Thursday, July 29, 2010

FACT OR FAKED: Off the Deep End; Houseguest

SyFy - Original Air Date: 7/29/10

The group assembles, as usual, to try to find cases worth investigating.  Sacramento lights pulsing in the sky could just be a flare hoax.  Kitchen poltergeist ends up looking like fishing line, and there are explanation videos for the hoax online.  North Carolina alien crossing looks like a composite digital effect.  Good calls on those, so let's get on to the cases actually investigated.

Raystown Bay, PA: In a man-made lake is something that looks like the Loch Ness monster, "Raystown Ray."  There's only a single photo, but the case has eyewitnesses, which is enough to send the team to check it out.  They decide that the sightings could be rotting logs (a well-known lake monster theory), so they head out and almost immediately find a floating log, made to order, and tow it around.  Some of the photos look good, but not as good as the photo they're working from.  Next they try some black PVC pipe, with a keel and a board monster head and humps. Looks good again, but Jael doubts a local could have pulled off such a hoax unobserved.  So they go sonar sweeping and diving -- at night, naturally (stupidly) -- and get some sonar hits (though I'd be more impressed if they had a pro fisherman interpreting the data).  Nothing turns up, so they go fishing for monsters, but they only snag the line on the bottom.  They decide that maybe there's something down there, though it's still unexplained.  (Still looks Photoshopped to me.)

The Ghost Writer, writes answers to questions on Polaroid pictures, as they develop -- supposedly on cameras brought by anyone.  Though (journalist) Chu-Lan isn't convinced, and it looks like a cheap magic trick to me, they decide to check it out.  Unfortunately, Bill - who had the "believer" cases last 2 weeks -- is leading this team, and if the first hadn't turned out "real," I'd be laying odds that this one turns out to be "real, too. The photos still look like a trick to me,  and it's odd that the spirit's messages get clearer and easier to read as time goes on: almost like a hoaxer learning to improve his craft.  After some witness interviews and vortex mumbo-jumbo, they start taking pictures: nada.  So, they're thinking maybe something man-made.  They make some acetates and double expose the Polaroid film in a dark room, then re-insert the film in the cartridge, but the test proves inconclusive; most of the shots mysteriously don't turn out.  (Reload problem, maybe/)  Next they try words on Plexiglas, in front of the photographer, but they see reflections on the plexi.  So, thinking it's maybe supernatural, they use ground penetrating radar to look for bodies buried beneath the house.  They find some bones, but they're cow and chicken bones, so, nada there, too.  Voice analysis again finds "truth" in the witnesses -- though again, I doubt the validity of this test.  Again, they call this one real/unexplained.

When the first case turned up "real," I had high hopes for Bill's case being "fake," thereby preserving the balance of the show and giving Bill some credibility in my mind.  (Frankly, he seems like a "true believer.")  Sadly, instead, we got 2 "unexplained/real" conclusions on cases that seem, to me, to not have been investigated enough.  The Ghost Writer, particularly, I think is some kind of magician's trick; Polaroids respond to pressure or something (if I remember), like a magic slate.  But, again, no professional magicians are consulted, and even photo expert Chu-Lan is stumped (but hasn't pushed hard enough).

I'm hoping that this show will now have a "two hoax" episode, though since this type of program caters to believers, I'm worried that will never happen. Again, I'd urge them to go more the way of Mythbusters than Ghost Hunters or UFO Hunters. Try harder; keep at it; call in better experts.  Don't play your audience for chumps.

(I have no idea why this episode was listed as "Caretaker: Cutter" - "Raystown; Ghost Writer" would have seemed more appropriate.)

Revision Note 8/2/10: Apparently, per a viewer comment, the show was mis-titled when broadcast, and is actually called "Off the Deep End; Houseguest."  I have re-titled the post, but kept the original post intact.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

FACT OR FAKED: Unwanted Visitors; Strange Sightings

SyFy - Original Air Date: 7/22/10

The second week of this new show kicks of with videos of two UFOs crashing together (possible Israeli missile strike), an "angel" at a crash scene (possible lens/film problem), and a Gettysburg ghost in the woods (possible optical trickery) .  They settle on the Fresno "Night Crawler" video, a stick-like figure walking by a surveillance camera, (looks like a marionettes to me, and no original tape exists; fuzzy tapes hide a multitude of fakes.) and a Lake Havasu flying saucer (looks like the Balloon Boy balloon to me).

They interview the witness in Fresno, check out the scene, and try to recreate the video using a kid in a costume and a mechanical puppet on a pulley, once showing the armature and the second time covered by a sheet.  Then they try it by walking the puppet across using a pole and removing the operator with special effects.  They then investigate some local woods -- at night of course -- wondering if the "crawler" could be something living.  They experience the same battery problems endemic to paranormal investigation shows - and naturally speculate about this being caused by "creatures."  Their thermal camera picks up some mysterious movement (probably animals). Their voice analysis of the witness suggests truth telling (though I'm not sure I buy their use of this technology, nor their conclusion, as nervous shaking often indicates lying, not truth telling).  I have to say, I'm not impressed with either the skepticism or the investigative technique in this segment.  For one thing, this is the same team that declared the lights in last week's show "real."  For another, to me the crawler footage looks similar to the "walking gnome" video that made the internet rounds last year - and was proved to be a puppet (as I recall).  Finally, I believe that I could create a very similar "creature" using a "flying ghost" that I had in our yard several years ago.  A good mechanic, or stage magician could make it even more convincing.

The second team goes to Lake Havasu and interviews the witnesses.  Here, we get a bit more context for the footage, though still -- annoyingly -- not the complete clip.  They start by trying a "reflection in glass" trick, similar to one they did last week, but this time with a model UFO rather than lasers; no dice.  They then decide to launch a huge silver UFO balloon (found on the internet) from the state park, run it up to 1000 feet and see how it compares.  In the words of the team, "It looks just like the video."  If untethered and left to float, it seems sure to have the same flight characteristics as the object in the video.  They then go looking for people who have seen the UFO at the time reported, and also saw it as a balloon.  Sure enough, they turn up a park ranger who actually saw the balloon shortly after the launch.  It might have been associated with a movie being shot in the area.  Great flying saucer footage, but declared "fake."  Case closed; well investigated.

So, again, one "real" and one fake.  As I said in the previous review, I fear this may be a trend.  And the "real" investigation really stopped short once they got close to an explanation.  In future, I suggest that the show may want to add a professional magician to the team and adopt an "If I really wanted to do this, how would I achieve that effect?" attitude with each video.  They should also add a professional hunter/tracker, so animals on a thermal camera at night don't become mysterious "creatures."  And while they're making personnel changes, dumping a few "believers" from the production/marketing staff might help this show become truly useful for paranormal investigation, rather than useful about half the time.

FACT OR FAKED - Burning Rubber; Hyperjump (Series Premier)

SyFy - Original Air Date: 7/15/10

"Former FBI Agent" Ben Hanson leads a team of investigators (including Jael from Destination Truth) and experts as they evaluate footage sent to them and try to determined whether its Fact or Faked. The show starts with the group gathered together looking at weird footage: shadow figures in the woods and a bedroom, an alien in someone's bedroom, and figuring out which bears more investigation. In this part of the show, the group shows some good critical thinking skills, dismissing some as manipulated, others as possible puppets, and finally zeroing in on two cases: one where a car seems to drive right through a fence to escape a pursuing cop in Georgia, and another of mysterious lights over Arizona.  The group splits into two teams and goes to investigate.  The "ghost car" team checks with witnesses, finds the scene of the chase, and then recreates it -- at each step, ruling out paranormal happenings (such as the car moving amazingly fast).  Finally, they set up some scenarios for driving "through" the fence.  They do manage to jump a car over the fence, but not without damage.  Then they hit on the idea of loosening some of the fence fasteners -- which the officer reported during the case.  Doing that allows a speeding car to drive right through; the fence flexes and then swings back down, perfectly intact -- just in time to foil the pursuing cop.  One very lucky perp.

The second segment deals with lights appearing at dusk over an Arizona mountain range.  While these lights look to me like the Phoenix Lights, which UFOs Over Phoenix conclusively proved to be military flares, the crew dismisses the flare theory.  They play some flare footage which does not look comparable (though it's the wrong angle and distance), and the witness says the Air Force said they weren't dropping flares on the night in question. Sadly, the team does not seem to call the military to double check that (and we know that the military sometimes makes mistakes in such cases, or denies "secret" flights).  They then try to recreate the lights using lasers reflected off of glass and lights attached to balloons.  Their results, while interesting, do not match the video.  They then set up night cameras and poke around in the dark for a while (seemingly required for any investigation show - though conducting ground searches at night seems like a foolish idea to me).  And they do catch some "strange lights" in the sky on video.  Though one looks like an atmospheric phenomenon to me, several others are genuinely odd.  Unfortunately, the program doesn't show enough of the footage surrounding the sightings to get a proper context.  Mysterious, yes, but certainly not the lights they were investigating.  Calling in an aviation or space expert would seem to be in order, but they don't do it.  They claim the footage supports the idea of new UFO sightings over Phoenix.  (Note that UFOs are merely unidentified, not "aliens.")

To me, though, the original footage -- which the program never seems to show enough of to gain proper context -- looks like a "string" of flares being dropped, lighting up, and then going out one by one in the order they were dropped.  If not the military, it could have even been fireworks dropped by a private plane as a prank.  I have no evidence for this, but my scenarios (military or private) seem a far more reasonable explanation than the "hyperjump" being claimed for the mystery lights.

My fear with this show -- and other shows in the paranormal investigation genre -- is that we'll get results that are skewed away from science and toward retaining viewers every week. (I've seen similar problems in MonsterQuest, Ghost Hunters, and other programs.)  Viewers want to believe, and they may get bored with "we found nothing unusual" week after week.  Thus, I am concerned that each week on this program we may get one debunked case, and one "real" case -- and on the "real" case, the team will just stop looking/investigating/probing before they should.  It would be nice if this show were the Mythbusters of the paranormal.  Instead, it's likely to be more like Destination Truth without the interesting personalities.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Inside Secret Government Warehouses

SyFy Channel - Original Air Date: 7/11/10

This show sets out to explore secret storehouses (in conjunction with the SyFy series Warehouse 13).  They go to an abandoned military base in Montauk, NY, into the skies above area 51 in Nevada, and to the secret archives of the Vatican.  The host, CNN's Lester Holt, lends the show an air of credibility, and seems to get the program access that may similar programs lack -- the Vatican, Area 51, and Montauk trips, for instance, as well as interviews with top scientists and government figures.  They also have a good range of believers (including friend of the blog, Don Schmitt), skeptics, experts, and witnesses -- some of whom are more credible than others.  Holt and his crew press officials hard, and go further than most programs of this type.  Indeed, Holt has a history of such investigations, and seems to have a personal interest in digging out the truth.  As usual in such shows, there are intriguing glimpses and tantalizing suggestions.  But also, as usual, there is very little solid evidence presented in the end, and no groundbreaking revelations are brought to light.  There are the witness stories, there is a cast of an "alien" jaw that may or may not be real, and there are certainly some secret installations and hidden information.  But, sadly, there are no real conclusions drawn save things that are already commonly believed, such as: Area 51 tests secret aircraft and is probably an environmental disaster area (due to lack of EPA oversight because the place does not officially exist).  At the start of the 2 hours, the program poses this series of questions: What are they hiding? Where are they hiding it? And why is it hidden? Sadly, few of those questions are answered by the end of the show.