Table of Contents:
  1. The Patent Office in Full Bloom
  2. In Passing
  3. Hot News
  4. Some Sooth from Way Back
  5. A Leap Forward in Australia
  6. Aykroyd Over the Edge
  7. Divine Intervention
  8. Degrees of Belief
  9. Unidentified Regular Objects
  10. Assurance
  11. Critical Thinking in Spain
  12. Follow-Up
  13. More Sour Grapes
  14. In Conclusion



THE PATENT OFFICE IN FULL BLOOM

Reader "Greg" points out that perhaps my alarm at the operations of the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) – a subject that I’ve hammered at from time to time in SWIFT – is not too far beyond consideration. When you read this claim they’ve granted a patent to, I think you’ll have to agree that the grantee managed to cleverly obfuscate his claim by disguising it with some higher tech thrown in; the patent could as easily have been granted to a common flashlight that uses a rechargeable battery pack which – when discharged – can be replaced by another similar – charged – battery pack. That’s all the description is saying!

But I’ll let you decide for yourself. Refer to the URL at the end of the third paragraph ahead, and click on the “FULL TEXT” button at the upper left corner. Read that through carefully, and substitute “flashlight” (for our UK readers, “torch”) for “stroboscope” and you’ll see what I mean. Writes reader Greg:

I've read your recent comments on patents with great interest.  Although I agree that patents for things that are flat out impossible are ludicrous and should not be granted, I'm not sure I would want a patent examiner to be the one to decide what does or doesn't violate the laws of physics. Einstein was a patent examiner himself, but my experience is that the average examiner is no Einstein. Their grounding in science is mediocre at best, and a patent examiners job is to ensure that something has not already been patented, and that it is indeed novel and non-obvious. 

While patents for things such as making toast can be viewed as a wry joke perpetrated by both the applicant and the examiner, I've been encountering more and more patents of absolutely no value, and this is where I think the biggest problems lie.  For example, take U.S. patent # 6,945,666 (you have to love the last three digits – Satan's patent?).  It was filed in 2003 to protect an illumination device with “removable battery pack.”  That is the only claimed invention: a removable battery pack, and it was granted in 2005! 

Think about that: well into the 21st century, and the U.S. patent office granted protection for something commonly available at the retail level for at least the last 25 years, in the form of flashlights, drills and whatnot. The illustrations are priceless: an obvious implementation of a removable battery pack, as manufactured by Black & Decker, Dewalt and numerous others. You can see them at: http://tinyurl.com/kb6gp.

While it can be argued that a patent examiner is not sufficiently skilled to argue the merits of esoteric questions of science, surely identifying this as plainly obvious should not surpass their abilities.  I can't help but think that the effort the applicant expended on this would have been better spent on product design...

I agree, Greg. If we don’t have enough skilled personnel within the USPTO, why don’t we? Isn’t it important to our economy and to our national prestige, that we try to avoid looking like kids playing with words? This is a disgraceful situation. Please look at the original, official, USPTO description of this “invention” described by Greg:

1. A portable, stroboscope comprising:

(a) a housing, said housing comprising a light source, control circuitry, a display and a user control mechanism;

(b) a pair of housing power terminals located within said housing;

(c) at least one removable replenishable power pack configured and dimensioned for attachment to said housing, said power pack including a plurality of power pack terminals that matingly connect to said housing power terminals when said power pack is attached to said housing; and

(d) a means for directly replenishing said removable power pack when said removable power pack is attached to said housing and when it is detached from said housing;

(e) said control circuitry providing a control pulse for flashing said light source at a constant periodic flash rate;

(f) said display indicating a status of the removable replenishable power pack; and

(g) said user control mechanism including means to trigger said control pulse and further means to adjust said periodic flash rate.

Now let’s use the same wording – somewhat modified and simplified – to describe a basic flashlight that uses rechargeable dry cells:

1. A portable flashlight comprising:

(a) a housing, said housing comprising a light source, and an on/off switch;

(b) a pair of housing power terminals located within said housing;

(c) at least one removable rechargeable power pack configured and dimensioned for insertion into said housing, said power pack including a pair of power pack terminals that connect to said housing power terminals when said power pack is inserted into said housing;

(d) a means for directly recharging said removable power pack when said removable power pack is either inserted into said housing and/or when it is detached from said housing;

(e) a pair of terminals to which appropriate charging current can be applied so as to recharge the housed removable power pack, said terminals to be accessible from the external housing for recharging purposes; and

(f) a display indicating the status of the removable rechargeable power pack.

Mind you, if simplification were to be a desirable factor here – an unlikely circumstance, in view of the love shown by the patent lawyers for redundancy and repetition – “rechargeable power pack” could become “rechargeable dry cells,” “housing” could be “tube,” and “housing power terminals” could be “power contacts.” I see that it is specified here that the “rechargeable power pack” should be “configured and dimensioned” so that it fits into the housing. Duh! How else could it be inserted? Why does that blatantly obvious fact have to be specified? To make for more words, and thus add to the obfuscation. Let’s further simplify this description, without losing any meaning, just by removing the redundancies:

1. A portable flashlight comprising:

(a) a plastic tube containing a bulb and an on/off switch;

(b) Two power contacts located within said tube;

(c) at least one pair of removable rechargeable dry cells to fit into the tube;

(d) a means for directly recharging said dry cells either when they are inserted into said tube and/or when they have been removed;

(e) a pair of contacts to which appropriate charging current can be applied so as to recharge the housed dry cells, said terminals to be accessible from the outside of the tube for that purpose; and

(f) a display indicating the status of the dry cells.

By way of explanation, these numbers refer to the items in the illustration:

14 Receptacle for battery pack
22 Cell pack
26 Contacts for cells
30 Receptacle for charger plug
32 Recharger for dry cells
36 Contacts for flashlight bulb
38 Catches to secure battery pack
40 Clips to engage catches, 38
41 Push-button on/off switch

In a fraction of the words of the USPTO-style description, I have succinctly, adequately, defined a flashlight that uses rechargeable dry cells – and that definition covers the “invention” described in patent #945,666. As Greg points out, the idea of having rechargeable dry cells – or a power pack – that can be quickly switched for another so as to not cause undue delay during an emergency situation – is rather old. Rechargeable electric cells have been around since the 1880s, and the rechargeable “dry” cell since the 1950s. In my opinion, this patent is not new, novel, inventive, or non-obvious. The “inventor” has obtained a patent on the idea of using rechargeable batteries or power packs applied to a stroboscope; my idea, above, is to use rechargeable batteries or power packs in a flashlight… or any other device!




IN PASSING

The Saga of Uri Geller – remember him? – continues grinding on. In mid-May, apparently he thought that his triumvirate of wealthy folks had purchased, via EBay auction, a former early residence of Elvis Presley, in Memphis. Then, it was announced that someone else had actually bought it, and the investor group was shut out. That’s strange, because when the bidding on EBay had closed, Geller expressed his delight over the decision, and announced to the Pravda News Service how his psychic powers – with personal assistance from the departed Elvis – had assured him that his investors would be successful. Said Pravda:

Celebrity psychic Uri Geller said he got a sign from Elvis Presley, and the message was loud and clear: "Don't worry, you'll have my house."

Geller, who had the winning bid of $905,100 for a house Presley lived in as his career was taking off, said he was traveling to London in the closing moments of the eBay auction Sunday when the radio began playing, "Love Me Tender."

He said he knew then that it was a done deal…

He had set a ceiling price of $US1.11 million, said Geller, who acknowledges a paranormal fascination with the number 11.

"As the clock closed on the bidding yesterday," Geller said, "I felt intuitively I got the price. I was text messaging Gleason [one of the investors] and it was exactly 11 on my mobile phone and suddenly the radio started playing an Elvis song. That was Elvis telling me we got the house!"

I ask you, folks, with such strong evidence, how could anyone be more confident? Thinking that his group was now free to exploit the purchase, Geller announced that they were going to open a museum of paranormal wonders at the house. Say what? Did this strange person actually believe that a permit would ever be issued by the city to allow busloads of tourists – attracted by the Presley name and by the woo-woo stuff inside – to be wandering around this very classy residential area? That notion was doomed from the very start, so maybe the present contretemps is actually in favor of Geller’s investor group!

So much for lucky numbers and ghostly help, Mr. Geller. Get out those tarot cards and a pendulum, to divine what went wrong!

Geller, as expected, is now thundering that this investor group will sue EBay – of course. Their chances of winning a lawsuit are about as good as their getting that tourist-trap permit. In my opinion, they should have consulted a professional psychic before entering into this brouhaha…

The homeowner, Cindy Hazen, says that the two sides could not come to an agreement on the contract because Geller and one of his partners, New York lawyer Peter Gleason, suddenly altered the terms of the deal in such a way that it became unacceptable to the sellers. When she hadn't heard back from the Israeli-born magician for two weeks regarding the contract alterations, she opted to sell the home instead to Mike Curb, the founder of Nashville's Curb Records and a noted philanthropist.

And, as our UK reader Andrew Molloy observes:

I’d have thought Uri would be sending positive vibes to the sellers to change their minds rather than resorting to suing at every available opportunity.

Ah, but you don’t know Geller, Andrew. As far back as 1994, the US Federal Court of Appeals in Washington cited Geller’s litigious history, and though he’d now have a tough time getting any judge to accept a civil suit he’d bring in this country, he continues to flail about wildly, threatening legal actions – usually via letters sent out by his brother-in-law – against those who dare to offend his finely-tuned sensibilities in any way. Now that he says – on behalf of his group of would-be investors, “We are absolutely, mind-blown angry,” it appears that in order to maintain this furious profile, he’ll have to get his brother-in-law to make more big legal-sounding noises, or the group might even actually get a lawyer into action.

Reader Larry Thornton comments:

We could hardly envision Geller with a "toy" like that [the Presley house] without him plastering his own ego all over it. Like maybe a giant billboard at the front with his face on it as owner, or a large photo of him bending a spoon before the amazed King of Rock and Roll. And of course he'd let it be known that he and Elvis had been "close personal friends."

This is just another example of Geller trying to inflate his image further by associating with others more famous than he is. Note how he schmoozed Michael Jackson, and made himself very visible around David Blaine's glass box stunt in England...

Larry, Mr. Geller has now rather distanced himself from Michael, and he was denied access to David following that unwise box-in-the-air act…

Geller’s latest declaration on the matter seems to indicate that he has even further distanced himself from reality, if that’s possible. Last week, he told a local Memphis newspaper:

If I have to, I will take this to the Supreme Court. If I have to, I’ll take this to the Pope.

Duh. Since when – in this century, at least – has His Holiness served as a moderator in property disputes?

Finally, Geller is plumping for Johnny Depp to play him in a biography he fantasizes will be coming up. Now I ask you, where are Federico Fellini and Jonathan Swift when you really need them…?




HOT NEWS

While we’re on the subject, there’s just been a standard advertising agency release of hot news about the interest said to be shown by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, regarding Uri Geller’s 1998 novel, “Ella.” Looking about to see why I’d not seen nor heard about this epic, I came upon a review in the Jerusalem Post that tells us what we need to know about Mr. Geller’s literary efforts. Under the heading  "ELLA: A PSYCHIC THRILLER," it says – these are excerpts:

Whatever this book is, a thriller it is not… There are 340 pages about Ella, but until she vanishes into space after throwing herself off the peak of Mount Sinai, we know nothing about her innermost thoughts, dreams, fancies, ambitions – and all the other qualities with which any novelist worthy of his or her salt colors the leading personality. It is even slyly suggested that she might have become an angel, or maybe was carried upward to heaven by God's messengers… She can levitate and hover above her bed or chair for long periods. Angels with silver hair appear before her. Lights in her family's working-class home inexplicably switch on and off. She appears to be indirectly responsible when her mother's bottles of gin disintegrate into a thousand pieces in their secret hiding places all over the house. Zippers on bags either jam or open on their own. Mysterious booms explode around her family's ears. Windows suddenly shatter without reason when one gets the impression that she is trying to attract attention. She can vanish and appear in another room… She performs acts of levitation at will for photographers… Her young brother, who is going blind and is about to die of cancer of the brain, makes a miraculous recovery. Overnight the large cancerous growth vanishes. He can see again. He is totally cured. Thousands of similar cases are reported all over the world… She is flown to the Sinai desert, close to St. Catherine's Monastery. Here, supposedly where Moses and the Israelites trod, she suddenly levitates – permanently it seems. Her backers tie her with a rope to the ground, in case she vanishes into space like a gas-filled balloon…

But what is Uri Geller trying to palm off on us?... We are given a hint of Uri Geller's true motive in writing this book. His name hits you every time you turn a page. The whole thing smacks of an ultimate ego trip.

If this event ever happens – and so far it’s only a news release – any potential investors might want to track “Mindbender,” a 1996 movie about Geller which went nowhere. A 2003 review of this movie on the Internet by Richard Scheib said – again excerpts:

[Director Ken] Russell's star has fallen considerably and he had struggled for the recognition he once held and was eventually forced to take on low-budget hackwork like this… the serious intent of the endeavor seems to be fighting with Russell's characteristic proclivities towards turning it all into a lunatically over-the-top madhouse… And here when it comes to the scenes at Terence Stamp's house with Geller teleporting dogs and moving tennis balls and windup toys you are not sure whether you are meant to be taking any of it seriously at all. There's is an hysterically awful scene outside a casino (which looks suspiciously like a pool beside a mansion) where the door is blown off Geller's limousine by a psychic storm, money he has just won at a gambling table blows everywhere and Geller starts twirling around in mid-air, all supposedly because he used his powers for personal gain. Even funnier is the scene where Geller breaks out from military custody, which looks more like it belongs in a Scanners sequel rather than something that is attempting to be a serious biopic. Here Geller escapes the lab, using his powers to knock out soldiers and scientists, bending the guns aimed at him and the gates in his way, while at the same time as driving a car while wearing a sensory deprivation helmet that covers his eyes and navigating psychically, before finally teleporting into Stamp's living room, landing on the couch and nonchalantly asking "Am I late for lunch?"

It's the sort of scene that can be guaranteed prize status in any future collection of really, really laughably bad screen moments. Mindbender sinks down to a level of real ineptitude. It is an entirely laughable film on almost every single count. In a few years it is probably going to be revived and deemed worthy of Golden Turkey status.

Well, that’s better than it’s done so far. The Golden Turkey Awards originated in a 1980 book by film critic Michael Medved and his brother Harry. The awards went to films that the Medveds found to be of poor quality, and to directors and actors judged to have created a chronically inept body of work, and almost exclusively showcased low-budget obscurities and exploitation films. But Geller’s opinion of Mindbender is more charitable, as we’d expect. He says, “It's time for a serious movie. Ken Russell's version was great but very exaggerated.” Geller’s life exaggerated? Impossible!




SOME SOOTH FROM WAY BACK

Reader Brian Miller has come upon some very early skeptical opinions that deserve attention. He excerpts from an extensive document written by Meera Nanda, a well-known Indian writer:

"Charaka Samhita,” the ancient textbook of Ayurveda (third or second centuries BCE), doesn’t mince words when it comes to the subject of quacks. Charaka, the legendary healer from India’s antiquity and the editor of the Samhita (compendium) that bears his name, calls them “imposters who wear the garb of physicians… [who] walk the earth like messengers of death.” These fake doctors are “unlearned in scriptures, experience and knowledge of curative operations…. but like to boast of their skills before the uneducated…” Wise patients, Charaka advises, “should always avoid those foolish men with a show of learning … they are like snakes subsisting on air.”

These words, written more than two thousand years ago, bring to mind those who like to play doctor on Indian TV these days. The most famous of all, Swami Ramdev, doles out medical advice to millions of Indians who tune into his TV show, attend his yoga camps and buy his Ayurvedic drugs. He offers “complete cure,” “in weeks, if not in days,” of “diseases from A to Z,” from “common cold to cancers,” including cholera, diabetes, glaucoma, heart disease, kidney disease, leprosy, liver disease….so on and so forth. There is practically nothing that his method of Divya Yoga, alone, or in combination with his Ayurvedic formulations, does not promise to cure. And all his “miraculous” cures are not merely “confirmed by science,” but are, indeed, “science in its purest form.” All quotations are from the official website of Swami Ramdev.  The swami is not alone in making such fantastic claims. Yoga and Ayurveda are being mass-marketed to India’s growing middle classes as never before. Putting on a “show of learning” by “wearing the garb” of healers and scientists seems to improve the sales-pitch ..."

The full text by Ms. Nanda can be seen at http://tinyurl.com/f2kpw. There, you’ll get an eye-opening account about what Ayurvedic medicine is really all about, and how it is in direct conflict with that we know about the physiology of the human body, and how to treat ailments. While this objection to quacks expressed above can be appreciated, bear in mind that the whole Ayurvedic system is itself a remnant of medieval notions of how the body works. The “Vedic” philosophy on which it’s based recognizes air, earth, fire, and water as elements, and attributes most disease and bad luck to astrological aspects, demons, and devils.

What we’re seeing here is Charaka – who himself innocently misinformed those of that time – warning readers away from the other quacks…




A LEAP FORWARD IN AUSTRALIA

Australian reader Corey Watts reports:

With so much rubbish being offered up to an eager public, every instance of rationality is a cause for celebration. On the nation-wide current affairs show “Today-Tonight” in a 26th May 2006 story about quackery, Health Minister John Hatzistergos said

It's very distressing that members of the community have been preyed upon by these “merchants of misery.” What we are doing is introducing law which is the first of its kind in Australia and these laws will enable the Health Care Complaints Commission to not only publicly name and shame those people who trade on the vulnerabilities of distressed members of our community, but will also enable the Health Care Complaints Commission to put them out of business. What we say to these people (the victims) is we're doing everything possible to identify those individuals who exploited you and to prevent them from exploiting other people in similar circumstances.

The featured quack was Paul Herritt, who claimed to heal lung, liver and bone cancer with a concoction of powders and Chinese medicines costing his victims thousands of dollars. He has convictions for tax fraud and armed robbery and has served time in jail. He has posed as a biochemist and a N.A.S.A. scientist. The Health Care Complaints Commission investigation found that 17 patients (victims) died under his “care.”

In Australia we have over 10,000 people listed as “Alternate Therapy Specialists” with the industry worth A$2 Billion. “Today-Tonight” summed up this quack with a very fitting description: "charlatan, liar, thief, and fraud."

An all-too-rare victory for skeptics.

Agreed, Corey, and reader Kyle Smith adds:

I was watching a current affairs program (Channel 7, Sydney) tonight called “Today-Tonight.”  It detailed certain quacks who have relieved the sick and dying, and their families, of money, with the promise of a cure to AIDS, Cancer, etc. The usual hobnobbering.

However, apparently a health minister for the government is intending to propose legislation whereby these "quacks," should the government receive complaints about them, can be named and "shamed" publicly, and, furthermore, criminal charges may be applied. Though I'm not entirely hopeful the legislation will ever come into effect, it is at least a step in the right direction, wouldn't you agree?

Yes, Kyle, I agree, but I share your doubt that such legislation will get passed. Also, flying in the face of firmly fanatical belief, is not a means of obtaining votes…




AYKROYD OVER THE EDGE

From reader John Banghart:

While I have enjoyed Dan Aykroyd's comedic endeavors over the years, the information in this article strongly suggests that he should stick to his original medium: http://tinyurl.com/qty5h. This quote nearly had my iced tea coming out through my nose:

Aykroyd said he has had two personal encounters with the unknown. One occurred on Martha's Vineyard, he said, where he sighted "high altitude, glowing magnesium discs traveling at 20,000 miles an hour at 100,000 feet (30,480 meters)... wing to wing, edge to edge."

Apparently, Dan has perceptive powers that might qualify for the million dollar challenge.  Unless someone can explain how the naked eye is able to determine things like "magnesium, 20,000 mph, and 100,000 feet," I'm going to assume that he's just making it up. I won't bother commenting on the rest of the article, as it's just as silly.

Dan was seeing some “discs” a full 19 miles away, and yet he was able to see that they were made of magnesium? Damn! That’s really powerful eyesight! I must tell you that even a foot away, I could easily mistake aluminum for magnesium! Reader John Swierkosz, who proudly announces that he’s an “Engineering Technician,” so not to be trifled with, shares this Dan Aykroyd story with us:

I recently found your website and felt the need to tell you how much I enjoy it.  I'm pretty much a natural born skeptic, and especially enjoyed reading your archives.  I thought you might get a kick out of this story:

Many years ago, I was watching a talk show whose featured guest was Dan Aykroyd.  He was plugging the movie Ghostbusters.  At one point he told a tongue-in-cheek story about a photograph he had brought to the show.  The picture was of an old man and there was a smudge of some kind in the background area.  He said the man was his grandfather, and the smudge was an "unexplained phenomenon."  He then said that "the spooky part is that 3 years after the picture was taken, he inexplicably dropped dead – and we're talking about a perfectly healthy 86-year-old man." Now, I thought that was pretty darn funny.

Some time later, a group of woo-woos (I love that term) that I worked with, was having a conversation about ghosts or some similar nonsense.  I thought I'd get a laugh out of them by telling a version of the Aykroyd story as if it had happened to my own grandfather.  I even embellished it by making the death five years later at age 93.  To my utter amazement, no one laughed and one lady said, "That kind of stuff really creeps me out" and the rest nodded in agreement! 

Sheesh.

Yes, John, sheesh. We must remember that these folks – including Dan Aykroyd – also vote…




“DIVINE” INTERVENTION

It seems that dowsing fever – which has always been a popular delusion in the UK – is getting even more attention there. UK reader Ross van Gogh:

Here is an unusual sight that I saw:

I live in a small village in the northeast of England. This has no bearing on the story I'm just trying to set the scene. It is a quiet place, everybody knows each other, etc., you get the idea.

Anyway I saw engineers working the road, they were from the water company, searching for leaks, doing routine repairs, but, and this is a big “but,” what do you imagine they were using to search for the pipes? A map? You would think so, but no, nothing so simple or sane, they were using, now brace yourself for this one, dowsing rods.

No really, I'm not pulling your leg, DOWSING RODS.

I was so stunned, I forgot my critical thought and did not stop to ask questions, also I was in a hurry to catch a bus. Unforgivable of me I know, a perfect opportunity wasted. I apologize and promise to do better later.

And, an anonymous UK reader tells us:

In the UK, the long hot summer of 1976 is always mentioned whenever there is more than the usual long weekend of hot summer weather. I don’t recall that particular summer, as I wasn’t born until late ‘76, but I’ve heard the tales of standpipes at the end of the street, gardens ruined and hosepipe [flexible hose] bans.

For a nation of gardeners you can understand why such a thing is burnt into the British consciousness. This year is no different, while it rains cats and dogs up north; those down south again fear the worst. The dreaded hosepipe bans have hit some areas of the south, with many more to follow (according to news reports).

Naturally, someone needs to be blamed for this, and who more deserving than the various privatized water companies. This blame is not unfounded, as an estimated 3.6 billion liters of water is lost (presumably due to leaks, not mislaid somewhere) daily between the big water companies. So, what is the response of Southern Water? You guessed it, bring in the water diviners.

This was reported in a credulous article from the Saturday, May 20th 2006 issue of the Daily Mail (a rag known for its credulity). The article was written by a Danny Penman. I Googled this name and got back a Dr. Danny Penman, psychologist and journalist, who was convinced by the power of medium Sally Morgan. So, if this is the same Danny Penman, he’s not exactly what you’d call a skeptic.

The article espoused the virtues of dowsing, based on the riches in oil, gold and jewels found via its use. Uri Geller’s support of divining, and how he used it to find millions in oil was mentioned (so there must be something in this after all). What was lacking within the whole two page article was an explanation of the ideomotor effect, or anything remotely skeptical about the practice employed by the workers of Southern Water.

Anyway, just thought I’d let you know how we in the UK deal with water shortages. It’s no real surprise is it? In a country that is becoming increasingly obsessed with the mystical (based on what’s continually spewed at us from the radio, TV and newspapers), I’d be surprised if anything other than dowsing was used to deal with water shortages.

Thanks very much for the work you all put in at the JREF; you really are a candle in the dark.

Geller “used it to find millions in oil,” you say? Well, that was his claim, but he also said that since this was a private contract, he couldn’t reveal who the lucky client was. Convenient… In my opinion, using dowsing, Geller couldn’t find a bowling ball in a bathtub if the ball were on fire – to borrow an expression from a police chief who once reported to me his evaluation of the skills of “psychic” Dorothy Allison…




DEGREES OF BELIEF

Staying right in the UK, reader Ian MacMillan sends us a news item, followed by his comments on it:

More than half of Britons believe in psychic powers such as mind-reading and premonitions, a survey suggests. Of 1,006 adults polled for Readers Digest Magazine, 43% reported reading others' thoughts or having theirs read. More than half had had a dream or premonition of an event before it happened and 26% said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble. A fifth said they had seen a ghost and 29% believed near-death experiences were evidence there was an afterlife. Of those questioned, 43% claimed to have tapped into other people's thoughts or to have had their own minds read by someone else. More than two-thirds said they could sense when someone was looking at them and 62% could tell who was ringing before they picked up the phone. More than 10% thought they could influence machinery or electronic equipment using their minds. One in 10 said something bad had happened to another person after they had wished for it to happen. Women were more likely to believe in the paranormal than men, though 53% of males said they sometimes knew who was ringing before picking up the phone and 45% had experienced a dream or premonition before an event.

Despite the high numbers who said they had experienced such phenomena, only 9% described themselves as psychic. Older people were more likely to believe in the paranormal, with 74% of 55 to 64 year olds saying they thought psychic powers were possible, compared with 52% of 18 to 24 year olds.

Simon Bacon, lecturer at London's College of Psychic Studies and a practicing medium, said:

When you say psychic, many people have an image of an old woman in a gown with a crystal ball. They don't associate themselves with that.

Then what image should we conjure up – pun intended – Simon? A middle-aged opportunist with no other means of support, who has attended the College of Psychic Studies and learned how easily he/she can make a living by delivering bad guesses and generalities to vulnerable persons who really need some help and attention to make their lives temporarily seem easier, but will settle for any scam?

Padraig Reidy, deputy editor the New Humanist magazine, published by the Rationalist Society, said the idea that people could possess psychic powers was "rubbish." He said:

Most people encounter mediums and psychics and so on at fairgrounds and while it stays as entertainment it is fine but when people start ruling their lives by it, it is quite another thing.

He told BBC News that belief in many types of psychic powers stemmed from a desire for control:

The implication is that we hope that there is some influence we can tap into. It's kicking against the randomness of things.

He said it was easy to look back on an event with hindsight and say, “I knew that was going to happen,” and added:

Sometimes people who say, “I knew something bad would happen” are just inveterate worriers anyway and they are pleased to have finally been proved right.

A Church of England spokesman said it was not the type of subject the Church could comment on.

Wise spokesman; the Church only deals with spirits, Heaven, transfiguration, demon infestation, healing by prayer, guardian angels, Hell, miracles, and other inarguable facts, right? Comments Ian:

Nothing much new here, but it does pose one interesting question.  Will there ever come a day when people do not believe in psychic powers, or is it too deeply ingrained in human nature ever to be eradicated? Since the psychic boom of the early 1970s, mainstream scientific interest in testing psychics has died down, but public belief remains undimmed.  What should skeptics do in response to this?  Do they say the same things until they are blue in the face, or is it better to spend time in areas where it is possible to make a real difference? This has been called the principle of triage, since a doctor on a battlefield may have to decide which of two patients to treat first and ignore the other one even if it means that the other patient will die. Arguing with crystal healers, etc., is surely one of life's least profitable occupations, and I have made a vow not to get too heavily drawn into this area when there are so many other things to do.  This is why I now consider myself to be a skeptic with a small “s” rather than a capital “S.”  The same things still frustrate me, but sometimes things have to be accepted as they are, even when they are unsatisfactory.

Agreed, and there’s that damn rain. But we can come indoors, or carry an umbrella. Against human naivety, there’s little protection…



UNIDENTIFIED REGULAR OBJECTS

Reader Peter Wohlmut of Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributes this…

Your recent story regarding UFOs reminded me of a story my old boss, Luis Alvarez – the Nobel Prize winner – once told me.  He was on a government commission investigating UFO sightings during the heyday of that era.  There was an extremely well-documented set of sightings at the Salt Lake in Utah, where an Army officer saw a group of UFOs flying in formation over the lake.  With presence of mind, he pointed his 8mm camera and recorded their maneuvers without moving his camera, calibrated the lens by shooting a radio tower nearby, and turned over the camera and film to the authorities.

A final report was presented to the commission by experts who concluded that indeed these must have been UFOs flying in formation, and gave results as to the impossible G-forces involved in the maneuvers, and the extraordinary high speeds attained.  Luis took one look at the footage and said "I don't know about the rest of you, but I come from the San Francisco Bay area, and those look like seagulls to me."

There was an indignant cry of "seagulls in Utah?" until the group thought about it.  'Nuf said.

I think the episode shows how some scientists are highly subject to misdirection (intentional or otherwise).  Since the original films were taken by a respectable military officer with film experience who followed all the procedures for rigorous documentation, they could ignore the obvious and focus on the improbable.




ASSURANCE

Reading a Daily Mail story, UK correspondent John Atkinson felt he should express his dismay that his local water company appeared to be using dowsing techniques. He wrote the company, and received this response:

Thank you for your email of 21 May 2006 concerning water leaks and detection methods.

I can confirm that Basil Frostick is a Southern Water employee and he was asked about dowsing by the Daily Mail.  He replied that the company do give demonstrations at their customer open days at Bewl Water Reservoir.  The claim that "nearly all of Southern Water's leak detection team now uses divining" is, as you suggested, not a true reflection of what actually happens.

Southern Water and all other water companies in England and Wales use what is considered best practice for leakage detection, e.g. by using district metering, leak noise correlators, hydrophones, sounding sticks and definitely not by dowsing.

I hope you find this reply helpful.

“Definitely not by dowsing.” One hopes that this statement could receive wider circulation…




CRITICAL THINKING IN SPAIN

For 21 years now, the Society for the Advancement of Critical Thinking (ARP-SAPC) has held forth in Spain, with its quarterly “El Esceptico” and its promotion of university courses, conferences, and workshops. One of its major spokespersons has been their Executive Director, astrophysicist Javier Armentia, who is also the Director of the beautiful Planetarium of Pamplona, where I once lectured.

We’ve just received a set of three books at the JREF which promises to be part of a larger set of eight on various paranormal, medical, and religious scams. What’s most important is that this series will be the first set of such books edited and produced in Spain. One of my own books, “Flim-Flam,” was published – as “Fraudes Paranormales” – in Spain – and in Spanish – in 1994 by Tikal, and though I received about 3 or 4 copies in the mail for autographing, I’ve no idea whether another printing was made.

All of that reminds me that this is the only book of mine to be translated into Spanish (with the exception of a minor one on magic tricks) and this lack should be addressed! Spanish publishers, take note! I’ve been translated into Braille/English, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, and Punjabi, but only ONE book in Spanish…!

The first three books from ARP-SAPC – on creationism, UFOs, and the Turin Shroud – are now on the market, and it will be of great interest to follow the sales, though I’m told that already, a second edition is planned. Spain is a very religious and traditional country, and when I lectured there – under Javier’s management – I found that anything tending to cast doubt on religious matters, was not at all well received. Future subjects to be handled by APR-SAPC will be haunted houses, Lunar influences, acupuncture, homeopathy, arqueoastrology, Atlantis, and cryptobiology – among others.

In any case, congratulations to ARP-SAPC and Javier! You can learn more by going to www.escepticos.org and/or www.laetoli.net. The skeptic organization can be contacted at arp@arp-sapc.org.




FOLLOW-UP

Following last week’s discussion of “HHO gas,” I received a few notes from readers who pointed out the very obvious problem and great danger of storing the mixture of gases that are obtained from the electrolysis of water, and those caveats were well-founded, of course. A tank or enclosure containing a mixture of two parts of hydrogen mixed with one part of oxygen, would be a literal bomb ready to explode. In my article, I should have emphasized that those who preach the HHO doctrine, create the mixture as they use it; no storage of the mixture – other than for purposes of transient containment – takes place. It’s: electrolysis, mixing, and immediate burning, so the safety element is maintained. I should have made that clearer.

Any tank of “HHO” would be a sensitive, deadly, bomb just itching to go off. The least scratch of that itch… Think about it. The attraction between hydrogen and oxygen is one of the very fundamental facts of our world – just look at all that water out there! Those marvelous little atoms are very ready to join up to form a stable union, releasing energy as they do so – that’s called, “combustion.” When combustion happens too exuberantly, as it would tend to do in a sensitive mixture of already-proportioned gases such as “HHO,” we call that an “explosion.”

Or, more correctly, I believe, an “implosion,” which can be just as exciting and noisy. 

No, move out of any neighborhood in which anyone tries to store such a mixture, rather than using it up as it’s prepared…

Better yet, run…!




MORE SOUR GRAPES

Last week you saw here my response to a strange man who sells an epoxy disc that he claims will change wine just by being near it. I thought you should see the reasons Robert Catania has now given for not taking the million-dollar challenge. This text was received by a reader who simply told him, “I sure wish you would take James Randi's challenge for a million dollars. At least you could prove your product works. I would buy one then.” Catania answered him:

1. The reason I am not [taking the challenge] is that James is not a wine expert.

Duh. Why do I have to be a wine expert, Bob? I would not be judging the wine, it would be YOU, and your experts! Are you that dense, or just pretending?

2. I already have testimonials and proof from much better wine people. See testimonial page.

Exactly my point! And those “wine people” – any one or all of them – are also eligible to win the million dollars, Bob! Will you tell them about this wonderful opportunity? I don’t think so…

3. I will be receiving wine makers tasting reports very soon. James is in the business of debunking only.

What this inane comment has to do with why Catania is turning down a million dollars, is beyond me…

4. He will not set up a fair test only the action to get the reaction and solution he wants. I am not into the grand standing of it all and refuse to lower myself or conform to his ways.

Hey, Robert, are you having a comprehension problem? I don’t set up the test, you do!  You and your experts, unless you choose not to share the million dollars with anyone else! I have nothing to do with carrying out the test! So, why don’t you “lower” yourself, and win the million. You could do the obvious, laughing all the way to the bank!

5. The facts are Marvin Shankin [sic] (Wine Spectator, largest wine publication in the world) and 7 of his tasters already tested it before they did their article on it. They put over 8 wines on it and each time got results. They do not review wine accessories ever. They made an exception on the Catania wine enhancer because it was so unique to them. Their article was toned down to avoid too much controversy like the James Gang. Mat Shaffer of the Boston Herald is the head food editor and also regional writer for Food and Wine Magazine. His comments speak loud and clear from a [sic] expert, highly respected writer.

Okay, Bob. I hereby officially offer the million-dollar prize to Marvin Shanken, all seven of his tasters, the James Gang, Mat Shaffer of the Boston Herald, and anyone at all from Food and Wine Magazine or from Wine Spectator, your barber, your local bank teller, any of your customers – anyone, Bob! I’ve just sent formal letters of invitation off to Shanken and Shaffer, but I can’t find the James Gang, your barber and bank teller are not known to me, and I don’t have your customer list… 

6. The bottom line is 30 day money back, secured by your credit card company. I have listed this return policy to my credit card merchant and am bound to it or I would loose [sic] my account privileges.

So what? This is a non sequitur, Bob. Look it up.

7. With all this does James Randi really mean that much to you? If I listened to all the doubters over the past 2 years or was afraid of being fooled by every questionable idea, I never would have gotten this product developed. I followed my instincts and belief only and it does do as claimed, just like all the people who have purchased it so far claim (which is reaching the thousand marks soon). I will have more big names soon that will dwarf James Randi in the wine and retail world.

Oh, it “does do as claimed,” Bob? Then why don’t you take a couple of hours from your busy schedule and win our million? And Bob, I’m already “dwarfed” “in the wine and retail world.” Mind you, I’ve never been in the wine and retail world, so it means nothing to me, you see. The one “big name” I want to see step up and meet our simple challenge, is that blowhard Robert Catania. But he’s really scared, understandably.

8. Thanks for your email though and I appreciate you taking the time. Don’t let the propaganda spinners stop us from growing as a race, I never will. Their job is to keep people in doubt of everything!

Yes, in doubt of scams, frauds, schemes, fakes, swindlers, thieves, and those people who offer spurious products that they won’t stand behind long enough to make a free million dollars. Bob, do you know anyone like that?

Readers, I’ve shown you this text so you’ll have a better understanding of what the JREF is up against. We deal with ignorance and stupidity every day, we try vainly to convey common sense to the deluded, and we inform our readers. One of our major obstacles is the insistence of the media on plumping up crazy ideas – often through their “experts,” who are often employed by major magazines and are assumed to have knowledge and abilities that they may not have. In the above example, Catania, Shanken, and Shaffer – “experts” – are refusing to show that they can tell the difference between wine that has been “treated” with the epoxy disk, and wine that has not been so treated. They claim that they can, and have endorsed the disk to their trusting consumers, yet they hide under the bed when anyone asks them to show their ability – an ability upon which their professional reputation and validation depends! I’ve put my money where my mouth is. All they have to do is step up and take it, simultaneously establishing beyond any doubt that they deserve the respect afforded them by their customers and their employers. Will they do so?

No, they won’t. They’ll continue on as before, hoping the scandal will go away – which it won’t. I’m hanging on to this all the way, and I suggest that they quickly scamper to their expensive lawyers to obtain various writs and injunctions to try to make this go away.

Next week, more in this continuing confrontation.

As we publish, a letter has been received from Thomas Matthews, Executive Editor of Wine Spectator magazine. He writes:

It has come to my attention that Robert Catania is claiming that Wine Spectator has endorsed his product called the Wine Enhancer. This is not true. We did receive a test product, and we did indeed test it, in an informal way, and wrote up our results… Our bottom line: the device did seem to affect the wine, though our tasters disagreed on whether the changes were positive or negative. In any case, we make no claim that our tests were definitive. However, at least we tried it – which seems to be more than some critics have done. Mr. Catania should refrain from any claims that Wine Spectator has in any way verified the effects claimed for the Wine Enhancer, or that we endorse it in any way. However, we would be interested to learn of results of any other tests that have been done, by supporters and skeptics alike.

You should know that Catania dared me to quote Wine Spectator. Meeting his request, I have done so, above.

Next request…?




IN CONCLUSION…

Happily, my recovery continues well, though more slowly than I’d like. Everyone tries to get me slowed down to save my strength, and I appreciate their concern.

My next book, “A Magician in the Laboratory,” is taking shape quickly.  Most of the material is hidden away in obscure files and notes – paper and electronic – and is now being assembled and augmented. I’m going to finally have the opportunity to tell it as it happened, from Hasted to Benveniste, from Toronto to Moscow, from blindfolded children in China to “police psychics” in the UK… I’ve been sitting on those stories for decades now, accounts of how sloppy, inept, and mendacious so many scientists were when I dealt with them, and how meticulous others were…

It’s two years away from the printing press…