk. The last part is priceless. It’s headed, “The medium who found Dawkins’s father on the far side”:

When Dawkins consulted a medium who has appeared on daytime television and charges £50 for instant phone readings, she said she could hear or see his father “on the other side.”

He did his best not to look surprised as she continued: “I’m aware of your father standing right behind you. On a spiritual level he wasn’t the most openest man with his thoughts and his feelings. Ummm, I kind of want to say that I do love you and I do care – but that wouldn’t have been his character.” (Or that of many middle-class father figures of his generation, a sceptic might have said.)

But Dawkins let her continue. “I’m aware that you don’t have you dad’s photograph out” – it was true, he didn’t – “so I’m a little bit concerned why. So I’m going to ask you: why don’t you have it out?” Dawkins had a bombshell ready: “Well, he might be aware that I don’t have it out because he comes to the house about once a week.” “Oh, he’s still here,” she said, adding after a few seconds: “I don’t feel it’s working.”

“Is that because you thought my father is dead and discovered that he’s still alive?”

“No, nothing to do with that. I don’t know.”

She commented later: “As a clairvoyant you’re only as good as the client.”

The new series, “Enemies of Reason,” starts on Channel 4 in the UK on August 13.

The James Randi Educational Foundation is proud and happy to announce the selection of our 2007 academic scholarship winners. Individuals winning awards have been contacted by email, and the Swift Commentary will soon include the names and locations of the four winners, in Texas, Oregon, New Zealand, and Nova Scotia. Many thanks to all who applied. We look forward to next year’s scholarship program and encourage everyone to keep an eye on this website for further details.