Monthly Archives: June 2013

Review: Tracking the Chupacabra by Benjamin Radford

Tracking the Chupacabra is an investigation into the Chupacabra mystery by skeptical author Benjamin Radford. The book takes us through a brief history and exploration of the infamous “goat sucker,” followed by a thorough examination of the core cases that helped entrench it in modern mythology. The author interviews witnesses, revisits old documentation, speaks to various experts, examines the relevant local cultures, and even conducts his own brief trip into the jungle. By the conclusion, Radford finds the evidence for the existence of a Chupacabra to be sorely lacking.

Fans of forteana should not be turned away by the negative outcome. Some skeptical works come off as abrasive, particularly in fringe subjects where “believers” are prone to be ridiculed for their claims. Correctness aside, I find that such an approach detracts from the readability of what may otherwise be a credible argument. Thankfully, Radford avoids appearing unfairly biased in his writing. He makes his case based on first hand investigation, including direct interviews with supposed witnesses and experts in relevant fields such as wild game and veterinary medicine. He even treks deep into a Nicaraguan jungle in search of the creature, which serves to further distance his efforts from those any “armchair skeptics.” My impression after reading was that this work was balanced and open minded, regardless of outcome. Rather than simply rejecting witness claims out of hand as implausible, each case is explored and only invalidated once it can be conclusively shown to be based on false assumptions, incorrect data, or inaccurate reporting. Some of the cultural connections he makes to the earliest sightings are particularly inspired, and are definitely are worth a look.

I don’t believe that I’ve ever so thoroughly enjoyed a debunking as I did reading Tracking the Chupacabra. It’s always a bit sad to see a popular cryptid being taken down a few pegs (the mystery tends to be at the core of the enjoyment), but it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due. The research and presentation here were so complete and seemingly conclusive, that it really is hard to find fault with this book. Radford addresses everything from the local culture that helps birth and promulgate tales of monsters, to regional vampire lore, to the relevant biology and zoology, as well as the role of the witnesses and media. In some form or another, all facets of the mystery seem to be covered.

All in all, possibly the most definitive work on the Chupacabra available, and well worth a read for anyone with interest in the topic.

Rating: 5/5

Review: The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived by Clive Finlayson

The Humans Who Went Extinct takes us on an evolutionary journey through the history and development of modern day humans. Starting from the world of early primates, we go forward to the more recent neanderthals and “ancestors,” and finally onward to the last ice ages and global human expansion.

The book really doesn’t stop to focus on any one chronological period for very long (although if you consider the lengths of time involved, this may not be so surprising). I would describe the basic progression of the chapters as a series of snapshots of evolutionary time. In each segment we hear details on relevant changes in the natural environment, and how this likely influenced species either to thrive and adapt or to die off into extinction. The ancestors and neanderthals each receive their billing along the way, but as is the case with evolution, few tend to persist for all that long. There was not as much attention to the neanderthals, in particular, as I had initially expected based on the title.

I admit there was more than one point in the text where I found myself wanting more. We get tantalizing glimpses into earlier branches of our development, but we’re often left with little detail on the true nature of our progenitors. It’s only with some reflection that one realizes the probable source of the brevity: we as modern humans may simply not know more. After all, as the author points out, our entirety of knowledge regarding vast swaths of history is often based on little more than a few fossilized bones or tools found scattered about the planet. Even our greatest scientists can only learn so much with certainty from so little data.

Also on the topic of what we know versus what we don’t, the author spends a fair bit of energy arguing against some alternative scientific paradigms on human evolution. These other popular theories may be based more on assumptions than proven facts, we’re told. As someone with little background in the material, I often found these paragraphs unnecessary; I had harbored few preconceived notions about our origins. Finlayson’s verbal illustrations of changing climates and the varied adaptation of natural populations all seemed eminently reasonable, so I would have been just as satisfied with a bit less effort at convincing.

Again speaking as someone without a relevant academic background, I can’t help but feel that the text would have benefited from a bit more complementary illustration. The author is quite verbally descriptive of flora and fauna, but with so many scenarios revolving around environmental boundaries, expansion and contraction of habitable lands, and dispersal of species, additional maps and charts might have gone a long ways to making the material more accessible. Some “artists renderings” of the different developmental stages probably wouldn’t have hurt either.

Ultimately, The Humans Who Went Extinct may not be the most riveting text, but it certainly puts the modern human lifestyle into perspective. It’s nothing short of miraculous where we came from; a creature unlike any other the earth has previously seen. It took a lot of time, a lot of luck, and a whole lot of failed experiments to get here. On those grounds alone, this book is worth a read, and probably some follow up contemplation.

Rating: 4/5

Review: The Tunguska Mystery by Vladimir Rubtsov

I had heard of the “Tunguska Meteorite” numerous times via magazines, books, and TV documentaries. It turns out much of that information lies somewhere between unintentionally misleading and flat out wrong. In reality the Tunguska event, which has been researched by top Russian scientists for decades, is still unexplained. Much of this research has been presented in scientific journals, and largely in Russian, leaving many of us in the English speaking west to what we are told by occasional media headlines and poorly researched documentaries. The truth is in fact much stranger and more difficult to resolve than a simple meteorite landing.

The author does a fantastic job of walking us through decades of discovery and research. It’s fascinating to watch, almost independently of Tunguska itself, how the scientific world changed around the unyielding enigma of the incident. From the early days of horseback travel and world wars, right up to the present day of computer technology and theoretical physics, researchers have been studying the Taiga looking for answers. It went from the personal quest of one or two scientists to a major multidisciplinary effort of volunteer specialists.

The author does not force any one “correct” solution or approach to the problem so much as he documents the approaches and attitudes of others, along with their results. He clearly has a higher understanding of much of the science involved (he has worked on the problem himself), but at no point does he lose the layman reader in complexities. He is a champion of good, honest, procedural science throughout. It’s almost maddening how inconclusive the data turns out to be, but in truth, there is no other way to present it. I fully understand how so many great minds can become obsessed with finding the solution.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone of scientific curiosity. It’s an absolutely fascinating natural mystery in and of itself, which may just leave you wanting to book a flight to Siberia to continue the investigation. Beyond that, it’s a wonderful study of a major scientific community evolving and working together (and occasionally, in opposition).

Thank you to the author for opening up and documenting this great mystery for major new populations of the world.

Rating: 5/5

Review: Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Däniken

Chariots of the Gods is a book needing little introduction. The ideas introduced here launched author von Däniken to a certain degree of fame (and infamy) around the world. The concept of alien gods intervening in the early development of man would live on for decades in the numerous books, films, and documentaries that would follow.

Having been first published over four decades ago, there are parts of Chariots which have not aged well. Some bits are downright depressing: It turns out that not only did we fail to land on Mars by 1986, as was once a “certainty,” but we’ve seemingly given up the quest entirely. The writer’s optimism toward man’s progress, anchored in the early achievements of the space age, simply did not align with a future written by politicians and tax payers. That said, despite becoming dated, a discussion of technology was essentially unavoidable given the nature of the material.

If I have one fault to find with the writing, it would be that the author tends to dwell on the refusal of the scientific community to consider his proposals. He tells us, continuously, how historical dogma is accepted without questioning, and how we must not be closed minded to alternatives. It’s hard to fault the man, as he was essentially predicting (rather accurately) the shunning and dismissal his writing would receive in scientific circles. Still, as the reader, I’m already effectively committed as his audience, and I don’t find it entirely necessary to beat the poor horse quite so badly.

Ultimately I highly recommend this book. The key, I think, is to focus on the questions posed in the content, rather than the conclusions. It’s the questions which are fascinating, and it’s the questions which, more often than not, continue to stand the test of time. How did ancient civilizations query and transport boulders so massive they would challenge even modern machinery? For what purpose were giant structures and drawings that could only be viewed from space? Why did religions spanning the physical earth, and without regular contact with one another, share such similar stories of origin? How did ancient cartographers gain knowledge of seemingly “undiscovered” lands, and ancient astronomers of planets and galaxies only recently observed with modern optics?

It’s amazing how little we know about our own past. Whether or not one is able to buy in to the proposal of visitation by extraterrestrial intelligences being a plausible conclusion, any sufficiently curious person should be taken in by the mysteries which modern doctrine tends to gloss over.

Rating: 5/5

The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements —the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution— weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode.

So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.

— Lawrence Krauss

NUT (Network UPS Tools) on Ubuntu Precise

Installing nut (Network UPS Tools) on Ubuntu Precise with a USB connected UPS (such as the CyberPower AVR series) may produce an error similar to the following:

Can’t connect to UPS [UPS] (cyberpower-ups): No such file or directory

The problem involves the fact that Ubuntu mounts the device as owned by root, but the nut daemon drops to an unprivileged account that doesn’t have the necessary access. The simple fix is to use udev to adjust the device permissions.

Connect the device and (as root) run lsusb and locate it. Note the Bus and Device IDs as well as the Vendor:Product ID pair.

Bus 001 Device 009: ID 0764:0501 Cyber Power System, Inc. CP1500 AVR UPS

You can check the current permissions in /dev.

File: ‘/dev/bus/usb/001/009′
Size: 0 Blocks: 0 IO Block: 4096 character special file
Device: 5h/5d Inode: 28437 Links: 1 Device type: bd,8
Access: (0664/crw-rw-r–) Uid: ( 0/ root) Gid: ( 0/ root)

Now we just create a udev rule that controls the mount behavior.

/etc/udev/rules.d/90-nut-ups.rules:

ACTION==”add”, \
SUBSYSTEM==”usb”, \
ATTR{idVendor}==”0764“, ATTR{idProduct}==”0501“, \
MODE=”0660″, GROUP=”nut”

The rule watches for USB device additions with a vendor and product that match the UPS. It then sets the mode to 0660 and the group to nut instead of the default root. Reload udev, then disconnect and reconnect the device and test that the new permissions are correct. Now that the nut user group has read and write on the device, it should be able to start successfully.

Review: Packing for Mars (The Curious Science of Life in the Void) by Mary Roach

Packing for Mars is a down to earth exploration of many things that are weird, wacky, gross, and even silly with the business of life in outer space. It’s a unique sort of behind-the-scenes pass into the world of astronauts and the armies of scientists and volunteers who make modern space travel possible.

This is not a text book, and it’s not a scientific study. It’s not really designed to appeal to those who already comprehend rocket science. This is a work for the layperson, the average Joe who may find space travel fascinating, but has never studied it in great detail. It is part history lesson and part science documentary. Topics include (but are not limited to), how space agencies select prospective astronauts, animal and cadaver testing, the effects of weightlessness on both physiology and psychology, as well as numerous insights into eating, defecating, sex, and hygiene in space.

The writing is extremely accessible and energetic, and at times also quite humorous. For the sensitive (or very young), there are parts which are arguably a bit crude. Personally, I found myself having trouble putting the book down. The diverse array of facts dotted throughout fascinated me on an intellectual level, and I found the commentary from agency scientists and former astronauts to be wonderfully candid and endearing.

Overall, definitely recommended.

Rating: 5/5

Review: In Alient Heat (The Warminster Mystery Revisited) by John Ries and Steve Dewey

I’ve always felt that occurrences of the paranormal necessarily present us with a cause for study. It’s not that I believe claims of extraterrestrials, for example, are likely to be accurate. Yet many people have had strange experiences in which they firmly and honestly believe, yet which cannot necessarily be explained. This leaves us with the question of how such events -real or imagined- manifest. The truth in any given case may turn out to be physical, psychological, or sociological. Here we have a book which does justice to this line of thinking in the form of an in-depth analysis of a UFO flap over Warminster, England in the 1960s.

In Alient Heat is a rather unique and special offering in the field of ufology. Rather than addressing extraterrestrial claims, or analyzing a list of specific cases in detail, the authors take a primarily social approach. How did the Warminster flap start? Who spread the word? How did the extraterrestrial connection occur? How did the phenomenon evolve over time? What leads some people to see UFOs when other people observe street lamps or airplanes? What role did the media play? We read along as the “Thing” of Warminster morphs from unidentified noise into full blown alien invasion.

The majority of the story comes to revolve around one man, Arthur Shuttlewood. A local news reporter with connections, he becomes increasingly involved in the ufological goings-on as time progresses. After becoming a “believer” in the phenomenon, he winds up promoting and hosting local sky watches, making “contact” with aliens, and eventually authoring several books on the topic from his own perspective. Many chapters are devoted to analyzing the life and times of this man: his experiences, his activities, his personality and character, and so on. The authors go a long way to demonstrate that most of what became known as the flap at Warminster were to be shaped one way or another by Shuttlewood.

The authors sew everything up quite nicely in making the argument that it was the people involved, rather than any physical events, that made the Warminster case what it was. The whole affair gives the reader quite the impression that a similar series of occurrences could explain any number of other paranormal outbreaks around the world.

If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that it honestly just felt longer than necessary. There are only a handful of actual “cases” which are quickly out of the way, and the relatively small cast of characters is easily managed as well. The remainder of the proceedings keep coming back to center on Shuttlewood time and again, often repeating the same assertions previously made (he wrote colorfully if not always accurately; he prided himself on integrity; he was honest and firmly held his beliefs; he was not a hoaxer). I realize that the authors went above and beyond to make a thorough presentation, and they certainly succeeded in this way; I was just left feeling that they probably could have sold me on their thesis in 100 or so less pages than was ultimately used. That said, if you do finish the main body of the text, read the Appendices as well. I found them at least as engaging as some of the later chapters, if not more so.

Length aside, I do recommend this book as a first rate case study of the sociology behind a widespread UFO flap. Dewey and Ries have clearly done their homework, and the entire text is thoroughly referenced. The effort and objectivity apparent in this work is sorely needed in all aspects of paranormal research.

Rating: 4/5