February 2011

Brocken Specter: The Fog Monster

The "Brocken Specter" is a sort of optical illusion that most often happens in the mountains. It is named after the Brocken, a mountain in Germany where the illusion happens frequently, due to its geographic situation.

Imagine that you are standing on the sidewalk  on a sunny day. You turn so that the sun is at your back. You look down and see your shadow cast upon the sidewalk.

Now imagine that you are standing on a mountain side. Your climb started out in the foggy lowlands, but you have climbed above the fog (or low-lying clouds) and now stand in the sun. You turn so that the sun is at your back. You look down and see your shadow cast upon the fog below you.

A few weird things happen. For one thing, because your shadow is being cast on fog instead of a solid surface, it's hard for your brain to compute where the shadow actually is. It can seem both far away and very close, because the shadow on the fog particles throws off your depth perception.

For another thing, because of the angle of the light and the depth of the fog, your shadow is distorted into a triangular shape. It seems very wide at the feet, and very narrow at the head. This can give the illusion that the shadow is very tall, like a giant striding along beside you.

Just to make things a little more unsettling, diffraction often causes a halo or circular rainbow to appear to encircle the head of the figure, like the holy glow on a Renaissance painting of baby Jesus.

This phenomenon is well known to people who spend a lot of time in the mountains. (Its name comes from the German word Brockengespenst, coined by the people who live near the mountain Brocken.) But it can be startling to visitors, to whom it seems almost an apparition appearing below or beside them in the mist.

UFO Sighted Over Vancouver, WA

On Sunday, February 20, 2011 a number of residents in Vancouver, WA sighted what they described as a "flying saucer." Several people phoned 911 and were directed to the National UFO Reporting Center in Seattle, but so far no official reports have been filed.

The object was described as being extremely bright - bright enough to draw neighbors out of their houses to see what was causing it. It was also described as hovering soundlessly in the air, between 7 and 8PM.

What was hovering over SW 192nd Street in the Clear Meadows neighborhood last Sunday night? It did not appear on airport radar, according to the FAA. It hovered roughly in one spot, although it made "occasional side-to-side movements."

Money Spells

I've been thinking about money a lot lately. There's the "gosh I need more money" type thought, of course. But I have also been thinking about physical money; coins and dollar bills. This week I started scrutinizing my pocket change for hidden treasures, and it led me to thinking about coins as objects, and as the subject of spells.

Naturally every witch for hire offers a money spell. I imagine money and love are just about the only two things people ask for magical help with these days. We don't often have to ask for a good harvest (although that's probably the historical version of "more money").

The Carrington Event: Will We Have Another?

The world was a very different place in 1859. There were no motorized vehicles, only horse-drawn carriages, trains pulled by coal-fired steam engines, and ships powered by coal-fired turbines. Airplanes were still a pipe dream. As far as electronics went, there weren't any. Ben Franklin's work at Menlo Park didn't begin until 1876, and Nikola Tesla was only three years old in 1859. Long-distance communication happened by telegraph, when it happened at all.

Which is why the Carrington Event caused only a minor stir, and has largely been forgotten by history. But were it to happen again, the results for us would be disastrous.

Denver International Airport: Conspiracy Central

DIA came up in an episode of Jesse Ventura's Conspiracy Theory that I recently watched. Frankly, DIA probably deserves an episode all on its own. Ventura just shuffled around the airport and stared disbelievingly at a mural on the wall, but surely there's more investigating (and shouting) that could be done there?

In 1995 a new airport opened in Denver, replacing the former Stapleton International Airport. At 53 square miles, it is the largest international airport in the United States - and the third largest in the world.

But aside from being a United Airlines hub with a state of the art baggage system, DIA has also quickly become the focus of conspiracy theorists everywhere.

Jesse Ventura's Conspiracy Theory: Sleeper Assassins

"A government plot to turn ordinary citizens into programmed killers."

In this episode, Ventura claims to have uncovered a CIA conspiracy to create real-life Manchurian Candidates, brainwashed assassins who kill under orders but without any conscious intent.

This is an interesting case, because we know for a fact that the CIA at least attempted to do this in the 1970s as part of project MK-ULTRA. It's also true that many people with psychiatric issues can perform complex actions (like committing murder) while in a fugue or dissociative state. And furthermore, the act of committing murder could certainly create traumatic amnesia, such that the killer truly does not remember having killed someone.

And finally we have the entirely plausible theory that these killer are lying in order to get a reduced sentence.

Jesse Ventura's Conspiracy Theory: 2012

"The conspiracy plot to save the elite. But not you."

Okay, so, first of all, the 2012 thing? Not happening. The Mayans were just a bunch of people who lived a long time ago, and made a really big calendar, and every calendar comes to an end. Just like our calendars! Imagine someone were to unearth a Western calendar, then declare that "the world will end on December 31." No doubt the Mayans would say the same thing we would - "Don't be so literal!"

I trust it will come as no surprise to anyone that America is dotted with hardened underground bunkers for the military and governmental elite in case of war or whatever. I have difficulty seeing this as a grand plot against Americans. But then again, I do appreciate Jesse Ventura's populist appeal, getting his nose out of joint based on the fact that they won't save us all.

(But where would we all stay? We can barely fit together on the surface of the country. You would have to build an entire underground country to house us. Now I'm reminded of the 1990s science fiction movie "Slipstream" starring Mark Hamill, which is one of my guilty pleasures.)

What's Going On At Plum Island?

You may be familiar with Plum Island from "Silence of the Lambs," where Clarice Starling disingenuously holds out the prospect of "walks on the beach" to entice Dr. Lector to help her out.

"Plum Island Animal Disease Research Center. Sounds charming," he drily replies.

Plum Island is a small, J-shaped patch of land off the Eastern end of Long Island. It was named for the beach plums which grow along its shoreline. Doesn't that sound lovely?

The United States Government bought the island in 1899, and initially used it as a military post. In the 1950s the island was handed over to the USDA, which established the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, ostensibly to help our beleaguered domestic farmers cope with animal disease outbreaks.

The Hollow Earth

The idea that the Earth is hollow is a persistent one which pops up occasionally in cultures throughout history. The belief itself is simple: that our planet is not a solid sphere filled with molten rock, but is in fact more like a tennis ball: a hollow sphere with lots of space inside.

In most telling, the center of the Earth contains another sun which floats in the middle, bringing light and warmth to the inner Earth. (This sun is a key element, obviously, because otherwise how would all the plants grow? DUH.)

Needless to say, a basic understanding of physics and gravity is enough to dispel any lingering thoughts that our planet might be hollow. But many people don't let the facts get in the way of their beliefs.

Hitler may have believed in a hollow Earth. (Let's face it - it's less crazy than some of the other stuff he believed.) Nazi Admiral Donitz once gave a speech which seemed to indicate that Hitler was sending submarines out to the seas beneath the polar ice caps to look for the entrance.

Is [fill in the blank] Trying To Take Over the Earth?

I read a lot of conspiracy theories about various alien factions attempting to take over the Earth. And I have to wonder: why? Why would an alien civilization which is manifestly able to travel across vast distances of space - presumably at faster than light speeds - spend more than ten minutes maneuvering their metaphorical troops?

Why don't they just do it, already?

This is a question which is never quite answered in a satisfactory fashion. Now granted, there are many reasons why an alien civilization would want our planet. It is rich in minerals and animal life and vegetation and clean water and catchy pop music. So why sequester yourself inside our hollow planet* and silently manipulate our world's leaders? Why not just, like, take it?