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Archive for the 'Fortean' Category

Erich von Daniken: Fraud, Lies and Bananas

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To me this is the most incredible, fantastic story of the century”, wrote Swiss author Erich von Daniken in his 1973 book, The Gold of the Gods.. “It could easily have come straight from the realms of Science Fiction if I had not seen and photographed the incredible truth in person. What I saw was not the product of dreams or imagination, it was real and tangible”, he emphasized.

Daniken gave an excited first person account of this expedition guided by fellow Juan Moricz, and the incredible wonders he saw for himself. Only thing is, shortly after the book was published, Moricz disauthorized the Charioteer and told German newspapers Däniken had never been to the caves “unless it was in a flying saucer. If he claims to have seen the [golden] library and the other things himself then that’s a lie”.

And in the NOVA/Horizon documentary above, The Case of the Ancient Astronauts (1977), around 40 minutes on, you can see Däniken himself admitting these things described in his book didn’t actually happen. It’s wonderful seeing how he express some discomfort, but does not seem terribly disturbed confessing he simply made up the “incredible real and tangible truth”;.

According to him, those were simple literary “effects” and “small details” that an author was allowed to use. Not only did he invent his visit to the caves, despite the persevering search for what is yet another version of El Dorado, all suggests Moricz himself also invented everything. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but when those who claim to have seen those wonders come up with excuses like “they were too heavy to take out”, “the world is not yet prepared to know it” or that even simple photos “wouldn’t prove anything anyway”, one can reasonably disregard the subject until something solid comes up.

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That was not actually the first time Däniken somewhat candidly confessed making things up. Previously, in a wonderful interview by Timothy Ferris published on Playboy, August 1974, after being presented as a three times convicted criminal – one for stealing and twice for fraud –confronted with someone who contrary to him, had done his homework, Däniken concedes again and again how little he knew of the subjects he wrote about.

You can read a full scan of the interview here. And in the end, Däniken actually admits he was not entirely serious on what he wrote:

Ferris: A last question comes to mind because of our favorite of your theories – the one in Gold of the Gods in which you suggest that the banana was brought to Earth from space.

Ferris is referring to this excerpt, from the same book with the imaginary expedition to the non-existent golden caves:

“The banana, a delicious item of food, has been known in every tropical and subtropical region of the earth for many thousands of years. The Indian saga tells of the "wonderful Kandali" (= banana bush) which the "Manu," the loftiest spirits and protectors of mankind, brought to our planet from another star which was much further along the path of evolution than our earth. But a banana bush or banana tree simply does not exist! The banana is an annual plant which does not multiply by seeds, which it does not possess, but by suckers. Looked at in this light, the banana is a problem. It is found on even the most remote South Sea islands. How did this plant, which is so vital for the nourishment of mankind, originate? How did it make its way round the world, seeing that it has no seeds? Did the "Manu," of whom the Indian saga tells, bring it with them from another star-as an all-round foodstuff?”

And Ferris straightly asks: “Were you serious?” Von Däniken answers:

Von Daniken: No, and not many people realize that.”

The best part ends the brilliant interview:

Ferris: That leads us to ask if all your writing is a put-on. Are you, as one writer suggested, ‘the most brilliant satirist in German literature for a century’?

Von Daniken: The answer is yes and no. We have a wonderful term in German: jein. It’s a combination of ja and nein, yes and no. In some part, absolutely not; I mean what I say seriously. In other ways, I mean to make people laugh.

Ferris: Well, you’ve succeeded in both aims.”

ha ha! [with thanks to Carlos Bella for suggesting the 1977 documentary online]

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Sheep Cyclones, Ant Death Spirals, Ouroboros and Alien Hands

The meme is my shepherd. Or at least it is sheepherding these wooly creatures which, probably scared by the auto, attempt to run faster and faster one after another without realizing they are in the end only circling the car itself.

This particular situation where herd behavior can reinforce itself is reminiscent of Richard Dawkins’ concept of meme, and it does illustrate how a self-replicating-behavior can flourish even in detriment of the hosts, in the case, the sheep. I found it particularly amusing since this video seems to demonstrate in practice how “mysterious” sheep circles may emerge (click on the image for the Daily Mail take on the issue)

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This is an actual phenomenon (link with more recorded instances). And the detrimental effect on the host is also demonstrated on another instance of it, in another species where individuals are even more prone to following one another.

It was first described as a ant mill, and they can be quite considerable in size, reaching more than a thousand feet in circumference. But an “ant death spiral” is a much more interesting name, and it does express the fact this self-reinforcing behavior will lead to the eventual death of the ants by exhaustion. Sheep seem to be a bit more sophisticated in this aspect.

The mills, circles or “death spirals” can also be seen in caterpillars and fish, but these are all instances of individuals following one another and collectively falling into a never-ending loop. Since we are making connections here, we can also point out to this adorable waltzing cat:

As anyone who has seen a cat or a dog try to catch their own tail, like an Ouroboros Serpent, they seem to fail to realize it’s their own tail they are catching. It’s as if they are not aware of their own body, and the tail has a mind of its own. With this fragmented existence, a self-reinforcing cat waltz may form.

Which in turn takes us to the story of Karen Byrne. “Her left hand, and occasionally her left leg, behaves as if it were under the control of an alien intelligence. Karen’s condition is fascinating, not just because it is so strange but because it tells us something surprising about how our own brains work”, tells Dr Michael Mosley. Click the image for a nice summary of the Alien Hand Syndrome and a video of Byrne’s “alien” hand actually attacking herself.

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This, like many other neurological conditions, does offer a glimpse of our brains. Alien hands can exhibit quite complex behaviors which are not perceived as being initiated by the person. Your brain can do that, and yet, despite them being felt as alien, it’s part of yourself, it’s just that a drastic brain surgery can upset the delicate balance of the sense of agency. But when you find yourself whistling a tune or tapping the table without even noticing, right there is a very subtle disconnection of the sense of agency showing itself in everyday situations. Along with the sense of ownership, it can also be manipulated.

Plato and Freud created allegories of the soul and mind as a chariot with conflicting horses and drivers, but our mind can be much more fragmented than just two, three our four parts. Perhaps a herd of several sheep, or thousands of army ants may be a more appropriate (and fun) allegory for our billions of neurons, with all the cautionary warnings that sheep circles and ant death spirals may raise.

That one single self is constructed from that is part of the greatest illusion of all.

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iPhones of the Gods?

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Why did the genie in the story of Aladdin come out after rubbing a lamp, or, in the more original version of the tale, a ring? Wouldn’t a button or a lever be more appropriated? When I originally asked that question in an essay some years ago, the answer I expected was different from the ones we will get now.

Thanks to touch screen smartphones, millions of people slide, and effectively rub their fingers to unlock their devices. Aladdin’s tale has come to a technological reality. And if you think about it, rubbing a lamp was an interface that actually made some sense. Any mechanical system would be more prone to failure, so having a way for the user to interact with the lamp without any mechanical parts such as a button or lever would be a good design, something the people of The Long Now Foundation have to ponder.

But few people would make the association. And even the ones that do would seldom infer that this would be evidence the origins of Arabian Nights had something to do with ancient Steve Jobses of advanced technological civilizations – be they Atlantis or from beyond Zeta Reticulli.

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Yet, Aladdin is not alone. Snow White also portrays a smart magic mirror, something still not quite ubiquitous, but that will probably soon be seen everywhere, as computers get cheaper and cheaper – you can see above a proof of concept, the only thing stopping me from buying one is the price.  The list could go on, Sleeping Beauty was not sleeping, as she did not age, she was on suspended animation or stasis.

To us, these fairy tales have been presented as the fantasy they are. The same is not true for some religious texts, such as the popular – among Ancient Astronauts enthusiasts – story of Ezekiel. One engineer even tried to reconstruct the spaceship he proposes Ezekiel saw.

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But that is not much different from thinking Aladdin had an actual iPhone. Ezekiel’s vision is in fact deeply rooted in the context of the age, and every detail of the “spaceship” can be traced to contemporary symbols, as Mike Heiser shows.

Living in a technological world, we tend to interpret everything in technological terms. And it’s amazing that our technology allow us to create so many things that some centuries ago could only be seen as magic, or some millennia ago were evidence of the power of the one true God.

Arthur C. Clarke formulated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, but from that we must realize the opposite is also true, magic can be indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology, even if the magic is pure fantasy.

Sometimes, magic is just magic.

[I originally wrote a piece on Aladdin’s lamp in Portuguese before the introduction of the iPhone. In the end of the essay I suggested that if someone knew how to create a technological flying carpet they could become billionaires. Little did I know that the interface for the lamp I had just elaborated on was actually closer to a real money-making application. Should have tried to patent it;]

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Mysterious severed feet and the Crazy Statistician

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Since August 2007, eleven detached feet have been found in the borderland of British Columbia, Canada, and Washington, United States. They had been disarticulated and no bodies have been found, despite the even more bizarre fact that all of them were wearing sneakers. Some of them even sported socks.

Asked by the press, experts called the series of discoveries “astounding” and “almost beyond explanation”. Unusual theories were brought to surface, ranging from a shipwreck or an airplane crash, from which the corpses have never been recovered, to the one claiming that the feet could have come from the 2004 Tsunami in the distant island of Indonesia. In fact, one of the feet was wearing a sneaker sold mainly in India, and almost all of the sneakers had been manufactured before 2004.

There was also the Hollywood inspired fear of a psychopath in action, one obsessed with cutting off feet in sneakers. The explanation, however, lies somewhere in the story of the crazy Statistician.

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Abraham Wald was a peculiar Jewish mathematician born in Europe who migrated to the USA to escape from the Nazis. Wald applied his brains to a seemingly simple task: evaluating airplanes’ vulnerability. To do so, he observed the aircrafts full of holes that came back from the front. Quite simple, right? One should reinforce the more damaged patches to give them better chances of a successful return.

However, after elaborating sophisticated analysis techniques, his unique recommendation may sound insane. Wald suggested that the patches that had not been damaged were actually the most vulnerable, and they were the ones where armour should be added first. Something like wearing a band-aid where there is no wound. What for?

The answer is in the aircraft he analysed – they were the ones that had actually returned from the front. Wald’s insight was taking took into consideration that the airplanes that had returned were the ones that had made it through all the misadventures. The holes were a tell-tale sign of the strongest spots, the ones which could resist the mishaps, not the weakest areas. It was the other way round: the pristine spots pinpointed the places that could not be hit, otherwise the planes would have been lost in combat and would never be analysed by him back at home. The ones that did return with intact weakest areas had been lucky.

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Wald’s analysis considered what is called selection bias: the data set has already been selected somehow, and a proper analysis must consider that. Here is another example: have you ever wondered why the line is never busy when when you call a wrong number?

Actually, we only realize we dialled the wrong number when someone on the other end answers the phone. We keep on our minds a very peculiar data selection. If the call is left unanswered, we hear the busy line tone without ever realizing we dialled the wrong number. An appalling mystery arises if we do not take into account that the data we are considering has been selected already by some process.

Which brings us back to the severed feet mystery. The solution to this conundrum does not involve any huge accident, nor any Tsunami dragging feet along for millions of miles away, and thankfully it doesn’t involve an electric saw psychopath either.

The simple answer is that the feet belong to people that committed suicide jumping into the waters nearby the area. Those that could be identified were linked to depressed individuals who had been reported as missing. There was no sign whatsoever that the limbs had been separated with the use of any tool. On the contrary, those extremities detaches as part of the natural body decay process and the most recent foot found was still connected to the leg bones.

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But why were all of them wearing sneakers? It cannot be just by accident, and indeed it wasn’t. The truth is, sneakers are designed to be light, and so they usually float in water. The suicide victims who wear heavier shoes end up having their feet sunk to the bottom of the waters, despite being separated from the rest of the body. On the other hand, the ones who were wearing sneakers had their feet floating for a while until some of them reached the coast. The one to blame for picking the feet in sneakers is not a psychopath; it is the natural water buoyancy.

Exactly like the hit airplanes, exactly like the busy line, the cut off feet mystery is the result of a peculiar and a rather morbid selection bias. It could sound quite depressing, because it means there are many more feet out there to be found that belonged to suicidal people. Those who wear shoes will hardly ever be found.

In order not to end it on such a dark remark, it is worth pinpointing that even this article displays a biased selection. Only a story with a title that draws attention end up getting a post that you, dear curious reader, have followed so far. It worked, didn’t it? Since you are reading this far, since you have been selected, I can assure you I know it did. Like all the other news, it is easier to sell tragic stories, but that does not mean that the world is a more and more terrifying place.

There is a whole lot of good news, of small gestures of kindness that will never show up on the breaking news. Any analysis, even if not quite rigorously statistical, must take those into account, and I hope that getting to know what selection bias is and its importance helps you face things in a different way. [via Marginal Revolution, BoingBoing]

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Adam Curtis on Enfield, Ghostwatch (plus some Philip)

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Two of the greatest creators I profoundly admire for their always insightful and ever balanced overview are Carl Sagan and Adam Curtis – there’s not a thing they produced that I can’t get tired of appreciating. While Sagan was an inspiring author for our scientific dreams, Curtis offers cautionary tales regarding those same dreams. Curtis’ “Pandora’s Box” in particular is required viewing just as Sagan’s Cosmos is.

But they don’t contradict each other, as Curtis never once blames science itself, that ideal thing we try to practice. Instead Curtis exposes how science paradoxically vanishes when people try to promote it with too much eagerness, as that eagerness often translates into misapplied science through political struggle, and that misapplication, that struggle, is his main focus.

Unlike Sagan, Curtis is still with us, actively producing great material, and sharing a lot of it on his very own blog at BBC. His latest post is a gem with great film snippets on “The Ghosts in the Living Room”. How the depiction of ghosts evolved in the small screen, and the link between the Enfield Poltergeist and Ghostwatch.

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Which is an opportunity for me to comment a very interesting piece on the Poltergeist mania of the 1970s, the Philip Experiment. A fictional ghost was invented, with a background story full of holes. And they managed to contact the imaginary spirit!

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This was a thought provoking isolation of variables, and the results are promoted by those proposing Poltergeist phenomena may be actually psychic manifestations of very living people. Given that a fictional “ghost” manifested mostly all the same paranormal phenomena as allegedly real ghosts, one could do away with actual ghosts and work solely with the collective unconscious. Very well, but Occam’s razor may cut deeper.

I bought and watched the 15 minute documentary on “Philip, the Imaginary Ghost”. It’s fascinating,  but exactly because I couldn’t see a single instance where the alleged physical manifestations of the imaginary ghost couldn’t be attributed to the ideomotor effect, that is, movements made unconsciously by the participants.

Stack-Name-Art-coastersIn the clip above, one participant mentions the “doily nights’”, where they put doilies under all the hands over the table, to make sure that no one was moving it – in which case the stacked doilies would slide and be behind the hand, showing the direction and origin of movement. This method comes directly from the original protocol used by legendary Michael Faraday in the 19th century to prove that precisely table-moving was the result of the ideomotor effect. The stacked cards he put under the hands of “very honourable, very clear in their intentions” parties all showed that whenever the table moved, the hands moved first and further. Never the other way around.

So why did the Philip Experiment obtain results that Faraday couldn’t? Perhaps they had actual paranormal powers, or perhaps their controls were not as good as Faraday’s. One thing all the recorded film that I could see shows is that it’s always the table top that goes forward in one direction, with the legs behind. Though their doilies allegedly contradict Faraday’s cards, the table itself may be evidence they were unconsciously, but very mundanely, moving it by the top, doing away with the last paranormal thing in the experiment and providing another look on how very honourable parties may be integral part of the Poltergeists they investigate, blurring the distinction between their imagination and the reality.

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