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Monday 12 December 2011

Two Unusual Fortune Tellers

     As a lark, my brother, then in his late teens, visited a fortune teller. After hearing the usual run-of-the-mill predictions such an exercise entails, he asked how he was going to die. The fortune teller replied that she would prefer not to deal with such a subject, but Warren insisted. So she told him he would die at the age of 25 (or 22, I forget which) in the armed forces of a foreign country, and would leave behind a widow and two children. Warren laughed as he told that story, but what happened? He lived to be 52 years old, he had only one child, and he never got near any armed forces. So much for the lousy prediction!
    Seriously, you would have to be pretty stupid to listen to a fortune teller. Even if you accept the possibility of clairvoyance, the question still remains: how do you know this fortune teller is any good? Does she (it is most often a she) have a certificate from the Psychics Academy, guaranteeing that she had an 80% success rate for periods up to twelve months, when face to face with the subject, or handling one of his possessions? The field is wide open; anybody can call herself or himself a psychic. The best that can be said of most of them is that they are adept at cold reading, and when the client wants to believe, their performance can be impressive.
    Just the same, one occasionally comes across something unusual.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Premonitions or Coincidence?

     Premonitions are another one of those phenomena which are very common, but which official science declares cannot exist, and therefore do not exist. A couple of years ago some folk related their premonitions on a brief TV documentary. For the sake of fairness, they also interviewed a sceptic, who explained them by a combination of chance and selective memory. To put it simply, our brains are wired to notice the exceptional events. We remember an unusual coincidence, and forget all the times our hunches or premonitions turned out false.
    On the face of it, this is all very reasonable. A soldier, a bundle of nerves before a battle, declares: "I've got a bad feeling. I don't think I'm going to make it through the day." If he is killed, all his comrades remember it. If he survives, it's forgotten. In the more mundane world, you take out an umbrella when you suspect it is going to rain, but you remember particularly the time you lugged the useless thing around when the sky cleared, and you joke about how an umbrella scares the rain away. Also, since the number of random events is virtually infinite, we are all, at some stage or another, going to be presented with what looks like a remarkable coincidence.
    However, on closer examination, the theory doesn't always hold.

Monday 24 October 2011

Tracey's Ghost

     Samuel Johnson is famously said to have given as the reason for a belief in ghosts, "the universal testimony of mankind." On the face of it, this carries weight. After all, if you wanted to make a case for the existence of vampires, you would ultimately have to explain why these animated, blood-sucking corpses are apparently restricted to the Balkans. But reports of ghosts can be found everywhere. Nor are they even uncommon. Back in 1894, a survey of 17,000 people by the British Society for Psychical Research revealed that one in ten in the general population claimed to have seen, heard, or been touched by, something not due to physical causes, and every survey since then has revealed a similar order of magnitude. In modern America it is more like 18 per cent. Of course, it would be unwise to take every single one of these reports at face value, but if ghosts don't exist, then every single one must be ruled out.
     Under such circumstances, where did the orthodoxy, "there are no such things as ghosts" come from? Did somebody, perhaps during the Age of Reason, examine a major sample of the best and most cogent ghost sightings, and demonstrate that all of them had mundane explanations? If so, time has not been kind to him; his name and work have been lost to posterity. You will not find them referred to in any skeptical article. No! What really happened is it was decided, about the same time, that ghosts did not fit into the developing scientific materialist framework, and therefore they could not exist - and so, any alleged sighting must have a mundane explanation.
     As for me, I belong to the nine out of ten who have never encountered a ghost. However, I have noticed that if you raise the issue in a group of any size - say a dozen or two - you are likely to find someone who has had the experience. And in one case, the story she told was so vivid and impressive, that I wrote down the details before my memory had a chance to fade.

Thursday 15 September 2011

My UFO Sightings

     In 1973, two eleven-year-old Californian boys went to a vacant allotment in the evening to play, when they came across a dark object the size of their living room planted in the open field, and resting about 18 inches off the ground. (Later, three holes were discovered where its supports had presumably stood.) After about five minutes, the bolder of the boys tapped it a few times with his torch. Suddenly, the top of the object lit up with a brilliant red light, the object rose three or four feet in the air, a row of green lights started flashing around the periphery, and the object began to rotate with a whooshing sound. As the object disappeared into the sky, the boys ran for their lives. (Coral and Jim Lorenzen, Encounters with UFO Occupants [1976], Berkeley Medallion, pp 31-32)
    Five years earlier, an Englishman was driving his truck at about 2.30 in the morning, when he saw an object like a green egg 15 feet across moving above the tree line. As it approached, his headlights and radio failed, and he watched as the object paused, and out of the bottom came a tube like a vacuum cleaner hose, at the end of which was a box from which issued four smaller hoses.  At that point, a Jaguar arrived from the opposite direction, its lights and engine failing in the presence of the UFO. As both of them watched, transfixed, the vacuum hose moved from one side of the road to the other, sucking up gravel, grass, and dead leaves while the main object gave a high-pitched whine. Then the hose was withdrawn into the UFO, which shot up into the air. (ibid. pp 16-17).
     Nothing as exciting as that has ever happened to me. I feel left out! Nevertheless, I have witnessed unidentified flying objects on three separate occasions. I won't call them flying saucers, let alone extraterrestrial space craft. However, they were never identified, they were definitely flying, and were presumably objects. And, because I am an inveterate diarist, I do not need to refer to my memory, because a full description was written up within a few minutes of each event.

Brisbane, Australia, 1968. It was Saturday evening, 7th December. I don't know why I was outside after dark, but it must have been about 7.45 pm, when I looked up and saw what appeared to be a paint smear on the sky. At first I thought it was a comet, and I called out to my parents and younger brother to see it. But this explanation soon proved false. The contrail - for such it almost certainly was - climbed higher and higher in the sky, moving west to east, until it extended across a third of the sky. By then my watch showed 7.55. At the vague front of the contrail was a point of light no brighter than the average star. Moving with it, but some distance behind, and to the side of the contrail, was another "star", without any contrail. My brother, Warren thought that he saw a third "star" near the front one.
     At first we supposed it might have been the Europa rocket fired from Woomera, but shortly afterwards a news bulletin reported that neither the defence forces nor civil aviation knew anything about it. (This was Australia, remember. We don't go much into testing top secret, edge-of-technology aircraft over capital cities - and certainly didn't 43 years ago.) The following day, The Sunday Mail told how hundreds of people had reported it, but none could identify it.
    The above was taken almost verbatim from my diary, and it is interesting to note that the details are different in many aspects from those of my conscious memory.

Borneo, 1981. It was Sunday 19 July, and I was travelling up the broad Mahakam River in Kalimantan, or Indonesian Borneo in a 17 metre houseboat. About 8.27 pm, I was standing on the skirting board of the boat, holding on to the rail on top, and gazing over the top to admire the multitude of stars - far more than could be seen in the city. (It was, perhaps, a foolhardy occupation; although the boat was chugging along leisurely, if I had fallen off, probably no-one would have noticed.) The moon had not yet risen, and everyone but my mother and the pilot were asleep. I noticed a faint star at an elevation of about 45o, and a slightly fainter star, a white point of light, at about the 5 o'clock position in relation to it, and about two moon widths away. For a moment it seemed a faint beam of light passed between the second and first stars, but this may have been an optical illusion. I remember thinking that it looked like a brief shooting star, except that the flash went up, not down.
     Suddenly, the second star began to blink and, still blinking, it moved in an arc to between the 2 and 3 o'clock position. Then it abruptly faded and went out. About two minutes later, while I was still dumbfounded, it appeared again in the 5 o'clock position, but a bit further out than originally. Again, blinking even more than before, it began moving in the same arc. At about the 3 o'clock position, it veered outwards fairly steeply, and again faded and went out. I stared at the spot, but that star was never seen again.
     I started writing the entry in my diary at 8.38. The moon rose at 8.43 from the direction in which I had been facing (port) ie probably from the southeast.

Southern Madagascar, 1991. Yes, I get around. This time I was with a camping tour of Madagascar, and on Friday 2nd August we had all settled down in a clearing off the road, about 35 km from Beloha, if you can find that on any map. It was around 7 pm, and we were gathered around the fire when we saw two lights in the northern sky. At first we thought they were satellites, for they were travelling rapidly on parallel paths, with the lower one in front. Suddenly the upper one exploded. It simply disappeared in a red puff. A second or two later, the second one simply vanished. No-one could give a reasonable explanation, although a "star wars" type of hunter-killer satellite was one suggestion. Maybe.

    As you can see, nothing here actually leaps out at you as a visitor from outer space. On the other hand, except possibly for the last case, neither does any mundane explanation. Any suggestions?