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A Bell Tolls for Walter Sartory

§ March 31st, 2009 § Filed under Uncategorized § No Comments

“Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” John Donne

When Walter Sartory left the Center for Inquiry’s Winter Institute in January, I remember hoping to see him at our conference in Washington D.C. in April.

He was painfully shy and mostly silent during the 5 days of classes in Hollywood , but he seemed to enjoy the stimulating lectures and discussions. Maybe he’d be a bit more comfortable in Washington, I thought.

My anticipation turned to shock recently when I learned of his brutal murder , apparently at the hands of a pair who was after his money. The two suspects have been arrested and seem to be en route to long prison terms.

I don’t know enough about Walter to write his obituary here, although from what I read , he was a highly capable engineer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and had few friends.

Despite his discomfort around most people, Walter found purpose in his atheism and spent considerable time and money to attend CFI classes and conferences. At these events, he found like-minded people and information about secular philosophy. These activities also probably afforded him some relief from the fundamentalism of the bible-belt towns where he lived in Tennessee and Kentucky – the latter minutes from the Creation Museum .

Although I barely knew Walter Sartory, his death does affect me.

How do secular humanists deal with death – especially senseless death?

For me, the first step is always sadness. I wouldn’t call Walter a sweet old man – he was far too shy to be sweet – but he was a likeable, decent man, and he made the effort to be part of our gathering. It saddened me to think of a frail, 73-year-old man suffering any kind of harsh treatment. No innocent should have to endure such torment, or die such a death.

The second step for me was anger. The mere thought of this heinous crime is infuriating. What kind of bully could terrorize a reclusive old man? It made me feel helpless. I dreamt of answering the door at his house when the murderers arrived. They’d see me and decide to call the whole thing off. But that can’t happen. The past is frozen in place and there is nothing we the living can do.

The next step for me was understanding. I remind myself that a vast majority of humans fall within a range between pure virtue and total malevolence. Walter crossed paths with two people from the cruel end of the spectrum and did not have the means to evade or defeat them. Sometimes there is little we can do about the random events that overtake us.

As horrible as Walter’s death is, it does not create cynicism in me. To simply characterize the world as a cruel place is to miss the mostly gray tones. But his death reminds me that there are vicious people out there – a fact unlikely to change anytime soon.

Where do we go from here? We can be ever vigilant against those who would do harm to others. We can find some reasonable attitude toward the sick and the brutal that both encompasses compassion and insists on the safety of the Walter Sartorys of the world.

And we can remember Walter himself, an introverted man who sought the company of fellow atheists and humanists, and the knowledge behind their worldview.

The ABCs of UFOtos

§ March 26th, 2009 § Filed under UFO Stuff, Uncategorized § No Comments

Here in Hollywood , the dazzling special effects industry is big business. But impressive images don’t always involve the hi-tech computer wizardry they use in movies like Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, whatever … Pac Man.

For instance in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi , one of the background spaceships you see in the film was actually an old tennis shoe. If George Lucas can use a tennis shoe, the objects in shots people send me of UFOs over a lake in Wisconsin or above the Grand Canyon could be anything too. They are unidentified, after all.

UFO over Lake Tahoe, CA

But many of the people who come across these real spaceships are convinced that they could not be faked . Could not be faked? Au contraire, my little green friend. Believable photos of alien ships can and are being faked all the time. How do I know this? I’m one of the people faking them.

See, a little do-it-yourself fakery goes a long way toward understanding what these other hoaxers might be up to.

In that spirit, I’d like to give you, dear reader, the ABC’s of how to snap a picture of your own UFO suitable for framing. Do try this at home – it’s easier than it looks.

There are heaps of different ways to fake a picture of a UFO, but my approach is cheap, simple to assemble, and the pictures look different every time. You don’t have to build anything, it won’t cost you much, and your whole UFO kit will only be a few items that are small and easy to carry.

Start with the plastic lid from a Mr. Coffee pot or similar brand. Borrow it from your coffeemaker at home, or get one for a buck at a thrift shop. Then buy a spool of invisible thread from a store that sells sewing supplies. Even Wal-Mart carries it. String, fishing line and regular thread are too fat and more likely to show up on film, so make sure you get the thinnest invisible thread you can find. It only has to hold up a lid that weighs a few ounces.

Now turn the lid upside down so that the little cone in the lid where the coffee drips into is pointing up. Insert the thread through the top of the cone and tape the end into a small wad. The wad will prevent the thread from pulling back up through the lid, and the little cone will hide the wad. You with me?

You now have a coffee lid dangling by a thread, but it will probably be tilted at a bad angle because the lids are not balanced. So if you want your UFO to look like it’s flying level, you can tape a nickel to the top of the lid to help balance it. Putting it on top hides it from the camera too.

Tie the UFO to a long pole or to the branch of a tree, and try to get at least 8 or 10 feet away from it when you take the picture. Make sure there is nothing between the camera and the UFO – like a branch or a leaf – that can help reveal its true scale. A small object a short distance away from a camera is often indistinguishable from a large object far away.

Even the invisible thread can pick up a glint of sunlight, so try to shoot the pictures on a day with gray skies. They hide the thread the best.

Use any camera—digital or film- even disposables. If the lens is adjustable, be sure to set it on infinity.

The Mr. Coffee-lid-as-a-spaceship might sound hokey, but if you’ve never studied its shape, you might be surprised how its tabs and hooks photograph from different angles. People regularly see a fuselage, thrusters, wings – even the Starship Enterprise—in this coffeepot lid. I love that.

By the way, the point of all this isn’t to fool people into believing there are UFOs flying over Hollywood, though you certainly could – and that has been done. I just want to demonstrate how easy it is to shoot these pictures. UFO enthusiasts insist on the authenticity of their pet ufo photos and say they can’t be faked. They can.

We don’t have to replicate every single extraordinary image to prove that images can be manipulated. My collection of interstellar coffee pot lids is proof enough.

I guarantee that anyone who shoots a few phony UFOs himself will probably be a little less excited the next time a tennis shoe flies over the Grand Canyon.

Listen to this piece on SETI’s “Are We Alone” podcast.