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June 22, 2007


 "...the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than divert it." - Jonathan Swift

 

  1. Turnabout
  2. But Which Witch?
  3. Scam Artist Jailed
  4. South Africa Back in the Woo-Woo News
  5. More Polygraph Nonsense
  6. More Infrared Stuff
  7. Scientology Further Defined
  8. The Sam Harris Question
  9. Goddess at Large
  10. Strange Messages
  11. From Way Back
  12. Comments
  13. The Latest Hovind
  14. In Closing…
An Evening with DawkinsThe Amaz!ng Meeting 5 DVD Set with Bonus Critical Thinking Workshop
and Sunday Papers

Video documenting the fifth Amaz!ng meeting in Las Vegas. Speakers include: Michael Shermer, Penn and Teller, The MythBusters, John Rennie, Scott Dikkers, Phil Plait, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Neil Gershenfeld, Hal Bidlack, Richard Wiseman, Peter Sagal, Christopher Hitchens, Nick Gillespie and Ron Bailey, Eugenie Scott, Lori Lipman-Brown, Jamy Ian Swiss, James Randi, and many more! Includes all Sunday papers! 6 DVDs total spanning over 17 hours.

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TURNABOUT

It appears that the media is quickly adopting a more sensible attitude toward Uri Geller and his pretentious claims. Gone are the days when they were dazzled by his silly stories. Theyíve begun to use quotation marks on certain modifiers. In recent articles (pertinent words emphasized here in red) about his current “copyright suit,” in which he moans that the use of eight seconds of “copyrighted material” in an almost 15-minute clip violates his “rights,” he is referred to as

“psychic” Uri Geller

and another article says that

…The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged a judge Monday to dismiss a frivolous lawsuit filed by Uri Geller – the "paranormalist" famous for seemingly bending spoons with his mind – because of its blatant attempt to silence critic Brian Sapient with bogus copyright claims.

Geller's quest to shut down Sapient's criticism started when Sapient uploaded video to YouTube challenging Geller's assertions about his mental powers. The 14-minute segment came from a NOVA television program, but Geller and his corporation Explorologist Ltd. claimed the video infringed its own copyrights and had the video removed from YouTube. Sapient filed a counter-notice under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), had the video restored to YouTube, and sued Geller for misrepresentation.

Go to randi.org/uri/index.html to see this clip.

As Sapient was challenging Geller's meritless claims, Explorologist filed a separate lawsuit against Sapient. The suit includes more bogus charges, with many of them based on the assertion that Explorologist has the copyright to eight seconds of the introductory footage in the NOVA video. EFF's motion to dismiss the case points out the numerous holes in this claim, arguing that even if it were true, eight seconds is a classic fair use – especially given the critical purposes of the use. The brief also argues that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects Sapient from infringement claims and other charges in Explorologist's complaint, immunizing Sapient as the publisher of third-party content.

"Copyright law is meant to protect creative artists, not hypersensitive public figures who don't like criticism," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jason Schultz. "The First Amendment does not allow Geller or his corporation to silence legitimate discussion of his abilities."

Meanwhile, Sapient's lawsuit against Geller is still pending before the Northern District of California. The suit asks for damages due to Geller's DMCA violation, a declaratory judgment that the NOVA video does not infringe Geller's copyrights, and for Geller to be restrained from bringing any further legal action against Sapient in connection to the clip.

This use of quotation marks is to be applauded, and the tendency toward correct evaluation is obvious…





BUT WHICH WITCH?

An anonymous reader submits

I want you to sit down for this one because youíre liable to break a rib when you start laughing. As you know, Salem, Massachusetts has become something of a draw for modern day witches based on its famous past. According to some reports, 10 percent of the population in Salem are witches. Recently, these local witches got up in arms about out-of-town witches hustling in on their action. They resented visiting fortune tellers who arrived in traveling caravans during the fall Halloween season, and so they sought to enact protectionist trade laws. I now direct your attention to the following article: salemnews.com/psychicfreeforall

It is a veritable gold mine of the kind of statements that only a skeptic could truly appreciate. For example: City councilors, hoping to crack down on fraudulent fortunetellers, are trying to define exactly how a psychic can become licensed to set up shop in the Witch City. They want candidates to undergo a criminal background check and to either live in or run a business in Salem for at least a year. But many psychics want the city to go a step further – make sure they're actually qualified to predict the future. Laurie Cabot, the official witch of Salem, says:

It's become a free-for-all. Anyone who says they're psychic can come into the city. We don't even know where they come from. We don't know their qualifications

Did you catch that? The official witch of Salem is demanding a part of the licensing process, making sure that a witch is qualified to predict the future! Wouldn't that mean that NOBODY would pass the license exam, including Ms. Cabot? Alas, no. From the story:

When Cabot became the first person in Salem to be granted a fortuneteller's license decades ago, she said she first had to perform a legitimate reading in front of a police officer. "He sat down with me, I did a psychic reading, he was pleased with the reading, and I got my license," Cabot said.

A legitimate reading in front of a police officer… So Salem's cops are giving an official stamp of legitimacy to the town's witches? Guess they know what side their tourist dollars are buttered on. Doug Johnson is a psychic at Pyramid Books who wants candidates to show their experience and training before becoming licensed. He says, from the article:

Every reader in this room is legitimate. But there are nuts out there – people that are not mentally there.

Really? A woman paid more than $2,000 for readings at a Salem shop, where she was told she had a black aura around her. The psychic told the city councilors:

Then one day she came into my shop crying. I said, “You don't have a black aura. Sit down and I'll show you your aura on my machine.” And it was blue and wonderful

And, Randi, I hope your heart has fully recovered, because this next one may be hazardous to your health:

"There has to be criteria or you're going to get garbage coming here," Barbara Szafranski, the owner of Angelica of the Angels, predicted. "Everybody here is a legitimate person who's worked for years and years… When you do a reading, you hold a person's life right in your hands. We have people come to us who are willing to commit suicide, who won't go to a psychiatrist, so they come to us." The end result was that the city council did pass protectionist measures, but they do not require a test of one's ability to foretell the future. But apparently it was enough to make someone mad. Since the measure passed, the local witches have been finding dead raccoons left on their doorsteps!

Hey, the JREF – as always, dead raccoons or not – stands ready to design and conduct tests of witches, and to award our million-dollar prize. Howcum the city councilors of Salem havenít become aware of that fact, we must ask? And thereís much more on this at foxnews.com/story/0,2933,279035,00.html...

Reader Joe Niedbala adds to this item:

Thereís just so much wrong coming from so many angles on this story. Once again a town looks to money and tourist revenue over common sense, rational thinking, and the protection of its citizens and visitors from outright fraud.

I think one of the most telling and sad quotations is this:

“To put 40 psychics in the same street is outrageous,” Stathopoulos said before the meeting. “We hold people's lives in the palm of our hand sometimes.”

I have to commend the first part of the quote, though not as the speaker intended it to be taken, of course, and I am completely appalled at the notion of the second half – both with regards to the hubris and the sad reality it implies.





SCAM ARTIST JAILED

Reader Tom Considine – and a few others – alerted us to some news. Grace Uwanawich, 63, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, went by the name "Mrs. Grace,” and represented herself as a “native American” psychic. She has now pleaded guilty in circuit court to tricking clients out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and received a sentence of 18 months in jail. Sheíd talked several vulnerable middle-aged women into giving her these sums to rid themselves of curses. I suspect that ethnic and cultural backgrounds were responsible for such gullibility.

Ms. Uwanawich – that name alone should have been a tip-off! – pleaded guilty to felony theft and two counts of fortune-telling, the latter of which is a misdemeanor in Montgomery County, as well as in most other jurisdictions, though itís seldom enforced. She must also pay $257,000 in restitution to four former clients. Court records showed that this was not her first brush with the law. She was arrested in the 1990s in connection with similar scams.

Her appeal to the court was of the expected sort:

I promise in Jesus' name I'm not going to do this again… I know it sounds like I'm using Jesus. I am ashamed.

Uwanawich advertised her services by handing out fliers that promoted her psychic powers. Then, when the victims visited her at her apartment, she resorted to the old tried-and-true evidence of the curse exhibited by an egg that Uwanawich cracked in front of them, that contained blood and hair and smelled pretty bad. In the specific case used to put her away in jail, Uwanawich wiped out a Poolesville woman's bank accounts, maxed out her credit cards, and tricked her into buying a Mercedes Benz that she never got to drive. Uwanawich's daughter, Christine Miller, ended up driving that vehicle. Then Uwanawich stopped giving the woman appointments. Another of her woman victims said that Uwanawich told her that an ailing nephew would die unless she eliminated her family's curse. In amounts that grew larger, the woman had eventually given the scam artist more than $60,600.





SOUTH AFRICA BACK IN THE WOO-WOO NEWS

Readers Owen Swart and Ruaan Kellerman brought this to our attention.

A teenager, Francesca Zackey, has been featured on their local news. She is a 17-year-old girl who lives in Benoni, South Africa, and claims to have had Virgin Mary visions, a perennial favourite of teens who want attention, and unfortunately very easily accepted by the hungry public. Hundreds of faithful Christians have been visiting her house hoping to receive blessings, etc. But the story has now developed further, tragically so. A 37-year-old woman named Amal Nassif has, on the advice of Zackey, blinded herself. Zackey told her that she, too, could witness the Virgin Mary just by staring directly into the sun.

Now sheís complaining that at least four other people also damaged their eyes after being told "the lady" would make the sun spin, and thus confirm her presence to the believers. Nassif went to a renowned eye doctor, who was horrified at what he saw. “This is an absolute disaster and a tragedy," he said. "I am shattered. Apparently this has happened to other people, and must be exposed." He said that the sun's rays had burnt Nassif's eyes in the same way they burn a piece of paper when focused through a magnifying glass. Her central vision, which allows a person to focus in on certain items, is "severely damaged" in both eyes. Then he piously added:

Let's hope that God is kind to her and she recovers.

Wait a minute, doctor. Instead of invoking the same brand of claptrap that got this woman into her plight, the same sort of misguided faith that some deity would appear to her, why not stick with your expertise, and invoke medical science? Get real!

The deluded teenager Zackey says that Nassif's problem is not her fault, and that she is praying for the deluded woman. Now she claims that the sun is still spinning each day, but should only have been looked at during sunset. Brilliant. I guess you forgot to provide that divine revelation? In any case, such a stupid act can bring about that sort of damage at any hour of the day.

Well, thousands have continued to flock to Zackey – whoís obviously enjoying her stardom, since the first “sighting” in May – and they are still being encouraged to seek the lady inside the sun.

When will South Africa finally decide to join the rest of the rational world…?





MORE POLYGRAPH NONSENSE

Reader Charles Gulledge

I'm writing in reference to a recent SWIFT article at randi.org/jr/2007-05/052507.html#i6 that caught my attention. Dr. Park states that "[t]he polygraph, in fact, has ruined careers, but never uncovered a single spy." I would add that it has also cost the US Department of Defense at least one experienced and dedicated engineer, and likely many more.

While I was an engineer for a defense company, there was a security update policy. This generally meant simply filling out a few forms every 5 years to ensure that Security knew where you lived and what organizations you belonged to. Following the arrests of spies Aldrich Ames and John Walker Sr. and Jr., the 5-year updates began to include mandatory polygraphs. Whether the policy before these events included any polygraphs, I do not know, but I'm led to believe that the policy before was less stringent, being mostly for randomly selected individuals and those in sensitive positions. I would caution anyone who is asked by a DoD polygrapher whether they think polygraphy should be used to identify security threats, that citing the Aldrich Ames matter as an example of its inefficacy – as I did – is not a wise move.

My first polygraph didn't go well; nor my second; nor the interview with the polygraph supervisor sent to investigate why my tests weren't going well; nor the third and final test. During that final test, I actually had to point out to my polygrapher that, no, I did not know whether it was raining, because I couldn't see or hear anything outside the shielded room that I had been in for the preceding 4 hours. At that point, I believe I was finally labeled untestable. Despite being treated as though I was suspected of... something, I was never given any indication of whether or not I was actually under such suspicion.

On a happier note, I am quite looking forward to attending TAM 5.5. It will be my 5th, or rather 4.5th. Every TAM has been better than the last – how could it not be, when an ordinary guy like me gets to chat with James Randi and Richard Dawkins, have dinner with John Rennie, and an ice-cream with Phil Plait, not to mention the dozens of new friends my wife and I have made in the last 4 years. I expect nothing less amazing of TAM 5.5, even in its abbreviated form.





MORE INFRARED STUFF

Re last weekís discussions of remote-control devices, reader Gary Mussar writes:

I do remember using a TV with a sonic remote. It wasn't ultra-sonic because I could definitely hear it (but I was much younger then). And yes, jingling keys would change channels, etc. The deployment of infrared (IR) remotes changed all that. The system was more robust, however even infra-red remotes can exhibit unusual behavior.

I had an old Sony TV with an infrared remote that would turn off/on by itself. I didn't search for ghostly causes since that bothered the engineer in me. I tried shutting the curtains to try and prevent stray signals from neighbors from interfering – with no success.

I covered the IR sensor on the TV with black tape and that seemed to stop the behavior but that also meant I couldn't use the remote, which bothered the lazy man in me. This did seem to indicate that it was an external signal causing the problem, and the signal was likely IR rather that some other kind of electrical interference. We were close to some powerful radio station transmitters. It was a big step forward in the search.

I tried hiding the remote, with no success. This seemed to indicate that it wasn't the remote malfunctioning.

After months of trying stuff, I finally clued in to the fact that the weirdness always occurred shortly after I turned on the lights in the TV room. We had switched to compact fluorescent bulbs and I found that some of these bulbs emit a large amount of garbage IR as they warm up. At some point during the warm up, the garbage IR was interpreted by the TV sensor as on on/off signal. I recently found that my PDA – which has an optional IR keyboard – is also affected by compact fluorescents as they warm up.

I am slightly saddened that your JREF prize is currently safe from our magic TV.

Well, it wasnít in any real danger, Gary…





SCIENTOLOGY FURTHER DEFINED

Reader David Rice:

The "Association of Human Detoxification Specialists," and the “International Academy of Detoxification Specialists” are not “Scientology offshoots" – this is Scientology. The two Scientology front groups, and hundreds of others, are run by ABLE, which is itself a front group for Scientology Inc.'s "Sea Org." The so-called "New York City Detox Center" has been criticized by physicians as dangerous and worthless, yet the City has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars into Scientology Inc.'s coffers to "detox" the city's fire fighters and emergency care providers.

Probably a “faith-based” decision, David…





THE SAM HARRIS QUESTION

Iíve recently been advised by several readers that my acceptance of Sam Harris – author of The End of Faith – might be unwise. To them Iíll answer, no, but Iím cautious about some of his personal beliefs in other directions. I just canít understand how such an accomplished author can have gaping blind spots in his belief spectrum, though Iím not a stranger to that phenomenon. Many times, following one of my lectures, Iíve been approached by an academic who says something like: “While I agree with your assessment of Sylvia Browne, UFOs, and homeopathy, Mr. Randi, I saw a book written about the Bermuda Triangle, and it was very convincing!”

Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, made a comment that rather disturbed me. I admit that I put the feeling aside rather than immediately addressing it, perhaps in hope that something else would be said to neutralize what I saw as a collapse of Mr. Harrisí critical thinking faculty. That comment was:

There also seems to be a body of data attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena, much of which has been ignored by mainstream science. The dictum that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" remains a reasonable guide in these areas, but this does not mean that the universe isn't far stranger than many of us suppose. It is important to realize that a healthy, scientific skepticism is compatible with a fundamental openness of mind.

Iíll repeat myself on that last sentence: an open mind, yes, but not gaping hole through which reason leaks out and blind belief seeps in to replace it. In a footnote to the above paragraph, Sam Harris refers us to Dean Radinís The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, Rupert Sheldrakeís The Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind and to other books, as his authority for having such a belief. Then he adds this astonishing – certainly for him – proposition:

There may even be some credible evidence for reincarnation.

Itís very evident that Mr. Harris has not carefully examined either Radinís book, or anything written by Sheldrake. If he had subjected that material to the same proper scrutiny which he applied to religion and the “God” question he so well handled, Iím sure heíd have come to the same conclusions that I have – that thereís nothing in them, that thereís no “reality” to psychic phenomena, nor to reincarnation, other than the conviction of some incautious or seriously deluded individuals who can attract publishers who know the naivety of the book market.

Mr. Harris also has an attraction to mysticism, particularly to Eastern aspects of it, and appears to give credence to some of its tenets. To my mind, metaphysical claims and notions that result from mystical “experiences” – which can take place entirely within the individuals mind – cannot be accepted without accompanying, supporting, strong, empirical evidence. Surely that is not too much to ask?





GODDESS AT LARGE

An anonymous reader tells us:

Hereís a story about a girl who was declared to be inhabited by a goddess. It doesn't seem as harmful as it could be, but people give money to the girl's family and ask for good fortune. It doesn't seem as bad as the "god men" you have written about. I also saw this story mentioned on ABC news which treated the girl as if she were the real thing, probably out of "cultural respect."

The worshiped goddess supposedly enters the girl's body, just hangs around inside the girl for a while, and then leaves. I wonder if the Hindu and Buddhist priests that identified her – if kept separate – could tell exactly when the goddess leaves the girl. I wonder if the girl could tell when the goddess leaves her body – or is even there to begin with. The mention of reaching puberty gives me some ideas. I would hate for anyone to waste their money and get a false blessing from the girl.

Weíre sent to iht.com/articles/2007/06/14/news/goddess.php for the story...





STRANGE MESSAGES

Reader Sheldon Helms refers us to sj-r.com/sections/news/stories/116767.asp to learn of the latest technological miracle, which Sheldon has quite well in perspective…

I thought of you recently when reading this story out of Palatine, Illinois. It seems that an elementary school science teacher has been monitoring more than just her infant on a newly purchased “baby monitor.” Since Sunday, she's been able to view video of NASA astronauts in the space shuttle Atlantis..

One can only imagine how a grainier picture being picked up on equipment owned by a less rational person might have played out in the media. A strict Catholic may have claimed to be seeing images of the Virgin Mary. A UFOlogist may have claimed to have irrefutable proof of little men in space. And we can only speculate how it all might be explained by a Scientologist – perhaps another visit from Xenu?

At any rate, I'm sure this story won't garner nearly as much interest as the numerous loonies who believe their coffee pots or other appliances are sending them messages from Beyond, but it's cute nonetheless.

At least this scenario involves tuned circuits, which percolators can only aspire to. I donít find it difficult to accept that certain frequencies – or harmonics thereof – can be picked up unexpectedly by one of the myriad of receivers available today. Such monitors are available in frequencies from 49 MHz to 2.4 GHz. Maybe the CIA should drop a few into Afghanistan and Iraq…?





FROM WAY BACK

Reader Garth Atkinson of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, takes me back to another phase of my life, when radio featured largely in my activities via Long John Nebel and his guests. Garth writes:

You certainly don't know me, nor are you likely to meet me, however... before either one of us kicks the bucket – I'm 64 – I want to thank you for your contribution to my education.

As a young teenager in a tiny fishing village in Nova Scotia I began listening to Long John's Party Line on WOR and later on WNBC. The “skip” is great from 1 a.m. (midnight in NYC) to about 4 a.m., later in the winter.

The “skip” referred to is the Heavyside Layer Effect in which AM radio signals are inadvertently reflected to remote localities. And WOR-AM had a 100,000-watt signal in those days…!

As the show evolved from people like "The Mystic Barber" (The Mystic Tonsorial artist of Brooklyn) and all the flying saucer abductees, etc., I was fascinated with the level of knowledge and wisdom that I found coming from people like yourself, Lester Del Rey, Fred Pohl and many others, even Al Lotman, in his calmer moments. This was my first exposure to eclectic chat among fine minds with broad knowledge.

I later attended university and worked in many fields, but my first and most effective exposure to a world that was not to be experienced in my little fishing community was with that program and the one you later had.

Guilty as charged. I inherited the show from Nebel when he suddenly switched to WNBC. I carried on there for almost two years, until I was removed under strange circumstances. But thatís another matter altogether, for another time…

I feel sad now that I never said this to Mr. Nebel while he was alive... Not that it would have meant a lot to him but that I feel one should offer thanks for a kindness one receives, even though it may have been unintended.

You are to be congratulated, as well, for the wonderful work you have done and are still doing to debunk the charlatans and idiots among us and promote rational and critical thought. Thanks... and may you continue your work in good health 'til you're a hundred!

Only a hundred, Garth? Iíve planned beyond that point…!





COMMENTS

A few responses to the latest Swift from reader “David”:

You mention the British "Braniac" television programme. While its dowsing trial seems to have been fair, there have been cases where they've "sexed up" the experiments (read explosions) to make better television. Ben Goldacre has covered this before at badscience.net/?cat=58

Also, your piece on Adam Dreamhealer brought something to mind. Dr. Schwarc z's column said...

And suddenly, there it was! A four foot tall black bird staring at Adam. Surely a sight that would make any ornithologist's mouth water. In any case, faster than you can say Google, the bird downloaded all the information in the universe, whatever that may mean, into the teenager's brain, and his healing career took flight.

This sounds a lot like "the Guide Mark II" which appears in the form of a large black bird in Douglas Adams' "Mostly Harmless", the fifth book in the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. The guide/bird is essentially omniscient. I wonder if Adam read Adams' book when he was younger. It was published when he was five years old, or so.

Well, it would be interesting if someone were to look up that Adams material and compare it with the silly story Adam is offering…





THE LATEST HOVIND

Reader Jim McGuire of Hanover, Pennsylvania, writes:

As an avid SWIFT reader, I want to first express my deepest thanks for your fine work in promoting skepticism and rational thought. Your example of intellectual honesty should be an inspiration to us all.

I thought you might be interested in this recent post on the CSE (Creation Science Evangelism) blog: cseblogs.com/?p=75 As you probably know, CSE was founded in 1989 by "Dr." Kent Hovind, AKA "Doctor Dino." Surely one of the most (in)famous hucksters of Young Earth Creationism, Hovind is now enjoying the hospitality of the Federal Correctional Institution in Edgefield, SC, having been convicted as a Federal tax cheat in July 2006.

This revealing blog entry not only updates us on Hovind's current status, but also includes a fascinating transcript of a recent conversation the erstwhile minister had with the Almighty Himself. This is truly a must-read.

I am reminded of a half-humorous warning I received many years ago: It's okay to talk to yourself, but you should start to worry if you begin to answer back.





IN CLOSING…

Reader John Shawe Williams, of Lovelady, Texas, shares this with us:

On Wednesday evening, I was mowing the grass at my mother-in-law's house at about 7:00 in the evening. I prefer to mow in the evening whenever possible, as summers in Texas get quite hot in the afternoon. Well, there was church having services about 2 blocks down at this same time. My lawn mower is not particularly loud, so I didn't believe it would be a problem, but apparently I was making too much noise for the congregation to conduct whatever it is they do. A man approached me while I was mowing and said "Excuse me, sir, but we are having church down the road and your lawn mower is making too much noise. We prayed, and we believe God has instructed us to please ask you to stop until we are through." I was taken aback a little, but I apologized. I then asked the man what should I do if I prayed and felt God wanted me to mow the grass right now. He replied "Well, as there are many more people in our congregation, I would think he would listen to our prayers first." Hard to argue with that kind of "logic." I probably would have stopped mowing, but after that elitist comment, I told him I don't believe a deity (if one exists, which I doubt) would take the time out of his busy schedule to worry about some lawnmower being too loud. He stared at me a while and walked away, muttering "Some people just can't be helped." My thoughts, exactly.

P.S. I finished mowing my grass.

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