Nov 272009

Some years back a famous “cryptozoologist” published a blog entry in which he related an anecdote that had been forwarded to him by a reader. The story was that a woman was driving along a road late at night and witnessed a strange creature attempting to cross over a fence. The famous cryptozoologist dubbed the creature a “Fence Fiend”, as the cryptozoologist had a predilection for alliteration.

To anyone but hard-core Forteans and true believers, the notion of a “Fence Fiend” was patently ridiculous and absurd. But let’s think about this a little bit. First off, it’s entirely possible that the account is a complete fabrication, proffered for the simple motive of attention. You see this all the time on the late night radio program “Coast to Coast” where the most outrageous tales are gobbled up by the hosts like so much intellectual Jello.

When I was a sideshow performer back in the early 1990’s I came to the conclusion that I had probably traveled tens of thousands of miles, many of them in vans or tour buses on highways. I saw a LOT of North America, Australia, Europe, and Great Britain this way. When I read about the “Fence Fiend” it occurred to me that what the individual might have seen was a plastic garbage bag or tarp stuck to the fence, fluttering in the wind.

Skeptics are often mocked for suggesting solutions to mysteries that may seem to believers as too simplistic, or unrealistic. UFO proponents seized on “swamp gas” many years ago as an example of an allegedly unrealistic solution to a UFO sighting. And this may have been the case with “swamp gas.” As with all human endeavors, skepticism has a range of values; some of it is good, some of it is not so good, and some of it is really good.

So to attack something as intrinsically weak as a “Fence Fiend” may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, or picking the “low hanging fruit”.

Except that it happened to me.

No, I’ve never seen a “Fence Fiend”, but I have seen many garbage bags, tarps, or other debris caught in fences, and set to fluttering by the wind. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven by things in the roadway which I couldn’t immediately identify. Was that thing metal, cardboard, plastic, or a dead animal? Was it broken and distorted, or new and simply novel to me such that I couldn’t recognize it?

The weirdest sighting of all occurred to me several months ago, right outside my house. There is a large traffic circle at the intersection just west of me. Nine times out of ten, I turn left, not right. I think I’m supposed to go around the circle, but I’ve got a big old American pickup truck, and it doesn’t like the tight radius of the traffic circle.

One night I pulled out and began my left turn. To make sure there were no cars coming from my right, I looked right. On the ground I saw what I believed to be a small mammal. My first thought was that it was a rat, and this bothered me, as no one wants rats in their neighborhood. But it was quite dark in color; too dark for the species of rat found around here. Weirdly, it was quite wide as well. Then I thought it might be a possum, but possums aren’t dark, and don’t scurry like this thing was doing. I wondered if it might be a baby raccoon, as a raccoon would be dark enough, but the proportions were wrong, and I couldn’t see a tail. I began to wonder if I wasn’t seeing a large mole that was somehow making an unprecedented above ground appearance.

Notice how during this entire time, my mind was fixed on “mammal”. I kept searching my mental catalog of mammals to try and correctly perceive what I was seeing. And all this time, I had to keep turning my steering wheel left, and try to drive safely. The entire encounter lasted perhaps 3 or 4 seconds. What made the sighting so Fortean was that the thing was almost hemispherical, vaguely like a turtle. But it moved and scurried like a mammal, and was black.

Because I was driving, and the thing was moving, the encounter lasted mere moments. If the encounter would have been shorter by about 1 second, I would be forever mystified about what I saw. A mole? A mutant rat? A baby Fence Fiend?

No, what I saw was in fact a small black plastic bag, pushed along the ground with just enough force from the wind to create an impressive illusion. I was immediately reminded of those articulated wooden snakes that you could win as prizes at the fair. If one practiced, the serpentine movements of an inanimate object could become a highly effective illusion.

So even as a skeptic, I can say with complete honesty that I see things all the time that I can’t immediately identify, usually while driving. It’s the classic case in which brief, unexpected encounters provoke the mind to place ambiguous stimuli into known categories of previous experience. Every so often events can take on higher levels of ambiguity, and so have the potential to become folkloric, like the “Fence Fiend”.

 Posted by on 11/27/2009 Opinion Comments Off on Perceptual Illusion and Cryptozoology
Nov 202009

The prefix “dodeca” means twelve, and derives from a Greek root.

We are already seeing a profusion of claims pertaining to the world ending in 2012, all of which are abject nonsense.

I should like to propose that those who make such claims need a banner under which to rally. We already have “birthers” and “truthers” but what to call those who promote a 2012 apocalypse?

Being that dodeca means twelve, how about “Dodecheads”? Please do not allow this term of endearment to ever become a grievous slur such as “Dodickheads.”


 Posted by on 11/20/2009 Pseudoscience Comments Off on Dodecheads or Dodickheads?
Nov 192009

This is a list of the live concerts I’ve seen in my life, as best as I can remember.

1. Buddy Rich, Late 1970’s, Missoula. I went with my father. Later I read a Rolling Stone magazine interview with Rich in which he discussed music but not the details of his life-changing UFO sighting…

2. Van Halen, March 29, 1979, Missoula. I know this date, as I went with my friend Dave Peterman, who kept better historical records than I did. I didn’t wear earplugs, and it was extremely loud. My ears rang for two days afterwards. Perhaps the best part was when David Lee Roth told the crowd that Missoula was the “rock and roll capital of the world.”

3. Molly Hatchet, late 1970’s, Missoula. Again with Dave Peterman, we went more for the opening band, the Heartbeats. We helped “roadie” the Heartbeat’s equipment for a show they played later that night at the Trading Post Saloon.

4. Cheap Trick, July 17, 1980, Missoula. This was not long after the Who tragedy in Cincinnati, and there was no more festival seating. The floor had chairs, but everyone stood up on them. A drunk girl standing behind me fell forward and tore my favorite shirt, a yellow Chouinard Patagonia climbing gear shirt that featured an image of the Great Wave off Kanagawa. Moral: Always bring earplugs, and don’t wear your favorite clothes…

5. Eric Clapton, March 10, 1981. Dave Peterman and I drove to Great Falls to attend. Driving back, we listened to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. I remember being amazed that colored stage lighting could cast colored shadows.

6. Fishbone, Mid 1980’s, Missoula. Very loud. Very distorted.

7. Frank Zappa, 1984, Los Angeles. Wow! Very “tight” show, but I was not really familiar with his music.

8. Grateful Dead, 1984, Southern California. I was never a big fan, but I still liked them. They didn’t play particularly well that day.

9. Green River, Mid 1980’s, Missoula. I had known Bruce and Jeff before they moved to Seattle to “make it big”. When they came back, they had long hair and cool rock star clothes.

10. Pat Travers, Mid 1980’s, Missoula. I went with my friend Andrew Ward to a show at the Carousel lounge. Travers’ career was in a bit of a slump at that point…

11. Miles Davis, late 1980’s, Seattle.

12. Tony Williams, late 1980’s, Seattle.

13. Mother Love Bone, 1990, the Central Tavern, Seattle. I think this was their last show before Andrew Wood died on March 19, 1990.

14. The Cult, 1990, Seattle. Ian Astbury’s voice was shot. He mentioned the tragedy of Wood’s death.

15. Alice in Chains, late 1980’s or early 1990’s, Seattle. Early on in their career they came across much like an ordinary bar band. At that point they seemed much like all the “hair metal” bands I’d seen in Missoula at the Trading Post Saloon.

16. Lollapalooza, summer 1992. Everything changes here, as all of a sudden I see all this fantastic music up close and personal. Early Pearl Jam shows were outstanding. I became friends with Kim Thayil and started to tag along with him to see various shows from the side stage throughout the 1990’s.

17. Nirvana, 1993, Seattle. This was a performance recorded in a waterfront warehouse for a forthcoming MTV new years show. They played songs from In Utero, and not so much Nevermind. A good show, but I was not blown away. I went backstage, but didn’t get to meet Kurt. While watching from the back of the hall, I turned around and noticed that Tad Doyle was standing behind me…

18. Iggy Pop, 1993, Europe.

19. Lenny Kravits, 1993, Europe.

20. Lori Anderson, 1993, Europe. I met her in the hotel lobby.

21. The Kinks, 1993, Germany. They played in a tiny club that we had performed at the night before.

22. Tad, 1993, Crocodile Café, Seattle. I hosted the record release party for their album Inhaler. The original idea was to fill the place with balloons inflated with nitrous oxide, but that plan was abandoned at the last moment.

23. Soundgarden, 1994, Vancouver BC. Those guys liked me, but not the gal I was with. Very uncomfortable.

24. Ministry, 1990’s, Key Arena, Seattle.

25. Alice in Chains, 1990’s, Key Arena, Seattle. I think the Screaming Trees performed as well.

26. Cheap Trick, 1990’s, Seattle. Some asshole in the crowd threw a powerful firecracker that exploded near Bun E. Carlos. Carlos ran offstage screaming and cursing.

27. Yoko Ono, 1990’s, Crocodile Café, Seattle. Her son Sean was on guitar, and at one point Kim Thayil came on stage and performed as well.

28. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Seattle, mid 1990’s. I was actually there to hang out with Marky Ray, who was managing the backing band, the Toadies. I think I met Krist Novocelic at that time. Believe it or not, I never saw much of the Chili Peppers during Lollapalooza in 1992, as our bus usually had to leave before they started playing.

29. Parliament-Funkadelic, mid 1990’s, Seattle. I spent most of the evening in the Paramount theater bar.

30. Black Sabbath, mid-1990’s Seattle. This was probably my favorite rock show of them all. The sound quality was really good, the performance was great, lighting and staging was outstanding; everything was just right. We had hoped to meet the band, but we were told that Ozzy was not feeling well, so it didn’t happen.

31. Wang Chung, 1997, Seattle. They opened with To Live and Die in LA, which is probably my favorite song of theirs. After the show, their road manager asked people in the crowd at the Ballard Firehouse if they wanted to meet the band. So a bunch of people went backstage and met them! I had Jack Hues sign my jacket.

32. Bare Naked Ladies, late 1990’s, Seattle. This was the first concert I had been to in which there was no smoke in the auditorium! It really blew my mind! A gal I had been involved with knew Kevin Hearn, so we were able to hang out with the band after the show. As clean and wholesome a situation as you could get!

33. Ministry, Aug 20, 1999, Seattle. I remember the date because it was my birthday. I hung out backstage with the band for a while. Later Al brought me on stage and wished me a happy birthday.

34. Chris Cornell, late 1990’s, Seattle. I had his solo album so I was familiar with the songs. His show was quite good.

35. Megadeath, 1999 or 2000, Seattle. I Met Dave Mustaine through Kim Thayil. When Mustaine learned I was a pharmacist, he asked me about Zithromax…

36. Megadeath, One or two days later in Vancouver, BC.

37. David Lee Roth, 2001, Bumbershoot festival, Seattle. I liked the show, but rock music and live concerts had changed by this time. Being outdoors, the Sound Pressure Levels had to be monitored. Too loud and it would be some sort of legal violation. People in the audience made cell phone calls. I went home with a funny feeling…

38. Jet, 2004, Seattle. I went with Jan Gregor, the sideshow’s original road manager. An Englishman named “Iron John” was Jet’s road manager, so we were “comped” in. Their single “Cold Hard Bitch” had a video associated with it that I had seen. Other than that I was not familiar with their music, but it was a good show.

That’s about it for arena rock shows, there might be some that I’m forgetting. I used to hang out in bars quite a bit, so I’ve seen lots of bands perform there too. Some that I remember are the Presidents of the United States of America, Nashville Pussy, Motorhead, Rage Against the Machine, (they once opened for us), KMFDM (VERY loud), Horton Heat, The Fastbacks (many times), A Doors cover band whose name I don’t recall, Bjorn Again, which was an ABBA cover band, and the Butthole Surfers.

 Posted by on 11/19/2009 Personal History Comments Off on Live Shows I’ve Seen
Nov 162009

Last June I posted a video to YouTube showing how to use carbon fiber to create “ball lightning” or plasma in the microwave oven. I fully recognize this is an esoteric thing, and as with most esoteric things there is some sort of convoluted history that leads up to it. As they say about movies and video games these days, there is a “backstory”.

When I was growing up, my mother was quite fascinated with UFOs, Bigfoot, and ESP. We would often have issues of Fate magazine around the house, books on UFOs, and I think at least one of Charles Fort’s books.

Sometime when I was in high school, I encountered one of the first skeptical books I ever read. This was famed UFO skeptic Philip Klass’ first book on the subject: UFOs-Identified.

Klass Book

It was interesting not only because it exposed me to the process of critical thinking, but also because I’d never heard of something so exotic as “ball lightning” before. As I understand it, as time went on Klass placed less and less emphasis on ball lightning as a prosaic explanation for UFO sightings. But I never followed the UFO subculture very much; I was always more fascinated with Bigfoot. But the concept of ball lightning always stuck with me, and eventually led to my own experiments and discovery that carbon fiber makes an excellent material with which to initiate a plasma.

By a strange twist of fate, later in life I actually met Philip Klass! Back when I was a sideshow performer, I would often room with Tim Cridland, AKA Zamora the Torture King. I was always impressed at his extensive contacts with people doing and investigating all sorts of odd and esoteric things. Remember, this was 1992 and 1993, before the World Wide Web, which made Tim something of a master of the old school technique of writing letters and doing research by “snail mail”.

And so it was that the sideshow was performing in Washington D.C. Tim rather casually tells me he is going to go interview Philip Klass. I’m impressed! I grovel and genuflect and ask if I can tag along. Everything seems casual, so indeed I’m allowed to come along. We arrive at Klass’ rather modest brownstone and are let inside. Tim was doing an interview for his fanzine called Off the Deep End. I took photographs, but sadly they didn’t come out. I seem to remember requesting that Philip pose with my Leatherman tool!

Soon it came time for Klass to walk his dog. Tim and I join him. Frankly I don’t remember much of the entire event, but I do remember the following two situations. One was Philip pointing at an airplane that was taking off from a nearby airport, which I believe was Ronald Reagan Washington National. Klass made the point that aircraft are the shape they are for a good reason; disk shaped aircraft are intrinsically unstable in flight. The classic disk shaped UFO is not aerodynamic.

The second event was genuinely memorable. Philip Klass was the first human I ever witnessed who picked up his dog’s “solids” with a plastic bag over his hand, everted the bag, then discarded it in the trash. I was simultaneously fascinated, repulsed, intrigued, and “weirded out”. Growing up as I did in Montana in the 60’s and 70’s meant stepping in dog feces all the time. It was a real bummer if you happened to be wearing shoes with a tread pattern which required an improvised tool, usually a stick, with which to pick out the offending matter. When I was a kid, no one ever picked up after their dogs. Consequently, I believed that life inevitably entailed stepping in dog shit from time to time, much like how life entails catching colds from time to time. We used to let our dog Lancer run free just like many people did back then. When Lancer was younger he would occasionally drag home a large bone or chunk of animal carcass during the fall hunting season. He must have grabbed them from dumpsters or hunter’s garages. We euphemistically called them “trophies”.

Sometimes when things change you simply don’t notice the change. When I moved to Seattle in 1987, I didn’t even realize that I wasn’t stepping in dog shit anymore. Nowadays there are laws enacted whereby dog owners must pick up after their dogs. I remember a time back in the 1980’s where there was a little broom and dust pan combination called a “Pooper Scooper”. I would see them advertised, but I never saw anyone actually use one. It surely would have been weird and inconvenient to carry a “Pooper Scooper” around with you when you walked your dog. Now everyone seems to use the everted plastic bag.

I have to wonder if this progressive social behavior is not tied directly or indirectly to the proliferation of polyethylene shopping bags. If my memory serves me, the whole “paper or plastic” thing became popular in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

I’ll bet that if plastic bags didn’t become so popular that we would all be stepping in dog shit on a regular basis.

Again, one more reason to venerate plastic! Hail polyethylene!

 Posted by on 11/16/2009 Personal History Comments Off on Polyethylene, Plasma, and Philip Klass
Nov 142009

When I was a child, my mother gave my brother and me each a Hudson Bay blanket. My mother had been a child in the Great Depression, and the experience clearly made a profound impact on her. I grew up constantly hearing her tales of deprivation, which induced in me a sort of guilt when I would receive gifts, or even drink lots of milk. My mother told me that her family didn’t have fresh milk in the Great Depression, due to a combination of primitive refrigeration technology and poverty. They had to make do with condensed milk.

So I was told that the gift of the Hudson Bay blanket was a Very Valuable Thing, a thing of such value that one must be given to my brother AND me so as not to demonstrate overt favoritism. At least that was my interpretation of why my mother made such a big deal of giving one to each of us…

My mother told me that my brother had once written an essay for school on the venerable history of the Hudson Bay blanket, and may have even delivered it as an oral presentation. Clearly there was some serious mojo going on with this blanket.

But deep down, I never quite “got it”. The thing looked cool, all white with the boldly colored stripes, but it was made of wool, and as such was all scratchy. It didn’t seem substantially warmer than other blankets, especially the down comforter I had, encased though it was in an ugly brown satin. I also had a blanket my mother called a “thermal” blanket. There was something odd about this blanket, in that it was crocheted or woven in a manner that produced a myriad of holes. Even as a child, my nascent skepticism was aroused; weren’t all blankets “thermal” blankets? Wasn’t holding heat the idea in the first place? And why should a blanket be full of holes?

But Western Montana is a cold place, and I was grateful to have lots of blankets. I would arrange the layers so the Venerable Hudson Bay Blanket would be somewhere in the middle, so it wouldn’t scratch me.

By the time I got to college, I began to go through a sort of ascetic phase.skinny I gave away many of the things I owned, and at one point I started to eat a lot less. At the time, I think I was trying to impress my first so-called girlfriend with how much will-power or self control I could exert. I call her my “so-called” girlfriend, because she refused to have sex. Yup, her refusal was a gigantic ego-shattering, self-esteem destroying, frustrating mind-fuck.

But eventually I came to my senses, and began running into women who liked to, you know, “get it on”… One night I was by myself at the Top Hat bar in Missoula, probably watching yet another R&B boogie band cover “Mustang Sally”. In walks Christy. Christy worked at the Kinko’s where I did all my photocopying. She was older than me, one of Missoula’s classic old-school radical feminists. I’m not sure exactly how she perceived me; she helped me photocopy a great deal of information I had gathered on autoerotic asphyxia, and even bound it all together for me into one large binder. This was the binder that I later loaned to Rick Linklater. I think she may have perceived me as some sort of “new wave” guy, some sort of unexpected by-product of what the hippies begat.

She walked up to me and hugged me. These days, that’s a benign greeting, and certainly not always one with sexual overtones. But to me, at that time and in that place, it could only mean one thing: She liked me and I must pursue her sexually!

So I did. We walked and talked, and of course I tried to ply her with alcohol. She seemed fearful of beer, on the grounds that it had yeast in it. Yeast was bad, somehow. I tried to explain to her that commercial American beers were both filtered and pasteurized, and so had little or no live yeast remaining. But this was really my introduction to the fact that she had a whole slew of “new age” and pseudoscientific beliefs. She claimed to have “allergies” yet wouldn’t accept that true allergies are a histaminic response, not the sort of generalized malaise she complained of. She was a believer in astrology.

Eventually we had sex. The first time was awkward and not very fun. But this created a History between us, and for her History was political. All the psycho-social ramifications and implications of this political act had to be discussed ad nauseam. But Christy was a smart gal, and in general I liked her company. Many of the women I met who were my own age were vapid and shallow airheads, and I knew deep down I could never relate to them. But I was beginning to see the weird angry-hippie-feminist side of Christy as well. I remember her telling me about how human society began as a Golden Era, run by women, and called the “Matriarchy”. But then evil men took over, and society became a “Patriarchy”.

This was news to me, as I had always assumed men had pretty much oppressed women from the get-go, and that things had gotten better for women rather late in human history, mostly in the industrialized countries. But I had come from a hard science background, so the concepts of “Matriarchy” and “Patriarchy” were completely novel to me. I had no easily accessible resources with which to investigate her claims.

Certain more tangible things began to get on my nerves. She boasted of once having destroyed a man’s Aerosmith LP because it contained the lyrics “You can’t catch me, ‘cause the rabbit done died”. But rabidly horny guys will put up with all kinds of things, and I was a rabidly horny guy. So we had sex a second time. This time things were better planned, and it proved to be the first time I ever saw a diaphragm. It looked pretty cool, actually, and of course I wondered how it might fly if thrown like a Frisbee…

So we start going at it. At this point in my life I think I’d had sex only about 5 times, so I still quite the n00b. I don’t remember how long I lasted before I came. But surprisingly, my erection didn’t go down! This was a bit of a surprise, so I just kept on going. This time around some sort of weird equilibrium was achieved, and as it happened I didn’t stop until the sun came up. I think we had been going at it for 5 or 6 hours. Alas, I was only able to pull off that stunt the one time, but it reminded me of all those old blues songs that included lines about “all night long”. Hmmm, I guess it really was possible…

By the way, for those reading this in 2009, this occurred in the 1980’s, long before phosphodiesterase inhibitor drugs were available. Indeed, no drugs or freaky devices were involved, other than probably just some alcohol.

Being that Christy worked at Kinko’s, she wasn’t a wealthy person. At one point she complained that her house was cold. I offered her a blanket, which she accepted. Since her primary need was simply warmth, I decided to give her my Hudson Bay blanket. This act had a two-fold fallout. My mother was aghast that I had given away what was to her almost a family heirloom. I found this attitude strange, as it seemed to be directly at odds with her Christian religion, which ostensibly placed a high value on charity. I refused to confront my mother with this contradiction, as by this time I took great pains to avoid arguments and confrontations with my mother.

I was not entirely surprised that the radical leftist recipient of this gift had even less understanding of its material value than I did. Back in the 80’s I had no easy way of finding out how much such a blanket might really cost. But a quick Google search tells me that buying one today might set me back $300! I’m sure it didn’t cost my mother that much when she bought it, but I don’t disbelieve her claim that it was expensive.

The final straw with Christy and me came while we were eating ice cream. We started talking about the SLA, and Christy began to deliver an impassioned screed about how bank robbery really wasn’t such a heinous crime! This was a mind-blowing assertion, as I had come from such a completely different moral background. My father had been the assistant Attorney General for the state of Montana. He was largely responsible for re-writing Montana’s state constitution in 1972. He taught law at the University of Montana starting in 1965 until his semi-retirement in the early 1990’s. My law-and-order upbringing was directly at odds with Christy’s radical leanings.

After that I’d see Christy around Missoula from time to time, but it was all over between us.

Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to that damn blanket…

 Posted by on 11/14/2009 Growing Up In Montana Comments Off on The Hudson Bay Blanket