September 28, 2007
Reader Chris Longridge writes, re last week’s item at tinyurl.com/2usrsb, thus rescuing me from two serious errors:
Referring to an item on Swift this week about the removal of certain historical figures from the National Curriculum, can I draw your attention to a couple of errors? First you say that "history seems to be a flexible subject of study Down Under." The story may have been sourced from an Australian news feed, but the mention of Ed Balls, the Children, Family and Schools Minister of Great Britain, indicates that it refers to the British education system, not the Australian one.
Well and truly observed, Chris, and within hours of the page going up, we made the appropriate corrections, as I’m sure you have now noted. Next…?
Second, the "national curriculum" has caused great debate among teachers, government and parents since its inception. The view among many teachers is that the highly prescriptive system restricts their ability as – in theory – experts to teach the subject as they see fit; others, with reason, argue that it prevents bad teachers from deviating from the important topics.
The removal of Churchill, Henry VIII, etc., from the curriculum does not mean they will not be taught, but simply that it is not a government requirement that they be taught. I am not a teacher; others would be able to comment on this with greater knowledge. Here is a spokesman from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, quoted in the Canada Free Press at tinyurl.com/2dgsr8:
I would also take issue with the satirical comment you quote – and endorse? "I sure am glad William Wilberforce will not be forgotten." Wilberforce was not merely instrumental in ending the practice of slavery in the British Empire, he was practically solely responsible for it. He is a greatly overlooked historical figure. I'm not arguing that Churchill and the Tudors were historical minnows, here, you understand – but if you're looking for historical figures to celebrate, Wilberforce deserves to be counted among the significant.
Point made, Chris. I was only pointing out the great difference in rank between the major historical characters who had been – almost – demoted, and Wilberforce – who is, as you say, a much-overlooked actor in the world drama. Your comments are happily received and noted.
Which makes me once more acknowledge the debt the JREF owes to the 20,000+-a-week readers of SWIFT; without you riding herd on our items, we’d have – inadvertently – misinformed the public, on occasion. We thank all of you for watching the contents of SWIFT, and you’ll note that we make corrections as soon as we possibly can.
A JUSTIFIED COMPLAINT
Reader Rob Green tells us:
It is hard to believe that a credible organization like thestreet.com ran an article like this, but then again, perhaps not. In any event I sent them the comment below which you might appreciate.
Rob saw the article in a stock-trading publication – to be found at tinyurl.com/329nru – and here’s what he wrote to them in response:.
Nice job promoting quackery aka Homeopathic "medicine"! It is absolutely irresponsible for you to promote Homeopathy as a viable medicine. There has been, to date, not one iota of scientific proof of any Homeopathic "cures." In fact, when most are scrutinized using actual scientific methods, they fail. “Scientific” means double-blind testing. Feeling better does not constitute a proof, ever.
I'm not a physician, nor am I in any way involved in the health care field. I'm just tired of seeing nonsense and fantasy promoted as fact. It is nothing more then stealing from the consumer and it discredits your fine publications when you print this type of article.
The author of this puff-piece in The Street, Penelope Dane, is described as a “writer and sociologist living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, currently working on her M.F.A. in fiction…” Perhaps Ms. Dane’s skills do not encompass non-fiction, since she has also raved in print over the “Feldenkrais Method” – another “alternative” notion that parallels Reiki and various other quack ideas. In fact, Penelope seems here to have taken her material straight from the standard homeopathic literature, without question or qualm. She expresses not the slightest doubt about either homeopathy or the Feldenkrais idea, and we can expect that she’ll next be extolling palmistry, Tarot reading and astrology as established facts about the universe she so blissfully inhabits.
MORE CABLE NONSENSE
Several readers alerted us to yet another hilarious and preposterous situation in the “audiophile” business, which we have referred to frequently simply because if some of their claims were true, they would be paranormal. Here’s another such.
Monster Cable – a company that turns out a fine line of products, but not untinged with the woo-woo flavor, sells a set of $80 HDMI [High Definition Multimedia Interface] cables, designed to handle new signals brought about by the advent of High Definition TV. I thought that was a heavy price to be asking – no, I didn’t invest! – but now we see that the Pear Cable company is advertising a pair of 12-foot “Anjou” audio cables for $7,250; that’s $302 a foot! And, as expected, “experts” were approached for their opinions on the performance of these wonders. Excerpts:
…way better than anything I have heard…Simply put these are very danceable cables. Music playing through them results in the proverbial foot-tapping scene with the need or desire to get up and move. Great swing and pace – these cables smack that right on the nose big time.
…simply way better than anything I have heard prior to their audition.
Well, we at the JREF are willing to be shown that these “no-compromise” cables perform better than, say, the equivalent Monster cables. While Pear rattles on about “capacitance,” “inductance,” “skin effect,” “mechanical integrity” and “radio frequency interface,” – all real qualities and concerns, and adored by the hi-fi nut-cases – we naively believe that a product should be judged by its actual performance, not by qualities that can only be perceived by attentive dogs or by hi-tech instrumentation. That said, we offer the JREF million-dollar prize to – for example – Dave Clark, Editor of the audio review publication Positive Feedback Online, who provided the above rave review. If Mr. Clark should choose to apply for the prize, he would be unlike John Atkinson of Stereophile Magazine – see randi.org/jr/121004science.html#11 – who made great noises about being ready to snap up the million, then got distracted by things such as gullible readers who accepted his claimed abilities, and backed out. But we’ll see…
RE STEINER SCHOOLS
Reader Andrew Kelly – apparently resident in Australia – comments on last week’s Steiner Schools discussion:
Always a great great pleasure to drop in to Swift every week to see what’s happening in the wider world. I’ve long recommended your website to my secondary science students, and must have printed out Kari Coleman’s "My Psychic Adventure" a dozen times to give to various students.
I was a little taken aback this week to see your report on Steiner Schools in the Victorian Education System – taken aback only because I think the school being referred to is around the corner from me, and my two children went there for most of their primary education.
The school was, until around 7 years ago, a standard inner suburban primary school. A group of local parents lobbied to have a Steiner stream introduced – the school continues to be run under the capable auspices of the Victorian education system. I think it’s a fairly liberal interpretation of the Steiner philosophy – most of the parents, and many of the staff would have concerns over some of Steiner’s philosophies – his entire philosophy is certainly not the basis of the education at this small school. Much of Steiner’s woo-woo –and I certainly think there is plenty – never arises. Other aspects, such as the focus on kids’ individual developments, are ever present.
My kids have turned out to be well rounded, woo-woo free, critical, thoughtful kids – and I think I can say that about all their friends.
None of these children or their parents are Anthroposophists, to the best of my knowledge. Both my kids have seen and enjoyed many of your YouTube videos. My elder has started the long journey through Gardner, Asimov, Gould, Dawkins and so forth, and is avowedly atheistic and rational. If there was ever a debate about Steiner’s oddest thoughts, my children and I would both argue strongly against them, but if the debate was whether the local school had done a good job in educating the children in the Steiner stream, we would all strongly argue it had.
It’s important to note that the school functions well on a day-to-day basis. A visitor would not notice any odd events in any part of the school. A small, vocal, powerful group have taken it upon themselves to destroy this stream of education, and most other parents simply don’t see the issue. If they don’t like it, there are a dozen other small schools within a few kilometres, all of these with their own particular strengths and failings.
I hope you can realize that this particular situation is a little more tainted by local politics than it is by an unthinking embrace of the irrational.
Again, thanks for your column and your work.
I just chatted to my kids about your article and this response – when I asked them if they knew who you were, they said, "Yeah, he was the guy who made that kung fu guy look like an idiot with those styrofoam balls."
Umm, Andrew, James Hydrick was defeated by my use of Styrofoam packing “peanuts,” and that personal reference might be taken incorrectly, since I don’t know the man quite that well – but I’m flattered that your obviously well-educated and perceptive kids are aware of my work. Also, your reference to schools being run under the “Victorian education system” might be misconstrued by the average international reader who fails to place you in Australia, and might therefore believe that your present educational system is stuck about a century in the past…
As for your interesting and informative description and evaluation of the Steiner schools, I must say that it differs refreshingly from my personal experience with such outlets in Europe – and peripherally, in the USA – which gave me a very poor impression indeed. As I mentioned, astrology was being taught as a legitimate field of study, there were forays into the woods to discover spirits and “vibrations” in trees and under rocks, and woo-woo was generally rampant. I appreciate that the Victorian acceptance of Steiner methods appears to have provided a much different picture from that which my impressions provided in Europe, and I must say that this would not be the first time that a rather shaky premise has given rise to a firm, useful, and legitimate discipline. I am much edified.
Certainly, self-reliance, individuality, and deep curiosity about the world should be encouraged in children, and now that certain problems such as objections to childhood immunization and the old separation-of-Church-and-State contention – parts of the muddled public view of the schools – are being handled to everyone’s satisfaction, I applaud the fact that you have a viable Steiner system in place and at work in Victoria.
Australia, that is!
THIS IS LAW?
Law student and reader Nathan Hendrickson reveals to us just how frivolous the law can appear to be, to the rational observer. By the way, in this text, to “estop” means to prevent a person from asserting a claim that is inconsistent with a previously taken position. Just so you know… Says Nathan:
I ran across this case during my spring semester “property law” class. A "legally" haunted house. In a nutshell, the fact that the house was "haunted" should have been made known to a potential buyer, as this affects the value of the home.
Here is the Legalese provided by Nathan that expresses the court’s handling of the case:
Stambovsky v. Ackley, July 18, 1991. Purchaser of home brought action against vendor and broker for rescission [revocation] and damages. The Supreme Court, New York County… dismissed, and purchaser appealed. The Supreme Court, Appellate Division… held that: (1) vendor was estopped to deny existence of poltergeists on the premises, so that house was haunted as a matter of law; (2) equitable remedy of rescission was available; (3) vendor who had undertaken to inform the public at large about the existence of poltergeists had a duty to inform purchaser; (4) haunting is not a condition which can and should be ascertained by reasonable inspection of the premises; but (5) there was no cause of action against the broker.
Plaintiff, to his horror, discovered that the house he had recently contracted to purchase was widely reputed to be possessed by poltergeists, reportedly seen by defendant seller and members of her family on numerous occasions over the last nine years. Plaintiff promptly commenced this action seeking rescission of the contract of sale. Supreme Court reluctantly dismissed the complaint, holding that plaintiff has no remedy at law in this jurisdiction.
The unusual facts of this case, as disclosed by the record, clearly warrant a grant of equitable relief to the buyer who, as a resident of New York City, cannot be expected to have any familiarity with the folklore of the Village of Nyack. Not being a "local," plaintiff could not readily learn that the home he had contracted to purchase is haunted. Whether the source of the spectral apparitions seen by defendant seller are parapsychic [nearly-psychic] or psychogenic [imaginary], having reported their presence in both a national publication ("Readers’ Digest") and the local press (in 1977 and 1982, respectively), defendant is estopped to deny their existence and, as a matter of law, the house is haunted. More to the point, however, no divination is required to conclude that it is defendant’s promotional efforts in publicizing her close encounters with these spirits which fostered the home’s reputation in the community. In 1989, the house was included in a five-home walking tour of Nyack and described in a November 27th newspaper article as "a riverfront Victorian (with ghost)." The impact of the reputation thus created goes to the very essence of the bargain between the parties, greatly impairing both the value of the property and its potential for resale. The extent of this impairment may be presumed for the purpose of reviewing the disposition of this motion to dismiss the cause of action for rescission and represents merely an issue of fact for resolution at trial.
While I agree with Supreme Court that the real estate broker, as agent for the seller, is under no duty to disclose to a potential buyer the phantasmal reputation of the premises and that, in his pursuit of a legal remedy for fraudulent misrepresentation against the seller, plaintiff hasn’t a ghost of a chance, I am nevertheless moved by the spirit of equity to allow the buyer to seek rescission of the contract of sale and recovery of his downpayment. New York law fails to recognize any remedy for damages incurred as a result of the seller’s mere silence, applying instead the strict rule of caveat emptor. Therefore, the theoretical basis for granting relief, even under the extraordinary facts of this case, is elusive if not ephemeral.
"Pity me not but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold" (William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene V [Ghost]).
From the perspective of a person in the position of plaintiff herein, a very practical problem arises with respect to the discovery of a paranormal phenomenon: "Who you gonna’ call?" as the title song to the movie "Ghostbusters" asks. Applying the strict rule of caveat emptor to a contract involving a house possessed by poltergeists conjures up visions of a psychic or medium routinely accompanying the structural engineer and Terminix man on an inspection of every home subject to a contract of sale. It portends that the prudent attorney will establish an escrow account lest the subject of the transaction come back to haunt him and his client – or pray that his malpractice insurance coverage extends to supernatural disasters. In the interest of avoiding such untenable consequences, the notion that a haunting is a condition which can and should be ascertained upon reasonable inspection of the premises is a hobgoblin which should be exorcised from the body of legal precedent and laid quietly to rest.
It has been suggested by a leading authority that the ancient rule which holds that mere non-disclosure does not constitute actionable misrepresentation "finds proper application in cases where the fact undisclosed is patent, or the plaintiff has equal opportunities for obtaining information which he may be expected to utilize, or the defendant has no reason to think that he is acting under any misapprehension." However, with respect to transactions in real estate, New York adheres to the doctrine of caveat emptor and imposes no duty upon the vendor to disclose any information concerning the premises unless there is a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the parties.
Since the court chose to quote a ghost from Shakespeare – 1564-1616, I will invoke the wisdom of a perhaps better-informed author, Horace Smith (Paul Chatfield) 1779-1849:
The appearance of a ghost is the result of a disordered nervous system, or a vivid imagination, assisted by a little credulity and judiciously mixed with a moderate dose of mental anxiety.
Please note that though the court language plainly refers to the local “folklore,” it also uses the terms “poltergeist,” “possessed,” “haunting,” “divination,” and “spirits” as if these were established facts, rather than terms of superstition. The cutesy puns and bad jokes, and the trivial handling of the facts, seems out of place in a serious document that announces a legal decision affecting the assets of both the defendant and the plaintiff, regardless of how hugely amused the decision-makers were. If they want such amusement, they should look for it in Judge Judy’s court…
However, with the present administration, I’d not be at all surprised to learn that a ghost-buster could actually be called upon to declare on the existence of a spirit entity that might affect – negatively or positively! – the value of a property.
I can’t resist placing my own bad joke here: Could it not be argued, in this case, that possession is nine-tenths of the law? You see, there is another meaning to “possession”…
HERE IT IS
Our most excellent Aussie friend Richard Saunders has prepared a wonderful video - to be seen at in all its glory - giving explicit instructions on how to make your very own Pigasus origami figure. We're most grateful to Richard for this tribute to flying pigs everywhere, and we thank him for his work in inventing and designing this remarkable figure. Have fun with it! www.youtube.com/watch?v=DmAS6Am94I0
RANDI THE MOVIE
What you’ve all been waiting for, breathlessly! Here’s an animated sequence - generously prepared by astronomer Rick Johnson - of fearless asteroid Randi touring the constellation Aquarius and all the rest of the planetoids in that crowded belt. Heedless of the possibility of colliding with another such object, sailing on bravely in space, here’s a brief glimpse of what was previously known as “QM 1981.” The brief flash across the upper left of the frame is a passing satellite or bit of space junk...
Finally, I ask you to sample some of the stunning material that Robert Lancaster has up on his page about Sylvia Browne. Go to tinyurl.com/2mf6yg and prepare yourself for a ride through reality, an adventure in dismay at the true character of Browne and her minions. And, please recall, Robert will be a major speaker at TAM 5.5 – which can be reviewed at tinyurl.com/2fs6gr. This dedicated man will have startling facts about Browne to reveal to us, and I must say that he has pretty well taken on the role of Nemesis for this woman. You’ll be able to question Robert personally at TAM 5.5, so come prepared to be astonished.
I’ll be doing a special session at TAM 5.5 in which I’ll perform ALL of Uri Geller’s routines, as well – in detail, with complete explanations. Since Geller first came upon the woo-woo scene – 34 years ago! – he has generated millions of words of media attention, all based on a handful of simple tricks that some magicians have since adopted into their repertoires. I’ll go into the psychology of the deception, how the TV hosts and media were bamboozled, and how the teeny-boppers got captivated by the Israeli Wonder. You’ll be able to ask questions, get specifics, and see – up-close – just how these flummeries were accomplished. So get your applications in for TAM 5.5, and be equipped to bore your family and friends with Stupid Psychic Tricks…!
Finally, I’m sure you’ll recall that President Jimmy Carter is supposed to have seen a UFO back in 1969. He described it as bright point of sparkling light. Just to show how even an honest man can change a story, read this most recent account:
The town hall ended with an off-beat question about UFOs and Playboy magazine. Amid the audience’s laughter, Carter described the encounter with a UFO that he had mentioned in an interview with Playboy magazine. He said the UFO had a disk-like shape and changed colors, going from red to blue to white.
“Disk-like shape,” Jimmy…? We’ve read many different dates and several different descriptions of that specific event, but this is the first time it had a shape…!
THIS JUST IN: For readers of SWIFT only: Todd Robbins’ show The Charlatan's Seance is opening at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, NJ. They will be doing previews this week Tuesday through Friday at 7pm, and he’s arranged for free tickets to these performances. All JREFers have to do is call the box office at 732.345.1400 and say "Houdini". For more info about the show go to www.trtc.org/pages/1season/tartuffe.html
©James Randi Educational Foundation
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