Monday, March 24, 2008

DESTINATION TRUTH - Wildman & Swamp Dinosaur

SciFi Channel - Original Air Date: 3/19/08

Another fun adventure with Josh and co.  This time, they're off to the wilds of Cambodia to search for a wildman, and then to the swamps of Zambia to search for the legendary Mokele-Mbembe -- a dinosaur-like creature feared by the native fishermen.  The Cambodian investigation consists of talking to people who claim to have seen the creature, and investigating a girl who was supposedly kidnapped by the "beast."  The girl, who is mute, had allegedly been taken from her parents 18 years earlier.  Her dad is glad to have her back, despite her animalistic ways.  Unfortunately, the girl i  s unable or unwilling to communicate -- not having spoken since her rescue.  Also unfortunately, the DNA they take to prove she's related to the man who believes she is his returned daughter proves contaminated, so they can't even be sure it's the same girl.  The search for the dino is somewhat more exciting, featuring rickety boats, remote lakes and swamps, and mysterious creatures surfacing near the boat (catching only the splash on camera), and lurking at the edge of camera and IR range.  It all leaves some interesting footage for experts back home.  And, unlike History Channel's UFO Hunters, which airs opposite this show, the experts reach a conclusion: the unknown beasts on the film are revealed by computer enhancement to be hippos.  After all he's seen and heard, Josh then concludes that (sadly for us crypto fans) that the Mokele-Mebembe is just hippos, mistaken for a monster at long distance.  Still, even when the show doesn't find a monster -- and the chances of that seem very remote -- Destination Truth remains entertaining and, refreshingly, dedicated to the truth.

UFO HUNTERS - Hist. - Reverse Engineering

History Channel - Original Air Date: 3/16/08

Another sensationalist episode of this series, as usual based on the premise that UFOs exist and they are advanced spacecraft piloted by aliens.  The alleged UFO photos this time look to me like spidery smudges on film, or perhaps insects, or -- far more likely -- an artistic hoax.  As usual, there is no disclaimer as to what are "real" pictures, and what may have been recreated by the show.  The allegation is that these photos are of craft reverse-engineered by the US military.  Naturally, there is a hidden witness who claims to have worked on this hooey, and naturally the UFO Hunters believe him.  (They've checked his credentials carefully, they say.)  As usual, the show troops out the usual UFO mythology tales -- all unsubstantiated.  Basically, it's all hearsay (and we all know how admissible that is in court), but if you've tolerated this show from the start (as I have), you should be used to that by now.  If you've been paying attention you've also noticed this show piling speculation on speculation until they reach their usual predestined conclusion.  Did I mention they drag in Roswell and Kecksburg?  Should I need to mention that?  Yes, that's right, the symbols on the alleged Kecksburg UFO match the ones on these new UFO photos.  The resident scientist points out that the craft in the photos violate known laws and aerodynamics.  Rather than concluding that they're probably hoaxes, though, they then assume this is some unknown technology, rather than a clever hoaxer.  Only the growing complexity of the ships in the images seems to finally suggest a hoaxer gradually building up a more and more complex computer model.  Nor does the show ever explain by a craft supposedly reverse engineered by the US government would be covered with alien symbols, rather than US IDs and logos (or no markings at all).  Just for fun, there's also a lot of pseudo-scientific talk of resonance frequency -- along with a pretty cool demonstration of how resonant frequencies can move objects.  Again, though, this leads back to speculation, rather than fact.

The most truthful bit of narration in this show says, "A subject surrounded by secrecy is always an easy target for hoaxers, and digital manipulation has made their job easier than ever."  Right on.  Of course, the show then says, "Which isn't to say that the photographs aren't real."  (Emphasis mine.)  A CGI expert then notes inconsistency in the lighting of the ship versus the photos, and the fact that the ships always appear next to objects with straight lines, which are easier to composite with.  The expert then whips up a quick hoax, though the team scientist refuses to conclude the images are hoaxes.  The narrator then concludes that if the pictures are hoaxes, they are very good ones.  Nonsense.  They're pretty decent ones, but nothing that I couldn't whip up with my 3d programs and a bit of Photoshop.  As usual, the show fails to understand either the cleverness or the industry of such hoaxers.  One of the ongoing failures of the UFO community (and paranormal communities in general) is an unwillingness to call an obvious or proven hoax a hoax. As the X-Files poster says, "I want to believe."  But, if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck . . . then UFO Hunters is likely to claim it's unknown technology.

Stanton Friedman (UFO "expert") and I don't agree on much, but I've heard him say that to suggest that reverse engineering of UFOs explains all our current technological advancements is insulting to the people involved with those technologies.  (I would extend that insult to the ancient astronaut theories as well.)  People insulted in this show include SR-71 Blackbird designer and aviation genius, Clarence "Kelly" Johnson.  Too bad the show remains unwilling to call a duck a duck.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

IS IT REAL? Superhuman Powers

National Geographic Channel - Original Air Date: 2005-6

Again, this is not the show to watch if you're looking to validate your beliefs in the supernatural.  Can people levitate, knock others without touching them, perform other supernatural feats?  This IIR looks into Chi and other mystery powers.  They consult a pressure point master who claims that he can not only knock anyone out with one finger, but can also do so only by throwing his Chi at them.  They test not only those claims, but also those of dervish mystics who pierce their bodies with knives and needles.  They look at yogic flying, fire walking, and other such feats.  A skeptic in India tests a "god man" astrologer who sends his clients to purchase expensive "cures" for their psychic ails; strangely, despite his godly powers, the god man doesn't realize that he's being set up, also strangely all his clients need the same expensive cure for their imaginary ailments.  Mostly, the so-called superhuman powers seem to be explained by well known phenomena like high pain tolerance, self-hypnosis, and suggestion.  Nothing is discovered that a good, non-paranormal sideshow performer can't duplicate.

IS IT REAL? Police Psychics

National Geographic Channel - Original Air Date: 2005-6

This episode of the show poses the question: are the psychics who solve cases gifted, or just lucky?  The publisher of Skeptical Inquirer opines that psychic detectives merely waste police resources and give the families of victims false and unrealistic hopes.  As usual, IIR looks at historical case studies and offers scientific explanations for seemingly supernatural phenomena.  (See the recent review of IIR Psychic Animals for a list of some cold reading techniques employed by some psychics.)  Many times, it seems, the facts of the psychics' successes become exaggerated -- mythologized -- over time.  The supposed "solving" of the Jack the Ripper case by a psychic doesn't hold up to scrutiny.  Nor did famed psychic Edgar Cayce do well in the Lindberg kidnapping --  in fact, he got it completely wrong.  Nor have psychics done well on predicting assassinations - despite their claims to the contrary.  The show features a college professor and former psychic who, now skeptical, teaches "cold reading" techniques to his students.  Some psychics may not even know they're using these techniques.  (It's worth checking out Darren Brown's show Mind Control, if you haven't for what one can achieve with stagecraft, illusion, and psychological techniques.)   The show puts a psychic -- who teaches others to harness their gifts -- on a cold case of missing persons.  The policeman working the case concludes that the psychic has produced no new or useful information in the case.  They also test a dreaming psychic, who doesn't do so well detecting a news article in an envelope.  (He says that he needs actual objects, not print reports.)  They then test psychics, geographic profilers. and ordinary students to try to find the lair of criminals.  Geographic profilers did best; the other two did no better than random chance.  And examined predictions that "came true" seem to be either vague, or a case of "if you make enough predictions, some are bound to come true."  Retrofitting predictions to fit the events (as they later come to be) seems to account for the rest.  Again, I recommend checking out Mind Control or, if you prefer fiction, Psyche, for how it might really work.

IS IT REAL? Psychic Animals

National Geographic Channel - Original Air Date: 2005-6

IIR casts its skeptical light on the idea that animals possess psychic abilities like the ability to see the future and predict disasters.  Some speculate that animals and people are connected by a psychic field that binds us all together; we only need to be open to it.  Scientists insist that there is no concrete proof for this or any other paranormal theory.  The show interviews people who believe their pets are broadcasting psychic messages to them warning of everything from earthquakes to the impending arrival of the garbage man.  IIR also looks at historic psychic animals, including a horse who could spell out questions to answers posed by patrons.  As it turns out, as proved by a professional magician, the horse was merely responding to cues given by the trainer, and only knew what the trainer did.  The show points out that a domestic animal is well served by being able to read subtle cues from human beings.  Reports of a psychic parrot (now not doing interviews), prompt the show to test a parrot of their own.  The supposedly telepathic parrot lives with a bird fancier in the US, and a scientific test is set up with the human transmitting from one isolated room and the parrot receiving in another.  After 30 tries, the parrot got 2 hits -- a 7% accuracy rate.  While the owner is impressed (and has "good reasons" why the bird didn't do better), the tester points out that chance would have produced the same results.  The tester also points out that the man who found the "psychic" parrot, threw out results where the parrot didn't respond or responded with words not in the test range.  Doing the same for the new parrot increases it's "hit rate" to around 30% -- the same as the "psychic" bird.  It's amazing what results you can get with bad testing protocols.  The show also looks at pet psychics -- and concludes that such people are using a similar set of "cold reading" technique as human "psychics:" 1) use of prior knowledge, 2) telling clients what they want to hear, 3) noting the obvious.  All of these are reinforced by reactions from the owners; the animals aren't being read, the owners are.  Clearly there are both people (like the Dog Whisperer) and animals who are good at reading cues.  The show also speculates that animals' heightened senses may allow them to sense changes in the environment before people do.  A Japanese scientist has tests suggesting that many animals can sense changes in the earth's magnetic field.  The conclusion is that some animals have warning systems that outstrip our modern technology -- though there is not proof any of these systems are psychic.

Friday, March 14, 2008

DESTINATION TRUTH: Haunted Island & Mongolian Death Worm

SciFi - Original Air Date: 3/12/08

The second show in the second season isn't quite as engaging as the first, but then, there's less good evidence at the end of these two investigations.  In the first part, Josh and his team go to an island off the coast of Africa to investigate an area supposedly plagued by ghosts which, at midnight, march across the landscape and enter a large hole in a particularly spooky tree.  The investigation is repeatedly set back by locals, one of whom claims to be possessed.  The villagers then force the crew to go through a series of bizarre rituals before Josh and the rest will be allowed to explore the site.  By the time all that is done, it's just a few minutes to midnight.  The crew rushes in and sets up their cameras and mics.  Not surprisingly, with things in such a hurry, stuff goes wrong.  The mic in the tree hollow malfunctions, and there's general chaos.  They do get two pieces of evidence -- one a floating orb on the IR camera (the "orb" looked like an animal in a tree to me), and one a strange white shape on the a night vision camera (the shape looked like the sleeve of a hoaxing villager to me).  So, not much conclusion there.  Even less in the Mongolian Death Worm (great name!) case.  After a brutally long drive into the Mongolian Desert, Josh and the crew spend a cold night chasing shadows and peering down holes.  The town they visit has been deserted because of the worm, but the crew finds no signs of it.  There are holes in the ground, and a few traces on the IR camera, but nothing that couldn't be made by normal local fauna.  Leaving, Josh and the rest believe it unlikely that any worm-like creature could survive in this clime and venture out during the winter.  (Which is when recent reports were coming in.)  Worth noting is the high quality of the night vision cameras on this show; Ghost Hunters could use equipment this good.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Some more Gary Articles

A few more articles about Gary, sent in by friends or dug up by me.  Here's a good one from the NY Times.  And here's a touching and well-drawn cartoon.  A brief one from Wired.

It's becoming obvious that there are way, way too many heartfelt tributes to Gary online to compile a comprehensive list.  This one, by Wil Wheaton of Star Trek, is worth noting because it was mentioned by the minister in Gary's funeral service yesterday.  The minister also mentioned a blog or article by Neil Gaiman about Gary.  It was a good story, but -- as of this moment -- I haven't been able to turn it up.  It's not in Neil's journal, so I'm wondering if maybe it was misattributed.  If anyone turns it up, please leave a comment or drop me a line so I can link to it.  It's a sign of just how respected and loved Gary was that Google is swamped with articles and tributes.  The funeral was pretty swamped with tributes, flowers, and fans, too.  More about that later.

Friday, March 7, 2008

More Gary

Just a few more bits about Gary before he's laid to rest on Saturday.  Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report did a simple but touching tribute on his show after Gary's death.  "How much will we miss him?" Colbert asked at the end of his show.  "Let's find out."  He produces a 20-sided die, rolls it, reads the face, and declares, "Twenty."

Former TSR compat Kevin Hendryx turned up a piece on Slate.

And Doug Niles' grown children found this amusing cartoon.  Too bad the drawing's not better.

While Brett Favre's retirement on the same day did overshadow Gary's death somewhat, there was still good coverage worldwide from what I can tell.  My wife noted, "I guess D&D is a lot more mainstream than I thought."  That was Gary; he changed the world.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


SciFi - Original Air Date: 3/5/08

Now this is the way to run a paranormal investigation!  The second season premier of Destination Truth ups the ante, showing they learned a thing or two from their successful first season.  The crew, with some new members, treks to Nepal to check out recent yeti sightings.  Josh Gates (our host) intrepidly pokes his nose into caves that may contain a yeti -- or a bear -- and generally does crazy things in the name of finding out the "truth."  Armed with good equipment and night vision cameras, he boldly goes ... well, wherever he needs to.  (The cave turns out empty, by the way, despite the big droppings outside.)  So, the crew braves the thin air and considerable dangers at 11,000 feet in the Himalayas.  Gates himself is engaging, by turns cordial and snarky, and the show's narrative moves along briskly.  If this show is any indication, the commercial break cliffhangers are less forced this year, a trend I find encouraging.  After failing to obtain a hair from a supposed yeti scalp, they take a nighttime trek along a rushing river bank where a yeti reportedly attacked a woman (and killed some yak).  The IR camera proves dodgy, but their night vision is still good.  After seeing a few moving shadows, they discover... a footprint.  Two, in fact, or maybe three.  Out comes the casting powder; prints are taken.  Camera traps are set, and the crew tramps through the night trying to stir something up.  They see something moving on the IR, but can't track it down.  The next day, they head back to the US to analyze their data.  The heat pictures they end up discounting as likely a Sherpa moving near their camp.  (A victory for skepticism!)  The footprints they run through a battery of tests and conclude that they could be real and, if they were a hoax, the hoaxer would have to be very clever.  However, the luck of finding such good evidence right out of the box (even with careful planning) seems pretty large to me.  (I always distrust the producers and PAs on shows like this.)  Another annoyance that I've had with this show is that they turn up such interesting leads so quickly, it's a shame they don't get to stay and investigate longer.  Maybe we need a Josh Gates feature film with some serious long-term tromping around.  All in all, though, this is a good start to the second season of one of the best uncanny shows on television.

BBC on Gary Gygax

A good article about Gary, culled from AP and other sources.

BBC Gary Gygax

My friend Doug Niles, who found this, reports it was the most emailed article on the BBC yesterday.  The blog entry is kinda nice, too.

And I hope y'all caught the NPR news item.  It's probably up on their web site: by now.

UFO HUNTERS - Hist. - Cops vs. UFOs

History Channel - Original Air Date: 3/5/08

Yes, I find myself watching this show again. Think of it as the fascination that some people have with road accidents. (Traffic collisions as they say in Hot Fuzz.) Those of you who have been reading my reviews of this show will not be surprised that this episode starts with a Daytona Beach case from 1991 in which a surveillance helicopter picks up a dumbell-shaped UFO on infrared camera--though they didn't see anything visually. You also probably know how I feel about evidence which technology catches that wasn't observed at all by a reliable witness. But, as usual, the show guys "investigate" and decide it couldn't be anything but a UFO. Amazingly, though, the scientist declares, this case too old to effectively investigate. Yow. Good thing they only took 20 minutes of the show, then. From there, they move to UFOs observed by British Police; there's an official unofficial police reporting site for UFOs in the UK. First up, a mysterious hovering light on a video. Despite tracking down the location of the video (though not going there on a map), the team decides they can't determine what it is -- though they're sure it's not a plane or astronomical object. Then they talk to a former officer who has a wild story about the UFO, but no proof there, either of the UFO or of time loss/abduction. After that, they hear of a UFO at Stonehenge in 1987 seen by many cops -- though only one is interviewed. The cop says the UFO made a sharp 90-degree turn which no plane could do. Other police refuse to come forward, but the one witness speculates the UFO seemed to be flying in a mapping pattern. (Though what that is or why the cop thinks it is not shared.) The team speculates that the UFO may have been homing in on the sacred geometry of Stonehenge; that's right, the monument is a UFO signpost. So, they build a replica of Stonehenge with acrylic and mirrors and shoot lasers around it. As one of the team points out, "This is all hypothetical." Well, at least this time they admit it. And yes, it is all as silly as it seems. Amazingly, they come back to the helicopter sighting at the end of the show. Almost as amazingly, the crew -- for once -- manages to re-create the sighting fairly convincingly by de-focusing the IR camera. But then the crew refuses to conclude that's what the film is. After all, it just couldn't be that, because the witnesses don't think it was. Evidence be damned; witness opinions are what counts. I remind my readers of Neil Degrasse Tyson's statement that "Eyewitness reports are the lowest form of evidence in science" and viewed as practically worthless. Too bad this team of UFO Hunters seems willfully ignorant of that.

This would probably be a good time to mention one of my ongoing problems with this show: the recreations. Every week, we get a CGI recreation of the incidents described in the show. Trouble is, where the witnesses describe lights, we get spaceships a la George Lucas with beautiful surfaces and flashing lights. A triangle of lights? We get something like an Imperial Cruiser. A cigar shaped light? We get one with lights and windows and all sorts of things. And when the movement of a UFO is described, we get these amazing Star Wars exaggerated movements. One 90-degree turn? Make that dozens! the more the merrier. The point is, that the recreations always support the show's most outlandish theories and interpretations. Watching the recreations, you'd be hard pressed to reach any conclusion except that the sightings were caused by alien spaceships. And that's what the show wants; more true believers to drum up ratings and buy UFO Magazine.

More on Gary

A good article by the Milwaukee paper:

Journal Sentinel Article

Complete with quotes from old TSR compat Jim Lowder.

A Good Gygax Article

Here's the article running on Google News about Gary:

Arstechnica Article

It's very good. Gary's feelings about 60 Minutes were also my own. I was at TSR when that piece was done, and what made it onto the air reflected neither what Gary had said nor what was actually happening with the game at the time. The "news story" was merely an attempt to cash in on the game's notoriety and, perhaps, fan the flames. (A letter read on the air the following week took the 60 Minutes crew to task for falling into the trap of sensationalism.) I've taken everything from major news organizations with a big grain of salt ever since -- especially since 60 Minutes is supposed to be the best of them.

If you want to see Gary as I remember him, I'd suggest checking out the special features on the 2nd D&D movie. There's a nice interview there, and the film is quite good, too. (Far better than the first one.)

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Gary Gygax RIP

Gary Gygax, co-creator and main proponent of Dungeons & Dragons died today. He was co-worker and a good friend to me, and the game he created changed my life.

In 1980, just after my 21st birthday, I moved from Sharon, Massachusetts to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to work on the D&D game as an editor. Just over a week earlier, I'd come west to attend GenCon and have a job interview for that position. While at the con, I'd fallen in love with Kifflie Scott, the woman who later became my wife. Kiff and I met because she played D&D with my DM (gamemaster) from high school.

So in a very real way, Gary Gygax is responsible for both my long career and my happy family. (Tolkien was, too, but that's another story.)

Thinking about it, I'm not sure I ever thanked Gary for that. He'd brought a lot of us to Wisconsin to work for him, so probably my story isn't that unique. TSR, at its peak, employed over 300 people -- and many of those folks had, like me, traveled a long way to work on a game that was fun and thrilling. We came not for money, but for love of the game. Gary knew that, and he liked working with people who liked gaming. I was lucky: not many people who came to TSR got know him as well as I did.

The funny thing is, I didn't really know him that well when we were both working at TSR. He was an executive, and didn't even work in the same building as those of us producing the games. Often, those of us downtown only experienced Gary as a voice from "on high," barging in with a thundering (and often inconvenient) memo. This tendency to shoot off fiery memos gave Gary a reputation of being something of an ogre. (A reputation he sometimes fanned with his columns in Dragon magazine.) Later, I came to realize that these memos were largely a reflection of two things: 1) He was engaged in a difficult struggle for control of the company, and 2) He really didn't want to be an executive; he would have been much happier designing and running games.

I distinctly remember the day that Gary went from being a boss or an ogre to being a friend. It was GenCon in 1984, and I had recently left TSR to help found Pacesetter, Ltd. (creators of CHILL). I was in the dimly lit underground cafeteria/lounge of UW Parkside (where the convention was still held) having lunch with my fellow rebels (Troy Denning and Mark Acres, and perhaps some others) when whom should we spot across the room but Gary. As I recall, one of us (maybe me) waved and called out "Hi, Gary!" Much to our surprise, he marched right across the room, greeted us warmly, and shook our hands. Far from being annoyed that we had "deserted" TSR, Gary thought it was thrilling that we'd struck out on our own, and he sincerely wished us all the best.

I couldn't help but feeling that he wished he could have done the same. And a bit later, he did, forming New Infinities with another group of "rebels" from TSR. I was a freelancer by then, and worked with Gary and his cohorts on a number of projects for that company. Later, he and I worked on an adaptation of his original Greyhawk dungeon, a project that, sadly, never saw print. (I did, however, have the distinct privilege of having the original D&D dungeons stored in my house for several years as we worked. How many people can say that?)

Both New Infinities and Pacesetter dissolved, but the friendship Gary and I had developed remained. I enjoyed both his company and the company of his family on numerous occasions -- though I'm sad to say that we never played many games together. If a family is the measure of a man, Gary did well, indeed. He did well in other areas, too.

The game he created has had a lasting effect on both the gaming industry -- my son once spent a fruitless afternoon trying to come up with an adventure video game that wasn't influenced by D&D -- and on our society as a whole. Gary opened up people's imaginations and allowed them to expand their horizons. His work influenced not only games, but also books (look at all the D&D and D&D-type novels), and movies. He changed the world in a good way -- and not just by joining Al Gore's Time Patrol on Futurama.

Now, I know that some factions out there have, over the years, seen D&D as a tool for "evil" or "dark powers" or some such rot. As someone who knew Gary, I can say that neither he (nor anyone I knew in TSR) was ever into the occult. For him, magic and dragons and demons were all just backdrops for great storytelling. (And, more often than not, backdrops for bad puns and inside jokes.) The magic of D&D was that you, as a player, got to be part of the story.

Gary created that. That was the gift that he gave to all of us: the gift of our imaginations set free by his imagination.

My friend, travel writer Edward Readicker-Henderson, put it this way:, "Anybody who put that many smiles on that many faces--and did it by harming no one else--did very, very well in life. Astoundingly well."

So, thanks, Gary. I owe you more than I can say: home, family, career. And of course, friendship.

I'll miss you, my friend.

See you at that big adventure-gaming table in the sky.

Rest in peace.

-- Stephen D. Sullivan