A hoax the size of a mountain?

The Bosnian Pyramids: The Biggest Hoax in History? Directed by Jurgen Deleye. VOF de Grenswetenschap. Watch online (www.thebiggesthoaxinhistory.com): €5.95. DVD: €19.95 (excl. shipping). Reviewed by David Riddell.

While there are people in New Zealand who variously claim this country was settled in prehistoric times by a motley assemblage of Celts, Phoenicians and Chinese, among others, the alternative archaeology scene here is nothing like it is in Bosnia.

Now seeking to shake off the traumas of its recent past, the country has apparently embraced the theories of one Semir ‘Sam’ Osmanagich. Resplendent in his Indiana Jones-style hat, Osmanagich is delivering his compatriots a glorious ancient prehistory in the form of giant pyramids, dwarfing those of Egypt. The largest, which Osmanagich calls the Pyramid of the Sun, towers 220 metres above the town of Visoko. He claims underground tunnels link it to other, almost equally massive pyramids nearby. Single-handedly he has created a substantial tourist industry, much to the delight of the Bosnian government, which has given him support.

The Dutch team making this documentary follow Osmanagich around his sites, and generally give him enough rope to hang himself, bringing in other experts as necessary to add further comment. Those familiar with the Kaimanawa Wall (NZ Skeptic 41) and the Overland Alignment Complex in Northland (NZ Skeptic 72) will recognise how natural features can be reinterpreted in a more dramatic fashion, though the situation in Bosnia has a couple of added layers of complexity. First, there are genuine archaeological sites on and around the ‘pyramids’ and second, Osmanagich has actively reworked the landscape, even following and enlarging fissures in the earth to create his ‘tunnels’.

Bosnia is a country with a remarkable and lengthy human history and, as is very apparent in this film, great natural beauty. It shouldn’t need the dubious enhancement Osmanagich provides to entice tourists from abroad. On the other hand, it’s such a magnificent folly if I ever found myself in Bosnia I’d probably stop by Visoko to see it all for myself.

Digital Photography and the Paranormal

More ‘ghosts’ than ever are appearing in photos – thanks to digital cameras. This article is based on a presentation to the NZ Skeptics 2009 conference in Wellington, 26 September.

Since the beginnings of photography in the mid-nineteenth century people have used the medium to capture images of ghosts, both naïvely and as a hoax for commercial gain. Until the arrival of roll film late in the nineteenth century, which was more light-sensitive than earlier wet and dry plates, long exposure times sometimes resulted in spectral-looking figures accidently or intentionally appearing in photographs. Nearly all early photographs showing alleged ghosts can be explained by double exposure, long exposure, or they are recordings of staged scenes – contrivances such as the cutout fairies at the bottom of the garden in Cottingley.

As cameras became more foolproof, with mechanisms to eliminate double exposure etc, accidental ghosts in photographs became scarce. During the 1990s I carried a compact 35mm camera (an Olympus Mju-1) and shot more than five thousand photos with it. At the time I was not looking for paranormal effects such as those described below, but a quick review showed only very few strange occurrences in the photos. This century digital compact cameras have become ubiquitous and supposed ghost photos are also now common. There is a connection.

Design-wise, the basic layout of a compact digital camera isn’t much different to a compact 35mm film camera; both have a lens with a minimum focal length a little shorter than standard1 and a flash positioned close to the lens. The main differences are the lens focal lengths and the image recording medium.

A typical 35mm film camera has a semi-wide angle lens (which may also zoom well into the telephoto range but we’re not much interested in that) in the range of 28mm-38mm. A standard lens for the format is about 45mm. A digital compact camera is more likely to have a lens focal length starting out in the range of 4mm to 7mm. A 5mm lens is typical, and at a maximum aperture of around f2.8, the maximum working aperture of the lens can be less than 2mm and the stopped down aperture less than 0.5mm. (As a comparison, the maximum aperture of my Mju-1 was 35mm/f3.5=10mm.) These tiny apertures allow things very close to the lens to be captured by the recording medium (albeit out of focus) even when the lens is focussed on medium-long distance.

The most common photographic anomaly that is mistakenly held up as evidence of paranormal activity is the orb. While there are natural objects that are visible to the unaided eye and may photograph as orbs – that is, any small or point source light, either close by such as a lit cigarette or burning marsh gas, or distant such as the planet Venus – there are other types of orbs that only show up in photographs. You don’t see them but the camera does. These are mainly caused by airborne dust, moisture droplets, or tiny insects. In the dark, they are visible only briefly (for a millisecond or so) when illuminated by the camera flash. Dust is the most common cause of orbs in photographs, captured as an out-of-focus glow as it passes within centimetres of the camera lens, in the zone covered by the flash.

The diagram above shows how a compact digital camera, having its flash close to its short focal length lens, is able to photograph dust orbs. Most 35mm cameras won’t do this because the lens is too long in focal length to be able to create a small enough Circle of Confusion2 image of the dust and larger Single Lens Reflex (SLR)-type cameras tend to have the flash positioned farther from the lens (above) and also have larger image sensors and longer focal-length lenses which are more like a 35mm camera.

Note: a built-in flash on a digital SLR, while being closer to the lens axis, is set some distance back from the front of the lens, so the dust particles it illuminates are also out of view of the lens; they are behind it.

Specifically, a dust orb is an image of the electronic flash reflected by a mote, out of focus and appearing at the film plane as a circular image the same shape as the lens at full aperture. Most of the time when a compact camera takes a flash photo the aperture blades automatically stay out of the way to allow the widest possible lens opening. If the aperture blades close down at all, they create a diamond-shaped opening and any dust orb then becomes triangular, an effect predicted by this theory of dust orbs.

The diagram above shows a dust mote much closer to the camera lens than the focussed subject, a tree, and how the out-of-focus orb appears over the tree in the processed image, appearing the size of its Circle of Confusion at the film plane (or, in this case, digital imaging plane).

Other common photographic anomalies which are sometimes assumed to be paranormal are caused by lens flare, internal reflections, dirty lenses and objects in front of the lens. These can all occur in any type of camera. What they have in common (and this includes dust orbs), is that the phenomena exist only in the camera: they will not be seen with the unaided eye. Most of the time, photographs that are held up as paranormal were taken when nothing apparently paranormal was suspected: the anomalous effect was only noticed later upon reviewing the images.

Another confusing aspect of photographic anomalies is the loss of sense of scale, caused by the reduction of the 3D world to a 2D photograph. In the photo opposite, it appears the baby is looking at the orb, but actually the dust particle causing the orb is centimetres from the lens and the baby is looking at something else out of frame.

A variation on this is when someone senses the presence of a ghost and responds by taking a photograph. If a dust orb appears in the photo it may be assumed to be a visual representation or manifestation of the spiritual entity. Naïve paranormal investigators and other credulous types get terribly excited when this happens, and it often does during a ghost hunt. And ghost hunting is about the only type of activity that involves wandering around in the dark taking photos of nothing in particular. Now that digital cameras have large displays, photographers using the cameras during a paranormal investigation are able to immediately see dust orbs in their photos. If they believe these orbs to be paranormal, the hysteria of the investigators is fed. I’ve seen it happen. With film cameras and even with older digital cameras having smaller displays or no photo display at all, the orb effect was not usually observed until after the investigation.

Next is an enlarged part of a photo of the Oriental Bay Marina. The ghost lights in the sky are secondary images of light sources elsewhere in the photo, caused by internal reflections in the camera lens.

While operating a camera in the dark it is easy to make a mistake such as letting the camera strap or something else get in front of the lens, or put a fingerprint on the lens that will cause lens flare later. Use of the camera in the Night Photography mode will cause light trails from any light source due to the slow shutter speed (usually several seconds), combined with flash. Also, in Night mode a person moving will record as a blur combined with a sharp image from the flash, making it look like a ‘mist’ is around them.

It is important to remember that a compact digital camera will process an image file before displaying it. While a more serious camera will shoot in Raw (unprocessed) mode, most compact cameras record the image in JPEG form, which is compressed. Cellphone cameras usually apply a lot of file compression to save memory and minimise transmission time. Digital compression creates artefacts, and the effect can be seen in the enlarged photo of the dust orb (page 12). Also, digital sharpening is automatically applied, which can make a vague blur into a more definite shape, a smear into a human face.

We are all aware of the tendency to want to recognise human faces or figures in random patterns. This is a strong instinct possibly linked to infancy, picking out a parent’s face from the surrounding incomprehensible shapes. Once people see human features in a photo it is difficult to convince them that they’re looking at a random pattern and just interpreting it as a face. The effect is called pareidolia, sometimes referred to as matrixing, or the figure as a simulacrum.

The ‘Face in the Middle’ photo, below, is an example of pareidolia. The third face appearing between the boy and girl is several background elements combining to produce the simulacrum. The low resolution and large amount of compression in this cellphone photo exacerbate the effect.

While we all know it is easy to fake a ghost photo using in-camera methods such as long exposure or multiple exposure, or in post-production using imaging software such as Photoshop, current camera technology makes it hardly necessary. It is far easier to choose to use a compact digital camera or cellphone camera and allow it to produce the anomalous effects automatically: one reason why ‘ghost hunters’ use them. Then one can claim ignorance and honestly say they didn’t mess with the photo, it is exactly how the camera saw it. Having done a fair amount of ghost hunting myself, it is tempting to use a digital compact camera with the knowledge that while it is highly unlikely an actual ghost will be photographed, a certain number of anomalous photographs will result which will at least spice up the investigation report!3

In my experience of analysing photographs, I have found that some people are prepared to accept a rational explanation of what they thought may have been a photograph of a paranormal event. Others don’t want to hear anything rational; they’ve made up their mind that there’s a ghost in the photo and that’s the end of it. Having looked at a large number of photographs that allegedly show ghosts, I haven’t yet come across one that doesn’t fall into one of the general categories of photographic anomaly referred to above or isn’t a probable fake.

While I think that people do have ghost-like experiences (an opinion based mainly on the vast accumulation of published anecdotal evidence but also on some personal experiences that remain unexplained), it is probably not possible to photograph a ghost as such using any known method of photography (including pictures using the EM spectrum outside visible light). Photographs are not considered hard evidence of anything much these days anyway, because it is widely known that even a moderately skilled photographer or Photoshop operator can create a realistic looking picture of almost any fantasy. In paranormal matters a photograph can at best be considered circumstantial evidence requiring backup from other types of hard data and witness accounts to lend it evidential weight.


  1. A standard lens has a focal length close to the diagonal measurement of the film or digital sensor. This lens renders objects in correct proportion according to their distance – a neutral perspective, neither compressed (as by longer focal length, or ‘telephoto’ lenses) nor exaggerated (as by shorter focal length, wide-angle lenses).

  2. Circle of Confusion (COC) is a term in optics for the image of a point of light that is in or out of focus at the imaging plane of a lens. Each point of an object forms an image circle of a diameter relative to its degree of sharp focus, with an in-focus point forming a tiny COC that effectively appears as a point. An Infinite number of larger, overlapping COCs form the blurry (unfocussed) areas of an image. This is the basis of Depth of Field in photography.

  3. In Strange Occurrences we use digital photography in much the same way as police photographers, that is, to record details of a location for later reference. Also, long exposures with a digital SLR on a tripod can show things the unaided eye cannot quite make out in low light, such as reflected and/or diffracted light patterns from external light sources that may appear somewhat ghost-like. Captions: The placing of the flash close to the short focal length lens of a digital camera means that dust motes can be illuminated as ‘orbs’.


The Scottish border city of Carlisle says a stone artwork commissioned to mark the millennium has brought floods, pestilence and sporting humiliation, but an unlikely white knight is riding to their rescue (Dominion Post, 10 March). The Cursing Stone is a 14-tonne granite rock inscribed with an ancient curse against robbers, but since it was put in a city museum in 2001 the region has been plagued by foot and mouth disease, a devastating flood and factory closures. Perhaps worst of all, the Carlisle United soccer team has dropped a division.

Continue reading

Five Tips for Assessing Mediums or Psychics

  1. Don’t judge them by their demeanour. The vast majority of people in this business are sincere, well-meaning individuals, and they are very hard to distinguish from the con artists. They might well be honest, but this doesn’t mean they can do what they think they are doing
  2. Record, Rewind, Review. It’s very easy to interpret something as far more accurate or amazing than it actually is (ie to remember more “hits” than “misses”). Record your interview and listen carefully to the actual words used, how much information is given to the psychic/medium, and how often they reflect that back in a positive way to make it sound as if they knew it all along. If you can, transcribe audio to paper, as this can make what is happening much more obvious.
  3. Listen for open-ended questions or ones asking for agreement. These phrases are designed to encourage you to hunt for a connection, even highly obscure ones, and to respond positively. They are common throughout the industry (sometimes deliberately taught) as they boost the chances of a positive response and give the impression that the performer is doing well.
    Example: asking (of a male subject) “I see a needle. [pause] Understand? [pause] Did your mother do embroidery?” After extended discussion, the subject’s wife decided this referred to an aunt of hers who was diabetic!
  4. Think about the statistics Many psychics/mediums use, deliberately or subconsciously, basic statistics to improve their “hit” rate. People live similar lives and have many things in common. Listen for questions which make use of that and understand the likelihood of getting a positive response.
    Example: “Is the name John familiar?” Many people know at least one John, and even apparently rare names can readily occur. You’re likely to have 30-60 names in your extended family; add a partner’s family, and friends and colleagues, and you’ve probably got over 100 names which have some meaning for you.
    Example: “I see a father figure near you”, usually accompanied by a pause so you can identify the “father figure”. If you don’t, the next question is usually “Has your father passed on?”. This is almost always asked of an older person, so the odds are good that the father has. If not, the next question is usually “Has your grandfather passed on?”
  5. Most of the information mediums provide is generalised and designed to be comforting, such as the deceased spirit wishing their relative/friend well, or forgiving them for not being present when they passed on (it’s increasingly rare to be present with a parent or grandparent when they die). Look for information that is specific, unusual, detailed and, even then, be cautious, as the more unscrupulous people in this industry are not above researching their subjects (the UK psychic scene circulates a database which contains personal details of keen, rich clients!)
  • Vicki Hyde

Hokum Locum

Dioxin “Poisoning” or Hormesis in action?

It will be interesting to see how the government handles the latest health scare which is being helped along by the usual sensationalist media reporting. How about this example: “The men who made the poisons that blighted a New Plymouth community….” (Sunday Star Times, 12 September 2004).

There are many dioxins and the most toxic is considered to be TCDD, a contaminant found during the manufacture of the herbicide 2,4,5-T but also occurring naturally as a result of combustion, forest fires and smoking. Dioxin has been isolated from soot in prehistoric caves. Dioxin is found in body fat (lipid) and has a half life of around 7-10 years, meaning that a total body load diminishes by half during each such interval. The national average body level of TCDD is 3.5 picograms per gram of lipid. A picogram is one trillionth of a gram (ie. 1 x 10-12 grams, or if you like a lot of noughts: 0.000000000001 g). The mean TCDD level in residents of Paritutu was 10.8 picograms per gram of lipid with a range of 1.3-33.3. To date, there is no evidence of increased disease rates in the studied population. To put it bluntly, the Paritutu residents have 3-10 times the infinitesimal amount found in the general population, still well within international limits. I would like to see a similar study examining the levels of dioxin and mercury downwind from the local crematorium!

Hormesis is an effect where small doses of a toxic substance seem to promote health. A good example is alcohol, as was the Victorian habit of consuming small doses of arsenic and strychnine as a “tonic”. Rather than concentrating on looking at ill-health, researchers should be examining whether Paritutu residents are in fact healthier than most other New Zealanders.

Nevertheless, research will be ongoing and although not given to making predictions I offer the following observations:

  1. Residents will claim that every possible health problem they have ever had was caused by dioxin exposure.
  2. Residents will demand compensation in accordance with Welch’s Law (Claims expand to take up the amount of compensation available).
  3. Scientific evidence will be distorted and misinterpreted to justify any possible viewpoint.
  4. The “Greens” will claim that any amount of dioxin is “unsafe” and at some stage the phrase “cover up” will be used.

A former manager of the Paritutu chemical plant is quoted as saying that he worked there for 30 years and is still in perfect health at 85 years of age. Hormesis in action surely?

More Healthy Additives?

Britain is in the grip of such a serious depression that prescriptions for the anti-depressant “Prozac” (fluoxetine) have risen from nine million to 24 million per year. I read this as I sipped my ale in the Pint and Prozac, a quaint canal-side pub which I discovered while on my recent overseas trip to research taro cultivation by the gay and lesbian community (funded by a Community Education Grant – thanks Steve!).

Prozac is finding its way into ground water and hence into supplies of drinking water.

It is clear that I have been on the right track in calling for Ritalin (methyphenidate – a stimulant) to be added to the water supply as a Public Health measure. This combination of stimulant and antidepressant will surely lead to a euphoric and happy population. I am however concerned about problems of dosage as the Authorities have claimed that the Prozac is so “watered down” that it is unlikely to pose a health risk, except to those who believe in homeopathy.<br> Christchurch Press, 10 August

Touting for Business – “Chiropractic Kidz Week”

What better way to build up business than to convince parents and children of the need for regular assessment and treatment of “subluxations”, the core tenet of chiropractic pseudoscience. It is a matter of concern that “chiropractic kidz week” is a nationwide programme aimed at those “parents or caregivers or the child themselves (who) are not aware of a spinal problem.”

The reason such people are “unaware” is because they do not have any such “spinal problem”, which exists only in the self-deluded imagination of the chiropractor. Chiropractors interpret minor postural variations as signs of “disease” and requiring treatment. I wonder if any chiropractor has ever diagnosed a “perfect spine” unless it was achieved at the expense of 60 “treatments”. It is a national disgrace that this pseudo-science is funded by ACC and chiropractors should not be allowed to either take or bill the Health Service for x-rays.

Please keep an eye out for this scam next year and if possible get as many members as possible to take their children for a free assessment and report back to me what happens. Some tape recordings would be useful. A woman recently wrote to the paper and took Frank Haden to task for criticising alternative medicine. She went on to claim that chiropractic manipulations had cured her of migraine, cured her child’s squint and cured another child’s gait abnormality!

With such gullible beliefs out in the community it is no wonder that chiropractors continue to work their rich scams.
Blenheim Sun, 11 August
Letter to Editor, Sunday Star Times, 26 September

Anyone for Tennis?

A millionaire property owner has been getting $600 per week from ACC since 1974, despite earning $2400 per week from his investment portfolio. In a bizarre example of Welch’s Law, his claim was accepted under medical misadventure for psychological damage caused by prescription medicines, in this case benzodiazepines (Valium). His disability is “psychological” and prevents him from working at all but readers will be thrilled to know that the poor fellow is able to play tennis three days a week and in his own words “it’s better to have a peaceful life”. ACC have done a great service to tennis as the claimant is now in the top third of senior players in Auckland. Employers and taxpayers alike will be thrilled to know that their ACC levies are being put to such good use. Sunday Star Times, 26 September

In Brief

  • Despite local doctors showering sick notes like confetti, teachers at Hamilton’s Fraser High School failed in their bid for compensation from MAF for “illness” caused by the spray used to eradicate the Asian gypsy moth. Sorry people, no money for mass hysteria. Better to track down the millionaire’s doctor and go for PTSD caused by unruly pupils. (Dominion Post, 30 September)
  • In France the Académie de Médecine has upset homeopaths by issuing a damning report challenging the continued funding of homeopathy through the national health service. (Dominion Post, 9 June).
  • Acupuncture is ineffective for the treatment of tennis elbow. Hardly surprising given that “good evidence indicates that acupuncture does not work.” (Bandolier 126 Vol 11, Issue 8, www.bandolier.com).
  • Remember the Aoraki Polytechnic and their stupid proposal to run a degree course in naturopathy? They are at it again. They got $8165 community education funding for the New Zealand Council of Homeopaths’ Conference. (Sunday Star Times, 3 October).
  • For most of October I will be touring northern India by motorcycle and I intend filming and recording as much as possible. I have been asked by Paul Trotman to find him a “nose kettle”. If you want to know what that is you will just have to come to next year’s conference!

John Welch lives in Picton and is a retired RNZAF medical officer.

Skeptical Surfing

Netsurfer Science is a website every skeptic should bookmark. It provides a good lead-in to many science and skeptic-related sites and issues on the web. Here are a couple of recent items.

Howling at the Moon

Do we believe everything the government tells us? Of course not. But, we think that some conspiracies would be so unmanageable that they’d implode faster than an empty soda can in the Marianas Trench. The fake moon landing is one of our favorite confabulations. Under this theory, NASA didn’t land on the moon – and its own photos prove it. Now, to the extent that anyone cares, once we stop chuckling about how little the hoax proponents actually know about the science they claim to defend, this sort of nonsense also makes us angry, because it diminishes not only the breath-taking courage of people like the Armstrongs and Lovells of this world, but also the heart-breaking sacrifices of the Grissoms and McAuliffes. People (and television networks) who propagate this foolishness at least owe it to those pioneers to get their science right. Phil Plait, whose very admirable Bad Astronomy site has made Netsurfer lists before, tackles the so-called evidence point by point. Even if you don’t care about the accusations, take a look at the science. It’s instructional in reminding us how very alien even our own lunar environment is. In his personal pages, planetary scientist Jim Scotti covers much the same territory, though he deals equally with a hoax site.

Bad Astronomy:


Marianas Trench:

Evolution, Again

Before we hear from the creationist watchdogs, we’ll tell you what our position is. Does Netsurfer Science (NSS) believe in the Biblical version of the origins of life? No. We do, however, believe in its illustrative grace and power. (The only subject to provoke more correspondence was the NSS error that misplaced a college hoops team in a rival conference. Now, that was brutal.) In Science and Creationism, the National Academy of Sciences puts forward an authoritative synthesis of the issues involved. In our experience, many of creationism’s criticisms of evolution are either inaccurate or outdated. The NAS deals with the most frequently cited arguments and discusses the problems. More than that, though, the academy takes the very clear position that creationism “has no place in any science curriculum at any level”. This site is the text of an academy booklet that explains the current scientific understanding of biological evolution. The National Center for Science Education is a nonprofit organisation with the sole mission of protecting the teaching of evolution against sectarian proponents of such propositions as scientific creationism. In addition to other services, the center tracks legislation relating to the teaching of science.

National Center for Science Education:

National Academy of Science:

Fish but no Chips

John Riddell learns to his cost that fishermen can be as easy to catch as the creatures they pursue

I have a confession to make. I’ve been taken in by a scam. Normally this shouldn’t be cause for embarrassment, but I like to think of myself as a skeptic. I mean if anyone should be able to see these things coming it should be a skeptic. It’s only gullible people get taken in by scams right? It all comes from liking fishing too much. Salt water fishing in my case.

In our corner of the globe the target species is a fish commonly called a snapper. Fantastic eating and fun to catch. The world record is a bit over 30 pounds but a 2 or 3 pound fish is a good fish and much better eating. At least according to those of us who never catch the big ones. On a good day we catch the legal limit of nine per person (minimum size 27cm). But to have a good day you have to get everything right. Bait, berley, location, tide, tackle and weather all have to be right. Get one wrong and you catch fewer fish. Get two wrong and you catch none.

So like all fishaholics, between those rare occasions when I actually make it out on to the water, I spend a good deal of time thinking about fishing, reading the fishing magazines, listening to the weather reports, and thinking of ways of catching more fish, bigger fish, or let’s face it, some fish.

One day, while I was chatting to my cousin Don about fish, he mentioned that a friend of his swore by an electronic fish attractor. It is called “FishMAXTM“, and it’s a little box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. A sealed unit. Two wires come out of it. These wires are put in the water as far apart as possible. Once the electrodes are in the water, a little red light (LED) starts flashing on the box. That means it is working. It supposedly puts out a signal that attracts fish from up to three miles away.

Now I should have known better than to accept anecdotal evidence but we are talking about fishing. Rational thought gave way to greed. My ears perked up. “An electronic fish attractor? What a brilliant idea,” I thought. That was the first mistake. Allowing my enthusiasm to override logic. Here comes the next mistake. “Heck. If it really works, think of the money I could save on berley.” (Berley is what we call groundbait/chum, ie chemical fish attractor).

The phrase “If it really works” goes through the mind of everyone ever taken in by a scam.

I found an ad in the fishing magazine. Only $149.00 On the internet, $65.00

My next mistake. A little bit of knowledge. As opposed to enough. Fish have a thing called a lateral line. It is a line of receptors along the side of a fish that picks up small electrical signals in the water. Since fish can detect electric signals, it’s possible that an electronic fish attractor could work.

Next mistake. Do a little bit of research. As opposed to enough. I checked out the net. That’s inter, not fishing. There are lots of sites on the net about electric fishing. The thing is, it does actually work. There is a phenomenon called electrotaxis. If you get a fish in a certain type of electric field the fish will swim towards one of the electrodes. Once the fish gets really close it conveniently falls asleep (electronarcosis) and floats to the surface. Now this sounds too good to be true, but it is true. Fishologists and conservation types use these electric fishing things to study endangered species and also to catch pest species such as carp. When the electric field is switched off, the fish wakes up and swims away unharmed.

So I rang the toll free number in the fishing mag and told the “FishMAXTM” guy at the other end that they were only $65.00 on the net. “No problem.” he said and matched the price. Now I normally spend $8.00 on berley every time I go fishing so I was thinking “if it really works, think of the money I would save.”

I gave him my credit card details and he couriered it to me the next day.

So did it work? As soon as I got it I put the electrodes at opposite ends of my 3 foot tropical fish tank. The little red light began to flash. This means it is working. The fish in the tank carried on, blissfully unaware that they were being attracted to anything.

A guppy did swim up to examine one of the electrodes but then he swam away. The rest of the fish continued to distribute themselves randomly through-out the tank.

I confess to being disappointed. But not surprised. By now I had done a little more research. It turns out real electric fish attractors use high voltages (600V) and also a fair amount of power. They are also only effective in fresh water, and over very short ranges, a few metres at most. My fish attractor was supposed to work for thousands of hours without a battery replacement. Something began to smell fishy.

Since then I have been fishing four times. I used the FishMAXTM electronic fish attractor on two of those occasions. I caught fish. I usually do. But I caught more fish when I didn’t use it. On one of the occasions I used the FishMAXTM the berley I had been using fell off without my noticing. Even though the FishMAXTM was still flashing the fish stopped biting. When I realized the berley had fallen off, I put more berley out and we began to catch fish again.

By now I had decided that if it wasn’t a scam, it should be.

The thing is, fisherpersons are very superstitious. I try not to be. I usually catch a limit on days the Maori fishing calendar says are bad for fishing. And I always take bananas even though they are supposed to be bad luck.

The problem with fishing is the outcome can be so variable. This variability is the stuff that superstitions are made of. Most of the time you can’t see what is happening under the water. Sometimes the reasons people use to explain why they do or do not catch fish don’t have much to do with the real reasons. From the point of view of a scam artist, fishermen have got to be an ideal target species.

Ok, so lets think of a way of getting fishermen to give us money for a worthless and therefore cheap to make, product. What we need is a small sealed box that has a flashing light (LED) to show that something is happening. It needs to be sealed so you can’t look inside and see there isn’t much there. Inside the box we need batteries to power the light. We also need to have some wires that come out of the box. These wires can be put into the water. Once the wires are in the water the circuit is complete and the light begins to flash. We tell the fishermen that when the wires are in the water and the light is flashing that fish will be attracted.

One of the boys at the pub happens to have a PhD in physics and conveniently runs an electronics research lab. He very kindly connected my FishMAXTM up to one of his squiggleoscopes. There were a couple of volts DC but not much else. Next came the hacksaw and the Stanley knife. The unit was filled with a resin. It took quite a bit to get into it. Inside were two 1.5V AA batteries and the wire that connected them to the flashing LED. If there were any silicon chips or even resistors and capacitors or electrical components of any kind, the boys in the lab would have recognised them. But they just weren’t there. I admit that even I was surprised. I had assumed there would be some sort of circuit, even if it were just to make the light flash. It turns out the LED does that automatically.

So now I get to play games with the Commerce Commission and the Fair Trading Act.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

False Claims Thrive on Internet

The Misinformation Age has arrived at last

How many times in the last month were you conned or approached by a con? Maybe this con took the form of a weight loss product described in an ad in the newspaper. Perhaps it was a too-good-to-be-true TV infomercial that claimed to be backed by science. Or maybe it was a testimonial from a friend.

Even if you didn’t take the bait, it seems that the more often you hear or see something that isn’t true, the more likely you are to believe it eventually. This is especially so when claims are partial truths couched in scientific jargon.

The Internet is loaded with this type of misinformation. In just a matter of days, contemporary urban legends and outright hoaxes are broadcast all over the world.

These legends are part of a type of folklore that claims to be true. They may be harmless, containing stories that describe humorous scenarios, but many report terrifying happenings.

Many of these hoaxes are broadcast over email among friends and acquaintances. They frequently have a sinister or threatening side to them. You want to pass on this information to those you care about. Of course, these things always happened to someone other than the concerned friend passing it along.

Food is the topic of many hoaxes. Here are a few weve come across the last month:

“Costa Rica bananas have been infected with a flesh-eating bacteria. The FDA has been reluctant to issue a country-wide warning because of fear of a nationwide panic.”

This is completely untrue as is indicated on the Center for Disease Control Web site: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/banana.htm.

“Aspartame is the cause of lupus, multiple sclerosis, memory loss, Desert Storm health problems, and obesity.”

These claims, said to have been presented at a Conference of the American College of Physicians are untrue. There are hundreds of websites on this topic, making it nearly impossible to discern fact from fiction. The most reliable source we could find was Arnold Dias, a respected investigative reporter who actually contacted all of the claimed sources (http://www.abcnews.com).

“The Mayo Clinic has a weight reducing diet that has been formulated to alter your metabolism so that you literally burn fat. You can lose 20 pounds of fat in two weeks.”

Untrue. The fact that there is no Mayo Clinic Diet is indicated on the Mayo Clinic Web site at http://www.mayohealth.org/mayo/9806/htm/mayodiet.htm.

This legend has been around for decades. The most common version is a very low calorie diet which contains lots of grapefruit, eggs, meat, fish, chicken, spinach, tomatoes, celery and carrots. You will lose weight quickly but most of it is water and muscle, not fat.

Today, we encounter tremendous amounts of information. Because of the difficulty in discerning fact from fiction among the info-overload, there is a strong human tendency to just believe what sounds good.

The next time that you think you’re not being given the straight scoop or maybe just want some entertainment, check out http://www.urbanlegends.about.com, a website dedicated to clearing up hoaxes.