August 29, 2003

"Down Under" Quackery, The JREF Million, Race Touts and Psychic Friends, Reiki Disillusionment, Geller on Holiday, A Plethora of Senses, Needling Away Fat in China, Ingersoll on Religion, Weirdness in UK Employment, Ana Becomes an Expert, Twain on Hawaii and The Jews, Cold Reading Gets Hot in Australia, Pipe Dowsing in Iowa, Alaska Airlines Calls on God, The MEG is Back, and Forbes Touts Astrology.

Pseudoscience surges ahead. Here's the theory and working scenario of the wonderful "Rangertell" — or "Examiner" — device that anyone can have for a mere A$999 (that's Australian dollars, US$670) and reader Steve Green of Canberra directs us to and to educate ourselves on the wonders of current quackery Down Under.

This was inspired by our recent mention of Carl Moreland on the "LectraSearch" dowsing device. Steve came across a very similar looking device that claims to find gold and other precious metals at ranges of many kilometers. As Steve notes, it appears to be nothing more than a cheap calculator strapped to a zippy box and an antenna, and is sold through EBay in Australia. Here's what Steve says is his favorite question from a "FAQ" that appears in connection with this fakery:

Q.: How does it work?

A.: Each entity in the universe is made up of a chemical and atomic structure that makes it that particular entity. In simple terms if you can imagine the atoms vibrating in these objects you will see that there will be a high and a low to each vibration and that eventually the same vibration pattern will occur. This is the frequency of the oscillating or vibrating object. Each object has its own frequency. When you tune to a sample of that object the electronics in the locator will resonate or harmonize with the same vibration in the target and the alignment of the barrel will occur as it attempts to find the correct magnetic polarity between the unit and the target. The Examiner is different since all you need do is enter in a provided frequency. We've worked out the frequencies for you. The principle though is the same.

Yes, it's the same principle: You send the money, we send the junk, you weep, we laugh. Simple!

We continue to receive inquiries about why we refuse to place the million dollars prize money of the JREF challenge in escrow to satisfy the fears of applicants that it might not be available when they so easily sweep in and claim the prize. This was the latest lame defense of Sylvia Browne to Larry King, an excuse of course not questioned in any way. What follows is a brief treatment of that situation, one to which I will refer all such future inquiries.

By placing the million dollars in escrow, the JREF would lose the income from the money, and besides, we are not in the business of catering to the whims of these people. This is our challenge, not theirs. The rules at clearly state that no such vanities will be catered to.

When we've asked the complainers to pay the interest that we'd lose if the sum were to be placed in escrow, they have always terminated the discussion.

We are legally and ethically committed to paying that sum to anyone who passes the agreed-upon test. We have no possible escape from that obligation. They put up nothing, we put up a million. That million is in a special investment account, clearly designated as the "James Randi Educational Foundation Prize Account," held by Goldman-Sachs. It cannot, by the terms of the account, be used for any purpose other than the awarding of the prize, though we may — and we do — periodically withdraw the interest that is paid on that account, to assist in covering the operating expenses of the JREF. The base sum never drops below one million dollars.

Where's the problem, here? The problem is that the grubbies out there are aware of the security of this account, of the reality of the prize money, and of their inability to meet the JREF challenge. Their only recourse is to ignore those facts, create canards and myths about the challenge, and hope that others believe them. They know that written validation of the account is available from the JREF in return for a stamped, self-addressed envelope — but they hope that no one else finds out about that, and they themselves decline to seek that evidence.

If the JREF were to issue falsified documents in that regard, the legal penalties would be severe, and the 501(c)3 status of the Foundation would surely be revoked. We are, and always have been, frank and honest about the nature of the challenge. It is one of the distinctive aspects of the JREF that the grubbies cannot fight, though they may — and do — choose to deny its reality.

Reader Rick Winkler has uncovered an interesting connection….

I am a frequent visitor to your website, and wanted to let you know that I support what you do, and am appreciative of it. While reading one of your August commentaries, I was reminded of something I thought you might find interesting (unless, of course, you have already touched on this subject — I just learned of your website a few months ago).

There is a fellow, Mike Lasky, also known as Mike Warren, who claimed to be this amazing sports handicapper. It occurs to me that these self described "Gurus" convince their gullible customers (unfortunately, they are for the most part people who have gambling problems and need help) that they are the world's greatest handicappers. In their advertisements, they go on and on about their past records of correctly picking winners in games, etc. While the gullible gambler is not told that these people are "psychic", they are, in the very least, snookered into believing that said Gurus do tons of research on sports teams, thus making your chances of winning a bet better than you could ever imagine. The inference is that if the gambler were to try to do the same research that the handicapper does, he would fail miserably because "we have a whole staff that works 9-5 doing nothing but research...blah blah.

Here comes the interesting part. Mike Lasky/Warren would have, for every weekend in football season, what he would call his "Pick of the Week," or "Lock of the Week." What he would then do, is send thousands of mailings to the West Coast, and an equal amount to the East Coast. The West Coast would get one team, the East Coast would get the opposing team. All for the low, low, price of $100 each "tip." The result was this: say the West Coast team won. Those people (who you have to believe bet big money on their team, since they already paid $100 just for the pick) would be dancing in the streets, thinking Mike Warren was the best handicapper in the world. The East Coast team, which would have the losing team, would be seething that they paid $100 and on top of that, bet the house on that team and lost.

What Mike would do, is have his telemarketers handle the 50% of the calls that were gripers, and they would apologize, and tell the caller how badly Warren felt, but to make it up to them, he would give them next weeks "Lock of the Week" for free. This guy must have made millions before they finally caught up with him, but as you all too well know, these scam artists just pop up in another venue, like some cat and mouse game. My research found that this guy was the creator of the "Psychic Friends Network" of Dionne Warwick fame. He was also convicted of fraud after obtaining $6,000,000 in loans and credit lines. Anyway, thanks for letting me tell this story. Hope you found it interesting.

As usual, there's little surprise here for us. The handicapper scheme was common on racetracks at one time, a tout giving each potential customer a tip on a winner — each got a different horse — then following up for a few more races until — inverted-pyramid-style — it got down to a group of winners who had "proven" faith in the tout. A share in the final winnings made the profit for the tout. Lasky/Warren improved his chances by feeding off the psychic-sucker racket, too.

Reader Debbie Tripp had an adventure she shares here with us….

Earlier this spring I had heard about Reiki and thought maybe it would be an interesting thing to pursue. I signed up for a one day course — it only takes one day to be certified for Reiki Level One! Imagine. One day, and of course $150. I and two other "students" were in this course, and our teacher prided herself on being taught by one of the great Reiki Masters. Well, she started off the course by telling us how she had suffered terribly for years from some kind of connective tissue syndrome (I just can't recall the name) and it wasn't until Reiki that she could finally move and walk again. She droned on about the power of Reiki — and I mean droned. Zero personality. She put on some tape that went on about Reiki, and I had to bite my lip so I wouldn't start laughing. I thought to myself, this is sooo stupid. I looked about the room and saw all sorts of trashy knickknacks — mostly religious — lots of Jesus statues. She started droning on about Christ and I was thinking, I've got to get out of here. I came to learn about some mystical Reiki power, not to be preached to.

She told us to close our eyes, as she had to give us an "attunement" — this somehow should open up our energy fields. Only a Reiki Master can give one of these and if you haven't been given one, you cannot have the power of Reiki. It involves some kind of waving of her hands over your body, in a certain formation. Of course, the students must have their eyes closed so they cannot see these magical signs.

Now we could start practicing Reiki. And get this — you don't have to touch the person as the energy will flow through anything, even solid objects. After we got a "treatment" she asked us what we felt. The other two students said they felt "heat." Well of course they felt heat; the room was frigging cold and you could literally feel the body heat radiating off the hands that were skimming just an inch over the surface of your body! Besides, these students wanted to feel something so they gave responses like, "I felt heat, I feel more relaxed," blah, blah.

One of us was asked to lie down on a massage table and once again we passed our hands over the person. Then when the person got off the table, we were told to pass our hands over the table and note any warm spots. This would indicate areas of trouble? Duh...this was just radiant body heat coming off the table. Of course it will be "hotter" where the trunk of the body lay as opposed to where the legs were.

The "teacher" went on to say that you can cure all ills, but only when the sick person gives up their emotional baggage. All diseases/illnesses are caused by emotions and feelings. I asked her what about people who live in an area that has toxic waste buried in their backyards? Does she not agree that the toxic waste might be the reason for their illness? She babbled something like, "They chose to live there"!

She kept on saying that Reiki can cure people and that she has actually cured cancer! But it can only cure people who deal with their emotions and realize that these emotions are what are causing the illnesses. I then said "that's a very convenient answer — if the patient is not cured it's their fault for not dealing with their emotions." I then asked her "what about animals that you claim to work on," and she replied "Well, animals have feelings too!"

I just rolled my eyes. I couldn't believe I had wasted $150! So Reiki only works if the subject believes and can deal with their emotions.

Debbie also referred to the Quackwatch sites I've provided here.

Yes, I read that commentary and visited the Barrett sites. I passed along the information to a group of people that belong to an e-group I'm on. One subject frequently discussed on this list is the various types of alternative medicines. I myself am quite skeptical and passed on Dr. Barrett's website so others could go and read for themselves. One person wrote back with the website — in case you were not aware of this site and how upset they are with Dr. Barrett. I just wish I had come across your website before I embarked on that silly adventure into Reiki. I now use your site to look up things that sound a bit too good to be true.

Good idea, Debbie! As for that website, there's much more to be told than what is printed there in multiple colors, believe me. You'll be hearing more about that from Dr. Barrett in person at the Amaz!ng Meeting coming up in Las Vegas!….

Reader John Walker, UK, reports to us on a TV program there titled, "On Holiday With The Gellers"….

Disguised as a travel program, complete with ridiculous plinky-plonky tune, syrup-voiced narrator, and on-screen information about the prices of hotels stayed at, cruises taken, and activities embarked upon, a camera followed Geller, his wife, Shippi, and his daughter and her boyfriend, on holiday to Croatia.

It was constantly brilliant, edited against his usual desires, as Geller rushed around attempting to show off to anyone unlucky enough to be in a room with him. His need to bend spoons for people, even people who appeared not to want him to, was intensely strange. And his desire to boast to complete strangers was even embarrassing to his family. His daughter was an excellent foil to Shippi and his wife's tolerance, as she often got fed up of her father, criticizing him, and pointing out when he was talking rubbish.

A few highlights: While on a boat, Geller insisted that the captain be shown something. He hunted around the boat, the camera running after him, as he tried every corridor and door to find the bridge. When he got there the captain thought he was David Copperfield, but despite this, he dragged him onto the deck while they uncovered a manual compass for him. It was "the biggest compass I have ever tried to move" — completely standard size for a small cruise ship — and it oh-so-mysteriously moved when he willed it to with all his energy, mind-rays... oh, and when he put his mouth almost on top of it.

He saw a dog, and after making some extremely odd cooing noises, announced "I always know. This dog is nine years old. Nine. Seven and a half to nine." Asking random people if the dog was theirs, in English to some locals' confusion, he finally found the girl to whom it belonged. "Your dog, is it eight?" "No, he's two," was the incredulous response, leaving Uri looking flustered and upset. Not one of the three different ages he was certain it was, were right.

When asked by the filmmaker about the significance of the number 11, after he had insisted that they sit at table 11 in the restaurant, he explained that he went through a time when he constantly felt a need to look at digital clocks, and they would always say "11.11". Then the number sprang up everywhere (like they do). He said, "Which room am I in here? 208? 209?" He was told 208. "There you go! You see! 2, 0, 8, makes 10. Drop the zero, and you have 11!!" His daughter looked to the camera and said, "Well, that made absolutely no sense." When he asked what she meant, she pointed out that 2 + 8 equals 10, not 11, and that dropping the zero was nonsense. He began spluttering, and she added, "It's a good job it's the last day."

But best of all, by far, was his attempt to make the bell in a town clock chime. He sat by the bell, put his hands to his temple, and CONCENTRATED. And the bell suddenly went, BONG, BONG, BONG, BONG. Geller ran down the steps and immediately phoned someone (I couldn't hear who) to tell them. The other person's words were subtitled on the screen. "Yes, but it probably does that every hour... If it happened five minutes ago, it would be because it was four o'clock."

His face crumpled. It was just so funny. The filmmaker had suggested he try it, and I can only assume that he must have noticed the time. Geller then began talking about an extra thump after the four chimes, and that this could have been him. But then even he couldn't maintain that, admitting it probably wasn't.

The strange thing about all these tricks was that he really didn't seem to be doing it for the camera. He seemed to need to do it for the complete strangers he approached. He couldn't stop being Uri Geller, at any point. He infuriated his family by insisting on running after every meal, and by stretching in a ball on the floor in airports, staircases, and hotel lobbies. He made the most enormous fuss about being a vegetarian, talking as if he had a unique dietary requirement, celebrating bowls of cabbage with the fervor of someone you just know gets a Burger King drive-thru every time he's on his own.

It was a masterful program, carefully disguised as a holiday show, and not explained at any point. That Geller fell for it, surprises me, as he's usually quite canny about these things, but this time he fell hook, line and sinker. I've never seen a program on Geller that showed his misses — apart from live tv, of course, where they are usually hidden away. No such hiding took place here. There were his usual party tricks, like a seed growing in his hand (one seed, out of a few hundred, that was at the bottom, hidden) to two young girls, numerous bent spoons, and a very poorly-bent key.

Thanks, John. We can only imagine how "creative editing" by a less scrupulous producer could have resulted in miracles left and right. Though most of us will have a tough time believing it, there are some folks to whom the striking clock would have ranked with the best of miracles, and for whom a moving compass is a major departure from the ordinary. It takes very little manipulation to turn the mundane into the marvelous. And as you mentioned, the producers simply let this program speak for itself, rather than pointing out the obvious. Kudos!

Reader Kai-Mikael Jää-Aro comments on the "49 senses" touted by the American Society of Dowsers, quoted last week:

Don't be too hasty here. The "five senses" are really just an Aristotelian hold-over and not a very accurate description of human perception. I don't know about "intangible senses" but twenty "normal" senses does not seem too far off.

Consider: the "touch" sense is really several parallel systems, sensitive to pressure, heat, cold (separate system!), pain, etc. You have a sense of gravity (balance), your proprioceptive sense tells you where your limbs are, you have a sense of space, of the passage of time, and so on. My favorite recommended source for reading up on this is "Sensation and Perception" by Coren, Ward and Enns. It also contains lots of interesting and amusing experiments you can try.

Yes, as a teen, I recall that I identified many more than five senses, pressure and temperature among them, certainly more than five. Reader Henry Richardson also observed, in this respect:

With but a little thought, I'm sure that you could come up with many tangible senses. Why, I can think of many after but a few moments' reflection, such as:

Sense of Wonder
Sense of Humor
Sense of Irony

Of course the quote from Mr. Berard about the psychic camp for children certainly triggered my Sense of the Ridiculous. The biological receptor for all of these is, of course, the brain, but only if it has been developed.

The experts at the Aimin Fat Reduction Hospital in northern China are treating the chronically obese from Europe to Oceania, who come to poke away pounds expensively via the fine needles of acupuncture. Looking at the regimen, we see that Aimin workout sessions look almost effortless: acupuncture in the morning and light dance aerobics in the afternoon, interspersed with well-balanced meals and counseling. Seems easy enough. But did anyone think to try it without the needles? That would bring the admission price down, since quackery is always expensive. Why do I strongly suspect that the secret ingredient here is in the "well-balanced meals"?

Daniel Murphy gives us a passage from freethinker Robert Ingersoll, one that also answers those who assert that I'm saying that humans who need myth to sustain them should be left without hope. Here is an excerpt:

Then they say to me: "What do you propose? You have torn this down, what do you propose to give us in place of it?" I have not torn the good down. I have only endeavored to trample out the ignorant, cruel fires of hell. I do not tear away the passage: "God will be merciful to the merciful." I do not destroy the promise: "If you will forgive others, God will forgive you." I would not for anything blot out the faintest star that shines in the horizon of human despair, nor in the sky of human hope, but I will do what I can to get that infinite shadow out of the heart of man.

"What do you propose in place of this?" Well, in the first place, I propose good fellowship — good friends all around. No matter what we believe, shake hands and let it go. That is your opinion, this is mine: let us be friends. Science makes friends; religion and superstition, make enemies.

They say: "Belief is important." I say: No, actions are important. Judge by deed, not by creed. Good fellowship, good friends, sincere men and women, mutual forbearance, born of mutual respect. . . .

I do not believe in forgiveness as it is preached by the church. We do not need the forgiveness of God, but of each other and of ourselves. If I rob Mr. Smith and God forgives me, how does that help Smith? If I, by slander, cover some poor girl with the leprosy of some imputed crime, and she withers away like a blighted flower and afterward I get the forgiveness of God, how does that help her? If there is another world, we have got to settle with the people we have wronged in this. No bankrupt court there. Every cent must be paid. . . .

That is what I believe in. And if it goes hard with me, I will stand it, and I will cling to my logic, and I will bear it like a man. And I believe, too, in the gospel of Liberty, in giving to others what we claim for ourselves. I believe there is room everywhere for thought, and the more liberty you give away, the more you will have. In liberty, extravagance is economy. Let us be just. Let us be generous to each other. . . .

"Ah! but," they say, "it will not do. You must believe." I say, No. My gospel of health will bring life. My gospel of intelligence, my gospel of good living, my gospel of good-fellowship will cover the world with happy homes. My doctrine will put carpets upon your floors, pictures upon your walls. My doctrine will put books upon your shelves, ideas in your minds. My doctrine will rid the world of the abnormal monsters born of ignorance and superstition. My doctrine will give us health, wealth and happiness. That is what I want. That is what I believe in. Give us intelligence. In a little while a man will find that he cannot steal without robbing himself. He will find that he cannot murder without assassinating his own joy. He will find that every crime is a mistake. . . .

"Oh," they say to me, "but you take away immortality." I do not. If we are immortal it is a fact in nature, and we are not indebted to priests for it, nor to bibles for it, and it cannot be destroyed by unbelief. As long as we love we will hope to live, and when the one dies that we love, we will say: "Oh, that we could meet again," and whether we do or not, it will not be the work of theology. It will be a fact in nature. I would not for my life destroy one star of human hope, but I want it so that when a poor woman rocks the cradle and sings a lullaby to the dimpled darling, she will not be compelled to believe that ninety-nine chances in a hundred she is raising kindling wood for hell. One world at a time is my doctrine. It is said in this Testament, "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," and I say: Sufficient unto each world is the evil thereof.

And suppose after all that death does end all. Next to eternal joy, next to being forever with those we love and those who have loved us, next to that, is to be wrapped in the dreamless drapery of eternal peace. Next to eternal life is eternal sleep. Upon the shadowy shore of death the sea of trouble casts no wave. Eyes that have been curtained by the everlasting dark, will never know again the burning touch of tears. Lips touched by eternal silence will never speak again the broken words of grief. Hearts of dust do not break. The dead do not weep. Within the tomb no veiled and weeping sorrow sits, and in the rayless gloom is crouched no shuddering fear. I had rather think of those I have loved, and lost, as having returned to earth, as having become a part of the elemental wealth of the world. I would rather think of them as unconscious dust, I would rather dream of them as gurgling in the streams, floating in the clouds, bursting in the foam of light upon the shores of worlds, I would rather think of them as the lost visions of a forgotten night, than to have even the faintest fear that their naked souls have been clutched by an orthodox god. I will leave my dead where nature leaves them. Whatever flower of hope springs up in my heart I will cherish, I will give it breath of sighs and rain of tears. But I cannot believe that there is any being in this universe who has created a human soul for eternal pain. I would rather that every god would destroy himself; I would rather that we all should go to eternal chaos, to black and starless night, than that just one soul should suffer eternal agony.

I have made up my mind that if there is a God, he will be merciful to the merciful.
Upon that rock I stand.

That he will not torture the forgiving.
Upon that rock I stand.

That every man should be true to himself, and that there is no world, no star, in which honesty is a crime.
Upon that rock I stand.

The honest man, the good woman, the happy child, have nothing to fear, either in this world or the world to come. Upon that rock I stand.

Good rocks upon which to stand, in my opinion. Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899) was a US freethinker/politician/lawyer/orator whose work is still useful to read and consider. Look him up.

Reader Trevor French of Hitchin, UK, writes me — for some unknown reason, all in lower case, which I've corrected so that it can be more easily read and understood — to describe just how bizarre the employment standards are, in that part of the world:

I guarantee you this is absolutely true. About two years ago, I was unemployed and wanted to become an audio engineer, music producer. Without money, I had to "sign on" (In England, that's the term for receiving benefits) until they presented me with an option to train in a field I wanted. I had the most trouble securing a course in this field and was eventually taken off the option after the course was stopped midway through. So every week I had to sit in the unemployment office and be told I couldn't do an engineering course because it was hard to come by. But here's the thing that makes it so frustrating for me. In the job center (unemployment office) where I attend, they had a poster up for the same training option, only the course was "Reiki," so apparently I could do that, but not something as mystical as engineering or as I have now found out, HTML and web design. Maybe I should see if I can sacrifice goats as a training option.

If the government are backing this sort of lunacy then, it might add some credence to the new world order after all (he writes tongue in cheek). I think it's a disgrace.

Trevor, I trust that you resisted the temptation to take up quackery, even though you don't really have to have any talent or skill for that profession. You'd be a lot richer, but perhaps you'd have to avoid looking at your reflection in a mirror — if any remained.

Reader Kris Vasquez Davantes offers us this account of his daughter Ana's heady introduction to becoming an "expert."

I read this week's commentary about the Enchanted Forest Intuitive Camp. While I have nothing that outrageous to report, I thought you might be interested in the way my daughter's elementary school introduces its students to research. They use something called an "Expert Fair," and the idea is that every child can choose a topic that interests them and become an expert on it. The child then presents their topic in a science-fair type of display. Overall, I have no quarrel with it, except that there are no topics out of bounds, and "facts" from any source are considered legitimate. So my daughter and her friend ended up next to each other with displays on astrology. Her friend had "facts" like "If you're an Aries you're stubborn" and "Astrology was invented before 1965." My daughter, after much discussion in our household, conducted a test at the fair. She pasted 12 adjectives onto cards on her display board and asked people to choose the one they thought described them best, then lift the card to see if they had identified their "sign." She asked each person to write down what they chose and what their birthdate was. She learned two things. First, of more than 80 people who passed her booth, only 5 managed to select their "sign" — so we had a good discussion about laws of probability. Second, most of the adults could not understand why she was doing this, even after she explained it to them. Sigh.

Enclosed is a photo of Ana with her "Certificate of Expertise."

Thanks, Kris. I'm happy to see that you're concerned enough about the standards employed by the school. I wish more parents took that much interest.

Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

More quotations from Mark Twain, all very applicable today and pertinent to the work we do at the JREF. The first one deals with his observations in Hawaii, supplied to us by reader Bernard Lobo:

Nearby is an interesting ruin — the meager remains of an ancient temple — a place where human sacrifices were offered up in those old bygone days...long, long before the missionaries braved a thousand privations to come and make [the natives] permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there; and showed the poor native how dreary a place perdition is and what unnecessarily liberal facilities there are for going to it; showed him how, in his ignorance, he had gone and fooled away all his kinsfolk to no purpose; showed him what rapture it is to work all day long for fifty cents with which to buy food for the next day, as compared with fishing for a pastime and lolling in the shade through eternal summer, and eating of the bounty that nobody labored to provide but Nature. How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell.

All past history, now. Hawaii has kept up with the Mainland by adopting and eagerly embracing every superstition and mythology available.

And from Harper's Magazine, September 1899, we glean this remarkable Twain item, sent to us by several readers. Some noted that in Twain's discussion of how "insane" religions are, he didn't mention the Jewish faith. Perhaps this article explains his reason for that:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of.

He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

And Twain had never even heard of a chap named Albert Einstein, who the Nazis threw out of Germany so that he could flourish in America…. That list is long….

Reader Rod Langlands writes us:

I am a senior school teacher in Perth, Western Australia. I have had an interest in skepticism for many years now and I always try to encourage it with my students. I was recently explaining the absurdity of "pet psychics" never knowing the name of the pet they are "communing" with, without asking the owner of course. I decided to take things a bit further and practice a bit of cold reading with one student to see if I could further explain the deceit and absurdity of the whole thing. I started with the ever reliable "I'm getting an 'M'. Someone close to you has a name starting with 'M'." This was of course a completely random pick on my part. After some hesitation from her, and gentle insistence from me that she did indeed know someone with a name starting with 'M', she agreed, looking a bit sheepish too as if I had caught her out pretending that she didn't know this person! While this was going on I moved in and out of "character" explaining the process as I went. I then decided to move to the absurd end of the spectrum and make a completely silly assertion about this student. "Someone important to you has only one leg." And I continued with evasions as she firmly denied this "fact." "It's very strong, someone close to you? Someone in this room? I'm getting a very strong feeling here," etc. A male student two seats away piped up in a slightly embarrassed manner, "My Dad only has one leg." You could have heard a pin drop! "I said it was close!" etc, giving further examples of how a complete miss is turned into a hit. The amazing thing is this: the students all knew it was a setup, that I was demonstrating the technique. I had no knowledge of this student's father's leg situation and yet one female student was totally sucked in by the whole thing and seriously referred to the incident as "spooky." It is no wonder that the thieves and charlatans can get away with the con. Their marks want/need to believe, exactly as you have detailed on many occasions.

Reader "Crazy Dave" expresses his thoughts….

Wow! I have a lot of reading to do [in the JREF archives]! I've always enjoyed watching your TV specials and have recorded several to help bolster my opinion when confronted by "believers" I watched the Tech TV "Homeopathy" show last night and that inspired me to find your website. Most interesting reading: "Dowsing," as I have a quick story of my own.

I ran an interstate gas station years ago. The Pump Maintenance Man "located" the underground pipes from the tanks to the pumps with his own dowsing rods. His rods were 90-degrees bent coat hangers. His dowser tools enjoyed a prominent place in the tool locker on his truck right next to the electronic device that he next used to confirm the lines placement. He didn't seem to appreciate my observation that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. I also noted that he consulted the dowsing rods for a couple minutes, whereas he consulted the electronic device much longer before breaking up the tarmac! For which I am thankful!

As I live in Iowa, I must keep some of my skepticism "in the closet." Whew, I have had several very angry farmers not appreciate my opinions on dowsing!

Reader Rebecca Watson relates:

I was flying Alaska Airlines a few weeks ago, and with my dinner came a little slip of paper with a majestic mountain scene. Printed over it were the words "I will be glad and rejoice in you. I will sing praise to your name O most high. PSALM 9:2" Boy, was I happy for the opportunity to thank the Christian god for that blessed bounty of fruit cup and undercooked rice dish.

Plus, sitting right next to me was a woman going on and on about the great new bulletin board she was making for her Christian 1st graders. Personally, I thought it a little simplistic — teddy bear, crucifix, etc. Did I stumble onto some airline cult, sucking me in with low, low fares and a direct flight to Boston?

Anyway, I just wanted to warn you about the Christians' powerful new weapons: competitive pricing and warmed-over meals. Thanks again for dedicating your life to such an amazing cause.

Frequent contributor Ian MacMillan gives us this report on the matter of that ridiculous "MEG" device that had the world of pseudoscience so excited last year:

The MEG — One Year On

On March 26 2002, the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Washington issued US Patent #6,362,718 for the Motionless Electromagnetic Generator (MEG). This remarkable device, mainly the work of a retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel, Tom E. Bearden of Alabama, is claimed to be able to produce free energy from the vacuum, and run without a power input. Traditionally, patent offices do not accept claims of this kind, since they would violate all known laws of how energy works. After writing to the USPTO and pointing this out, I received in August last year a letter from the Commissioner of Patents, Nicholas P. Godici, informing me that a Director Ordered Re-examination of the MEG was planned.

That was twelve months ago, and nothing has been heard since. The MEG is still on the list of US patents. To be honest, this is not a big worry. My biggest fear was that Tom Bearden would use the patent to make money by selling the machine, but this has not happened. When I e-mailed Bearden's associate, Jean-Louis Naudin and offered to buy an MEG, he replied that it was "under development and not yet ready to the market" [sic].

The MEG is in many ways reminiscent of another infamous US patent, the Johnson Permanent Magnet Motor (#4,151,431, April 24 1979). Howard R. Johnson of Michigan claimed that his motor used a permanent magnet as its source of power. Critics pointed out that this was a perpetual motion claim, since the motor would in effect be self-powered. 1979 also saw the start of Joe Newman's long legal battle to patent his "output-greater-than-input" motor. Newman never did get his US patent, but he was issued a patent in Mexico. He then claimed that under the terms of the NAFTA trade agreement, patents valid in one NAFTA country are valid in another NAFTA country, so therefore the Newman Motor had a US patent. The USPTO replied that it did not see it that way.

Given the time and trouble that the US Patent Office spent on preventing Joe Newman from patenting his machine, it is all the more remarkable that it should have issued a patent to the MEG, a machine with zero energy input that still claims to have an energy output. Unless the laws of physics have been fundamentally revised since the 1980s, this is as unlikely now as it was then. In today's world, perpetual motion has become the love that dare not speak its name. Inventors use phrases like "free energy," "new energy," "vacuum energy" and "zero point energy," but read the fine print and it is still the same old perpetual motion claims that are being made. Quantum jargon is now the preferred way of making claims of this kind, and Tom Bearden has produced a large amount of material of this sort on the Internet. In the enclosed link, Bearden complains about the rules used to test free energy machines. His favourite phrase is COP>1.0, or "Co-efficient of Performance greater than one." To the untutored ear, this certainly sounds like a claim of free energy. The only claim that an engineer would want to test is whether the machine produced more energy at its output stage than the amount that was being used to run it. Inventors of free energy machines also tend to run away from the question of what would happen if the output of the machine were connected back to the input. With greater than 100% efficiency, the machine should continue running indefinitely with the original power source disconnected. Eric Krieg argues that this is the only worthwhile test for free energy machines, since it would follow logically from greater than 100% efficiency. It would be interesting to know if the examiner at the USPTO suggested this while examining the MEG.

Tom Bearden promised that the MEG would go into production in an unnamed country in 2003, but there are still no MEGs on sale at E-bay. This brings to mind the Ogden Nash poem:

A child need not be very clever
To know that "Later, dear" means "Never."

Thanks, Ian! Well done.

Forbes Magazine, that advisor to the investors of the world, just ran an article that gleefully accepted the claims of a commercial astrology firm who peddle financial advice to the naïve, based on movements of the planets against the stars. Surprising? No, not at all, bearing in mind that journalists are often profoundly ignorant of the realities of science. A perceptive Forbes editor might have spotted the fact that the reporter was merely accepting the data offered him by those selling the nonsense, rather than doing original research into the validity of the data. As a sample of the lack of knowledge exhibited by the reporter:

Even if you don't buy these planetary predictions, a look up into the night sky will showcase Mars shining bright, just as it does every August. It's a visible reminder of the presence of cycles in nature. Markets also tend to move in cycles.

Mars is visible up there every August? Now, that would be news! The lame appeal to "cycles," that notion so popular with occultists and second only to "vibrations" — neither of which they understand — and the inclusion of "nature" for validity, show the reporters attempts to dress up his venture into pseudoscience. Again, where was an editor, so obviously needed here….?

I still haven't seen the "Ultimate Psychic Challenge" TV program that I did in the UK, so my comments and analysis — copious! — must be delayed for another week. And my comments on the Alabama "Ten Commandments" brouhaha are just so extensive because of the contributions from readers and extracts from news articles and other commentaries, that the item might just make up an entire week's web page….