The North Texas Skeptics

I’ve been associated with The North Texas Skeptics since 1988, and I maintained the Web site for several years. Since I moved to San Antonio David Price took over site maintenance, and the results are amazing. I refer to the site periodically to get source material for this blog, and when I checked back this week I was impressed by the updated appearance and organization. You will be, too. Here is the link. Check it out:

http://ntskeptics.org/

I have always encouraged people with questions about skeptical issues to refer to our Web site (including all our newsletter back issues). If there is something you can’t find send off an e-mail, and somebody will help you out. If you have previous links, some of them will not work, since there has been some re-organization of the file structure. However, take a to-down approach, and you should quickly find what you are looking for.

And if you like what you see, be sure to drop David a note and let him know.

Show And Tell

The name of the game is “show and tell.” You tell us what you can do, then you have to show us. That is, if you want the $12,000.

The NTS Paranormal Challenge has been  around since 1991, and the prize has varied. The money is put up by five underwriters, who pledge their share of the prize to anybody who can demonstrate the paranormal. Read the conditions on the main page and click on the Challenge Activity link for details about past and on-going challenges. In the more than twenty years we have been doing this, nobody has ever come close to obtaining the prize.

Here is the latest.

I was out working in the yard, and my wife informed me I had received a challenge call on my telephone. The person wanted to participate and therefore get the money. My wife told the person that I could not come to the phone just then because I was, well I was out working in the yard, and I could not be disturbed. Readers who are married men will know how this works.

Anyhow, after I had  quick shower I checked my call records, and I noted the call was local (San Antonio). That was interesting, so I cranked up my computer and checked my e-mail. I had a new message from Johnny Lopez:

I have a gift
Johnny Lopez
To: skeptic75287@yahoo.com  Friday, May 18, 2012 8:54 AM
I live in San Antonio and I can prove my gift I can move matter with my mind even vehicles.

This was exciting. I responded:

Johnny,

Thank you for contacting me. I am John Blanton, and I am one of he underwriters for The North Texas Skeptics Paranormal Challenge. If you have not already done so, please review the Challenge protocol on this page:

Please review the past history of Challenge activity at this link:

http://www.ntskeptics.org/challenge/challenge.htm [Note, the URL is now http://ntskeptics.org/resources/the-north-texas-skeptics-paranormal-challenge/.%5D
I live in San Antonio, and I would be very interested in discussing what you are prepared to demonstrate. Before we can enter into any kind of test with you we need to verify that you have something to demonstrate. We find this saves everybody concerned a lot of time and expense on a test that will not be successful. We have been following this procedure for over ten years, and so far nobody has ever shown us anything to test.

All correspondence related to the Paranormal Challenge will be posted on the Internet.

John Blanton
214-335-9248

The following day, Johnny Lopez phoned back, and we discussed his proposal.

He said he could move things with his mind.

His mind, alone? He did not need to touch the items? What kind of item could he move?

Anything.

How about a Phillips screwdriver. I could put a screwdriver on the table and he could move it (I suggested). How far?

Right off the table.

Could he do it from five feet away?

Sure.

I was getting ready to go out of town on business, but I planned to be back on Friday. I told Johnny Lopez I would contact him again, and arrange for him to give a demonstration the following weekend. We could do it at my house, only ten minutes away.

I followed up with another e-mail as the weekend approached:

Johnny,

Can we firm up an appointment for your demonstration this Friday? What will be the best time for you? I plan to be home Friday afternoon and all day on Saturday and Sunday. It will be easiest to meet at my house, which is just off Prue Road.

In preparation for the demonstration, please acknowledge the following conditions:

You have advised me you will be able to move a Phillips screwdriver off a table using only your mind. You will be about five feet from the table, and you will accomplish this within a time span of five minutes. If you fail to accomplish this the demonstration will be considered unsuccessful. You will not be considered for a formal test and an opportunity to win the prize until you have provided us a successful demonstration.

I will take some photos to be published in the NTS newsletter and posted on the NTS Web site along with a written account of the event and the outcome of the demonstration.

Please let me know by return e-mail if all of this is agreeable to you.

Best regards,

John Blanton
214-335-9248

At the time of this writing I have had no further correspondence with Johnny Lopez. That’s the case with most of these claimants. They tell. We show.

Twice As Stupid

The news commentator was attractive and articulate. She was describing some new technology, which made the presentation doubly engrossing. Then she described an item that was a thousand times thinner than a human hair.

It goes without repeating, of course, that I have in my time examined a human hair. I recall measuring a human hair with a micrometer. The thickness was about three thousandths of an inch (0.003 inches).

Now, I know of things that are thinner. Things that are very thin. Things that are even thinner than a human hair. But twice as thin? Much less a thousand times thinner. What does this mean? Where is a listener expected to go with such a declaration? It does not mean anything.

Consider what could have been said. “This fiber is 1/1000 the diameter of a human hair.” Now you’re saying something. You’re making sense. Too bad it takes longer to say and requires more intellect to understand. Keep in mind, though, that the original statement required no intellect to comprehend because it had no meaning, and members of the target audience probably did not understand, and they did not know they did not understand.

Given that, subsequently I started picking up on similar usage (or misuse). Without citing specific examples, I will just present similar concepts that quickly come to mind:

Five times slower, twice as poor, half again as short, four times as cold, a thousand times quieter, twice as young. Hopefully the trend is obvious.

Quantities are things that can be measured and compared substantively.  Lack of a quantity or absence of a quantity does not possess this attribute. Consider, for example telling someone that over a thousand people did not attend your party. That you only invited six is beside the point.

I will a hundredth as grateful if I ever hear a construction of this kind again.

The Race That Never Was

This was a fun time a few years back. My brother and I went to Monaco on the French coast, and I got a chance to relive one of my favorite movies. Originally Go World Travel published the story along with a few photos. Then I posted it on the IgoUgo site. Here is a rehash:

The Principality of Monaco is the size of a large tomato patch, but it has the good fortune of being located on the stunning south coast of France. A robust tourism industry and one of the grandest and most famous gambling casinos in the world keeps Monaco solvent. Also, over a hundred years ago Monaco abolished all taxation, making it a tax haven for people who have amassed considerable wealth and intend to hold onto it.

Once a year Monaco also hosts the world’s most spectacular automobile race. Since 1929 Monaco has hosted the Monaco Grand Prix and its predecessors on a course that snakes through this tiny country’s winding streets. To emphasize just how winding, you may note that cars capable of topping 200 miles per hour are only able to average 88 miles per hour around the two-mile circuit. The race puts a premium on driving skill. Not only do drivers have to deal with a high-speed bend through a sea-side tunnel, but they also have to negotiate a grueling series of switchback turns down a winding street that keeps them busy working the controls full time. Buildings, stone retaining walls, and other accoutrements of civilization line the full length of the course. A minor mechanical malfunction or a momentary lapse of concentration anywhere, and a driver will find himself parked up against something solid. If ever there is a driver’s course in the world, this is it.

Famous as it is, however, the best known Monaco Grand Prix was a race that never happened.

In 1966 director John Frankenheimer followed the Formula I world championship racing season to film the movie Grand Prix. That year he brought his production crew to the races and filmed the action at some of the world’s top courses.

The movie cranks up with the starting of engines for the Monaco Grand Prix, and the first scenes follow the cars in a breath-taking chase through the streets of Monaco. The aerial shots, background set pieces, and views from on-car cameras in the first few minutes of the film give the viewer a virtual tour of this tiny country. Although time has not stood still in the 39 years since the movie was filmed here, today’s visitor will have no problem spotting Monaco’s principal attractions using scenes from the movie as a guide.

The race starts on Boulevard Albert 1st, where trees still line the right hand side, overlooking the harbor. Drivers gun their engines up the hill, quickly leaving the shade of the trees as they come onto Avenue d’Ostende and eventually turn left around the lavish Hotel de Paris and into the square in front of the casino.

In Casino Square, the course turns right, around the traffic circle, but you won’t be able to drive this exact route because it runs counter to normal traffic circulation. Also, they like to block off this section so wealthy patrons can park some of the most expensive cars in the world here in front of the hotel.

Leaving the square, the cars plunge headlong down the tree-shaded Avenue des Spélugues, with its famous gooseneck turns. In the distance of a few city blocks this quirky street takes the drivers from the highest point on the course almost down to sea level. On any other day a casual stroller can stop to examine the menus of restaurants and clubs that line the left side of the street. On race days steel barricades block the sidewalk, and these inviting places flash by too quickly to be noticed by the drivers.

Frankenheimer’s car-mounted cameras take the movie audience on a white-knuckles ride through here as the cars charge straight into a dead end at the bottom of the hill. At the last moment the course turns abruptly to the right, completely reversing direction before encountering another hairpin turn in front of the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel. Scenes from the movie show grim-faced drivers slaving over the controls as they continually shift gears and crank their steering wheels from lock to lock. Finally, the cars emerge from this maze and head toward the waterfront. Here the racers encounter what may be the most famous feature of this course.

Following Boulevard Louis II as it hugs the shoreline, the cars enter the notorious tunnel section. Monaco has a number of real tunnels that everywhere pierce its granite underpinnings, but this one is an artifact resulting from construction of the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel on the cliff side above.

These days, as in 1966, drivers emerge from the tunnel and streak along the water’s edge, running almost parallel to the uphill portion of the course. It’s here, along this sunlit roadway, that Frankenheimer’s fictional race has its dramatic conclusion.

Grand Prix stars American actor James Garner as one of the drivers, and the story line has Garner cast as a second fiddle member of the BRM racing team. His career is in decline, and he desperately needs a win. However, the other team driver, played by British actor Brian Bedford, is obviously favored by the team manager. Bedford gets the better car, while Garner’s character is plagued by gearbox problems in the race. As a result the two BRM cars mix it up along the waterfront, with disastrous results.

Garner’s BRM goes into the harbor while Bedford’s car crashes through a barricade and tries to climb the cliff face before falling back onto the street. As fans would know it, Garner is quickly rescued from the water, but his teammate is badly injured and misses the next two races.

And that’s about all viewers get to see of Monaco for the remainder of the movie, unless you count the scene where the BRM team owner angrily confronts a soaked Garner at the waterfront, cursing him out and firing him on the spot, thereby completing his disgrace and setting up the remainder of the story’s plot.

Observant visitors to Monaco will notice a number of changes since 1966. In the movie the cars pass through a picturesque stone arch as the Avenue des Spélugues heads toward the waterfront. This sentimental fixture has since been replaced by a modern concrete pier and beam span that opens up a view of the harbor.

Also, shots from the movie show cars entering the tunnel through a stone arch set in a cliff face, but today there is no doubt the road is simply darting beneath the hotel.

What looked like a tunnel in 1966 now takes on the appearance of a parking garage, which isn’t far from true. The tunnel has been considerably lengthened by the construction of the hotel, and a stroll along this stretch confirms the parking garage image.

In addition, they have built a large swimming pool complex in the middle of the waterfront section. The pool facility extends into the harbor, and cars now detour around it. The famous hairpin turn at the end of the course is gone, as well. Scenes from the film show the cars doubling completely back to the right around a traffic barricade as they exit the waterfront section and start the climb toward Casino Square. These days cars leaving the waterfront proceed almost to the row of government buildings along Quai Antoine 1st and hook to the right around the Café Grand Prix.

Here, today’s drivers also pass close by a life-size bronze of the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio and his Mercedes Benz racing car. A sunny afternoon will find tourists posing for photographs alongside this racing icon and affectionately touching it, despite a posted sign that cautions against doing so.

Grand Prix was an immediate hit with racing fans when it came out, despite its somewhat syrupy story line. Not only does it feature dramatic racing footage shot at five famous race courses, but recognizable faces appear, playing the parts of other drivers.

All the actors, except Bedford, did their own driving for the movie, and a number of well-known drivers played either themselves or fictional characters. American drivers Richie Ginther, Dan Gurney, and Phil Hill appear. British racing star Jim Clark played himself, and the fictional character of Bob Turner was played by Graham Hill. A slew of other famous drivers participated, uncredited, in the filming. Even Fangio, retired by then, worked as a driver.

The story of “the race that wasn’t” would not be complete without mentioning the terrible irony that transpired the following year. In 1967, while the film was playing in theaters, many of the same participants were back competing in Monaco. Up and coming Italian driver Lorenzo Bandini was one of Frankenheimer’s uncredited drivers in 1966, and in 1967 he was leading the Monaco Grand Prix in a team Ferrari when disaster struck. To complete the irony, Bandini crashed at the same spot as James Garner’s fictional crash of the year before.

From Avenue d’Ostende above there is a street that branches off and drops down to the waterfront. This street flows directly into the waterfront portion of the course, but in the opposite direction to the race traffic. Race cars have to jog to the left to avoid this street entrance, and this creates the course’s famous chicane. It’s a real test of drivers’ attention to detail as they brake from their highest speed of the day and strive to weave through the gap created by the offset.

Bandini’s Ferrari failed to straighten out when exiting the chicane, and it plowed into the hay bales that lined the dock side. In the movie, James Garner’s crashed through the hay bales and sailed off into the water. Bandini, however, met reality in the form of a solid obstruction. The car flipped and burned for an intolerable period of time before rescuers could arrive to extinguish the fire and right the car. By then the driver had been horribly burned, and he died a few days later, so far the only fatality in the history of the Monaco Grand Prix.

As a great fan of the movie, I long dreamed of visiting Monaco and retracing the famous scenes. Besides that, having been born in the small town of Tolar, Texas, I had endured my share of small-town jokes. Now, much later in life, I had a hankering to see a country that was smaller even than Tolar.

And so it is. A quick geographical fact check shows that all of Monaco covers just 0.76 square miles while Tolar covers 0.90 square miles out on the Texas prairie. Of course, Monaco is built on a steep slope, so most likely if you laid it all out flat like Tolar, Monaco would be just as large.

Monaco is also a bigger tourist draw than Tolar. So it was that my brother and I, two boys from Tolar, dropped by with our wives to check it out. No contest. Monaco beats Tolar hands down.

To the new visitor it becomes immediately apparent why its Stone Age inhabitants, and subsequently the Grimaldi family, chose this site as their base. In those days it was so difficult to get here that the first line of defense probably consisted of hiding the road signs. Even after the casino was built in 1863 patrons had to be transported in along a mule trail.

What really opened Monaco up to visitors was the completion of a rail connection to nearby Nice, and these days there are also a number of ways to get there by road. You can take the A8 toll highway in France and get off at the Monaco exit, or you can take the scenic route. Driving out through the suburbs of Nice on N7 or N98 you will find helpful signs to keep you on the correct route. Once out of Nice the choice of routes dwindles precipitously, and there’s no question of getting lost. It’s either go to Monaco or else look for some place to turn the car around.

In Nice the N98 coast road is “La Promenade,” where it serves all the beachfront properties. It’s also the first street you encounter when leaving the Nice airport, and you can follow it directly to Monaco, about 11 miles (17-18 km) outside the city. On the way to Monaco N98 twists along the cliffs and through the picturesque towns of Villefranche sur Mer and Bealieu sur Mer. This route is particularly painless and offers some of the most spectacular scenery on the French Riviera. We observed that Tolar has nothing to compare.

If you are not up to driving you can catch the SNCF rail line from Nice. The line follows close by N98, passing through Villefranche and Bealieu. In Monaco the train drops you off only a few blocks from the casino. Beyond Monaco the rail line connects to nearby Menton in France, and Ventimiglia and San Remo in Italy.

If you are a couple of guys from Tolar, Texas, Monaco is a real hoot to visit. Actually, it’s a real hoot no matter where you’re from, but I don’t necessarily recommend staying there. As expected, hotel rates in Monaco are kind of steep, much like the countryside, and you can find cheaper accommodations a short drive away. Save the difference and drop some cash at the Casino.

A one-way SNCF train ticket from Nice costs 3.10 Euros and up per person with trains about every half hour. If you drive you can also stop along the way and take photos. Both N7 and N98 have a number of scenic places to pull off. Once in Monaco we were able to park our rent car in the pier garage at the cost of eight Euros for the better part of a day.

If you choose, eating in Monaco can also be quite painless. Being plain folk from Tolar, we were especially partial to an establishment called Shangri.la, along Boulevard Albert 1st. Here we spent a few Euros each for sandwiches and sodas while sitting around an outdoor table and enjoying one of the most expensive views in the world. Don’t expect to eat here during race week, however. Shangri.la is a temporary wooden establishment that probably gets carted away once a year to make room for some high-price grandstand seating.

You can come and see all the racing action for yourself, but you need to plan ahead. On the Internet a number of concerns hawk race packets for the coming season. I recommend the official site at http://www.monaco.mc/monaco/gprix/ as a place to start your search.

I also recommend the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) Web site at http://www.imdb.com/ as a good source for additional information about the movie. A Blu-ray disk is available on Amazon. See the link above. Here are some photos:

The Monaco Grand Prix, and the movie, start here on Boulevard Albert 1st. The cars charge up this tree-lined street and begin a two-mile-long chase through one of the most challenging courses in road racing.

At the top of their climb, the racers pass in front of the fabulous Monte Carlo Casino. On quieter days tourists pose beside some of the most expensive cars in the world parked in front of the Hotel de Paris.

Leaving the Casino Square, the cars plunge downhill along Avenue des Spélugues. A quiet park and a row of restaurants and clubs line the first two blocks, but then the street turns quirky, with some of the tightest turns on any championship course.

Avenue des Spélugues changes direction again as it continues its plunge to the waterfront. Imagine taking a 900-hp car through here just as fast as you would care to go.

In front of the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel, Avenue des Spélugues does a complete 180 and continues on downward.

Exiting the hairpin turn by the Monte Carlo Grand Hotel, the drivers face yet another blind turn as they head straight for a retaining wall.

Twisting and turning, it’s down, down, down toward the waterfront in the Monaco Grand Prix.

Unfortunately, the medieval-style stone arch is now gone, replaced by a modern concrete truss that carries street traffic across the Avenue des Spélugues.

Also gone is the stone arch entrance to the tunnel. The “tunnel” is now revealed to be a modern building complex built out from the cliff above and covering the lower section of the race course.

The “tunnel” is longer now than it was in 1966, and it is mostly open on the left to reveal the harbor beyond.

 

What Bandini saw. By the waterfront the street must jog to the left to go around this entrance from another street. On race day the drivers brake hard just after reaching their top speed on the course. With amazing concentration, they thread through this narrow gap in a blur of wheels and flashing color.

Almost home, the cars now round the Grand Prix Café and head back up Boulevard Albert 1st toward the finish line.

Across from the Grand Prix Café, legendary driver Juan Manuel Fangio stands frozen forever in bronze, next to his Mercedes Benz race car. He won the race here in 1950 and again in 1957. In 1966 he drove one of the race cars for John Frankenheimer in making the movie Grand Prix. He retired from racing in 1958 and died at the age of 84 in 1995.

You don’t have to spend well to eat well in Monaco. Two boys from Tolar, Texas, enjoyed one of the most expensive views in the world for the price of sandwiches and sodas here at Shangri.la, a knockdown eatery alongside the Boulevard Albert 1st.

Monaco positively drips money. Only 16% of the population is native Monégasque. The rest are French, Italians, and others who come here to escape taxation. Photos of Monaco make the principality appear to be larger than it is. That’s because a lot of what is built up around its two harbors really belongs to adjacent French towns.

Tolar, Texas, on the other hand, doesn’t drip much of anything, except when it rains, and that’s not often. You sort of feel Clint Eastwood should be in this picture somewhere.

Seven Days To Sunday

Rod Serling is best known for his television series, The Twilight Zone. The show ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964 and was very popular. The title alludes to the paranormal, and the show’s iconic tag line was “That’s the signpost up ahead,” intoned by Serling, himself. He informed viewers they were now entering The Twilight Zone, in my interpretation, the region between myth and reality.

What is not widely known is that Serling was also the writer of the 1964 motion picture, Seven Days in May. The title sort of gives away my inspiration to post this topic now rather than wait until next month, June.

The movie came out in 1964, and the theme is a plot to overthrow the government of the United States.

The outstanding actor Fredric March is  liberal-leaning President Jordan Lyman, who has negotiated a disarmament treaty with the evil Soviet Union. In intense opposition to the whole idea is war hero Air Force Chief of Staff James Mattoon Scott, played portrayed by Burt Lancaster in one of his finest performances ever. At this point my apologies for over gushing, but it is difficult to describe this film without using superlatives.

Kirk Douglas is Marine Colonel Martin “Jiggs” Casey, General Scott’s aide de camp. [Correction. On further inspection I find he is Director of the Joint Chiefs.] Colonel Casey is a patriotic officer of high military standards, and he, too, opposes the disarmament treaty. But not in the way that General Scott does.

General Scott and other members of the Joint Chiefs are planning a coup d’état, and Casey does not know about it. At first.

An officer friend of Casey’s tells of his posting to a military project named ECOMCON. Casey has high access within the Pentagon, but he has never heard of the project. Neither has the Pentagon switchboard operator, whom Casey contacts using a secure phone. Casey hangs up the phone and says, to himself, “What the hell is going on here?”

So, the plot starts to unravel, the president orders an investigation on the quiet so as not to alert the perpetrators (and the Soviets). The investigators learn they have only seven days until Sunday, the scheduled date of the coup. The secret code of the conspirators revolves around a phony betting pool on the Preakness Stakes, to be run on Sunday. If you want in on the coup, you sign up for a horse in the race.

Too bad for the conspirators, but good news for the country, all the conspirators abandon the sinking ship when the chips are down. All but General Scott, that is. Finding himself alone and facing a possible court martial, he returns home to resign from the service, a condition for his staying out of jail and keeping quiet about the whole business.

So, the month of May is the right time for this post, but why today? Because today is the day they ran the Preakness Stakes for 2012. Saturday. Yes, not Sunday.

I have been around since the time the movie came out, and I have been around a lot longer than even that. And in all that time I never heard of the Preakness being run on Sunday, and this has bothered me all this time about the movie. It’s just one of those things about me. [Additional: In the move you will see posters on display announcing the first Sunday running of the Preakness.]

Astute viewers will notice a slight liberal slant to the movie. The liberal president is cast in a favorable light and emerges victorious. General Scott is portrayed as just to the right of Hermann Goering, patently dishonest, and he also cheats on his wife. At the end of the movie his disgrace is complete, and he takes the coward’s way out, keeping the attempted coup a secret to avoid making his disgrace public. This portrayal is no surprise.

Rod Serling was your typical Hollywood liberal writer and producer. He was born to a Jewish family, served as a paratrooper in the Philippines in World War II, coming away away with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. And lucky, too. Fighting to expel the Japanese from Manila, his regiment suffered 50% casualties. I will recall those times in a future blog, in 2015, the 70th anniversary of the campaign.

Hey! See the movie. You can get it on DVD. Just follow the link to get it from Amazon. It’s in black and white, which provides extra drama, and it’s directed by John Frankenheimer, who also directed the racing classic, Grand Prix. I did a write up on that for a travel site a few years back, and I will post that later. For Seven Days in May, Be sure to notice the titles. Saul Bass (Pacific Title) did the graphics, as he did for many famous productions, including The Man with the Golden Arm and North by Northwest.

Wrapping up the day, the race has finished now, and I’ll Have Another, ridden by Mario Gutiérrez, is the winner. Since the horse also won the Kentucky Derby last month, he is in line to take the triple crown of racing for 2012 by also winning the Belmont Stakes next month. There has not been a triple crown winner in 30 years. Hopefully he will have better luck than General Scott.

Wrong Name, Wrong Time

There used to be a product they advertised on TV a lot. You could count on seeing the ad at least once a day if you watched any reasonable amount of video. It was a “patent medicine” that was supposed to help people lose weight. I am sure it did nothing for the company’s customers, but it must have put money in the company’s coffers, because they advertised and sold it for years.

Then came a day about thirty years ago when the ads stopped. Nobody bought the product anymore, and we never heard about it again. The name of the product was ‘AYDS,” pronounced AIDS.

Tough luck.

Memories Are Made Of This

A bit of regression:

I first knew Dean Martin as straight man to the dead serious funny man Jerry Lewis. I was devastated when the comedy team broke up, but then Martin got his own groove as a singer and was notable for this fine tune:

Take one fresh and tender kiss
Add one stolen night of bliss
One girl, one boy
Some grief, some joy
Memories are made of this

If only memories were really how we recall them.

Politicians, including a leading presidential candidate, recall that marriage is one girl, one boy. If only it were always so.

So-called social conservatives are fond of connecting their religious beliefs with their politics with the idea that the first bolsters the second. Marriage between one boy and one boy, or between one girl and one girl, is not sanctioned by the Bible. But one girl, one boy? Think again. What short memories some people have.

First take a look at the Christian concept of marriage. One man, one woman. Not always. Check your history books. Better yet, check your Bible.

Jews at the time of Jesus accepted polygamy, more specifically polygyny. Since early Christians were essentially Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, there was no sectarian motivation for them to reject polygamy. In fact, it would seem the greatest source of discouragement came from the Roman government, which generally frowned on the practice. A man could screw around all he wanted, but he could legally have only one wife.

Since then, however, it has always been one girl, one boy. Well, not always. I had hoped to ask governor Mitt Romney about this, but I figured he was too busy to be bothered just now, so I will answer for him. This earnest campaigner is now going about telling us it is just one girl, one boy, but I do not hear him saying “It was always thus.” He should know better.

The early LDS Church tolerated and sanctioned the practice of polygamy (polygyny), and the practice was only abandoned officially when Utah sought to become a state. Even then many Mormons, upright Christians all, continued the practice in violation of state and church law. Die-hard groups, such as Warren Jeffs‘ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) persist in the practice today. Other small groups and many individuals retain the practice without giving up their Christian credentials.

Now President Barack Obama has endorsed the idea of same-sex marriage, and conservative politicians and church men are denouncing this break with tradition. Which tradition, like many before it, tends to bend with the wind.

Why is there never a weatherman around when you need one?

Fishnet And Old Lace

Slow news day. Here is the best I could come up with:

A VIRGIN aged 70 yesterday declared she is ready to have sex.

Cabaret singer Pam Shaw said she has always been too busy working to find a man.

And even though she sings under the saucy name The Sexational Pam — and has rubbed shoulders over the years with sex symbols of the time like Tom Jones and Roger Moore — she has never hopped between the sheets.

Pam, it’s possible that train has already left the station. Perhaps you should pay more attention to a bit of classical poetry from one of your own countrymen, Robert Herrick:

To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.

/p

/p

Thierry Meyssan And The Big Lie

I like to come up with fresh stuff for this blog, but sometimes it’s more convenient for me to fall back on something I previously covered elsewhere. This first ran in the September 2004 issue of The North Texas Skeptic.

Forget about the hapless “tourist guy” of 9/11, the rigged photo of a parka-clad sightseer atop the World Trade Center, with his back toward the oncoming airliner. Forget about the four thousand Jews who didn’t show up for work that day. French author Thierry Meyssan spins a yarn that shades both these tall tales. According to Meyssan’s book L’Effroyable Imposture (The Frightening Fraud), American Airlines flight 77 did not crash into the Pentagon building. Instead, a crafty plot by the U.S. government employed a truck bomb or a missile strike to further the pretense of the Twin Towers attack.

There’s a lot of wild stuff in the book, but chapter 1, “The Pentagon’s Phantom Plane,” is the best part. Here Meyssan describes the attack on the Pentagon, essentially going over the official account. Then, barely pausing for a breath, he explains why the official account is a bunch of lies. In the process, he spins a yarn that would make a Minnesota fisherman blush.

The first and most audacious assertion of Meyssan’s is that photographic evidence demonstrates an airplane could not have done the damage shown. Incredibly, he superimposes the outline of a Boeing 757 over an aerial view of the impact site and says “…it can be seen that only the nose of the Boeing entered the building. The fuselage and the wings remained outside.”1

He also refers to the Associated Press photo on the front of his book. The photo was taken shortly after the impact and shows the firefighters and ambulances, shortly before the roof of the damaged area collapsed. “[Y]ou will clearly observe that there is no plane,” he writes.

One wonders. Would an airliner, traveling at the speed this one was, come to rest on the Pentagon lawn after impacting the side of the building? It may be that left wing radicals skip high school physics, because the absurdity of the proposition seems to have escaped him. Furthermore, Meyssan claims no wreckage of the jet was found.

So, although officials, members of Congress and military personnel all claimed to have seen the aircraft fall, no one saw the smallest piece of the plane, not even from the landing gear: there were only unidentifiable metal fragments.

Meyssan pretends to be unaware of the vast body of evidence and eye witness accounts that contradict this statement. An on-line account titled “The Pentagon Attack and American Airlines Flight 77″ by John Judge includes statements by a number of witnesses.

I have spoken to dozens of other witnesses to the event, and to others who know the reports. Wayne Madsen, a respected local journalist, spoke to a camera person at WJLA-TV 7 who had been driving to the Pentagon on instructions from his office, expecting a public statement from authorities there in response to the events in New York City. Shortly after the crash he saw a woman standing by the road at the edge of the Pentagon, next to her car, and apparently in shock. He stopped to help her and found she could not speak. But she pointed him to the far side of her car. The passenger side had been sheared off in part and sections of the landing gear from the plane were on the ground nearby. Others I have spoken to, including pilots, either saw the crash happen and identified the plane, or saw parts of the plane in the wreckage days afterwards.2

Others who were in the Pentagon at the time of the crash describe finding aircraft parts, including landing gear, within the building.

After trying to convince us the aircraft only partially penetrated the building, Meyssan seems to contradict himself later in the book.

The Aircraft penetrated the building without causing major damage to the façade. It traversed several rings of the Pentagon, opening successively wider holes in each partition as it passed.

For this absurdity Meyssan has a ready explanation that takes a long pull on my credulity.

All of this testimony and these observations could correspond with the firing of one of the latest generation of AGM-type missiles, armed with a hollow charge and a depleted uranium BLU tip, and guided by GPS.

Oliver Stone, take a hike.

So, what kind of researcher is Thierry Meyssan, who so carefully loads his weapon (206 references cited in the back of the book) and discharges it into the ground? He has been characterized by National Review Online contributing editor James S. Robbins as a left wing radical (apparently with no love for the United States).3 Vasily Bubnov, writing for the on-line edition of Pravda, hints that Meyssan is “craving for glory.”4 I do not hasten to dispute these worthies.

And the book? The English translation is “9/11 The Big Lie.” It’s available from Amazon through the NTS Web site, but I will not feel slighted if you put off the purchase. I will even let you read my copy.5

Meyssan obviously had access to the same information as the rest of us. So, is he a liar or a fool? I will allow the possibility the answer is more subtle. A famous song by Paul Simon contains the advice “Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”

If this is mere self-deception, then Meyssan is not alone. It only took me a few seconds to turn up another source devoted to debunking the official account of the Pentagon attack.6 The “Killtown” Web site pushes high-profile conspiracy theories related to 9/11 and the Bush administration. Its page titled Did Flight 77 really crash into the Pentagon? has many photos of Flight 77 wreckage along with arguments against their authenticity.7 Obviously, 9/11 conspiracy stories are going to be a thriving cottage industry for years to come.

References

1. The original photo is from the Defense Department at http://www.defenselink.mil/photos/Sep2001/010914-F-8006R-006.html.
2. http://www.ratical.org/ratville/JFK/JohnJudge/PAandAAF77.html
3. http://www.nationalreview.com/robbins/robbins040902.asp
4. http://english.pravda.ru/main/2002/05/23/29196.html
5. http://www.ntskeptics.org/books/otherbooks.htm
6. The 9/11 Commission Report is available at http://www.ntskeptics.org/books/books.htm.
7. http://www.geocities.com/killtown/

Turning The Point

It was 70 years ago. That’s kind of an odd anniversary. Why not 50 or even 100? Because lives are short, and there may not be time.

It was 4 to 8 May in 1942 that the United States Navy finally turned the point on the Japanese advance of World War II. It was earlier in February that our navy and those of the Netherlands and Australia took a terrible drubbing at the hands of the Imperial Navy in the Battle of the Java Sea. U.S. and other forces in the Western Pacific Rim had been fighting with their backs to the wall since 7 December of the previous year, with the Japanese winning every contest of merit. Walter Edmonds told the grim narrative in They Fought With What They Had. For five months there was never any good news.

Ferrying fighter aircraft to defend Borneo, the Navy’s first aircraft carrier, the USS Langley (CV-1), was attacked by dive bombers and subsequently scuttled by its escorting ships. Dutch admiral Karel Doorman died when his ship was sunk by a salvo of Japanese torpedoes. The United States cruiser Houston and the Australian light cruiser Perth were sunk in a battle on 1 March. And more. It was a decisive victory for the Japanese.

From there it was a matter of figuring out what the Japanese were going to do next and countering their move.

By then the Unites States intelligence service had penetrated the Japanese military’s secrete codes and was beginning to read intercepted radio communications. The intelligence services determined the Japanese were preparing to invade Port Moresby on New Guinea, and the Navy decided to meet the invaders head on.

It was less than three weeks since Army bombers flying from the carrier Hornet had shocked the Japanese military by bombing their home country, including the capital of Tokyo. This attack, coming 100 days after the Pearl Harbor attack, had seriously unsettled the Japanese but had not in any way blunted their offensive movements. The Battle of the Coral Sea was destined for this purpose.

Navy carriers Lexington and Yorktown provided the air arm of the attacking force, and in the ensuing battle the Lexington (CV-2) was damaged so badly that it was torpedoed and sunk by a Navy destroyer after the crew was rescued. Two hundred and sixteen sailors went down with the ship along with 36 aircraft. The Yorktown (CV-5) was so heavily damaged that it had to retire to Pearl Harbor for emergency repairs.

However, the Japanese had also suffered serious losses, and they called off the invasion and withdrew. For the first time a major Japanese offensive had been stymied. Four weeks later the Imperial Navy would be overwhelming defeated in the Battle of Midway, but the Battle of the Coral Sea marked the greatest extent of Japanese expansion in the Western Pacific. As mentioned previously, from that point on it was all the way back to Tokyo for the Imperial forces. Many ships and aircraft would be lost and many people, civilians and military, would die, but the outcome would never be in doubt. The tide was turned 70 years ago this week.

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Illuminating The Arts

Luminaria 2012 was scheduled for a few weeks ago, but the weather had a different idea. The only thing that went forward in the rain that day was the wedding I was scheduled to photograph. Luminaria was rescheduled for 5 May.

San Antonio has nothing if not an appreciation for the arts, and for the tourism and the social bonding that goes with the city’s monthly schedule of festivals.

Parking for Luminaria 2012 was free and painless. All we had to do was drive around for about half an hour until we found a neighborhood whose streets had not yet been discovered. Then it was park the Camry, grab some copies of the festival map and program and the video camera and hike off toward the sound of the music.

Luminaria 2012 soaked up several city blocks of the downtown, but we discovered our destination forthwith. Stage two had an attractive schedule, and no additional walking was required. The performances were held in Magik Theater, normally reserved for children’s entertainment, but for this night the host of several delightful grown up performances. We took (almost) all of them and got home about midnight.

There was the Alamo Metro Chorus, Leith (stunningly attractive belly dancer), Sujata Venkateswar and Company, Kalalaya Indian Performing Arts, Ballet San Antonio, San Antonio Dance Fringe, San Antonio Jazz Ensemble, RPM Youth Tap Ensemble and Enteramente Argentina. We missed the Children’s Chorus of SA and Lux Musicae Ensemble. Can’t do everything.

Just about every act provided fabulous visuals. I used the video, but with an SLR and a good lens I could have gotten a ton of images that would stand on their on. Here is a clip.

Luminaria

I got to bed after midnight and the heavens opened up. Lightning cycled our power a few times, and Noah’s famous flood held a tryout. Sometimes advance planning matters.

Sons Of Their Fathers

We talk of “cultural relativism.” What we in the Unites States may consider ordinary and right, in another society will be objectionable and disallowed. Even sinful. In some places a woman must not show her face in public, perhaps even not a bit of skin beyond the hands. We smirk and mock these silly notions. In America a woman’s face, arms, ankles and legs are free game for public view. However, there are gradations. My friend Kathy was in Italy with her pilot husband following the war there. Men on the streets gawked at her bare shoulders. Only harlots displayed bare shoulders on the streets of Italy at the time. A woman’s bare breasts are generally not tolerated on our beaches but hardly raise an eyebrow in other places. It turns out we are neither the darkest nor the most enlightened society on this planet.

All of this preliminary leads to a point. Cultural relativism does exist, even with us, and we will be wrong sighted to deny it for others. To a point.

People know me as fairly liberal-minded and might think I would never close my mind to another point of view. That would be a mistake. There are lines I will not cross, and this is about one of them.

A story came up on NPR earlier this week that illustrates this well. Forgive me if this is not news and certainly not a revelation to anybody who reads. The story is this:

Facing Death, Afghan Girl Runs To U.S. Military

In a remote part of Afghanistan early last year, a girl was sentenced to death. Her crime was possession of a cellphone. Her executioners were to be her brothers. They suspected her of talking on the phone with a boy. The girl, in her late teens, had dishonored the family, her brothers said.

The girl’s brother beat her badly and told her that dinner would be her last meal. She did not wait for dessert.

She figured correctly that an American military base would be her best place for immediate protection, and she was taken in when soldiers on the base observed her circumstances. While she paced near the base entrance in disguise, family members could be seen searching for her. They were not bringing flowers.

On the base women soldiers cared for the girl, and for the first time in her life she observed twentieth century, even nineteenth century, comforts of life, such as running water. Her life had turned around, but there was still danger.

Her family determined where she was and got word to her. She should return home. All would be forgiven. She would not be killed. Even the girl’s sister came to give assurances in person. For her own life the girl was wise enough to recognize the mendacity in these assurances. She may not have had personal knowledge of it, but in real life forgiveness never awaits a returning refugee in her position. Her life expectancy would have been measured in minutes back in her family’s warm embrace.

Aside from the main narrative, this brings to light another point that always sticks with me. These people are Muslims, and they live by a strict code of religious principles, strict that would make a Southern Baptist gag. Somewhere within this strict code I am sure there is the admonition to be truthful in dealings with other people. Where, then, did this girl’s family get the idea that it was all right to extend an open hand of welcome to a family member, all the while holding a dagger behind the back with the other hand? In anybody’s mind this posture should stretch the limits of cultural relativism beyond the breaking point.

Thankfully the modern state of Afghanistan is not a complete fifteenth century backwater. Government officials sought to address the girl’s plight, and they protected her from the danger of her family. Even so, the best they could do for her was to find her a suitable husband. There was a man looking for a wife, the girl agreed to meet the man, she was happy with him, and she now lives as his wife in a big family that welcomes her and loves her as a member of the family.

The end.

Not quite. Observant readers of this tale will note that by Western standards the girl only inched up a notch in twentieth century life standards. Her available salvation in modern Afghanistan was in finding a suitable husband. There was obviously no mention of furthering her education and having a career of her own. Any more would be asking too much.

We are constantly reminded by people smarter than I am that there is danger in our meddling with the direction of what we consider backward societies. We send first our diplomats, then our business representatives and finally our military to straighten out centuries of developmental foot dragging in foreign lands. This from a country that tolerated human slavery long after it had been rejected by every advanced country at the time, including Great Britain and Mexico.

So, where does cultural relativism run dry and inhumanity begin? We do not tolerate the Cuban government’s enormous abuse of human rights. Americans need special permission to even visit that country, much less do business there. Cuba still holds property seized from American companies fifty years ago. We look aside when the PRC imprisons and kills citizens who challenge the reigning authority. China is among our greatest trading partners.

Apparently there is a lot that is still relative.

Not Wanted Dead Or Alive

A very long time ago I saw this poster that said “Uncle Sam Wants You,” and to make a long story short I subsequently spent most of two years on an aircraft carrier. Only then did I realize the poster was not aimed just at me.

There are other kinds of posters, and I have seen them stuck on a bulletin board in the Post Office, and more recently not in the Post Office anymore, but on the Internet, and the posters say “Wanted” and give details. Of course we all recall the 1950s when Steve McQueen would start his TV show by ripping a poster off the wall. The poster always said “Wanted, Dead or Alive,” which was the name of the show.

But what if there was a poster that said, “We do not want you, dead or alive.” You might begin to feel comfortable after seeing that, but after thinking about it for a while you might begin to feel insulted. “How come they don’t want me dead? Or alive for that matter?” And what does all of this have to do with Osama bin Laden? That was this week’s news.

Osama bin Laden aimed to assassinate President Barack Obama but directed fellow al-Qaida fighters to leave Vice President Joe Biden alone, describing him as “totally unprepared” to take over and predicting a “crisis” in America if that happened, according to a newly declassified letter from the terrorist mastermind.

Well! How about that? Imagine how Vice President Joe Biden must be feeling right now. What questions must he be asking? The intelligence guy is conveying the bad news to the VP, and the poor guy is pressing him. “He did not even say anything about having some al Queda suicide martyr come by at night and key my car?” The intelligence guy is feeling very uncomfortable about now, and he is looking for a way to escape the meeting. After all, an off word from the VP to the top guy, and the bearer of bad news is going to find his next assignment at a posting in Alice Springs. There is just no way to easily tell the vice president of the United States that the world’s most wanted terrorist didn’t have him on his dance card.

I know a little about how Mr. Biden must be feeling about now. Back 40 years ago it became known that Richard Nixon kept an enemies list, and the most crushing news I received was when the names became public, and mine was not one of them. Trust me, my fellow Americans, Alice Springs was looking powerfully attractive about then.

I am not a particularly vicious person, but at the moment I am not inclined to let the vice president off the hook. This would be a good time to twist the knife a little. I am thinking about leaking the false rumor that the Republicans don’t want him either. Let’s make it even worse. Let’s let it out that they would not mind if he got re-elected, but not Obama. Let be known that the Republicans plan to take up residence in the White House next year and then proceed to have Joe Biden over for movie night every week.

Just kidding, Joe. Just a little advice, though. Stop being such a nice guy. Learn how to snarl from time to time. Drop me a note. I can give lessons.

Button Up Your Overcoat

It’s been a year now, so it’s about time to dredge out some stuff that fit my idle time ten years back. I was in a whimsical mood then, and some of this will not make sense now, if ever. Looking back recalls my mood at the time.

I have matured a bit (not just in the last ten years), and I have a slightly different perspective. Hopefully a whiff of my naiveté has worn off. Early on my inclination was “Are those guys in for it now!” Experience showed it was more like “Mess with us, people, and in  ten years or so we are coming after you.”

So, with apologies to Ray Henderson, B.G. DeSylva and Lew Brown, here is my musical tribute to the long departed.

http://specularphoto.com/obl/belong.htm

I Don’t Want A Pickle

It’s from The Motorcycle Song by Arlo Guthrie, from the Alice’s Restaurant album.

I just want to ride on my motorsickle.

OK, it has to rhyme with pickle.

But consider the owner. He has his Harley Davidson along with some other stuff in a box truck, hopefully trying to make a getaway, when the whole business gets swept out to sea by the tsunami in Japan last year. Lost forever.

Not quite. It just turned up on the beach in British Columbia recently. The truck body (forget the cab and the rest) had lost its rear door and most likely the rest of its cargo, but the Harley was still there. It’s a story to warm your heart, provided the owner did not suffer the fate of his cargo. They are trying to locate him now.

Y’all be careful out there.

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/technology-blog/harley-lost-japanese-tsunami-found-beach-canada-163107064.html