December 1, 2000


As this page goes up, magician David Blaine has finished his sealed-in-a-block-of-ice stunt in NYC. David called me last week, and we exchanged some notes on the stunt, which I first did somewhere back in the '50s. My time was two hours, eleven minutes, limited only by broadcast time (on the NBC-TV Today show with Dave Garroway, and a DisneyLand Special, among other occasions) and by my own endurance, of course.

This stunt — under "Ice Entombment" — used to be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, until one of the twins who published the book was gunned down by members of the IRA and the remaining twin removed all "dangerous" records from the book. That was some years back. The photo above shows the scene just before the final block of ice was shaped and then frozen into place to seal the "coffin" around me. I did it in a prone position. Here I'm being wired up by a medic for temperature, heart rate, etc.

I glad that David did well! The stunt is not without danger.


Well, we win some battles, some of the time. For years now I've been complaining about the quack device known as the "Stimulator" that was sold by Universal Management Services via TV "infomercials"and endorsed by celebrities Lee Merriweather, some gold pros, and stunt-man Evel Knievel. This device was simply a gas grill igniter with finger grips added, sold as a pain-reliever. The tip was applied to an "accupressure point," a small electric spark was generated, and a tiny click was heard. Guess what? It was all suggestion, nothing more. This week, a U.S. District court ordered Paul M. and Paul A. Monea (father and son) who did business as distributors "Natural Choice," to refund the $82 purchase price to every one of the victims of this scam. My question is, why did it take so long for the Federal Trade Commission to act on this swindle, after they were informed by the JREF and other interested parties years ago? The inertia displayed by these agencies is discouraging.


The last issue of SWIFT had a humorous piece by our good friend — and JREF member — Steve Strassman. It got a lot of attention, and we offer it here just in case you're not a subscriber, though we must wonder why....

On August 1, 2000, voters in Kansas had their first chance to show support for or opposition to the decision last year by the state school board to eliminate evolution as a necessary part of science curricula.

Citizens of Kansas rejected in the primary elections three of the four school board candidates who had previously been pivotal in the decision that provoked concern from the scientific community coast to coast.

We applaud the good citizens of Kansas, and offer this bit of satire in honor of what might have been...


The Kansas Board of Education voted today to eliminate mandatory teaching of the theory of evaporation from schools across the state. Most scientists believe that water and other liquids are spontaneously converted by so-called evaporation into the form of a gas, and carried off into the atmosphere. This, they say, is the explanation behind sudden disappearances of water all across the state.

Many non-scientists, however, stand by the widely accepted theory that a lovable invisible two-headed thirsty blue giraffe named Clarence is responsible for the disappearances. The two theories, evaporation and Giraffism, will now be taught on a more equal footing to school-children across Kansas. Parents are pleased, saying that Giraffism is easier to understand and far more comforting to small children. "There's nothing happy about evaporation," says Frank Nubbins, father of Jason, 6, and Sue Ellen, 4. "Clarence the giraffe is blue, and he's lovable. You can't say that about evaporation, that's for sure. I love my children."

"Nobody has ever adequately explained evaporation," says Dr. Harold Thumper, of the Kansas Board of Education. "With evaporation, we're expected to imagine that water just disappears, all by itself, with no rhyme or reason. That's ridiculous."

Clarence the lovable invisible two-headed blue giraffe, on the other hand, is always thirsty, an explanation which is simple and obvious. He has a well-established presence in children's literature. "Every culture on the planet," says Dr. Thumper "has a story about giraffes, or thirstiness, or lovable blue things. Most of these have happy, happy endings. My children just love these stories. But I challenge you to find a single good story about evaporation."

The theory of evaporation is getting a dry reception in academia these days. At leading universities including Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, it's impossible to find a single professor of Evaporation on the faculty. "What's the point?" says Gwen O'Malley, dean of the Harvard Medical School. "It's not exactly a good career move to spend your life trying to explain evaporation to people."

You may recall that I've turned your attention in the past to both the Florsheim Shoe Company's "MagneForce" product that claims all sorts of pseudoscientific claptrap, and a similar encounter with fantasy sponsored by Dr. Scholl's group of medical wizards, who are promoting an insole with similar claims. I stopped by the other day at a store to examine the advertising for the latter product, which at least is three dollars cheaper than the former, and just as effective. That is to say, not at all.

On the package, we're assured that "The Dr. Scholl's brand is the leader of innovation" and we're promised "penetrating waves" from their foam insoles, which are "designed to deliver Certified bipolar magnet strength." How reassuring. For a moment there I thought I was reading a quack document. And, to bolster any flagging faith in this product, Dr. Scholl tells the customers, "our exclusive bipolar magnet system allows alternating waves of magnet therapy to penetrate your body through the soles of your feet."

Here are a few facts, unpopular as they may be: All magnets are bipolar. For this company to represent that they have something "exclusive" in an ordinary magnet, is dishonest. As for the "alternating waves of magnet therapy" they coo about, I think they've no notion of what a "wave" is, nor what is meant by "alternating," either. To claim that the magnetic fields around these silly little disc magnets could "penetrate" the wearer's body — let alone be measured or be of any therapeutic value, is ridiculous. Just look at the illustration, above, of the suggested magnetic field and how much of the body it affects. Arranged as they are, the tiny magnetic fields cancel one another out a very short distance from the insole, anyway! And just what or who provided the "certification" for these bits of magnet? Certification for a magnet is like licensing an acorn to grow into an apple tree.

The package goes on to preach: "Magnets should not be used by pregnant women or by anyone with a pacemaker or any other implanted medical device such as an insulin pump. Magnets should not be used on open wounds, by anyone with blood clotting problems, or by anyone with myasthenia gravis."

The really smooth part of this deception is the reference to pregnant women, pacemakers, and insulin pumps. There is absolutely no way that a bit of magnet in your shoe could affect either of these medical devices, and pregnant women are often subjected to billions of times the magnetic force provided by these quack devices, when they are scanned in an MRI procedure!

Even more subtle and misleading is the reference to "open wounds," "blood clotting problems," and "myasthenia gravis." A person who knows that animal blood contains iron, might assume that a simple little magnet could somehow affect that fluid. This is untrue. But these pseudo-medical caveats seem to indicate the real possibility that this product is powerful, and worth the cost of $21.99 — priced a cent short (for those folks who also buy lottery tickets) so that it won't appear too expensive!

And what magnets are used? I counted 28 of them in each insole, arranged in alternating diagonal rows of "N"* or "S"* poles across the outline. Garden-variety, unremarkable, quite ordinary magnets with which the "advanced gel polymer has been bonded," according to Dr. Scholl. One wonders what doctorate Dr. Scholl embraces....

* refers to "north-seeking" and "south-seeking" poles.


President Clinton has signed legislation mandating that all three branches of the military provide chiropractic services for active duty personnel. The measure was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, and was hailed by the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) as "the biggest chiropractic legislative victory in 26 years." The law requires access to chiropractic services, including "care for neuromusculoskeletal conditions typical among military personnel on active duty."

"A whole new healthcare system — one of the largest in the nation — now will be opened up to the chiropractic profession," the chairman of the ACA said in a statement. The measure passed after years of effort and powerful resistance by the Department of Defense and various medical groups, the ACA noted.

Yep. Score another win for quackery, another surrender to pseudoscience by the Administration.


The Skeptics World Convention III in Sydney was a great success in all ways. I not only got to renew so many valuable friendships there, but I learned a lot as well. Not to my surprise, one of the "hits" of the conference was Dr. Richard Wiseman, a parapsychologist from the UK who has a sterling reputation for common sense, a very good knowledge of conjuring techniques, and no tolerance whatsoever for nonsense in his field — which must make him a bit of a bête noire in some circles. Dr. Wiseman has agreed to examine some of the claimants for the JREF million-dollar challenge, and we are very appreciative of that fact.

Richard showed a remarkable video of a fire-walking demo involving persons who really believed in the "mind-over-matter" view that faith, proper metaphysical instruction, and mental preparation can make the human foot immune to the effect of red-hot embers. As we've discussed elsewhere, it's actually a matter of "specific heat" (look it up!) and not a mystical or paranormal feat, at all. Dr. Wiseman's fire-walkers, confidant that they could walk a long bed of coals, were seen to all hop off in alarm, either when their supernatural powers ran out, or when the simple physics of the matter caught up with their delusions. None of them walked further than a few steps which anyone can do, hyped up or not, and there was general confusion as to why the powers had not worked.


Okay, back to the puzzle corner. As I said last week, Martin Gardner has sent me a raft of good problems, and here's one of them.

Until next week.