News Briefs 30-04-2015

Abstinence makes me cranky, so I ain't thanking anyone this week.

Quote of the Day:

"Wine is bottled poetry."

~Robert Louis Stevenson

News Briefs 29-04-2015

Gecko robots make cute noises.

  • Cannabis use could implant false memories, scientists warn. Where have I heard that before?
  • Did a Native American travel with the Vikings and arrive in Iceland centuries before Columbus set sail?
  • Neuroscientists create illusion of having invisible body.
  • Neurons constantly rewrite their DNA to store information.
  • Woman's 'embryonic twin' is not really an embryo, or a twin.
  • Scary collection of recent mass die-off reports.
  • The Mindscape of Alan Moore now available on demand (US and Canada only).
  • Mysterious land mass appears overnight off Japan's coast.
  • Could we reboot civilisation without fossil fuels?
  • Is LSD about to return to polite society?
  • Unearthed Roman skulls could be victims of Boudicca.
  • Bees are becoming addicted to the nicotinic pesticides that are killing them off.

Quote of the Day:

People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.

Alan Moore

Disneyland Ghost Debunked by Captain Disillusion

Captain D. returns with another close-to-perfect* takedown of a YouTube paranormal sensation: the 'Disneyland ghost'. See it before Disney takes it down!

(* Needs a musical number)

News Briefs 28-04-2015

Busk it...

Quote of the Day:

Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities — the political, the religious, the educational authorities — who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing — forming in our minds — their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability to inform yourself.

Timothy Leary

Remember that Time the Russians Found Scorpions on Venus?

A scorpion? On Venus?!

Is there life on Venus? Most planetary scientists would say 'no', or at least 'unlikely' - despite being almost a twin to Earth in size, the second planet from the Sun is the closest thing we might imagine to being hell. With surface temperatures close to 900°F, even the Devil might be looking for a vacation to a cooler climate.

And yet, in 2012, a senior Russian planetary scientist claimed not only that Venusian creatures existed, but that they had already been photographed. With all the modern publicity for Mars exploration - especially by the Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity rovers - it is often forgotten that the former Soviet Union successfully landed probes on Venus nine times in the thirteen year period between 1972 and 1985. By virtue of the hellish conditions on the planet's surface, these missions were short affairs - the longest any of them survived once on the ground was a little over two hours.

But during their short Venusian encounters, a number of these probes did transmit photos back to their orbiters, taken from a camera that repeatedly scanned across the panorama. Apart from giving us a glimpse of the alien landscape, Russian scientist Leonid Ksanfomaliti has suggested these images might also show us alien life.

Ksanfomaliti was inspired to re-analyse the images by the many recent discoveries of exoplanets of many sizes and conditions, which made him question whether we have made a mistake in thinking that life likely only exists under Earth-like conditions. Another factor might have been the ongoing discovery in modern times of many 'extremophiles' on Earth: organisms that live in conditions well beyond what we previously thought life was capable of.

To search for signs of life, Ksanfomaliti compared multiple images of the same area, taken at different times as the cameras scanned backward and forwards over the landscape, looking for changing - that is, moving - elements. The challenge then was to figure out whether anything that moved was living, or instead some sort of non-biological phenomena (e.g. dirt being blown by wind), or effects of changing light, digital imaging artifacts and so on.

Movement on Venus?

His startling conclusion: the images do indeed show forms of life, including one that he nicknamed a 'scorpion'. Because Venus isn't hellish enough already, am I right?

At the blog of the Planetary Society, Emily Lakdawalla was impressed enough by Ksanfomaliti's credentials that she decided to critically evaluate his claim, despite it seeming "so obviously ridiculous" that she would "ordinarily not give it a second thought." With a strong understanding of image transmission and processing in planetary exploration, she was less than impressed by his analysis:

With all of these natural and artificial reasons why there may be changes in pixel values from one image to the next, it's hazardous to read too much into small changes of blobby shapes. But that's exactly what Ksanfomaliti goes on to do. There is a bold sentence in the paper that I asked Twitter help in translation, and it reads: "It must be emphasized that in the present work on the processing of the initial images images any retouching, drawing-in, additions to, or adjustment of images was completely ruled out." And he says that the use of Photoshop was "categorically ruled out." Yet he goes on to say that adjustments were, in fact, made. Missing bits of images were filled in with data from other images, contrast and brightness adjusted, and (most strangely), the "Blur" and "sharpen" functions in Microsoft Windows Paint were sometimes employed. These are all fairly standard operations in image processing (except for the use of Windows Paint instead of Photoshop for blur and sharpen filters, which is just odd), but they are most definitely "adjustments" of images, especially that blur and sharpen business. Sharpening, in particular, can have weird effects on noisy images.

...There is so much variation in noise among these five images, and they have been so processed with sharpening and infilling of data, that I think it is pointless to micro-analyze tiny little features and whether they have changed, much less whether they represent the presence of moving, living creatures or not. These images are much less convincing even than those of the Mars Sasquatch.

What was perhaps most surprising to Lakdawalla was how such a respected and knowledgeable planetary scientist could come up with something "so patently off the wall". Someone noted to her that Ksanfomaliti has always been interested in ideas "slightly on the edge of reality", while another suggested that perhaps three decades of analysing old data sets might make anyone crazy. Her own thoughts, however, were more about the dangers in being so smart that you convince yourself that your new theory is the start of a new paradigm:

I've seen before when successful people become so convinced that they are smart and right that they go over some edge and suddenly think that any crazy idea that flits into their head must be right, because they thought it and they're always right, right? There's no way for me to know what's made Ksanfomaliti make so much out of absolutely nothing. All I know is, there's nothing here. Move along.

Dammit, I was so hoping that Venusian scorpions were a thing.

Source: Is there life on Venus? Not in reprocessed Venera-13 images.

News Briefs 27-04-2015

Rumours been spreadin' around...

Quote of the Day:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.

Martin Luther King

Liquid Mercury Found At Teotihuacan


Liquid mercury has been found in large quantities beneath the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Archaeologist Sergio Gómez has spent the past six years excavating a tunnel that had been opened in 2003, the first time in 1800 years. Mercury has only been found at three other sites in Central America, two Maya and one Olmec.

Gómez suspects his team is close to finding a royal tomb, and that the liquid mercury may have formed a river or lake. Annabeth Headreck, a professor at the University of Denver, agrees:

“[The liquid mercury could symbolise] an underworld river, not that different from the river Styx, if only in the concept that it’s the entrance to the supernatural world and the entrance to the underworld.

Mirrors were considered a way to look into the supernatural world, they were a way to divine what might happen in the future. It could be a sort of river, albeit a pretty spectacular one.

Aside from the mercury, excavations have found chambers containing thousands of objects, including jade statues, jaguar remains, and carved shells. In 2013, archaeologists used a camera-equipped robot to discover hundreds of spheres they dubbed "disco balls." No human remains have been found so far.

Tombs with rivers of mercury aren't unique to Central America. China has its own pyramids (more earth mounds than masoned stone) near the ancient capital of Xian. A stone's throw away, buried deep beneath one such pyramid mound and surrounded by terracotta armies, the tomb of China's first Emperor Qin Shi Huang is rumoured to have... wait for it... rivers of mercury. The presence of mercury, and the possibility of deadly traps that would make even Indiana Jones wary, presents problems for Chinese archaeologists who have yet to excavate the tomb (mostly out of respect). Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with immortality, and mercury it seems, swallowing mercury pills believing it would extend his lifespan. Curiously, ancient Chinese geomancy apparently considered the landscape surrounding the tomb to be in the shape of a dragon, with the Emperor's tomb itself being the eye of the dragon. Feathered serpent?

Huang Tomb China Emperor Pyramid Mercury

Is it a coincidence pyramid tombs containing liquid mercury can be found in such diverse and distant cultures as China and Central America? Perhaps not, as there's evidence suggesting the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1050 BCE) had contact with the Americas. In 1996, Dr Mike Xu presented research showing the striking similarities between written characters found on Olmec statuary with that of the Shang, as well as the fascination both cultures had with jade. Unfortunately, his research has disappeared from the Texas Christian University's archives.

Fortunately, a terrific paper by David Kaufman, PhD in Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Kansas, is available online. Did Ancient China Influence the Olmec? covers much of the same territory Dr Xu did and is a fascinating read well worth your time. Additionally, Pre-Columbiana: A Journal of Long-Distance Contacts also covers the topic and raises plenty of questions.

Theories of Chinese contact with Pre-Columbian America aren't new. In 1953, American researcher (and WWII codebreaker) Henriette Mertz self-published her book Pale Ink: Two Ancient Records of Chinese Exploration In America. Mertz believed a 5th century account by a Buddhist missionary describing the legendary land of Fusang was in fact Central America. The book was published in a second-edition in 1972. However, Sinologist Joseph Needham wasn't impressed, writing that Mert's theories "require a heroic suspension of disbelief."

Whether there is a link between ancient China and the cultures of Central America remains to be seen. Regardless, there's an exciting mystery unfolding at Teotihuacan. Liquid mercury and disco balls -- the people who built Teotihuacan must have had some interesting parties!

Pyramid Feathered Serpent Teotihuacan Mexico

Further reading from the Grail archives:

Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World

H.R. Giger

Where others flee, film-maker Belinda Sallin notes, the late, influential dark surrealist artist H.R. Giger made his home. "What others dread, he makes his habitat. What others fight to suppress, he drags back to the surface. Throughout his life, HR Giger inhabited the world of the uncanny: a dark universe on the brink of many an abyss."

Sallin's upcoming documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World promises to put us on an express elevator straight to hell, going down. Sallin examines why such a warm, charming man created and surrounded himself with such dark art - the 'xenomorphs' of the Alien movie franchise being just one prime example.

"He did not create this world because he held it dear," Sallin explains, "but rather because he had no other option. It was the only way this amiable, modest and humorous man was able to keep his fears in check. Giger was merely the bearer of dark messages, charting our nightmares, drafting maps of our subconscious and moulding our primal fears."

As I entered his house I was completely overwhelmed by impressions. As a journalist and filmmaker I’d seen many different kinds of houses and flats, but I’d never in my life seen anything so unusual. Crossing the threshold was like entering another world. It was like I had entered one of HR Giger’s works of art, dark and threatening. I took a seat in a Harkonnen Capo Chair and was surrounded by Giger-images, Giger-figures and Giger-objects. I hardly dared blink for fear of missing out on the incredible richness of detail. Despite the strange forms, the shrunken heads and skulls, I felt completely at ease. This was surely due to my host. HR Giger was friendly, polite and welcoming. At first, the artist didn’t really seem to fit with his art, and vice versa. The image I had of him as an unapproachable artist with a dark nature flew right out the window as he offered me apple pie and coffee and as we chatted about the weather. It wasn’t what I had been expecting. On the contrary, it was more interesting, more surprising. By that time, at the very latest, the film about HR Giger began to form in my head.

If the atmospheric trailer for the documentary is any guide, Dark Star should be a fantastic feature:

Dark Star will be showing in select cinemas across the U.S. and Canada from May 15, and will be available on DVD later in the year.

(h/t @m1k3y)


Game of Groans: Egyptologist Zahi Hawass Goes Into Meltdown During Debate with Graham Hancock

Zahi Hawass goes into meltdown

Who needs HBO or Netflix when you can watch the great Zahi Hawass make a complete ass out of himself for free? In what for many alternative history buffs was going to be a more anticipated head-to-head encounter than next year's Batman vs. Superman, the former supremo of Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities had agreed on participating in a high-profile public debate with Graham Hancock, taking place on Wednesday this week at the Mena House Hotel in Egypt.

Alas, it was not to be, with Hawass going into meltdown before the debate even began. The cause? One single photograph of Robert Bauval - the man who put forward the Orion Correlation Theory about the Giza pyramids - included at the start of of Hancock's presentation. One mere glance at it was all it took for Dr. Hawass to go completely berzerk, start insulting Graham and his poor wife Santha, and storm out of the room!


[...] Dr Hawass saw that one slide contained a photograph of Hancock’s colleague Robert Bauval, originator of the Orion correlation theory with whom Dr Hawass has had disagreements for many years. Dr Hawass immediately became furiously angry and began to shout at Hancock and at Hancock’s wife Santha (Santha is wearing the white dress in the video). Hawass demanded that Hancock censor his talk to remove all references to Robert Bauval and the Orion correlation theory. When Hancock explained that the alternative view of history that he was on stage to represent could not exclude the Orion correlation and therefore could not exclude Robert Bauval, Dr Hawass, again shouting, marched out of the debating room. One member of the audience who was present managed to record part of Dr Hawass’s meltdown which is the subject of this video.

Hawass' feud with Bauval is no secret. For more than 20 years the pair have been at odds over Bauval's theory, his role in the release of the first video of the 'Gantenbrink Door' within the Great Pyramid, and other associated themes. More recently though their relationship has become even more acrimonious, after the scandal concerning two Germans who allegedly extracted samples from Khufu's pyramid broke - with numerous accusations and counter-accusations between Hawass and the author of The Orion Mystery. Where it will end is something that even Edgar Cayce wouldn't be able to predict.

After Hawass' tantrum, the event organizers frantically performed a damage-control op in order to convince Zahi to return to the hall, give his talk and answer questions from the audience. He agreed on the condition that the debate with Hancock was cancelled altogether, and he even refused to watch his opponent's presentation or talk to him.

But wait, the groan-fest continues! During the Q&A, one attendant had the gall to ask Hawass for his opinion on the 10,000-year-old Turkish megalithic site Göbekli Tepe, and the impact this site might have on Egypt's archeology - for example, on the controversy over the age of the Sphinx. The man who used to be the gatekeeper of an entire nation's historical heritage, the one who had the first and last word in green-lighting any excavation on Egyptian soil, and who has belittled and mocked whoever dares to question the Great Pyramid's age or its purpose, admitted on the record that he'd never heard of Göbekli Tepe before. You'd think perhaps his National Geographic buddies would've been kind enough to give him a free subscription to their magazine, after all the *many* favors he allegedly did for them…

Herein lies one of the true roots of our inability to understand our past properly: Arrogant insularity disguised as academic specialization, and a refusal to look beyond your particular area of expertise. It was because of that exact reason Göbekli Tepe was first mistaken for a Byzantine cemetery when it was originally discovered in the 1960s; it wouldn't be until the 1990s when the late Klaus Schmidt re-visited the site and realized its monumental importance. It's people like him, and not stubborn naysayers, who will go down in history as the true searchers of Truth.

It's a good thing Zahi wasn't born during the age of the pharaohs, though. No pyramid or ancient tomb would have been big enough to accommodate that ego.

[H/T Disinfo]

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