Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Seeing is not believing

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What do you see in the picture above? The quality of the image is not very good, but it’s possible to see a man covered in a bed sheet with his hand over another fellow lying by the bedside. He has something covering part of his face. Nothing extraordinary.

Except that for Urbano Pereira, a Brazilian physicist who published the images in a book, “Spiritual Surgeries” (1946), it captures something somewhat different:

“In one of the images [captured during the séance] the medium appears covered in a bed sheet and with the mask of a strange face. Father Zabeu [the directing spirit] says its doctor Francisco Costa, a deceased physician, whose identity has not been established.”

This may seem confusing because it actually is quite extraordinary. Pereira published the book defending some amazing claims, including the materialization of spirits from beyond curing diseases of the living. And yet, right there you can find one photograph that clearly shows how the “medium” capable of such extraordinary things simply covered himself with a bed sheet and a mask.

Despite this clear evidence of hoax, the author believes and writes that the mask was somehow supernatural, and it’s very probable that when he refers to bed sheets he is referring to supernatural, ectoplasmic bed sheets. All because the supposed spirit, “Father Zabeu” explained so. Of course, the spirit spoke through the medium, the man who covered himself with a bed sheet and a mask, whose name was Francisco Bello.

As fellow Vitor Moura pointed out, if Urbano Pereira was a hoaxer or an accomplice he certainly wouldn’t have published these photographs. He was there and he actually realized it was a person covered in a bed sheet. But his beliefs included the rationalization that mediums materialized supernatural ectoplasm that covered their material bodies, which coincidentally looked like bed sheets, gauze and masks.

It’s only because he believed these things that he published them, but unless you share that, shall we say, very firm belief that such supernatural feats look exactly like crude hoaxes, and yet are not hoaxes, you may only see evidence of crude hoaxes and a poor gullible physicist. Occam’s razor is natural for most of us.

There are other “extraordinary” images from Pereira’s book in Vitor Moura’s post. In Brazil, the main spiritualistic leader, Chico Xavier – who is promoted in English by Guy Lyon Plaiyfair – was also involved with similar, crude alleged materialization photographs.

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Curiously, in the 19th century William Crookes, noted for his involvement with Florence Cook and the spirit of “Katie King”, asked for his photographs in the séances to be destroyed after his death. Not all of them were, and the ones that remained clearly show the spirit was the medium. Peter Brookesmith has an excellent article on the fascinating story of Crookes and Cook.

Covering yourself in bed sheets may seem like a comical thing nowadays, but even to this day some still believe these can be the real thing. The saddest aspect is that such strong will to believe in the afterlife is often derived from personal tragedies and the ultimate will to believe beloved ones never really died. Hoaxers usually convince themselves they may be serving a greater good.

In the process, however, the living may look like fools and the memories of the deceased, which is the only thing we can actually prove that survives us, is left stained and gradually replaced by a silly simulacrum. Extremely silly, at times.

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The FBI/KGB/SS Alien Photo: Found

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“Above, one of the most impressive photos of an alleged extraterrestrial creature recovered from crashed UFOs. For many years it was thought the photo originated from a crash in the USA, but recently it was found it was captured in Germany, shortly before the Second World War. The officers who hold the being are high-ranking members of the SS” [Brazilian UFO mag, n.18, p.18, Dec 1991]

001This has long been a favorite, and since we first wrote about it, we found out, through Isaac Koi, that as early as 1982 Loren Gross had already published in his series “UFOs: A History” the correct full source for the montage: the 1950 April Fools’ edition of the German photo magazine “Neue Illustrierte”, and in 2003 Achim Martin had sent him copies of the original article. Unfortunately, Gross publications have very limited circulation and the reproductions are of poor quality.

I therefore obtained the original issue of “Neue Illustrierte”, published in Cologne, Germany, dated March 29, 1950. It was a weekly magazine, and as stated in a big red headline in the cover, it covered April 1st. I share the relevant material here openly, and if you do appreciate it please help cover the expenses – instructions at the end of this post.

Keep reading

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Posing with a 19th Century Cell Phone

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Reader Marion Henderson graciously sent us this picture of her great grandmother Laura. “This picture that I have has to be from the mid to later 1870?s if I did the math right.”

As in the case of the Time Traveller spotted in a Charlie Chaplin movie, and as Marion herself asked, “I took a magnifying glass and looked even closer, and there is definitely something there. I thought an ear trumpet?

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It would be somewhat odd for a younger looking lady to use such a hearing aid, but then, definitely not as improbable as a time travelling cell phone.

Not to be too cynical, but it’s also possible the image was simply tampered with. In this respect Marion was very kind and answered the basic questions I made regarding the picture, of which her family still has the original. A very skeptical and rigorous investigation would analyze the original print, but it may seem like too much trouble for what is at face value a quite amusing and plausible picture of Marion’s great grandmother holding a cell-phone like ear trumpet.

Ear trumpets – connecting people since the 19th century. Confused with cell phones since the beginning of the 21st century. [with many thanks to Marion for the contribution]

Update 04/15/2012: As noted by Roberto Takata, Poke, João, Lucas and others, there’s probably nothing in her hand, and what looks like the illuminated part of an object is simply her middle finger, or a play of shadow and light:

I highlighted her hand in red, but left out what may or may not be her middle finger or the space between her finger in the projected shadow of her hand. Her thumb can be seen, which rule out either a time travelling cell-phone, an ear trumpet or a folded fan.

Upon closer inspection, I also think the shadows on that region may have been retouched, but not by modern computers. It could have been retouched by the 19th century photographer to eliminate the shadows of the hand over her face, resulting in a better picture, but one that does look somewhat puzzling.

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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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