February 14, 2003

Ghost on the Bookcase, Free Energy From Sweden?, "Horizon" Effective!, The Wings of Jafar, Power Crystals, and Yellow Bamboo in Retreat.

At the beginning of this month, in the UK, The Guardian newspaper ran an interesting item about one Alfred Mansbridge, 69, who lives in Millbrook, Southampton. He is, the report said, unshakeable in his belief that things do not "go bump in the night." Sounds like my kind of guy.

This chap was hearing a tiny, tinny, voice which clearly said, "I won't take the lift down." A "lift," for many of us, is what we'd call an elevator. The voice was disturbing, and every morning for three months, just before 2am, it would repeat its message in a tinny monotone for 15 seconds, then cease. Sometimes, reported Mr. Mansbridge, it seemed to come from the lounge, sometimes from upstairs. But his daughter Joanne, who visits him most days, never heard it! Neither did his next door neighbors. A prime mystery!

Mr. Mansbridge tape-recorded it, just to prove he wasn't dotty. Reported The Guardian, the website Paranormal News, alongside other items headed "Virgin Mary Hits Sydney Beach Again" and "Does Saddam Have a Crashed UFO?" also featured the story. His grandson, Joshua, thought the mystery was just great.

There was talk of exorcism, but Mr. Mansbridge was not going to ask the local vicar to come around and chant, prance, wave incence, and sprinkle holy water about, to try to get rid of evil spirits. But he maintained that his experience was real. "I'm not going mad," he insisted, "This is a genuine mystery."

The poor guy finally called in the "ghostbusters," the local environmental health staff, and on a bookcase in Mr. Mansbridge's lounge they discovered a children's Spider-Man watch. Joanne, it turned out, had bought it for Joshua and his sister Katie at a Millbrook food store. Someone had by mistake set the alarm, which then played a catchphrase from the Spiderman film at 1:55am, every night. The watch had simply been left on a bookcase and forgotten.

That night, said The Guardian, "Mr. Mansbridge was preparing to sleep the deep sleep of the brave and the pragmatic."

See, folks? There can be quite unextraordinary solutions to so many of these "hauntings" and other miracles. We need more skeptics like Mr. Alfred Mansbridge, who didn't jump to supernatural conclusions, called in the experts, and had the mystery satisfactorily explained.

Reader Carl Lindstrand tells us:

As you may recall I am a Swedish citizen, an attorney by profession, and an admirer of your work ever since I first heard of your skeptical efforts.

In reference to your recent comments regarding Mr. Thomas Bearden's so-called invention, I would like to alert you that "Illustrerad Vetenskap" (http://www.illustreradvetenskap.com) the largest Swedish publication within the field of popular science (and as such not known to be very critical of its sources, granted) ran an article on Mr. Bearden's "research" in its latest issue (No. 2/2003). The abstract (which can be found here: http://www.illustreradvetenskap.com/200302/content200302.asp#7953 — Swedish only, sorry) reads:

Scientists are working on a revolution for the Planet's energy supply: Energy from nothing.

For the last ten years, American scientists have secretly been working on extracting wave energy directly from the vacuum of the Universe. They have now obtained a patent for the principles behind a generator which can deliver energy completely for free.

Sad, but true. I also alerted Mr. Hanno Ess�n (http://www2.mech.kth.se/~hanno/), associate professor in theoretical physics of the Swedish Royal Technical Institute (http://www.kth.se/eng/) and vice-chairman of the Swedish Skeptical Society (F�reniningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning — http://www.folkvett.nu).

Mr. Ess�n was very quick in his response. Mr. Ess�n (who has written an interesting article on the subject of perpetual motion machines: http://www.physto.se/~vetfolk/Folkvett/19942evighet.html — again, this is in Swedish, but the article names a few interesting sources in English) informs me that although he was not aware of Mr. Bearden's patent, he has monitored the "vacuum energy people" (with Harold Puthoff [one of Uri Geller's endorsers] as a central character) for many years now. His assessment is that these people have no promising ideas whatsoever — the "vacuum energy" they claim to be able to extract allegedly derives from the "Van der Waals forces that exist between molecules." Mr. Ess�n informs me that this is a well known, but not very effective energy source; it is apparently simply a part of the normal chemical energy present at chemical reactions.

He also informs me — and you may find this interesting — that there is in fact also a Swedish patent for a perpetual motion machine (http://www.nyteknik.se/skrivUt.asp?art_id=19759) by a certain Mr. Vladimir Kangas. Apparently the Swedish Patent and Registration Office (www.prv.se) has claimed that they lack the resources to make the proper control calculations in order to assess whether Mr. Kangas' claim is correct. Mr. Ess�n has written Mr. Kangas and explained to him why the apparatus, in Mr. Ess�n's opinion, cannot work. However, Mr. Kangas has, perhaps not surprisingly, not responded.

Mr. Ess�n further tells me that a certain Mr. Ecklin has obtained a US patent for a generator, which he claimed, after the patent had been obtained, had the properties of a perpetual motion machine.

The good news is that the Swedish magazine that published the article about Bearden may now be a candidate for the Swedish Skeptical Society's yearly award "Obfuscator of the Year"...

I shall keep you posted if I hear of any interesting developments.

Please do, Carl. Can't ever get enough perpetual motion/free energy machines, you know!

Dr. Martin Bland is a professor of Medical Statistics at St. George's Hospital Medical School, London. He was the statistician for the BBC "Horizon" show's comprehensive attempt to replicate the famous Benveniste homeopathic experiment which was so happily embraced by the quack community. Professor Bland provides this welcome news:

My son told me that his supervisor was heard telling a new PhD student that she should do all her measurements blind. The reason for this was the Horizon program, which had convinced him of the importance of blinding in the lab! He didn't know that one of the participants had sired one of his students.

If this effect happened on a wide scale it is a triumph for scientific methodological progress.

Agreed, Dr. Bland! I'll add that the recent discoveries in the UK that "arnica," a popular "alternative" treatment, is useless, has been amplified by the effect of the BBC Horizon program. News releases on the research cited the Horizon show. It appears that their efforts have been quite effective!

Also, BBC producer Nathan Phillips tells me:

The program also got a mention in The Times on Monday. As you say, a bigger response than we could have predicted. Also, we're pushing for a repeat in the Spring . . . a really big response to the program . . . much wider response than I had envisaged.

Now we can only hope that WGBH Boston, which so often picks up Horizon shows as "Nova" material for PBS, will choose to show USA audiences this effective presentation.

My definition of the word, "angel" in the now-on-the-Internet version of my book, "An Encyclopedia of the Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural" attracted the attention of reader Munir Nassar, who gives us what he describes as "a more plausible explanation based on Arabic/Islamic Mythology." He writes:

During the Islamic expansion there was a soldier named Jafar who during one battle saw the standard fall, so he rushed forward to pick it up, and as he did so, got his arm cut off. So he picked up the standard with his other arm — no mention of why he was not killed outright the first time. His other arm then got cut off in the battle, so he hugged the standard with his stumps until he finally got killed.

After the battle the followers of Mohammed asked him about Jafar, and he said something to the effect that: "God has given him wings instead of arms in heaven."

In seeing how much of western culture is based on Arabic roots, I think it is very plausible that this is where the idea of winged angels came from. I'm sorry, I do not have links to all of the above, but the story of Jafar is taught to school children, which is where I heard of it the first time. Also I should point out that it was not me who made the association; it was pointed out to me.

Well, Munir, that might well be the case. As good as any other reason, I would say.

Reader Benedict Carey, from the UK — as well as a few others, notably Hal Bidlack — corrected the origins I gave for "Vladimir Matveev, an inventor of Uzbek, Tashkent," Says Benedict:

I think you mean, "Vladimir Matveev, an inventor from Tashkent, Uzbekistan," or possibly "Vladimir Matveev, an Uzbek inventor from Tashkent." The surname appears Uzbeki, you see. Otherwise, the original is a bit geographically challenged.

Okay. I even thought at one time that Paris was in Kentucky or Tenessee, that Lima was in Illinois or Ohio, Berlin was in Georgia or North Dakota, and London was in Arkansas or Ontario, Canada. (Please don't write to tell me they are, or provide the other locations! Thanks.)

Benedict also comments:

Great column, by the way, I have been feverishly reading all your material since your work on homeopathic claims last year (television program this side of the pond). [The BBC Horizon show.] Very refreshing to someone working so hard on debunking the anti-science crowd.

One set of daft beliefs I frequently encounter here, and not addressed much by you lot, is "Power Crystals." I read, with great interest, your article on being fascinated by astronomy as a youngster. I have had similar experiences with geology. Now while I can keep a straight face while someone bangs on about acupuncture, parapsychology, aliens etc (maybe even with an open-mind if I'm feeling really generous), the notion that crystals contain "power" and "vibrations" and will help introduce an aura of energizing fields, cure ills, induce relaxation, and help you win the lottery while they sit on the mantelpiece, I just find laughable.

I could explain in lengthy and (I would hope) fascinating detail just how these crystals are formed, what they came from, the materials and environment that brought them into being, how they ended up where they ended up. There is so much wonderful information about our planet and how it works, locked up with these things, not least how natural and powerful processes work unaided to produce a thing of intricacy and beauty. What is the point in making up a lot of old nonsense involving auras and unproven new age rumours about what ancient tribes believed? It irks me because the reality — what we have learned of it — is so much more fascinating than any drivel they can make up. The mysteries we have in geology are far more interesting and challenging than the imaginary puzzles the protagonists cast about.

Why do they feel the need to do this? I'm left cynically thinking that these are people who feel deeply left out intellectually and need to invent an "imaginary language" to try to impress their peers, with ... conveniently structuring it such that others cannot question their assertions.

Benedict Carey is a Senior Analyst/Programmer.

As you read this, I'm away in South Korea — again — testing paranormal claims for Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS). The very loud and insulting people with the "Yellow Bamboo" group in Bali, who screeched that I was afraid to test their ridiculous claims on that program, have fallen silent. Obviously they felt it wiser to wait until this evil person was once again back home far away in Florida, rather than continuing their strident complaints and attracting attention to themselves. After all, they manage to take in lots of locals and foreigners who have no knowledge of the trickery involved, and apparently are unable to observe the very plain proof of the scam which they proudly display on their website, www.yellowbamboo.com

Go there and see just how silly their claims are. They say they can "knock down attackers from 10 feet away or heal someone dying from something just using [their] own energy." Sure. Can't think of an easier claim to test! Knock me down that way, or let me throw a few cobras in with one of the followers.... Hey, that's science!

Yellow Bamboo tells us that it is "an official magic, healing and self defense association founded in Bali with over 30,000 members worldwide." And they ask, "How would you like to control the entire universe, both what goes within you and what happens with others?" Sign me up! But they really won me with this claim: "Whether you desire love, money, fortune, fame, godliness, holiness etc whatever you want Yellow Bamboo provides." No mention of Sophia Loren, but they did say, "whatever you want."

Yellow Bamboo, you're fakes and welshers. Put up or shut up. As I told you several weeks ago, I'll be staying at the New Manhattan Hotel, 13-3, Yeoido-Dong, Youngdeungpo-Gu, Seoul, South Korea. Phone : (+662) 913-6030, Fax: (+813) 45123002. I can be reached via e-mail, too, as you well know. A million dollars, YB! All yours!

Some supporters, a Griffin Orr, and Alvin G. Donovan III (?), are now calling me a "faker" because I won't run off to Bali to test them, when SBS has offered to go there and do so. Their chief miracle-worker is a Pak Nyoman Seringen. Hey, Pak! Where are you?

Hello? Hello? Anyone there?

Reader Satia Narjadin, commenting on Yellow Bamboo, writes that they are:

. . . another one of those groups that can, allegedly, wield supernatural powers. Indonesia is full of these crackpot groups, and some of these even claim that they can put curses on anyone (for the right price, of course). There are so many stories of the supernatural here that any sceptic can be overwhelmed. Djinns, ghosts, people with a "third eye," mind-readers, faith healers of all types, miracle healing plants, you name it, it's probably here in Indonesia.

I'll close with a quote from author Herbert Muschamp, in The New York Times:

We do not embrace reason at the expense of emotion. We embrace it at the expense of self-deception.

Next week, from South Korea....