The WHY-Files

The Official Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 2, Issue 10
 
 
 

December Meeting.

Skeptical Investigations 101.

Join us December 4th, 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library for our monthly meeting. This month, we are featuring a panel discussing the investigating of the paranormal and fringe science. This will include resources available to the investigator and the different styles of investigation and evidence available to the skeptic, the scientist, the courts and the private citizen.

The Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. Meetings are free and open to the public. In the event of bad weather, we will hold the meeting if the Guilderland Public Library is open.

Membership Renewals.

The expiration date for your ISUNY membership is printed on the upper right-hand corner of your mailing label. Dues can be mailed to the treasurer at the address on the back page of this newsletter, or paid at our monthly meeting. (Make checks out to ISUNY.) Your dues cover newsletter and speaker expenses. If the date on the mailing label is circled it means you are late and may be dropped from the mailing list. If you have renewed, and the date is incorrect please bring the error to our attention.

Local Meetings.

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers meet the third Tuesday of each month at the Schenectady Museum. The December 17th meeting is the slide presentation Splendors of the Universe by astro-photographer David Malin. The 20 minute presentation will be followed by their annual winter solstice party---a good opportunity to meet and talk with club members. Meetings begin at 7:30 pm. For more information contact Alan French at (518) 374-8460.

The Capital District Humanist Society meets the second Sunday of each month at the Ramada inn on Western Avenue. The meetings begin at 1:15 pm. For more information contact Paul DeFrancisco at (518) 272-4772.

Stephen Jay Gould at SUNY.

Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary biologist and author of 15 books will be reading to the New York State Writers Institute, State University of New York on December 5th, 1996, 4:00 pm. The reading will take place in the Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, University at Albany's Uptown Campus. All Institute programs are free and open to the public. For more information see http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst/gould.html.

Newsletter Articles

If you attend local meetings, view programs of interest to ISUNY members, or have a skeptical topic you wish to discuss, consider writing an article for The Why-Files. Articles and letters can be emailed to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or by U.S. mail to Michael Sofka, 8 providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Disks and hardcopy will be returned at the next ISUNY meeting. The deadline for articles in the January, 1997 issue is December 28th, 1996.

Martin Gardner Receives APS Forum Award.

Martin Gardner, science columnist and skeptic, is being presented the American Physical Societies 1997 Forum Award at their April meeting. The citation reads:

For his popular columns and books on recreational mathematics which introduced generations of readers to the pleasures and uses of logical thinking; and for his columns and books which exposed pseudoscientific and antiscientific bunk and explained the scientific process to the general public.

For more information see http://www.aps.org/.

The Skeptical Effect.

According to Money magazine, Amherst, NY, home of CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) and CODESH (Council On Democratic and Secular Humanis) is the safest city in the US. It's clear from this survey that skepticism has a positive impact on the quality of life.

The Unexplained on A&E.

This January the Arts and Entertainment network begins a new weekly series The Unexplained. It is scheduled to debut at 10:00 pm Eastern Time, January 2nd. The first show is about ``Psychic Detectives'' Noreen Renier and the Williston, FL case. Reports are that a skeptic is included in this broadcast.

ISUNY Lending Library.

The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York maintains a library of books, newsletters, magazines, video and audio tapes addressing various paranormal topics. ISUNY members may borrow material from this library on a month-by-month basis. Our collection has grown over the years from the kind donations by our members, and includes many back issues of the Skeptical Inquirer (including volume 1, issue 1) donated by Richard Lange M.D, audio tapes made and donated by Dorothy and Ralph Hoyt, UFO magazines by ``Lewis's friend'', and many newsletters from skeptic groups around the world sent by Barry Karr of CSICOP.

In addition, ISUNY thanks the many members have dug deep into the dusty shelves of used bookstores and contributed to our growing collection. If you would like to borrow a book, newsletter or tape see our librarian Lewis Treadway before or after any ISUNY meeting. All material is lent free to members except for tapes for which we ask a $1.00 donation that will be used to purchase further library material.

The UFO Skeptic.

Hale-Bopp's Companion.

On November 15 amateur astronomer Chuck Shramek of Houston Texas took a CCD photographed of what he claimed was a ``Saturn-like object'' next to comet Hale-Bopp. Mr. Shramek's claim was sufficiently extraordinary to get him on the Art Bell radio program, which caters to sensationalist (especially UFO) claims (see http://www.artbell.com/).

News of this ``discovery'' soon filled the sci.astro usenet forum on the Internet. Among the claims for mysterious SLO (Saturn-Like Object) were that it was following Hale-Bopp, for more then an hour, and was six times the size of the Earth.

Russel Sipe soon posted a explanation that is available on the Hale-Bopp web page. The object is an 8th magnitude star not on Mr. Shramek's charts. The ``rings'' are the diffraction caused by the telescope's secondary mount. His post includes a sample CCD image of NGC 2768 with nearby stars showing the same diffraction effect, and a chart of Hale-Bopp's path near SAO 141894.

This resolution was apparently not satisfactory to Chuck Shramek, who sent the following email to the Hale-Bopp page.

Sipe is such a lying bastard! That 8th magnitude star is well out of my CCD's field of view. What I [saw] was brighter than the 4.5 magnitude Hale-Bopp and therefore much much brighter than 8th mag. I think a big reason for Sipe's and Halebopp.com's existence is to discredit guys like me. One of the few times Halebopp.com has added new and timely information is to try to shoot me down with lies. Their agenda from the start was to try to shoot down ``strange'' information about HB - which JPL knew would someday come out. I have discovered ties between JPL (which stands for Jack Parson's Lab---there's a whole story there too!) and the Sipe site.

Russel Sipe's response was, I must say, fairly restrained considering Mr. Shramek's remarks. He first noted that this is apparently more then somebody being honestly mistaken in his observations. He then ask Mr. Schramek just where SAO 141894 was in his images, and why, if the object was moving, the image did not blur on any of the 100 CCD images he took?

No doubt this incident will continue to be sited as evidence of UFOs and ``the big government cover-up'' involving NASA and JPL. Once a story enters the cronicles of UFO cases it seems nothing can remove it. No amount of positive evidence or reasonable doubt can completely satisfied those who want to believe (and believe is the operant word here) that there is something out there. It will be interesting to see what other ``stange information'' comes to light as Hale-Bopp approaches next spring.

For more information, including reports from Mt. Palomar, and details on correctly setting the MetaStar star chart program see the Hale-Bopp page at http://www.halebopp.com/slo1a.htm. RealAudio broadcast of the Art Bell show are archived at http://ww2.audionet.com/artbell/artbell.html.

-Mike Sofka

The Colour Out of Space.

In the November Scientific American the following appeared under their ``50, 100 and 150 Years Ago'' column.

November, 1846

A correspondent from Loweville, NY, states that on November 11 the most remarkable meteor ever seen there made its appearance. It appeared larger than the sun and illumined the hemisphere nearly as light as day. It was in sight nearly five minutes, and finally fell in a field in the vicinity. A large company of the citizens immediately repaired to the spot and found a body of foetid jelly, four feet in diameter.

This caught my eye because it sounded so much like something from an H.P. Lovecraft short story.1 It also captured the interest of Michael Tice, a frequent contributor to the Internet skeptic forum, where he posted a query. Among the responses were one by Linda Kuczwanski about a book called Extraordinary Occurrences which gives descriptions of ``star jellies'' cases. Linda did not have the book on hand (it is in the University of Alaska, Juneau library), but she recalled it mentioned a poem by Tennyson which made reference to a star jelly. Perhaps Why-Files readers can find more information.

Other contributions included a case of an exploding meteor, and a meteor that gave of a foul green gas, but no star jellies. Michael Tice posted the following account of his investigations of the Loweville, NY case.

-Mike Sofka

Update on Scientific American's foetid jelly meteor.

Here are the results (such as they are) of my brief investigation into the bizarre meteor of 1846, brought to my attention by the November 1996 Scientific American's ``50, 100 and 150 Years Ago'' feature. In short, I found no other references to the occurrence. To be fair, I didn't consult any books on `unexplained phenomena'.

None of the books on meteors at UCLA mentions the event, although several had long lists of historical meteors spanning the correct time period.

Next I focussed on the place where it happened. `Loweville, NY' does not appear to exist, but there is a Lowville: the sole incorporated city in Lewis County, a sparsely populated county in New York known for cows and timber. In 1845, Lowville had a population of 2,167, accounting for about a tenth of the people in the whole county.

I was lucky enough to find the perfect historical source in UCLA's collection: Franklin Benjamin Hough's A History of Lewis County... from the beginning of its settlement to the present time (Albany, Munsell & Rowland, 1860)

Since this book was published only fourteen years after the meteor which ``appeared larger than the sun and illuminated the hemisphere nearly as light as day,'' was in sight for five minutes, and left behind a foetid jelly that was seen by ``a large company of the citizens,'' I figured that the meteor must merit inclusion in Hough's book.

As far as I can tell, there is no mention of the meteor. Hough records earthquakes, epidemics, floods, fires and hailstorms, but no meteor. Hough even records the occasional `strange' phenomenon:

Many years since, Dr. S. Goodell undertook to dig a well in coarse gravel, alternating with fine sand. The latter often indicated water, but failed to afford it in quantities, and the shaft was sunk to 116 feet, before reaching a full supply. A neighbor, the next year, in digging a post hole, found durable water; and a well twelve feet deep, not twelve rods from the deep well, gave an abundant supply.

This excerpt also demonstrates the painful thoroughness of Hough's history.

Hough also wrote a history (1858) of the Lowville Academy, which he had attended from 1837-38. Although his paper fails to mention the meteor, it does demonstrate that Hough was a local. Even if he wasn't living in Lowville in 1846, he certainly knew people who were.

So, in the end, no corroboration of the magazine correspondent's story has surfaced. Absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence, but given the fantastic nature of the event, I feel no qualms about dismissing it unless and until more evidence comes in.

-Michael Tice.

Los Angeles.

Ask The Skeptic.

Recently the CSICOP office in Buffalo received a letter from Ponca City, Oklahoma. A person stated he had seen a report on the evening network news concerning a school for the blind in Indonesia. According to this person, they taught a strange martial art at this school. The blind practiced this martial art. They also rode bicycles and went through a very difficult obstacle course. He wished to know if the CSICOP office had any details or explanations on what he'd seen. They didn't so they forwarded the letter onto me.

The following is an edited version of my answer:

Although I did not see the program you mention, I believe what you describe is the Indonesian martial art of Penjak Silat (alternative spelling: Pentjak Silat). I will describe the art, then move on to some perspectives on what you saw and then give you recommendations for further reading and research.

Indonesia is a large and culturally complex group of islands in South East Asia. I have never been there, but know several people who have visited or lived there and have read something of its culture. Like most non-western cultures, there is not a ready division between science (things that are considered proven to work) and things that are believed to due to the fact they have traditionally been believed. As you undoubtedly know, when proven beliefs and traditional beliefs clash strange things happen and you get weird claims. In Oklahoma, I believe the biggest examples are ``creation science'' and perhaps faith healing mixed with modern medicine. (My brother, by the way, is a graduate of Ken Hagin Bible School in Broken Arrow OK, but we avoid such topics carefully....)

Penjak Silat, the traditional martial art of Indonesia, (of which there are several sub-styles) is a mixture of folk magic beliefs (which I generally question or don't believe in) and some very effective martial arts moves which undoubtedly work very, very well. ``Silat,'' by the way, is the generic Indonesian term for any martial art. ``Penjak,'' I've been told, means ``magic.'' So its a magic martial art. In America, several people study it without the magic beliefs included, but this is not the traditional way where the two groups of things are included.

As for the demonstration which you saw, I have the following comments. In Asian cultures, it is not uncommon for impractical demonstrations of various things to be staged as exhibitions of an art. For example, although I have no doubt that they showed a blind person riding a bicycle or moving through an obstacle course, and although this is a great accomplishment, I suspect that the blind people in question was carefully schooled and walked through that very same obstacle course several times first or before being placed on the bicycle. I suspect that if you were to take them and place them in a different obstacle course, with no training in its course, they would crash into something.

I am reminded of Taiwan, where I lived for a little more than three years and taught English, where it is completely common for speech contests to be held. Students practice to recite things which they do not really comprehend completely or cannot really fathom the grammar of. (One of my friends, a Chinese English teacher, actually had an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn, an excellent book with very non-standard English, which was one option chosen by the organizers in a speech reading contest.) Which does not mean that it is no mean feat for a blind person to ride a bicycle or go through an obstacle course. It must be a good confidence and character building exercise. I would not wish to do either blindfolded. Nevertheless, in the absence of further evidence, I would question whether there was anything supernatural involved.

As for further research, let me suggest the following:

First, write to the Indonesian embassy in Washington. (When you do, they also have some interesting schools there for domesticated orangutans where they train them in wilderness survival skills before putting them back out in the jungle.)

Second, there are a lot of books on Indonesia in general. A good start is to get the Lonely Planet Guide to Indonesia from your library.

Third, good sources on the Indonesian martial arts and Penjak Silat are rare, but here's some.

1972. Draeger, Donn F. The Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Tuttle, Tokyo and Rutland VT.

Wilson, James F. Chasing the Magic: Mysticism and Martial Arts on the Island of Java, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol 2(2). 10--43, 1993.

Wiley, Mark V. Silat Kebatinan as an Expression of Mysticism and Martial Culture in South East Asia, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 3(4), 38--45, 1994.

Less useful, but still useful is:

Pauka, Kirstin, The Pauleh Tinggi Ceremony in Western Sumatra, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 4(3), 26--45, 1995. These articles are not necessarily ``skeptical in nature,'' yet they are all informative as to the ways Penjak Silat works, and well done and heavily footnoted. (In fact, Wilson makes it clear that he believes in Chinese mysticism and thinks the Indonesians would be better off if they copied it more closely instead of doing their own things like they do. Still, his article is the best in the bunch for understanding the art and the mysticism behind it.) Try to get these articles through inter-library loan. If you can't then back issues of the JAMA are available for $9.95 each at Via Media, 1-800-455-9517. Its an expensive magazine, but it is the best single source I know for scholarly information on the martial arts, perhaps the only real one. Most martial arts magazines really are very shoddy when it comes to checking their own facts in their articles.

Finally, there are a number of good books and videos available on the combative aspects of Penjak Silat. I can't recommend any, as I don't study them (I study the slightly related Filipino arts though) but if you leaf through the martial arts magazines or yellow pages you should be able to find martial arts dealers who can recommend some. Beware of the sort of shoddy products that often appear with obscure arts though.

-Peter Huston

Peter Huston is Vice President of ISUNY. His work appears regularly in the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. He is the author of two books Tongs, Gangs, and Triads: Chinese Crime Groups in North America and the upcoming Scams from the Great Beyond: How to Make Easy Money Hoaxing New Age, Psychic, and UFO Phenomena. Both are from Paladin Press in Boulder, CO.

Ask the Psychic.

Question: Mr. Psychic. Why do UFOs have lights? If they wanted to remain hidden why not just turn them off? -Confused in Cohoes

Answer: There are more theories on that as there are UFOs. One school of thought is that the lights are a byproduct of the UFO propulsion system. The Myrobo microwave propulsion system, for example, emits a plasma tourch from the speeding saucer. Others claim it is an attempt to mimic existing aircraft for camouflage. Another theory is that the light is a side effect of temporal distortions caused by the passage of the UFO through our local space-time continuum.

These are all ridiculous claims based more on speculation and lack of information then on any real physics. The simple truth is that UFOs have running lights in order to comply with FAA and international marking regulations for aircraft. Likewise, NASA's top secret Aurora giant delta craft is equiped with both FAA and ZRAA conforming lighting.

Q: Mr. Quinne. You have given Zeta Reticulans everywhere a bad name with your slanderous remarks about invasions, and by your associating them with Ross Perot. I want you to know that Zeta Reticulans are hard working and honest immigrants who contribute greatly to the prosperity of their adopted planet. By continuing to spread rumors about `bug-eyed monsters' invading you make life difficult for the many Zeta Reticulans who have never invaded a planet. I think you owe Zeta Reticulans and other bug-eyed aliens an apology.

-Zqöêãtqüoté Qøéswïân

A: Mr Qøéswïân. You are right. In my zeal to warn my fellow human (and otherwise) beings of their impending doom I over-generalized. The Zeta Reticulans I know would never harm a human except for food. I apologize. By the way, are you related to the Pine Bush Qøéswïâns?

-David Quinne

David Quinne is ISUNY's official psychic. He is a graduate of Maharishi International University where he studied quantum metaphysics with a minor in political science. Questions to the Psychic can be sent to this newsletter care of the editor.

ISUNY Meetings.

Skeptical Investigation 101.

Our panel of experts will discuss the investigation of the paranormal and the fringe from the skeptical, the scientific, the legal point of view. Information sources available to the skeptic will be discusses, and questions from the audience will be entertained.

Vampires in New England.

Mercy Brown died in 19th century Massachusetts of consumption. Soon after, other members of her family also died until one night her father exhumed the body to remove the heart. This is just one case of New England ``vampirism'' investigated in the film Vampires in New England. Learn about the vampire of folklore, and the evidence that some New Englanders believed, and practiced these folk remedies as late as the 1880s.

All meetings are held at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY, at 7:00 pm. Meetings are free and open to the public. For more information call Mike Sofka at 437-1750 or email sofkam@rpi.edu.

Thank You.

Thank you to Peter Huston, Michael Tice, Mike Sofka and David ``The Mighty'' Quinne for their contributions to this newsletter. Thank you also to Alan French for publicizing the meetings, and to Carla Sofka for loaning the mailing labels. Thank you also to David Quinne for ``rolling the bones.''

Thank you also to all of our members for their kind support of ISUNY. We would especially like to thank our Supporting members: Sylvia Chessin, Hugh D A. McGlinchey, Duncan Tuininga, Andre Weltman, Guier Scott Wright and our Patron members: Charles Davies, Daniel Forrest, Alan & Susan French, Bob & Dee Mulford, Harish Sethu Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells.

About the Newsletter.

The WHY-Files is the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. Articles, reviews and letters can be sent to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or to 8 providence street, Albany, NY 12203. Hard copy and disks will only be returned if accompanied by a self addressed and stamped envelope, or at regular club meetings.

The newsletter was typeset using the document preparation system written and placed in the public domain by Donald Knuth of Stanford University. Macros for this newsletter are available at http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/tex.html. The Why-Files are available at: http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/isuny/.

Articles, reports, reviews, and letters published in The WHY-Files represent the views and work of individual authors. Their publication does not necessarily constitute an endorsement by Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York or its members unless so stated.



1 H.P. Lovecraft was a write of pulp fiction, particularly horror stories, centering on strange creatures from a distant and shadowy past. The Colour Out of Space is about the effects of a foeted meteor on a small New England town can be found in The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, Del Ray, NY, 1983. Most of H.P. Lovecraft's protagonists ended the story in an asylum.