Skeptical reporter @ 2013-08-02

Skeptical Reporter for August 2nd, 2013

Moscow police have once again entered the dark realms of the paranormal, busting a Russian “psychic” ring that has been lifting curses for money after scaring clients into thinking they were jinxed. The alleged psychics ran a parapsychology center called Sapphira, complete with a call center. The psychics also promoted their company through shows on cable television. Sapphira staff convinced callers they were cursed, and claimed to be performing “magical” rituals during their phone conversations. The staff convinced their potential clients they needed supernatural help – which the center then provided for payment. Six alleged psychics now face up to 10 years in prison on fraud charges. The case is not the first incidence of Russian police taking on self-styled psychics. Last summer, more than 20 people were detained in a crackdown on another parapsychology center in Moscow, which reportedly employed more than 500 workers at its call center and had a monthly turnover of 500 million rubles ($15 million).

Authorities in southeastern Jiangxi province are investigating health techniques used by a qigong master who has ties with a long list of celebrities, including Jackie Chan and Jack Ma, and who has been accused of getting rich by defrauding believers of the supernatural. The inquiry comes after China Central Television aired two investigative news programmes, calling Wang Lin a phony and “a vulgar magician” living on “deluding celebrities and blinding the public”. The Luxi Health Bureau later explained that it was looking into Wang’s claims on qigong, a practice with roots in martial arts and Chinese medicine that emphasizes breathing and meditation to strengthen health. Wang has long been known at home as a “qigong master” who claims to be able to heal cancer and other complicated diseases with his supernatural abilities, which he allegedly acquired in the 1980s. He remained largely unknown to the general public until this month when photos of him with dozens of celebrities and senior officials emerged on the internet.

A short video on Valeria Lukyanova, known on the internet as the girl who turned herself into a real-life Barbie doll, gives the viewers a glimpse into the beliefs that the young girl is promoting through her online appearances. In the video, Lukyanova claims she is not a real girl at all, but a time-traveling spiritual guru whose purpose is to save the world from the clutches of superficiality and negative energy. She believes physical perfection is the best medium through which she can deliver life-changing philosophy to the human race. She states: ”Only love and joy exist in the place where I come from. Beings in our dimension are sexless. We do not have such definitions as husband, wife or children. We are able to look inside any being and see ourselves. I hear voices all the time and see different beings”. One of her friends declared that they both come from the ”Pleiades” and remember lots of planets on which they reincarnated in the past.

In England, another businessman has been found guilty of making and selling fake bomb detectors. Devices made by Gary Bolton, 47, were found to be nothing more than boxes with handles and antennae. The prosecution said he sold them for up to £10,000 each, claiming they could detect explosives. The trial heard the company had a £3m annual turnover selling the homemade devices. The prosecutor told the court that Bolton knew the devices - which were also alleged to be able to detect drugs, tobacco, ivory and cash - did not work but supplied them anyway to be sold to overseas businesses. They were made at Bolton's home and at the premises of his company Global Technology Ltd, near Ashford. One company X-rayed a device and found nothing inside the box.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

A team of astronomers from the University of Anitoquia, Colombia, have discovered a graveyard of comets. The researchers, led by Anitoquia astronomer Ignacio Ferrin, describe how some of these objects, inactive for millions of years, have returned to life leading them to name the group the 'Lazarus comets'. Comets are amongst the smallest objects in the Solar System, typically a few kilometres across and composed of a mixture of rock and ice. If they come close to the Sun, then some of the ice turns to gas, before being swept back by the light of the Sun and the solar wind to form a characteristic tail of gas and dust. The new work looked at a third and distinct region of the Solar System, the main belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. In the last decade 12 active comets have been discovered in the asteroid main belt region. This was something of a surprise and the Medellin team set out to investigate their origin. "We found a graveyard of comets. Imagine all these asteroids going around the Sun for aeons, with no hint of activity. We have found that some of these are not dead rocks after all, but are dormant comets that may yet come back to life if the energy that they receive from the Sun increases by a few per cent", declared professor Ferrin.

A completely new and unusual antibiotic compound has been extracted from a marine microorganism found in sediments off the coast of California. The discovery of genuinely novel antibiotics is rare, and experts say resistance to the drugs poses a grave threat to human health. US scientists say the new compound, called anthracimycin, seems to be effective against MRSA and anthrax. The unique chemical structure of the compound could lead to a new class of antibiotic medicines. Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently warned of the risk posed by antibiotic-resistant "nightmare" bacteria while Sally Davies, UK Chief Medical Officer, described them as a "ticking time bomb" that threatens national security. The Infectious Disease Society of America has expressed concern that the rate of antibiotic development to counter resistance is insufficient. This makes this latest discovery particularly welcome news. The discovery highlights the potential resource for new materials and compounds offered by the oceans, much of which remains unexplored.

Two 6,000-year-old "halls of the dead" found in Herefordshire have been called "the discovery of a lifetime" by archaeologists. Teams from the University of Manchester and Herefordshire Council made the find on Dorstone Hill. Professor Julian Thomas said the "very rare" find was of "huge significance to our understanding of prehistoric life". The remains of the halls were found within prehistoric burial mounds. Archaeologists believe they were deliberately burnt down after they were constructed and their remains incorporated into two burial mounds. The halls are thought to be have been built between 4000 and 3600 BC. A flint axe and a finely-flaked flint knife found on the site are thought to have "close affinities" with artifacts dating from around 2600 BC found in eastern Yorkshire. These subsequent finds show that 1,000 years after the hall burial mounds were made, the site is still important to later generations living 200 miles away - a vast distance in Neolithic terms.

Quantum computers of the future will have the potential to give artificial intelligence a major boost, a series of studies suggests. These computers, which encode information in 'fuzzy' quantum states that can be zero and one simultaneously, have the ability to someday solve problems, such as breaking encryption keys, that are beyond the reach of ‘classical’ computers. The team developed a quantum version of 'machine learning', a type of AI in which programs can learn from previous experience to become progressively better at finding patterns in data. Machine learning is popular in applications ranging from e-mail spam filters to online-shopping suggestions. The team’s invention would take advantage of quantum computations to speed up machine-learning tasks exponentially. Massive amounts of information could be manipulated with a relatively small number of qubits. "We could map the whole Universe — all of the information that has existed since the Big Bang — onto 300 qubits," said Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

The Greenwich Royal Observatory has announced the short list for candidates that might win the ”Astronomy Photographer of the Year” for 2013. A Romanian, Alexandru Conu, is among the candidates with an image that captured the transit of Venus in front of the Sun. The winners will be announced on September 18th and the Grand Prize will be 1.500 pounds.

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