Video Proof of Our TAM Panel!

September 27, 2012

For those of you who were skeptical that the James Randi Educational Foundation would allow Bob and me to appear on a panel at The Amazing Meeting 2012, we have evidence!

Welcome to the end of the world…

October 21, 2011

Shatner did “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s worse than Camping could have hoped for:

RJB (who blames Eve)

“Anonymous” Screenwriter John Orloff: Name Dropping and Wrong

October 18, 2011

John Orloff, who wrote the screenplay for the badly titled Anonymous (as Eve points out, it should be Pseudonymousout-stupided the Huffington Post on their own turf, which is no mean feat. He took issue with the phrase “urban legend.” I agree. They should have used the phrase, “unfettered clacking bollocks.” I intend to use his little screed in future classes to teach logical fallacies. His letter went as follows:

I’d like to think current and past US Supreme Court Justices don’t believe in Urban Legends. Namely, Justices Stevens, Blackmun, O’Connor and Scalia all think there is reason to doubt the validity of the actor William Shakespeare having written the plays history ascribes to him.

Wow. Not a Shakespearean scholar among them. Ok, you’re name dropping, but the sad fact is that just because you don’t like to think about it doesn’t mean it’s not true. This is the appeal to personal incredulity. “I can’t believe that these smart people would believe an urban legend, therefore, Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare.”

As does historian David McCullough. As do authors such as Mark Twain (whose last book, “Is Shakespeare Dead” is dedicated to the issue), Henry James (who said he was “haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever perpetrated on an unsuspecting Public”), and Walt Whitman (to name a few).

This is a classic appeal to false authority. You could fart sonnets like an angel and still not have a rollicking clue about the reams of scholarship backing the mainstream view.

As do Shakespearean actors Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, and Orson Welles (who directed and starred in several Shakespeare plays).

Yawn. Appeal to false authority. Sorry.

And Mark Rylance, who is not only perhaps the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation, but a man who was also the Artistic Director of the Globe Theater in London for ten years. Think about that last name; the man who ran the Globe theater for a decade doesn’t think Shakespeare wrote a single word.

Wow. I’m willing to bet if I look in my university databases I’ll find he never had to publish a goddamned thing under peer review:

  • Academic Search Complete ( 0 )
  • Research Library ( 0 )
  • Project Muse ( 0 )
  • MLA International Bibliography ( 1 )
  • Essay & General Literature Index ( 0 )
  • Arts & Humanities Citation Index ( 0 )
  • Humanities Int’l Index ( 0 )

That single entry is in a book about the resurrection of the Globe Theater, and it does not address authorship. And it’s not you like are citing an independent authority, since he’s in the freaking movie. “Well, my friends think so,” is as unconvincing as, “My mom says I’m smart.”

And we can add Sigmund Freud in there as well.


An Urban Myth is something proven to be false. I’m not sure we’re there on this particular issue.

Well, I disagree with your definition of urban myth, but the burden of proof is not on mainstream academia. We don’t default to the position that you know your head from your ham hocks.

And how do you know that someone wasn’t scared by Eddie Murphy in an elevator?

Either way, I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s statement on the subject when he was asked about the Authorship Issue. His response? He replied he wasn’t that interested in Oxford because, in his words: “I don’t like to have my myths tampered with”.

He meant the Shakespeare myth.

He meant, “Get stuffed, bozo. I’m not interested.” It doesn’t matter how many amateurs you say you surround yourself with, you’re still sitting on the short bus. (Yes, the actors and directors have a skill set that is completely unrelated to scholarship.)

Your software is broken, kiddo. Don’t try to contribute to the Great Discussion, because you’ll only embarrass yourself.


Comic Book Review: The Big Lie

September 14, 2011

“Lies are like unwashed socks,” opens Rich Veitch’s new comic, The Big Lie. “They come in all sizes and stink to high heaven.” Take the stinker he just published, for instance.

The Big Lie is the story of Sandra Stratton, who works at the Large Hadron Collider in 2011 but travels back in time to the morning of 9/11 to rescue her husband, who was killed in the attacks. She materializes in the WTC subway, and opens with a pee joke:

This is the high point of the comic; it’s all downhill from there. Also, doesn’t it seem strange that they chose as their model a surprised, unbespectacled Desiree Schell?

Anyway, because of some quantum, Sandra has teleported back into the past, but because of some pesky tachyon entanglement miscalculation issues, she only has one hour to rescue her husband. But here’s how Veitch puts it:

Big spelling fail.

Carl’s at an early morning meeting, discussing, as best I can tell, the possibility of demolishing a real steel framed building in Iraq for Steven Spielberg. Really.

I had hopes for this comic book. Usually, when you encounter a truther in the wild of the Internet, you will be debated at and shown youtube videos. I thought that moving to a new medium would perhaps change this. So what does Desiree do when she sees her husband, Carl? SHE DEBATES HIM AND SHOWS HIM FECKING YOUTUBE VIDEOS!!


So they settle into a debate not unlike Plato’s Phaedrus, only populated by snarky douchebags. Take, for instance, the following exchange:

For you non-engineers, Carl is a moron. Silly-puttying “teh thermites” to the wall will only give you burned silly putty and burning thermite on the floor. It burns so hot that you’d actually need to weld trays to the steel of the building, and even then, you would only scorch the steel, not cut it:

That scene of thermite not cutting a steel beam, by the way, is from Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura by the way. Yet he fails to learn anything from it. Oh well. As she is being dragged away by security,  Sandra exclaims, “Building 7!”:

I know how you feel, Carl. Oh, by the way, Carl doesn’t recognize his wife, because she was never crazy or old before.

As soon as Sandra is escorted from the building,  the office is rocked by a gigantic….

This is the plane hitting, not an enormous exploding owl, as you might expect from the noise it made. In the last scene, they see exposed thermite bombs on the steel beams in their office building. This means that the author is endorsing the idea that not only did the conspirators crash planes, but were also able to decide which floors they would hit, a far, far more complicated project than either an airline strike or a demolition. If you’re going to be wrong, be shamefully, spectacularly wrong, that’s my motto.

It’s confusing. It’s pedantic and saturated with bad arguments by every single character, the product of a mind detached from reality. It’s prefaced by the statement that:

The sheer number of spelling/grammar/factual/anachronistic errors suggests to me that someone at editor at Image, a usually reputable publisher, did not really care if it looked as bad as it is. At least I like to think so. It’s too bad. Veitch, who used to rub shoulders with Alan Moore, is now piddling in the shallow end of the pool with the kids from the short bus.

RJB (with a shout out to Steven for letting me take a peek at his copy!)

From our foreign correspondent…

August 12, 2011

…the Blessed Professor Acker, who is currently in England. Hopefully he’s looting something nice for us. Oh, also that he remembers to steal an adapter since the plugs are different over there. He apparently picked up an Annunciation for himself:


I’m not going to TAM, but I’m going to have fun anyway!

July 10, 2011

While I can’t attend the skeptical hajj (which every skeptic must attend at least once in their life!), Eve is taking me to see Tim Minchin, who is performing in Atlanta during TAMapalooza. Tim will be playing at Center Stage Atlanta, the 1100 seat theater where TruthCon was held.  In celebration of the event, I am going to post the first version of “Storm” that I encountered. (You’ll have to visit his channel to see the excellent version that was released this year.) The narrator of Storm would have locked Center Stage’s doors from the outside and set the place on fire, laughing and sobbing all the way.


Was the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima Staged?

June 18, 2011

Oh, I’m getting rusty, people. I almost let this one slip past me. About a month ago I was listening to On the Media, one of my favorite podcasts. Paul Waldman and Peter Gourevitch were debating whether or not we needed to see an image of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. (I happen to think not, but whatever.) This exchange took place:

PAUL WALDMAN: We didn’t need the photograph of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima to make us understand that we had won World War II, but it communicated a great deal about what we understood about that event, what it was supposed to represent, what it was supposed to tell us about us.

PHILIP GOUREVITCH: The image of Iwo Jima is exactly the opposite. It happens also to be a staged reenactment, as we now know, but it’s an image of American soldiers triumphing over intense adversity at the end of a grueling battle, hoisting their flag in pride over their nation. What you’re talking about is a headshot of Hitler with his brains blown out and showing. We don’t have that. And I don’t think there’s been a failure to achieve closure on World War II in the absence of it.

I groaned when I heard this because I teach classes about WWII, but I let it slide. A better blogger would have dropped everything, said good-bye to the wife, and set out to the library to put this sucker in the ground. I am unfortunately not that blogger.

I drag out this photo in almost every class I teach at some point. It’s the classic Joe Rosenthal photo of Marines erecting a flag at the summit of Mt. Suribachi, perhaps one of the most widely reprinted images of all time, and it’s not hard to see why:

The photo was taken after three days of fighting on Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima, I think you will find, sucked. It was a Japanese home island, and it was a fortress of the most formidable type. The Japanese had been preparing it for years, digging caves and tunnels in the volcanic rock and covering every inch of the island with artillery and machine guns, so that there was nowhere safe on the island for an invader. It was a perfect nightmare to attack. A US team could seal one spider hole with explosives, and the Japanese soldier who had been in there would pop up behind you and shoot you from there. All of the artillery and mortars would have been pre-sighted, that is, the Japanese would have placed targets of known size and distance to help them aim quickly, accurately and effectively. Look at this map, which shows the artillery and defensive positions on the island, and then consider that every one of those little dots housed either a machine gun, mortar or high explosive artillery. Iwo Jima was a calculated, engineered hell.

Contrary to what Gourevich says, the flag was not raised at the end of the battle, but at the beginning of a month-long struggle on the island. Indeed, only three of the men in the image survived the battle. Nonetheless, Iwo Jima was late in the war (Feb-March 1945), when Japan’s defeat was no longer a question. The only question was at what cost would Japan be defeated. As US troops were finally stepping on and taking over a home island, it represented the beginning of a new, final chapter.

The only feature to speak of on the entire island was Mt. Suribachi, itself riddled with man-made caves and bunkers. It loomed over the soldiers the entire time, and it must have been discouraging to know that the enemy was spotting you from the heights he commanded.

Symbolically, the mountain came to represent something other than a strategic position on an island. Indeed, it represented, on the eve of American victory in the Pacific, a long struggle that started at Pearl Harbor. (Perhaps this is is the “grueling battle” Gourevich was talking about.)

On the Media‘s listeners, God bless ’em, did not let Gourevich’s comment slide, as Bob Garfield reported in the next week’s listener mailbag segment:

Many of you responded to Gourevitch’s point that the photo of Iwo Jima was staged. Listener Brian Vargo writes, quote, “It is irresponsible to let someone say that on air. I cannot fathom how a program titled On the Media would allow something like that to go unchallenged.”

And listener Ben Bradley concurred. “My grandfather is in that picture,” he wrote. “I would like you to know that the flag-raising picture was not staged.”

Tim Zinnen brought the facts to bear on the issue when he wrote, quote, “Please correct for your listeners the statement your guest from The New Yorker made that the photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima was staged. It was not. It was a snapshot of the raising of a second larger flag. To say the photo was staged gives the wrong impression that the photographer directed the placement and positioning of the Marines and Corpsmen. There’s a difference between a staged photo and a photo of a staged event. All flag-raisings are staged events.”

The issue has sparked years of controversy, and we’ve addressed it on the show before. To say the photograph was staged is wrong. However, it was also not of the original triumphal moment. As listener Tim Zinnen wrote, the photo captured the raising of a second flag. Photographer Joe Rosenthal, who took the image, has never disputed that fact.

The sequence of events that led to the raising of the flag are fairly well-known, so I am always slightly flummoxed, if flummoxing is what I am getting at, about how this story that the image was posed continues to circulate. I suspect that part of it is that the picture is so damned good–I think it may be one of the most perfect combat photos ever taken. The figures have exquisite triangular composition; the path your eye follows from the flag, down the pole and to the men is as natural as any composition I’ve ever seen. Their task is instantly identifiable, but the men, in a manner consistent with so many combat and military photographs, are almost indistinguishable from one another. They could have been anyone’s brother, father or husband. The image exudes the message of collective, anonymous effort toward a single goal on the verge of completion.

The event of the raising itself is thoroughly documented. The first patrol to reach the top of Suribachi raised a small flag at the summit:

So, not all that majestic or anything, but seeing the Americans claim the mountain set off cheers as well as a blaring of horns in the harbor.

Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal was offshore and wanted the flag as a souvenir (and so did the battalion that raised and owned the flag, by the way), so soon a second flag was erected. The officer in command at the summit, a Lt. Schrier, coordinated the raising of a second larger flag with the simultaneous lowering of the smaller flag. This moment was captured too:

This second raising was still being carried out under combat conditions not conducive for posing a photograph.

Joe Rosenthal, the AP photographer whose photograph would become famous, had missed the initial flag raising and was on the summit shooting photos of the harbor when he saw the men preparing the second raising.  The second raising was a planned event, to be sure, and Rosenthal snapped several photos.

The raising was filmed from almost the same angle as Rosenthal’s photograph:

What is interesting about the photograph is that Rosenthal had no idea that he had taken perhaps the most iconic photograph of the war. He did not have access to his images while he was on the island, and he did not develop the film–it was developed days later, on Guam. The person responsible for seeing that the image got widespread release was actually an AP editor, John Bodkin. Indeed, when someone told Rosenthal that his photo was on the cover of every newspaper on the planet, he asked, “The posed one?” You see, he had taken a posed photograph of the men under the flag:

Rosenthal hadn’t seen his iconic photo (and he in fact may have thought that he missed the shot–he wasn’t even looking through the view finder when he took it). But his reaction to hearing of his photo’s fame, his misapprehension of which photo had been selected, slipped into history and became the foundation of the alternative, unsinkable rumor that remains today.


For more about the image, I recommend:

Bradley, James. Flags of Our Fathers. New York: Bantam, 2001.

Casaregola, Vincent. Theaters of War: America’s Perceptions of World War II. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009. See especially, pgs 106-109.

The Palimpsest of History: WWII in Images

April 28, 2011

I wanted to share a link with you that hit the web big about a year ago, but is related to the course I am currently teaching on World War II. Photographer Sergey Larenkov’s stunning then-and-now-at-the-same-time photos conjure the ghosts of the past dramatically and make us the modern world in a new way.

It’s like cubist multiperspectivism on crack.  My Modern Metropolis also posted an interview with Larenkov, with more photos, including photos of Hitler in Paris.


Popeye the Sailor vs. the Japanese

April 26, 2011

Here’s a little find that a student researching his final paper on WWII sent to me. It comes fully stocked with all of the racist characterizations of the Japanese that one expects from the period. It may be the first cartoon that I have seen that addresses Japanese ritual suicide. (Warning: may be offensive to humans.)

As it so happens, I am reading David Livingston Smith’s  book on dehumanization, Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others. It’s quite good and, I imagine, very accessible for a variety of audiences.



Is the Voynich Manuscript the Product of an Alien Intelligence?

February 19, 2011

Of course the hell not, but by sticking to the evidence, I find myself regrettably unable to run out into the quad and shout: “IT’S A COOKBOOK! THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT IS A COOKBOOK!” Sticking to evidence, however, has never been the strength of the writers at Above Top Secret, which delivered a rather soggy excuse for a story entitled: “Voynich Manuscript–Diary of an Alien or a Mad Man? 100 Years Older than First Thought.”

Already wrong, but I’ll get there.

The Voynich Manuscript is a genuine mystery. Currently housed in Yale’s Beineke Library, the Voynich MS totally skipped my mind when I went up there to do research for my dissertation. Nonetheless, it is there, which has until recently been just about the only thing we’ve known for sure about it.

According to Curt A. Zimansky, writing in Philological Quarterly (before it went all corporate–haha), says that the manuscript was originally found in the library of Rudolph II and that it was in the possession of Father Athanasius Kircher in 1666. It then dropped out of sight for centuries, until it was acquired by a Polish bookseller named Voynich in 1912 during one of his book buying tours of Europe. The provenance of the manuscript is only certain, as far as I can tell, once it is in Voynich’s hands. He found it in a trunk at Villa Mondragone, in Frascatti. Upon Voynich’s death, it passed into the hands of Hans Kraus and eventually ended up at Yale.

It’s a beautiful book–nearly 250 vellum pages–an example of fine craftsmanship, beautiful and elegant and nobody has the faintest idea what the crap it says. You see, it is written in an unknown script in a language that does not seem to exist outside of the manuscript. Based on the illustrations that accompany the text, scholars have divided up the book into parts, including the herbal section, astrological section,  biological section, cosmological section, pharmaceutical section, and “recipes,” but really, we have no idea how closely the text corresponds to the images. But even with the, say, “herbal” sections, the plants that appear are unknown. As Voynich is reported to have asked, “WTF?”

A lot of people have stepped forward to offer their interpretations of the MS. The first person to attempt to answer the question was an otherwise reputable scholar at Penn by the name of Newbold.

In April 1921, Newbold announced that he had deciphered the Voynich MS. Hurrah! He said that it was a monograph written in a secret hand by Roger Bacon. Bacon was a 13th-century English monk and one of the first Europeans to embrace empiricism and experiment; and such he is considered a founding father of modern science. Hurrah!

Among the fantastic revelations that Newbold, uh, revealed, was that the manuscript was written in two codes. The first was a surface code, a Latin-text cipher. This cipher was so rife with arbitrary rules of substitution and anagrams that it could yield basically anything. The second cipher was a more subtle, much more interesting cipher, the shorthand cipher. The premise of this cipher was that tiny, literally microscopic strokes appeared on each character, and that a complete reading of this second, more secret text depended on deciphering these marks.

He revealed that the Voynich MS revealed the invention of the telescope in the 13th century! Doctor mirabilis!

As evidence of this exceptional assertion, Newbold produced the Latin text which  he said was associated with a peculiar image in the manuscript:

The Latin decipherment Newbold associates with this diagram partially reads:

Vidi stellas in speculo concavo, in cochleae forma agglomeratas…

If my eyeballing of this snippet is correct, it reads: “In a concave mirror, I saw stars formed into the shape of a snail.” (That is, a spiral.) The rest of the passage makes this clear he is talking the Andromeda Galaxy:

Well, Holy Haleakala, Batman! Newbold pushed the history of the telescope back hundreds of years.

But, wait, there’s more! Bacon also invented the compound microscope, as evidenced by the images of what Newbold interpreted as ova and spermatozoa. (Not to mention the shorthand cipher itself, which could only be seen through a microscope.) The Voynich MS was the most important discovery in the history of science, and scholars generally accepted Newbold’s interpretation. Probably because nobody could understand his process of deciphering the manuscript.

In 1931, following Newbold’s death, John Matthews Manly wrote what should stand as one of the most thorough debunkings in the history of debunking, a spectacular and thorough treatment of Newbold’s assertions. He showed that the encryption that Newbold could not reliably generate text for the recipient. He illustrated that the cipher could achieve and had achieved “results” when applied to texts known not to be written by Bacon, to texts written long before the Voynich MS, and to mistranscriptions of the Voynich manuscript that Newbold used. In Newbold’s decipherments, sometimes the same passage revealed different messages. Manly demolished the content of the messages that Newbold had found to show that they could not square with what was known with the period. Newbold’s assertion defied even the laws of physics. Newbold apparently had simply shrugged off the objection that the Andromeda galaxy could not possibly have changed so radically in the time between the manuscript’s production and the 20th century. Also, he seemed not to worry that the spirals could not be seen by the naked eye even in a modern telescope–our images come from long exposures. It was in every way a thorough and complete trashing of the Newbold interpretation, and it left Newbold’s legacy in tatters. One may consider it a professional courtesy that Manly waited until Newbold had died before publishing his rebuttal.

It also meant that we had not progressed a single jot toward understanding what the heck this manuscript was.

As far as I can tell, the most interesting fabrication of Newbold’s mind was the secondary shorthand cipher. The little tails and swoops and signs that Newbold had found under a microscope were either clearly examples of ink bleeding into the cracks on the surface of the vellum and therefore meaningless, or they disappeared entirely when others looked at them. This strikes me as a close corollary to Lowell’s “discovery” of canals on Mars a few decades earlier, when the astronomer declared that he could see artificial channels on the surface of the Red Planet and spun a rather fanciful story to explain them. Turns out they weren’t there at all, but were artifacts of Lowell’s imagination.

By the way, I strongly recommend the conclusion of the Manly article as perhaps the epitome of the “don’t be a dick” school of skeptical criticism.

In the intervening years, a number of hypotheses have been floated about the content and meaning of the manuscript.In 1943, a bloke named O’Neill announced that he had deciphered the manuscript. In 1944, a botanist, James Feeley, have claimed that New World pepper plants and sunflowers appeared in the manuscript, which would place the manuscript after 1492. But even these botanical identifications are dubious, especially in the light of the vellum’s carbon-dating.

Without a doubt, my favorite “translation” appeared in Science in 1945, and it underlines why specialists in the humanities should be given their due respect. It came from Leonell C. Strong, who said that he had finally, really, actually cracked the code, but because of the current state of war, thought it was an inopportune time to reveal how he had uncovered its cryptological secrets (ahem, yeah). Voynich, Strong claimed, was written by 16th-century astrologer Anthony Askham. Most of the manuscript, he reported, discussed “the effects of plants on physiological processes in health and disease, especially, the diseases of women, and a conception of pre-Harveian generation and parturition” (608).

The cipher translated into something called “Medieval English,” which reads like: “When skuge uf tun’c-bag rip, seo oogon kum sli of se mosure-issue ped-stans sku-bent, stokked kimbo-elbow crawknot.” This passage, he says, is about the birth of a baby: “when the contents of the womb rip, the child comes slyly from the mother-issuing with the leg stance scewed and bent, while the arms, are knotted (above the head) like the legs of a crawfish.” I can’t imagine that anyone with a postgraduate degree in English at the time (Old English and history of English were still generally required graduate courses) did not howl with laughter when they read the “Medieval English.” It looks like it wants to be “Old English”: for instance, the “seo” is a feminine form for “that” and there are some…compound-y words. Unfortunately, it has the letter “k,” not found in Old English (you’d see it Old Norse), and words like “issue” that seem to be from a romance language. And it’s nothing like Middle English either. And what the hell’s up with that apostrophe? Strong further claimed that Ascham knew about antibiotics!

A group of cryptographers waiting to be released from the military after the Second World War spent their free time trying to decipher the sucker. I even found a reference to a report produced by the NSA on the shelves at Emory, but when I went to pull it, the report had mysteriously disappeared. Others have seen it, however, and report that the NSA was unable to crack the cipher. Take that, NSA! (Please don’t hurt me.)

A 2007 analysis of the characters by theoretical physicist Andreas Schinner suggests that the manuscript has been “generated by a stochastic (random) process rather than by encoding of encryption of language.” Damn it.

Nonetheless, crafty science types at the University of Arizona have at least pinned down the age of the vellum (which is slightly different from pinning down the age of the manuscript). The critters that died to make the MS snuffed it in the early 15th century. In the release at, the author says that the writing doesn’t “resemble anything written–or read–by human beings.” This statement seems to have lead the imaginative author at ATS to a new hypothesis–aliens wrote it!

On vellum.

In the 15th century.

The poor guy writes, referring to the “galaxy” image above: “I will start with the picture that shocked me the most. To me, this is on par with the Sumerians knowing things they should not have been able to.”

Sigh. Me too, my friend. Me too.



Kennedy, Gerry and Rob Churchill. The Voynich Manuscript: The Unsolved Riddle of an Extraordinary Book Which Has Defied Interpretation for Centuries. London: Orion, 2005.

Manly, John Matthews. “Roger Bacon and the Voynich MS.” Speculum 6.3 (1931): 345-391.

Schinner, Andreas. “The Voynich Manuscript: Evidence of the Hoax Hypothesis.” Cryptologia 31 (2007): 95-107.

Strong, Leonell C. “Anthony Askham, the Author of the Voynich Manuscript.” Science 101.2633 (15 June 1945): 608-609.

Zimansky, Curt A. “William F. Friedman and the Voynich Manuscript.” Philological Quarterly 49.4 (Oct 1970): 433-443.