Saturday, June 30, 2012

"Chasing UFOs" and "Dirty Secrets" - The National Geographic Channel

(See the previous two postings for more on Chasing UFOs.)

The second episode of Chasing UFOs on the National Geographic Channel, "Dirty Secrets," was one of the most paranoid and absurd pieces of supposedly non-fiction TV that I have ever seen. Apparently the military has constructed an underground base just outside Fresno, CA (not recently, but about 60 years ago), and uses it to conduct secret research on alien technology, and perhaps the aliens themselves. And you thought that all secret UFO activity was in New Mexico or Nevada! The rich agricultural areas surrounding Fresno are probably home to more cows than people, and the generally flat terrain of the San Joaquin Valley is poorly-suited for hiding secret government stuff. But that hasn't stopped the area from becoming a local UFO Hotspot.

One woman identified only as "Sarah" and photographed only in shadows, says she has been followed and harassed since she began investigating local UFO activity. Justin and Eva Moncrief claim to have seen a UFO crash near their house, and saw a  caravan of trucks go to the crash site. Justin says he has been "followed," too. We are repeatedly shown a white van apparently slinking away when observed, it supposedly is the harassing vehicle. Later they photograph it so clearly that the license plate has to be blocked out while it is on screen. It would be trivially easy for any law enforcement agency to identify this vehicle and its owner, should any of those who claimed to be harassed actually file a complaint. I suspect that if that were done, we would find the van to be rented to Chasing UFOs' production crew, and its driver to be one of its employees, since he seems to always appear on cue. Ryder later says that she looked up the license plate, "but couldn't find anything conclusive here." What is that supposed to mean? Here is a clear example of how the UFO Chasers don't want to investigate and reach a conclusion. Instead, they leave the evidence they gather on the table, and walk away.
The FLIR Mobile Training Unit

How to investigate the alleged UFO crash? It's time to stumble around in the dark some more, this time assisted by a FLIR mobile infrared unit. (According to the company website, this is a mobile "training unit" only.) The FLIR was used to look for warm spots in the area that might supposedly represent UFO debris. Or else outcroppings of bedrock. On go the prosthetic neck braces with lights and cameras, and off they go again, Blair Witch style, with metal detector and Geiger counter. Apparently they think it's easier to find UFO crash debris in the dark than in daylight. However, they soon spot a vehicle farther up the hill. Convinced they are being followed, Ryder decides they should "call it a night." "It wasn't worth taking any chances." There was no attempt to investigate the vehicle, or look for crash debris later, in daylight. This whole crash site investigation was staged for drama, not to seriously gather any information.

Next was a visit to UFOlogist Jeffrey Gonzales, who is the State Section Director for MUFON, a fact they don't mention. He, too, says he is being followed, andhas surrounded his house with a multitude of security cameras. He might attract less attention if he didn't park his truck, covered with UFO emblems and murals, right in his driveway. Gonzales is convinced that there is an underground military base north of Fresno that studies alien technology, possibly just beyond the levees of the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District. "This levee sits up over the houses" - as indeed it must if it is to provide flood protection - "so it's a beautiful spot to hide something." The white van puts in another appearance.

So they decide it's Blair Witch time once again; they start out in daylight, but soon Ben and Ryder are rappelling down a canyon, in the dark with their "prosthetic" protrusions, to set up a camera on top the ridge on the other side. We never learn if the camera recorded anything. They later rendezvous on a bridge over the canyon, which I assume could have been crossed earlier to eliminate the need for rock climbing in the dark.

map of hydroelectric tunnels near Fresno, CA
Meanwhile James and Jeff, also stumbling in the dark in their prosthetics, appear to be trespassing by climbing over a tall fence, which has a sign that cannot be read, because it has been blanked out. It probably says something like "No Trespassing, Property of Fresno Flood Control District." There they enter an impressively large tunnel, but sealed off and leading nowhere. "We found evidence of an underground facility!" It was later acknowledged that the tunnel was constructed as part of a hydroelectric project. "But they could also be used to access underground bases," according to Ryder.

Next is a visit with Manuel Amparano, who claimed to have a Close Encounter with a UFO on May 13, 1978 when he was a police officer. Tim Printy points out that there is a discussion of the Amparano sighting in  his SUNlite Webzine (Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 9). It occurred within two minutes of a known rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, a launch visible for hundreds of miles. I'm practically certain that's what Amparano saw; he said the object was "rising." He claims to have been "sunburned" by it, but of course it's perfectly possible he was sunburned in the normal manner the previous day, and attributed it to the "UFO." The UFO Chasers borrow for investigation the flashlight and jacket Amparano had on that night. They tested them, and found nothing unusual. James Fox proclaims Amparano's testimony to be "bulletproof." Nobody's testimony rises to that level.

The program reaches the utter heights of absurdity when, because one couple got a blurry photo of a "UFO" near the airport, the UFO Chasers decide that their next episode of stumbling in the dark should take place in the vicinity of the Fresno Airport. (One anonymous commenter identified this location as 3770 North Pierce Avenue, Fresno, CA; put that address into Street View of Google Maps, and you'll see that's probably correct.)  Ryder walks right up to the airport perimeter fence wearing her ungainly prosthetics, and at one point actually begins to climb the fence!  Here is the clearest proof that we are seeing staged incidents, and not actual investigations. Can you imagine the call from an airport security guard to headquarters? "Boss, there's a woman wearing these strange protrusions with cameras and lights, and she's trying to climb the perimeter fence!" In the real world, she would have immediately been arrested for trespassing, then interrogated for days to uncover any links to terrorist organizations. But in the TV Fantasy world of UFO Chasers, the guard shines a flashlight in her direction, a military helicopter takes off and circles her position, then she rejoins the others who hide under a tree, and the authorities lose all interest in finding out who was trying to penetrate their perimeter.

I don't know whether I'll be reviewing future episodes of Chasing UFOs. We have seen enough in these first two episodes to know exactly what kind of show this is. There is a lot of "data gathering" (more precisely, getting observers to tell their stories), but no serious effort to follow up, investigate, and come to a definite conclusion. It's all Wow, Gee Whiz, What an Amazing Story!. But don't actually look for answers - that isn't fun! Plus, the "investigations" we are shown are obviously staged for dramatic purposes, and are not actual efforts to gather information and solve mysteries. The National Geographic Channel may think it has plausible deniability for the contents of this show, since it was produced by Ping Pong Productions for NGC. But it's being sold under the National Geographic's brand, and it's dragging that once-proud brand through the mud.

Friday, June 29, 2012

"Chasing UFOs," National Geographic Style - Texas is for Sightings

So, Friday evening was a marathon of the first two episodes of The National Geographic Channel's "Chasing UFOs," repeated ad nauseam. In my previous Blog posting, I cited reasons to fear that the series would be lurid and sensational. Those fears have been shown to be well-founded.

The first episode was Texas Is For Sightings, and it was mostly about the mass sightings in Stephenville, Texas, not far from Dallas-Ft. Worth,  on January 8, 2008. The way they investigate this is to go to Stephenville and arrange a "UFO Town Hall Meeting" to "share stories," i.e. tell random anecdotes about lights seen in the sky. (To a UFOlogist, the plural of "anecdote" is "data.") There was no order to these accounts, and no reason to believe that any one account has anything to do with any other. They ignore the fact that the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek, former scientific consultant to the Air Force's Project Blue Book and Patron Saint of today's UFOlogists, repeatedly said that reports of lights in the sky are of little or no value. He also said, contradicting the program, that pilots make relatively poor observers while they are engaged in flying their aircraft.

Ben McGee stumbling around in the dark
A fellow named Kacey Simmons claimed to have seen UFOs in a particular forested area, so the UFO Chasers decide to go there to check it out. At night, of course. So they attach themselves to absurd-looking night vision equipment with long booms protruding from shoulder braces, looking very much like people with broken necks wandering about. We repeatedly hear one or another excitedly exclaim, "What the (bleep) was that?" They take a video of a light in the sky "changing sizes," not realizing that is the operation of their camera's auto focus function, trying to bring the light into focus. We hear coyotes howl in the distance, and they have an almost-encounter with a wild boar. Such are the hazards facing those who dare to pursue extraterrestrials. They photograph an aircraft with three lights, and wonder if it is from earth.
The UFO video taken by Mauricio Ruiz
Later they bring in UFO author John Alexander, who has nothing to do with the Stephenville sightings, and doesn't even mention them in his book. They interview Mauricio Ruiz, who made a very hokey-looking video of a hat-shaped UFO, and nobody wants to whisper the word "hoax." In the local library they find an account from 1891 of a meteor that reportedly exploded, showering the area around the Grist Mill with a fine meteor dust. They decide to go investigate that one - in the dark. That it might be easier to find meteor dust in  daylight seems not to occur to them. So back on go the prosthetic braces, and they stumble about some more. Again, they are almost attacked by a wild boar. They photograph a reflective object that appears like it might be circular, but it is suspiciously close to some power line poles. It looked to me like it could be a light reflection off a transformer on the pole (I have seen such things), but we only see the scene in darkness. It didn't occur to any of them to come back and photograph that same scene in the daylight to find out what it might have been.

It's strange that the National Geographic Channel would put so much emphasis on the Stephenville case. There is no longer any mystery about what happened in Stephenville on January 8, 2008. UFO skeptic and retired Air Force pilot James McGaha investigated, and submitted his findings to Skeptical Inquirer editor Kendrick Frazier, who published them in the January/February, 2009 issue. The article is on-line here.
The FAA informed McGaha on January 18 that a group of four F-16s from the 457th Fighter Squadron entered the operating area at 6:17 pm local time. A second group of four F-16s entered the same area at 6:26 pm. They departed at 6:54 and 6:58, respectively. The time the aircraft were flying in the MOA accords with the time of the sightings....
What were the aircraft doing? McGaha says they were flying training maneuvers that involved dropping extraordinarily bright flares. The LUU/2B/B flare is nothing like the standard flares you might think of. These flares have an illumination of about two million candlepower. They are intended to light up a vast area of the ground for nighttime aerial attack. Once released, they are suspended by parachutes (which often hover and even rise due to the heat of the flares) and light up a circle on the ground greater than one kilometer for four minutes. The flare casing and parachute are eventually consumed by the heat. At a distance of 150 miles, a single flare can still be as bright as the planet Venus. McGaha also describes the testimony of a medical helicopter pilot, a retired U.S. Army pilot, flying that night, who saw the lights. He said: “I saw multiple military aircraft, with some dropping flares, in the area of the Brownwood 1 MOA.”
Case closed. The Stephenville case was essentially a repeat of the flare drop responsible for the famous Phoenix Lights in 1997. Don't the National Geographic researchers know how to use Google??? Those responsible for this program must be either totally incompetent, or else deceitful. They must know that the Stephenville mass sighting was simply a flare drop, but how can you make a mystery out of that?

See the next Blog posting for more about Chasing UFOs..

Monday, June 25, 2012

The National Geographic Channel's "Chasing UFOs" - How Credible Will It Be?

The National Geographic Channel is premiering a new "reality TV" series, Chasing UFOs, on June 29. 
"A team of trained investigators sets out to uncover the truth about UFOs. But they’re not just looking for more stories on extraterrestrial activity—they want answers. Risking it all, this team of scientists and UFO researchers investigate and dissect some of the most mysterious sightings on the planet to unearth stunning new evidence. The data they collect on these adventures paints an entirely new picture of what we know about these strange lights in the sky."
To judge from this teaser video,  it seems that investigating UFOs involves a lot of car chases and extraterrestrial spotlights. As best I can tell, this video has nothing to do with the real world.

There are three principal "investigators":

  1. Ben McGee, Physical Scientist, THE SKEPTIC. The world of  skeptical UFO researchers is pretty small, but I've never heard of this guy. There isn't a lot about him on the web, either. " A space-minded geoscientist, Ben is engaged in the development of xenoarchaeology - a speculative form of archaeology exploring possible alien life and culture....A respected field researcher with experience in nuclear rocketry, planetary geology, hydrology and glaciology, Ben's job is to gather evidence at proposed sites of unexplained occurrences and scientifically determine its origin." Wikipedia says that Xenoarchaeology is "a hypothetical form of archaeology that exists mainly in science fiction works concerned with the physical remains of past (but not necessarily extinct) alien life and cultures. It is not practiced by mainstream archaeologists." It's not the same thing as "Ancient Astronauts," but the latter is included within it.
  2. Erin Ryder, Tech and Recon THE 'SKELIEVER'. "Lara Croft.  Amelia Earhart.  Dana Scully. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, there are few hard-hitting, tough-as-nails females as fearless as Erin Ryder... Ryder is a force to be reckoned with not only for her brains and brawn, but also for her industry-leading knowledge of all things tech.  Her years of experience investigating unsubstantiated claims make her an expert in the field of alien/ghost-hunting technology.  Ryder "geeks out" over thermal cameras, Geiger counters and night vision scopes and can't wait to use the latest technology to investigate new and old UFO cases alike."

    3. James Fox, UFOlogist THE BELIEVER. Well, here is somebody who has a track record in UFOlogy. He is a documentary filmmaker, an associate of UFO author Leslie Kean. He's the guy who claimed that Buzz Aldrin was followed to the moon by a fleet of UFOs, but was paid off by Paul Allen to not tell his story.

More worrisome still, the series website is filled with misinformation about UFOs. Here are a few examples, by no means a complete list:
  • "Astronaut Buzz Aldrin has stated on multiple occasions that his crew saw a UFO outside their shuttle during the Apollo 11 mission." Not true. Wikipedia says of Aldrin, "In 2005, while being interviewed for a documentary titled First on the Moon: The Untold Story, Aldrin told an interviewer that they saw an unidentified flying object. Aldrin told David Morrison, a NASA Astrobiology Institute Senior Scientist, that the documentary cut the crew's conclusion that they were probably seeing one of four detached spacecraft adapter panels. Their S-IVB upper stage was 6,000 miles away, but the four panels were jettisoned before the S-IVB made its separation maneuver so they would closely follow the Apollo 11 spacecraft until its first midcourse correction."
  • "Former president Jimmy Carter reported seeing an unidentified flying object while working as a peanut farmer in southwest Georgia." Highly misleading.Way back in the Humanist magazine, July/August, 1977, I wrote "President Carter's 'UFO' Is Identified as the Planet Venus." So this fact has been known for more than thirty years. Even UFO proponents like Jerome Clark accept that Carter's "UFO" is simply a misidentification of Venus. Disingenuous UFO proponents love to mention the Carter sighting, but conceal its explanation. For example, Leslie Kean. That's one easy way to tell which UFOlogists are trying to fool you: if they present the Carter UFO as "unexplained," they are either totally incompetent, or else they intend to misinform.
Of course, we haven't seen the first episode yet, so we don't know if the show will really be as unrealistic and misleading as its advance publicity suggests.

Monday, June 4, 2012

News From Across the Galaxy

UFOs that seem to be genuinely extraterrestrial have been spotted in Missouri. KCTV5 in Kansas City broadcast a news story about sightings of "strange lights in the sky" seen hovering over the neighborhood of Blue Springs. Some of these lights have seen "for weeks," "vibrating lights, red, green, and blue."One UFO investigator came out to see them, and proclaimed "I'm 90% certain that we're looking at Vega in this instance." But she wasn't certain because she had been told by a colleague that Vega is bluish, and this object had sparkles of red and green color. Had she taken graduate-level courses in advanced physics, she would have known that the earth's atmosphere causes stars to twinkle, and breaks down starlight into flashes of different colors. Reporter Dave Jordan said that he contacted the Blue Springs Police, the FAA, and NORAD, and none of them had any information on these lights. NORAD had, however, received one other UFO report, and "is still working to determine whether that report came out of Missouri." Let us hope that NORAD completes this difficult investigation quickly, and reports its finding.

Missing from that contact list is "astronomer." Any astronomy professor, or even an advanced amateur, could have immediately identified which stars, and which planets, were being spotted as "UFOs."  This case, and its investigation, are a strong contender for this year's UFOdumb Award.

The upcoming MUFON symposium in now promising "Blockbuster UFO Discoveries!"  They won't reveal what these are: you'll just have to register for the Symposium to find out. I'm sure they need to hype it like that to fill the seats. The non-member registration price has been raised to $329, up from about $225 last year (I can't find the exact figure), and the location has been changed from southern California, a tourist mecca, to northern Kentucky, not exactly a major tourist destination.

There is a new book out, The Aztec Incident - Recovery at Hart Canyon by Scott and Suzanne Ramsey. Basically, it tries to bring the Aztec UFO Crash story back from the dead the same way that the Berlitz and Moore book The Roswell Incident did for that yarn. I've already submitted a detailed review of it to the Skeptical Inquirer. The book's argument, in brief, is that the devious and unscrupulous spoiled rich boy journalist, J.P. Cahn, was embittered by Scully's refusal to sell his story to the San Francisco Chronicle, Cahn's employer. So Cahn vindictively set out to ruin the honest oilman Silas Newton, his colleague the great "scientist" Leo Gebauer, and Scully himself. There are many arguments against what is claimed here. Roswell proponent Kevin Randle already has a review of this book on his Blog. He's not buying it.

The British UFOlogist Philip Mantle is hawking two new books:
"Russia's Roswell Incident". (Notice the strange English on that web page promoting a book by British authors!)
Real Cowboys meet real Aliens. (Face-slap!)

Leslie Kean says on her Facebook page that she is headed to Chile to meet with the CEFAA:

Exciting News! I'm going to Santiago, Chile on June 7th on an "official visit" with the CEFAA. The staff are arranging interviews for me with high level military and aviation officials, scientists and police who work with them to investigate UAP. General Ricardo Bermudez (photo) is the head of the CEFAA.
Maybe she will bring back more videos of flies buzzing around? Frankly, I thought this case would be relegated to the "indefinitely deferred" file, to avoid further embarrassment. But this visit promises meetings with pilots, government officials, and at least one General. You go, girl! (Kean only seems to be interested in UFO cases if  there are pilots or generals around!)

Finally, no connection to UFOs, but here is my photo of the annular solar eclipse of May 20, taken from Redding, CA. I plan to participate in a public viewing of the Transit of Venus tomorrow (June 5), close to home. I'll try to get some photos of that, too.