Monday, May 23, 2011

Area 51 Declassified

National Geographic Channel - Original Air Date: Unknown

Just a short review about this program to note it's probably not what you expect.  When I watched it last night, it was paired (in ads) with When Aliens Attack (largely a wargame scenario, positing a long campaign against an invading force).  From that juxtaposition, you might thing this would be another "aliens hidden in Area 51" program.  It's not.

Instead, it's a serious look at what really went on in Area 51 in the 50s and 60s (largely), during the testing and development of the U2, SR-71, and other top-secret airplanes and projects.  The interviewees tell their stories in a way that will be familiar to anyone who's ever watched a History Channel war program -- that is to say with candor, humor, and professionalism.  My favorite moment was when they discovered that a Soviet satellite had seen the shape of a top-secret plane on the runway; the enemy knew what our best plane looked like!  To counter this, the Area 51 crew started making cardboard silhouettes of fake aircraft for the satellite to "find."  They even put heaters on the cut-outs to simulate cooling engines.  Great deception.

No aliens here, just good, old spy vs. spy Cold War era politics.  Highly entertaining and informative.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Truth Behind Bigfoot

National Geographic Channel - Original Air Date: unknown

"The Truth Behind..." series has been something of a mixed bag -- some scientifically sound, some cluttered with people trying to "scientifically" prove their own beliefs -- so I was a bit concerned about this show going in.  They start with the infamous Patterson Film, and by declaring "If it's a fake, then it's the work of brilliant hoaxers," which almost immediately tips this show into the believer category.  (As professional magicians know, there are no people easier to fool than those who think they can't be fooled.)  They chopper a research team into the area where the film was shot to laser scan the terrain for a digital recreation of the film.  Next, they plan to collect details about the sighting to recreate the creature, and thereby, determine if the film is real.

Next they get Patterson's widow to loan them a 1st generation copy of the film (which removes some artifacts that have been mistaken for anatomical details, like finger curls); where the original is, they don't say.  They scan the film frame by frame in hi-def, and then stabilize the frames to compensate for Patterson's "shaky cam."  Then they overlay a 3d skeleton to try and match the "compliant" gait seen in the film.  They should try to match the gait of Bob Heironimus, but they bring in their own 7' tall actor to do motion capture instead.  Eventually, they get the actor to duplicate the gait (so much for the other no-human-can-duplicate-that-walk shows).  Next, they start talking about rumors that a Hollywood SFX suit maker created the creature from the film.  They claim that the details seen in the suit were "almost unheard of" and "virtually unavailable" in costumes of the day (1967).  (Notice that it was heard of and available.)  They pile on more and more details like this until it become obvious that this is a show that wants to believe in the Patterson film.

And as they keep telling us how "impossible" it would have been to make a suit like this during 1967, I should point out that many of the same kind of arguments were made about the Michigan Dog Man film, which was fairly recently revealed to have been a hoax using a simple ghillie suit.  Sometimes, simple tech in the hands of a hoaxer can fool very sophisticated people.

Meanwhile, they talk to "the world's foremost bigfoot expert" Jeff Meldrum, who has many footprint casts and other "evidence."  He says it's not strange that no actual bones of the creature have been found, because of natural conditions where these creatures would die.  He also thinks bigfoots have flat feet to help navigate difficult terrain.  Others think the casts in his collection are from prints made by hoaxers.  Meldrum cites sheer numbers to dismiss hoaxers, while others note huge variation in such tracks, including the number of toes -- supporting multiple hoaxers with different ideas about the creature.  Meldrum believes the woods could support this type of large animal, and the anecdotal evidence is strong.  He also claims to have 15+ (hair) samples that defy identification, yet show primate characteristics.  (But unidentified samples do not make bigfoot real, any more than unidentified lights in the sky mean we're being visited by aliens.)

Back at the film, Bill Muns lines up a CGI actor with the monster, but can't make both shoulders and hips match.  He notes that the anatomy would be unusual for a human -- but, again, there's Bob Heironimus, whom they haven't tried to match.  Could it be that all this science is being thrown off by a random choice of a disproportionate model (Heironimous) to wear the costume; sure seems like that to me.  Calculating from the sighting distance reported and the lens (25mm) Patterson claimed to have used, the height of his creature would have been a mere 4' tall.  (Clearly absurd.)  Based on foot casts, Meldrum calculates it would be 8' tall.  (For the record, Bob Heironimus is 6' 2" tall.)  Note that this "scientific" TV program now assumes that the reported lens length was wrong, and they substitute their own lens length to fit their 8' creature theory.  I can just as easily, and with more evidential support, assume that Patterson lied in order to line his own pockets.

They conclude that while there is no actual proof, their evidence suggests the film and bigfoot are real.  I conclude that they had a horse in this race when they started, and are therefore unreliable witnesses -- and scientists.

There's a lot of interesting science brought to bear in this show.  Sadly, it's all misused by believers to support the pre-supposed truth of the Patterson film.  Thus, the only real value I can see here is a new, more clear scan of the film.  (And, oddly, that seems less clear that some of the duplicates we've seen before.)  Every person in this show, all of them should be forced to watch National Geographic's own Is it Real? program on the same subject before they're allowed to do another TV showof this type.  Turns out my concerns for this episode of The Truth Behind... were well founded.

FACT OR FAKED: Whaley Ghost House - Muck Monster

SyFy - Original Air Date: 4/27/2011

Videos passed over for investigation this week include Hawaiian Halo, which seems to show circling objects over a Hawaiian landscape. Looks like doves to some in the group, something mechanical to others, possibly a new RC toy.  Fire Fairy seems to show a sprite-like thing dancing around a fire, "an angelic fire elemental" according to the film's creator.  It looks like a lens flare to many in the team (and to me, too).  So, the two remaining cases are...  Muck Monster shows a strange aquatic mass moving in the waters near Jupiter, Florida.  It's an intriguing video and seems to show a large creature with a serrated fin.  Some biologists have ruled out local fauna, including seals and manatees.  The Whaley House (museum) boasts many mysterious still photos, showing hovering lights and shapes, and almost daily reports of strange happenings from visitors.  One photo (which looks like matrixing to me) seems to show a face in a window.

Bill, Austin, and Chi Lan head to San Diego to check out the Whaley House and hear it's haunted history.  The team sets out to replicate some of the famous "ghost" photos.  Some are obvious reflections in the glass blocking off access to the rooms, so they choose a more ghostly courtroom shot.    They set up lights and replicate the image using reflections off of objects in the courtroom; mystery solved.  To replicate the "ghost in the window," they try various things, including reflection of the photographer and a person (Austin with funny mustache) in the room behind the window -- but those don't match it.  And it still looks like random shadows (and human pattern finding: matrixing) to me.  So, they do the usual ghost hunting at night stuff and get the usual mysterious sounds on EVP sessions -- including one they think is a gavel sound (though I remain unimpressed).  Good work on debunking the photos, though.

Ben, Jael, and Devin head off to Florida to search for the Muck Monster.  They talk to witnesses and then set out to recreate the video.   I suppose I might as well go on record that any FOF show that puts Jael in a bathing suit is a good show for me, so take that into account when reading the rest of this review.  First, she and Devin go diving to look for the monster and check out the terrain; there's plenty of debris to be mistaken for a monster.  They try filming a discarded raft, but it doesn't look as alive as the original footage.  Next, they construct their own monster and try to hoax it; closer, but still not right, the original is much more fluid and alive.  So, they decide to go to a the Miami Seaquarium and check out actual local marine life.  Talking to biologists there, they quickly come to the conclusion that the scientists quoted in the myth were wrong; this biologist quickly recognizes the "creature" as a herd of mating manatees.  The strange "flipper" is merely a tail that has been mutilated by a close encounter with a speed boat.  Case solved.

One occasionally wishes that the original rumor mongers would do a better job with their science, and thereby spare Fact or Faked from investigating cases like this.  But then, we wouldn't get to see Jael in a bathing suit quite so often.  Some sacrifices I suppose we simply must endure.  Thus ends another "Syfy season" of FOF, which, happily, will return in the fall.  Like Destination Truth, I wish they would do less ghost hunting, but I'm glad they're out there shooting down some of these very popular -- if absurd -- viral videos.  Good job, team!

DESTINATION TRUTH: Ghosts of Antarctica

SyFy - Original Air Date: 4/19/2011

On the "season finale" (whatever that means), Josh & crew head for Antarctica to look for ghosts.  They stop in the tip of South America (Tierra del Fuego) and pick up a 50-foot sailing boat to make the trip across some of the world's most dangerous waters, including Drake Passage.  The trip takes most of a week and doesn't look like much fun, with choppy seas and cramped quarters.  Naturally, there are icebergs, too, but eventually they reach the remote, inhospitable, and beautiful continent.  They party with some Russian scientists and hear the local legends of Deception Island, first stop in the DT ghost hunting tour.  Though the sun never quite sets (being Antarctic summer), they set up camp and haul out the IR gear to investigate.  Soon, people begin seeing and hearing things: Josh thinks he sees a shape inside a building (but I"m not convinced, and the FLIR evidence seems like video artifacting); Gabe sees a light in a hut, but it looks like an IR reflection to me; Josh and Ryder hear strange bumps in a warehouse-like building -- they don't see big pieces of fallen debris, but there's of junk plenty around to fall, and in a place like that.... Ryder sees a dark shadow by a door.  "This whole place is freaking me out." And therein lies a common ghost-hunting problem.  They never discover the source of the noises or shadow, naturally.  So it's on to their next stop.

Wordie House is an old British base supposedly haunted by its former occupants, after being abandoned in 1962.  The team picks up the house key from some Ukranians, who collect bras to decorate the only bar in Antarctica.  Wordie remains pretty much as it was when abandoned, and while Josh pokes around inside, Ryder discovers a noisy leopard seal outside -- perhaps explaining some of the local weird sounds.  Naturally, the team starts hearing strange sounds within Wordie House.  They set up watches, and hear even more strange sounds.  (Sitting alone in the dark will do this to you.)  Things also seem to mysteriously fall off shelves or tables.  (Vibrations of humans moving about and entropy, anyone?)  In his isolation session, Josh thinks he sees someone outside a door, but finds no one.  They keep recording and having weird feelings, and eventually it's time to head for home and analyze.

They think the FLIR hit at Desolation is something moving; I think it's a video problem.  (Really, these people should become more expert with their cameras, especially, and other equipment.)  Enhanced audio when someone hears something "reveals" a set of "pulses" in series that the team notes could be SOS in old Morse code.  But to me, that's a stretch, and as they note, there's only one series and it could be coincidence.  Really, it seems pretty much within the range of background noise to me.  The "light switch" sound from Wordie isn't much more convincing to me.

One of the troubles with these type of ghost hunter shows is I always have the feeling that the investigators have never lived in an old house, or in the woods, or in any place with an odd variety of natural sounds.  Houses creak and groan (woods do, too, as does ice) and most natural places are filled with sounds (animal or otherwise) if humans will just shut up long enough to hear them.  And wear and tear and vibrations and entropy... boy, that can make strange things clang and clack -- just ask my dish rack.  Also, if Wipeout can put cameras on people that show their POV, I think it's high time that DT did the same, rather than merely having cameras that focus on the team members.  I'm really tired of people exclaiming about something cool they saw just in time for the cameraman to miss it.  POV cams might help capture evidence that's now being missed -- or help show just how prone people are to optical illusions and jumping at their own shadows.

In the end, though this remains my favorite of the supernatural shows, and I like the cast -- in my humble opinion -- this is just another hunt for ghosts that aren't there.  I wish DT would do less of these and stick to searching for monsters -- maybe doubling their time on each case by skipping the ghosts.  We already have Ghost Hunters and GHI, if ghosts are what we want.  More hard science would be welcome, too.