April 22, 2005

Modern Technology Applied to Ancient Superstition, BBC Riding the Irrational Wave, Chicago Virgin Apparition, That Silly Movie, Real Magick for Sale, Jomanda At Last Due In Court, The "EFT" Situation, Tellington Touch, More Undies, Sober Sweden, Where Those Voices Come From, Immortal Witch, A Pigasus Contender, Sure-Fire Method, Acorah Carries On the Tradition, At Last, and In conclusion....

Table of Contents:


Reader Richard Smith of Ottawa, Canada, tells us about an application of the latest in high-tech to improve an old bit of religious claptrap — the mass launching of prayers via spinning wheels containing printed incantations. At www.earthsanctuary.org/s_pray.html we see the story from "Tibet-Tech" that has Richard so alarmed. He writes:

Seems they've done the math, too.

At one prayer recitation per second, it would take approximately 42,776 years to recite 1,300,000,000,000 [1.3 trillion] prayers.

That's a pretty short prayer. I don't think there are even many dedicated Catholics that can do a "Hail Mary" in a second. And the big secret to how 1.3 trillion prayers were put into a prayer wheel?

The Tibet-Tech prayer wheels are the first to use DVDs (the new generation of optical disc storage technology) to store prayers inside a prayer wheel. Each of the eight prayers contained in the prayer wheel were copied onto 16 DVD's so that a total of 128 DVDs are contained in each wheel.

Kind of makes the whole thing seem a bit, well, impersonal. Apparently, at least the old-fashioned prayer-wheels were filled with tightly-wound paper block-printed with the prayers. Ah well, science marches on!

But sometimes it limps and even falls down trying to keep ahead of nonsense, and it doesn't always manage to do that.... Yes, this kind of story belongs in the repertoire of a stand-up comic, and we should be laughing at it. But millions aren't; they take it seriously.


Reader Dr. Mark Corbett points out an apparent retreat from rationality by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC):

The BBC here in the UK, who on the one hand produced the Horizon television program that claimed to put homeopathy to the scientific test — it failed — seem on the other hand to unquestioningly endorse Samuel Hahnemann [originator of homeopathy] as a significant and worthy figure.

I direct your attention to "Malaria row inspired homeopathy," an article about the celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Hahnemann (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4423303.stm). The entire piece is essentially an unquestioning acceptance of Hahnemann's "biggest breakthrough" during his dabbling with quinine as an anti-malarial:

Dr. Hahnemann came to the conclusion that it was the very fact that quinine produced symptoms so similar to malaria itself that made it a useful medicine — in effect he discovered that "like" can be used to fight "like."

This ode to the irrational is featured on the BBC's Health website; I have complained that the article lacks balance, and pointed out that homeopathy, despite what adherents say, is rejected by rational science; i.e. it is quackery and flim-flam. Unfortunately, they do not reply to complaints, so it remains to be seen as to whether they take any action.

I find this kind of reporting very annoying, and more than a little depressing. This is especially the case because I have to — by law — pay a yearly subscription to this nationalized service in order to be allowed to own a television [receiver]. Part of my license fee is paying for this nonsense.

While I share Dr. Corbett's dismay in this matter, we have to recognize that an organization as large as the BBC will occasionally lose control of the odd copy-writer who puts up embarrassing material on their web page. At the same time, we recognize that there just might have been so much negative feedback following the Horizon program of November 26th, 2002, that they were trying to placate viewers to some small extent. That need, to me, is not sufficient reason to abandon reason and reality, but the BBC is a business, and fights to survive. Never underestimate the ferocity with which people will defend their right to be naïve and/or stupid.

The original BBC announcement and summary of the Horizon program can be found at www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/homeopathy.shtml


The world is apparently just full of holy virgins who vie for attention. A recent news article extols a water-stain in a Chicago underpass as yet another manifestation of the Virgin Mary. Crowds of teary-eyed worshipers are leaving flowers and rosaries at the site where seeping ground-water of questionable origin has leaked through a fracture in a concrete wall, and the city engineers have promised that they'll preserve the blemish so that it may continue to entertain the faithful. They even have police managing the giddy crowd, full-time.

Perhaps we don't have to go too far to find equally silly pilgrimages. Remember the grilled cheese sandwich that sold for US$28,000? See www.randi.org/jr/112604yes.html#1 if you've forgotten. The media are of course riding high on the heavily religious frenzy we're currently immersed in. Editors are scratching through files to come up with miracles and visions. To the sober mind, this latest fixation on a fuzzy image is simply another example of what's known as pareidolia.

Bob Carroll's Skeptics Dictionary at http://skepdic.com/ defines pareidolia as "a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct." be We've also been treated to scores of imagined Christ images everywhere: on a pancake/tortilla, in plywood grain, on soiled sheets, clouds, potatoes, smoke stains, and other seemingly unlikely places for the Son of God to choose to appear.

My perception is that one of the most famous of these Virgin Mary/Rorschach figures, a colorful ground-water stain deposited by a sprinkler system on a bank window in Clearwater, Florida, along with a Buddha figure or two for good measure (see www.randi.org/jr/031204busted.html#1) is actually the picture of a shmoo. Remember shmoos? In August 1948, cartoonist Al Capp introduced this character in his "Li'l Abner" comic strip. According to shmoo legend, this lovable creature laid eggs, gave milk and died of sheer ecstasy when looked at with hunger, loved to be eaten, and would taste like any food desired. If you fried a shmoo, it came out as chicken. Broil it and it came out as steak.

Reader Lang Hames wrote me about his own little bout of pareidolia:

In March of last year I was on holidays cruising around the South Pacific and visiting a few of the islands. On one island we visited I was walking across a beach when I saw Jesus Christ. More accurately my first thought was "Who on Earth would be standing alone on a tropical beach wearing a cloak?", followed closely by "That looks like some statues of Jesus I've seen!" This occurred on Mystery Island. Despite its name, which I'm sure the woo-woos would have a field day with, it's an entirely un-mysterious — though very beautiful — little island.

As to my vision: I saw a man with long dark hair and a light grey cloak, hunched slightly and with his head bowed as if he were in solemn contemplation or prayer, standing completely alone just beyond some driftwood on the beach. I realized quite quickly that it must be an illusion so I asked my girlfriend Tara to snap a few photos as we walked toward it.

Lang attached four effective photos, three of which are shown here. After you've scrutinized them thoroughly, go to the end of this week's page and see what this figure looks like when seen up-close and from a different angle. Lang adds:

I'm not sure if you've linked to it before but Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy page also has a good discussion of pareidolia: http://www.badastronomy.com/bad/misc/lenin.html

Yes, we frequently send readers to various parts of that great web site. Please go there for another good example of this interesting illusionary effect from Uncle Phil's personal experience. Thanks for this sequence and story, Lang!

To close off this inane item, reader Dwayne Horton of Wilmore, Kentucky, asks a pertinent question:

Don't people ever see strange shapes that remind them of their third grade teacher? Why is it always Mary, when no one even knows what she looked like?


Rather than get into a long run-down of the recent movie that was a Pigasus Award winner (see www.randi.org/jr/040105capitalizing.html#11, category 3) I'll refer you to an excellent analysis of the film at http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2005/04/what_the_bleep_.html. This saved me from having to grind my teeth in a theater, and it might do the same for you.


Reader Tyson Haverkort found an irresistible offer on the Internet which he shares with us:

I stumbled upon this website selling "magick software" quite by accident, and thought you might want to check it out: www.enchanterx.com/ At first I thought it was a joke, until I got to the part where you can actually order this software — and a bargain for only $117! A couple of my favorite quotes from the website:

I Need A Miracle — Send out a beacon that will cause flocks of miracle-ready angels to fly to your rescue.

They travel in flocks, like seagulls I guess.

Randi: Or more like vultures? Another quotation:

Radionic Energy is the "secret ingredient" that must be added to all magickal works — or 99.9% them will end in failure — guaranteed! You may have heard radionic energy called by another name, manna — and it is the one secret accomplished magicians and sorcerers absolutely refuse to tell anyone. Why? Because if the Radionic Energy secret ever did get out... well, you would end up with a piece of software like EnchanterX that could magically transform the lives of everyone who possessed it.

Tyson asks me:

Have you been keeping this secret from us all this time?

Um, I'll have to scratch together $117 to see if this is the same spell I use, Tyson. I got mine from the Johnson Smith catalog.... First, you get naked, then you chant, "Ugga boo, ugga boo-boo ugga...." I'm sure you know the rest....


Reader Gard Simons in The Netherlands, writes:

We too, in the Netherlands, cannot escape the frauds. I would like to bring to your attention a particularly annoying person, Joke Damman, who goes under the name of "Jomanda." She's a "healer." She conducts so-called healings which draw large crowds of sick and impaired people.

Recently she made a huge mistake. A well-known Dutch television personality, Sylvia Millecam, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ms. Millecam, not being overly intelligent, wanted to have nothing to do with regular doctors. The tumor was relatively small and very well treatable with a large chance of success, as is common in the treating of "mammacarcinome," today. Ms. Millecam, however, turned to the "alternative circuit."

I quote from the report of the Dutch Healthcare Inspector:

Important in this is, that from the ranks of the alternative community, the diagnosis of breast cancer was contraindicated, and the patient was told she could be cured with unproven methods of treatment.

Joke Damman [Jomanda] was one of these people. She told Millecam it was a bacteria, and not breast cancer at all. But there were others involved, such as Mr. Broekhuyse, an MD and "homeopath." Dr. Rigo van der Meer, psychiatrist, commented:

Ms. Millecam has fallen into the hands of this man [Broekhuyse] who because of his medical background thinks he knows exactly what the problem is. He treats people with cancer with homeopathic drinks and electromagnetic waves and, when they are dying, sends them to a hospital where doctors can do no more than inject morphine to ease the poor soul's demise.

These two people, Damman and Broekhuyse, along with a few others, have to appear in a Dutch court of law on manslaughter charges. The trial will probably begin this fall. A Dutch medical doctor — I don't remember his name — said:

Joke Damman can easily plead insanity because that's what she is: insane.

It just goes to show how important your work is, sir. These people are possibly life threatening to others. Maybe it's needless to say, but Ms. Millecam died in agony. She was 45 years old.

Gard, I covered the beginning of this tragedy (www.randi.org/jr/111204hot.html#5) last year, and I'm grieved to hear that Ms. Millecam continued on in her dependence on the quackery of Jomanda until it killed her. We'll be interested in knowing what the Dutch courts decide on this matter, but would hope that they might issue an immediate injunction against these two quacks continuing their racket, pending the hearing of the case. The obvious question: why did it take the demise of a celebrity at the hands of these quacks to bring the authorities to the point where they'd take action? Is it because none of the other victims of the quacks were "important" enough...?


As I might have expected, my exchange with "Sam" on the "EFT" nonsense last week received a number of criticisms. I believe that I could have made my situation and my reaction clearer, and I'd like to try remedying that here and now. Bear in mind that what I published was only an excerpt from the total exchange; there was much repetition and drawing out of the very obvious, which I spared readers. I couldn't expect you to become as bored and frustrated as I was, just to make my point.

One reader wrote:

The claimant initially asked: "If I could demonstrate that EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) works, would I win the million bucks?" Although I understand you at the JREF are constantly barraged with bizarre claims, I think [it] would have been better to simply reply with the closing statement of "Of course, if this EFT notion can be shown to work, it will win the JREF prize" and then go on to clarify the proposed test conditions — like trying to go for a condition that can be more scientifically measured than a simple headache. I think that this was all that the claimant was after, some validation that his claim was within the bounds of the million dollar challenge.

First, the applicant (not "claimant," as this writer says) had only asked about something he called "EFT," without giving me any notion of what it is, providing any reference, or any description! His statement, "It involves tapping on points while focusing on a problem," didn't say what he meant by "points," nor what the "problem" might be he was writing about! There was simply no information in his question. My response, "What 'points,' what 'problem'?" was an understandable attempt to get him to explain both these terms. Was that too much to ask?

Reader Josh W. wrote that I "should have simply said 'yes'" to Sam's very first question! When I had no notion of what the question was?

I could not possibly have presented the "closing statement" to him before knowing what the man was referring to. Why is this not evident?

The applicant did not state ANY of the three basic facts that the challenge rules clearly ask for: what can you do, under what circumstances, and with what accuracy. In fact, he could not seem to understand — nor to answer — any of the basics I placed before him. He was not thinking about the situation, at all, which logically moved me to urge him to "Try thinking, just for a change." Even that suggestion didn't lead him to try that approach.

As for my going for another "more scientifically measured" phenomenon than a headache to test, I could not do so at that point — because that was his claim. If someone claims that they can play the violin, I cannot insist that they figure-skate to prove that claim.

Another reader suggested:

You probably would have gotten a lot farther with him with a few extra words at the beginning: "I couldn't tell you if EFT would qualify for the challenge without more specific information. It would be clearest if you would tell me (Briefly!) what EFT is and give me an example of how you would test it/use it in a specific situation".

Should that fact not be perfectly obvious? If I were to ask you, "Can I put a porsnoft in my Dreft?" should you have to then ask me what a porsnoft and a Dreft are? And, this person had not only the JREF application form and extensive FAQs available to him, but the clear opportunity and requirement that these materials should be read and considered, was always there, don't you think? This reader continued:

If he fired back the headache example, you could fire back with: "I'm afraid that is not specific enough. I suggest you read the challenge FAQ and the following *link* about "double blind" testing to give you some idea of the process, why double blind testing is required, and the nature of adequate controls. If you still feel your claimed abilities could be tested to this standard, we would be pleased to accept your application."

The obligations here are not all on my part; the applicant has to do a few basic things, too. He did not respond to my questions, he was vague and could not make clear sentences. We at the JREF are not in the elementary school business. We deal with adults.


Re last week's item www.randi.org/jr/041505hollywood.html#4 on touching-for-fun-and-profit, reader Betsy Hutchins tells us:

Just a note as I haven't seen anybody mention it on your site (or anywhere else I have read). Linda Tellington "invented" this thing years and years ago for horses. It was strictly a horsy thing and I knew about it almost as soon as it was marketed. I realized that it would work very well on horses and I used something like it after I read about it. After all, it is really just rhythmic rubbing and caressing and it makes horses (and presumably anything else) feel secure and relaxed. I thought all the rest of it was silly but a lot of my horsy friends spent good money to take courses in this procedure and get licensed to teach it to others. It went on from horses to dogs and I lost track, not being interested.

It is interesting to see it suddenly being applied to people — where the real money is! By the way, I was the executive director of the American Donkey and Mule Society for 35 years and trained a lot of donkeys and mules, and I can assure you that the touch works on jackasses quite well....

On the same subject, readers Bill and Marsha Hackett also commented:

Just a quick note about Tellington Touch; it's from Linda Tellington Jones.

We have a bird rescue service and someone told us about Tellington Touch, a purported technique of quieting a disturbed bird by stroking it gently with one of its own feathers. I tried it on a number of our birds and only one really seemed to like it. I decided to try a double-duck blind test and actually switched the feathers around from bird to bird. None of them sensed any fowl play [!], and I concluded that I could just as well be using a spoon, so I tried that and a number of other objects. Obviously, it's the stimulation and touching that the birds respond to, not the specific object one uses. Now, Linda apparently has a Tellington Touch method for all sorts of critters from dogs and cats to, I assume, more exotic creatures. The mind boggles at the possibilities.

Here at the JREF my mind and Kramer's are regularly boggled. This was only about 1.5 on our Boggle Scale....


Aussie reader Jason Brown assures us that mystical underwear (see www.randi.org/jr/041505hollywood.html#2 isn't all that unusual. He sends us to www.luciferlink.org/mugarments.htm for enlightenment on Mormon undergarments, which have secret symbols placed at appropriate anatomical locations that may require special attention. You'll see what I mean. Kinky! He adds:

If you can get a copy of the DVD "John Safran vs. God" from SBS television in Aussie-land, there's a fairly amusing section devoted to the mystic underwear, among other wacky things.

I'll bring the undie-talk to a close here. Thanks, Jason.


Reader Kai-Mikael Jää-Aro, Stockholm, Sweden, shares with us:

In [a recent] issue of Mitt i Kungsholmen (a local newspaper) was an article by Mia Dahlgren on a woman who had been swindled of over 400,000 SEK — approximately US$60,000 — by a fortune-teller. The story is the usual one, but the ending is somewhat interesting:

There is no public supervision of persons who charge for fortune-telling. "But what you claim in your advertising must, according to the marketing law, be proved. Otherwise we can prohibit the advertising or charge a market disruption fee, which is a kind of fine," says Barbro Turesson of the Consumer Agency. "But isn't it difficult to demand that predictions are proven? The fuzzier the promises the fortune-teller gives, the harder for us to do something about it."

They're learning....!


Ian Boothby of Vancouver, Canada, has probably solved part of a minor mystery for us:

My girlfriend and I were listening to a radio show dealing with Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) last night. Creepy ghost story style stuff with children saying, "I'm cold", "I'm hungry" and "I'm scared." Being fans of your site and the Bullshit TV show we always try to find the simple explanation for this kind of thing and she nailed it. These "words from beyond" are from baby monitors. When she worked as a tech in a theatre company they often picked up signals from baby monitors in the area on their headsets. And almost all of the things being said are things children would say into a monitor to get Mom and Dad to come into the room. I checked this out on the net and haven't seen anyone use this as an explanation before and wanted to run it by you.

I can see the connection. Radio Shack makes a line of short-range devices in the 39-megacycle range using specific frequencies assigned to them. Simple communicators, baby-minders, intercoms, and toys can often be on the same frequencies. Years ago, while I was testing a wireless microphone from Radio Shack late one night, I found that I was hearing the distinct sounds of a baby's snoring, so I assumed I was tuned in to a local baby-monitor. I pictured the parents enjoying a round of bridge at a neighbor's apartment, secure in the knowledge that they were hearing what was going on at home. The temptation to get on-mike and mumble, "Grab the kid and let's get out of here!" was, I admit, strong, but I fought it off....

By a strange, strange, co-incidence (!) Ian's girlfriend — Pia — also wrote me, saying:

I'm sorry I haven't checked through your site yet to confirm this (I'm about to) but I was just too darned excited. After listening to Art Bell's show on EVP last night it occurred to me, especially after hearing their clip of a child being supposedly drowned in a tub or a pool, that it was so plainly obvious what the GIS [Geographic Information Systems] recorders were picking up: baby monitors!

I once worked on show as a lighting tech where we had to wear those headset mikes to communicate with the other operators, and mine was always catching a baby monitor in the neighborhood. Not many realize how powerful those transmitters are. We were in a large building yet I'd be nearly deafened with the sounds of a screaming child and a mother's coos almost every night of the show. The GIS explains that they themselves never hear these "voices from the dead" while recording in creepy sites like cemeteries and insane asylums, yet somehow they clearly turn up on recording equipment. I feel this theory is doubly confirmed by the amount of eerie clips they have of children saying things like "I'm cold" or "I'm scared" or "I'm thirsty." They're picking up kids who won't go to sleep!

I "fastblasted" this theory to Art Bell but it wasn't mentioned on air. Oh well, I guess some people just can't agree with Occam's Razor.

Pia and Ian, Art Bell much prefers the irrational explanation, and rejects any logical solution to such questions, be sure of that. Hey, if he only had sane people appearing on the show and calling in, he'd be out of business inside of a week! Lies, rumors, delusions and errors sell; facts don't....


Reader Karl Lean, in Australia, tells us:

Basically, I live minutes away from the shop run by one Kerry Kulkens, a self-styled white witch and "Australia's leading psychic astrologer." She also has a web site www.kerrykulkens.com.au where she offers phone readings at A$5.50 per minute.

Anyway, the newspaper has reported that she died almost two months ago — they quote a booking for a funeral service from a nearby cemetery as their primary source. The interesting fact is that although she died on Feb 6th and was buried on Feb 11th, her website is still publishing weekly horoscopes, and taking bookings for readings! See here for the horoscope for a coming week for Gemini. Well, I guess if astrology were true then in fact you could do predictions for weeks, months or even years ahead, since the planets/stars courses are fixed and known. Perhaps Kerry thoughtfully anticipated her own death and left a few years' worth of horoscopes ready for publication?

Her daughter Sarah runs the business (shop front and web site), and when approached by the newspaper in late March for a comment about her mother's (possible) death she denied it, saying her mother was in Cairns (3,000 kilometers away) and that she'd pass on a message to her mother to call the paper back. Several days later the daughter contacted the newspaper and released a statement confirming that her mother had been dead for six weeks! Perhaps her attempt to get her mother to contact the newspaper from "the other side" was a failure?

Anyway, if I were a suspicious person I'd think that the daughter's attempts to cover up her mother's death might have been an attempt to keep the phone readings/horoscopes/predictions business going. But then that would cast doubt on the whole thing, since it would imply that the readings/horoscopes/predictions have nothing at all to do with her mother's "talents," and never did. But that couldn't be right ... could it?

One wonders.... With Kerry posthumously predicting such unexpected events as "More scandals for the royal family," and precisely that "We could see a flying saucer crash land within the next two years," it behooves us to stay tuned!


Reader Mike Wavada observes:

A strong contender for next year's Pigasus Award must be "Father" Andrew Wingate, a self-proclaimed mystic who predicted on George Noory's [radio] show recently that the Pope would survive the illness and go into "exile" for eight months. I don't remember a prediction being proven false quite so quickly. Wingate said that if he is wrong, he will be forced to rethink all of his beliefs. What do you want to bet?

Incidentally he also predicted that Russia and China would join forces to attack the U.S., but we would finally hold them off just south of Omaha. I have already warned my father, who lives in Kansas City, to go out and buy all the weapons he can get his hands on.

Let's get real here, folks! Bearing in mind Wingate's prediction that Islamist terrorists would "strike the USA before February 2005 with another major strike that he feels will be at least as deadly as 9-11," we have to take him at least as seriously as we take Kerry Kulkens!


Reader Karen points us to http://msn.foxsports.com/mlb/story/3537764, where the first 55 words tell us we needn't go any further into seeing just how silly and naïve Mr. Baker is:

The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, and injuries to the current team have begun to pile up. So manager Dusty Baker has taken to drastic measures, according to The Chicago Tribune. The Tribune reported Wednesday that Baker has started to rub holy water on the body parts of injured players.


Reader Graeme Hill, of Sunderland, UK, keeps us abreast of the ongoing adventures of Derek Acorah.

I just thought that I would update you on the activities of Mr. Acorah following your commentary of 15th April. The "Kreed Kafer" incident was funny enough on its own, but three episodes later we have yet another. This time he "picked up" on the spirit of a highwayman known as "Rik Eedles." Frequent mention was made of this character, although no historical record could be found of him. Perhaps this is not surprising when you consider that Rik Eedles is an anagram of Derek Lies.

Regular watchers of the series Most Haunted have had ample opportunity to pick up on countless errors by the hapless Acorah. It seems possible though that we now have some insiders on the show who have a sense of humor and the balls to show Derek up for what he really is.

I'm waiting for him to make contact with the ghost of the "Greek Foods" market.....


Hey! The day approaches when the US Postal Service — it used to be the Post Office! — will release the new postage stamp honoring Dick Feynman! Wheee! I wrote about this at www.randi.org/jr/090704bad.html#11 And there's more! On May 11, 2005, at 10 AM, at the Far Rockaway Post Office, 18-36 Mott Ave, New York NY 11691, a special postmark based on a Feynman diagram will be unveiled along with the Feynman stamp. Also, you'll hear bongo drumming and readings from Feynman's popular books. It's free and open to the public. Afterward, there will be an official street re-naming of Cornaga Ave to "Richard Feynman Way," two blocks from the Post Office!

I personally want to thank David Failor, executive director of Stamp Services for the U.S. Postal Service, who saw this request through to completion.


Here's what Lang Hames saw when he got closer to the driftwood. Bummer!

Next week, homeopathic drug dealers and North Korean success in quackery....