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April 3, 2009 | 11 Comments

Omni magazine: a tribute

Crap. Some kind of psychobabble how-to. Crap. Romance novel, romance novel, something in a plastic binder—and it’s sticky!, ah geez—crap, crap, crap.

Wait…what’s that one. With the psychedelic cover. Do I read that right? These two guys babbling in German, holding a Huckleberry Finn, are in my way again.

I duck behind their backpacks and make a grab. Yes! The Omni Interviews. What a great score.

It’s a collection of the best interviews the magazine did, up until about 1984. And I found it at a PTA sale in a milk crate on the West side of Manhattan (foreign country to an Eastsider like me).

Ernst Mayr is in there, Francis Crick claiming that life here was seeded from beyond. Richard Leakey, Jonas Salk, Hans Bethe (who once almost ran over me in the parking lot behind the Big Red Barn). Freeman Dyson is saved until the end, naturally.

What luck to be able to find that book—Would you buy that for a quarter?. I did, for four of them.

Omni magazine! I can hear Dion Warwick singing “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” It’s hot, humid, and I’m sitting on the stoop of my grandparent’s house in Dearborn, Michigan. It’s 1979, August.

Omni, July 1979 cover

I’m reading a short story in this new magazine. It’s ridiculous. A guy notices that when people breath in synch, that soon they’re all going to die in synch. “Deep Breathing Exercises” is by somebody I’d never heard of: Orson Scott Card. Orson, if you can believe it.

I don’t remember how the hero of the story got his powers, but he came to a bad end when he noticed he was breathing in snych with everybody on a bus or a plane.

When I was 15, my family had already moved, from Detroit via Chicago, to tiny Gaylord, Michigan; population a good one thousand. Gaylord was Up North, and far from civilization. The town’s bookstore shared a billet with a shoe or blanket shop. Maybe it was snowshoes and cross country skies. Anyway, the book section was the size of a large bedroom.

It was a treat to drive thirty miles south to Graying, where they had just opened, to widespread acclaim, a new Holiday Inn with—it was almost not to be believed—an indoor pool and green room. People came from as far as Charlevoix to witness the spectacle.

Grayling had a book store not too far from the Holiday Inn. Tons of used science fiction. I got one of Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions there. Heady stuff. One story about a cursed alien who could only find relief using a bowling ball, this aptly matching his modified biological accoutrement.

The store also had copies of Omni and I snagged them all.

We boys had heard Omni was put out by the same gentleman who published Penthouse. I had never seen one of those but knew what it was. The consensus was that since the same guy ran both magazines, some of what was in one was bound to rub off on the other.

Omni’s covers were weird enough. There were art features inside, too, but unfortunately for us, not much of the Good Stuff. But it was all new and bizarre and that’s what really mattered anyway.

I didn’t understand much in the interviews since I didn’t have any training. All the big names were there. I didn’t know they were big, but they felt big. Matters of Importance was being talked about. The future was almost here. Exciting things were about the happen.

There were skeptical UFO articles. Interferon was going to be a miracle cure. Space travel’s ins and outs were explored. What would it take to colonize the moon, Mars? Games at the end.

Maybe I was too young to notice the politics: the doom and gloom and carping about socialism that has befallen, for example, Scientific American. The problems talked about in Omni could be—would be—solved. There was hopefulness drenched on every page. Their slogan: “The meek will inherit the Earth. The rest of us will go to the stars.” I’m certain that Omni helped decide my becoming a scientist.

But what really made it for me was the fiction. There were always at least two stories, some issues had a dozen. Most of it was original, not all of it was great, but so what. Anybody could write one—even James Randi took a turn! A few classics were reprinted. I first read Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons” there.

We read all of them and we discussed them. This was in the days before pretension hit science fiction. You didn’t have to be an expert in the minutiae of the field to enjoy talking about the stories. There was ne’er heard a, “You didn’t know this was one of Heinlein’s juveniles? I see.”

Those stories stuck with me. One about a guy with a watch that when pressed brought him two minutes into the past. A lot of harmless fun was had with the watch. Then another bad end; another faulty airplane. A freaky story about ant-like creatures who built some kind of effigy-city.

In 1983, I went into the service, had no money and rarely bought the magazine. Then I went to Okinawa in ’86 and lost touch with it completely. Omni hung on until 1995, but no magazine lasts forever.

I wish I still had my old copies. At least I found the Interviews.

—————————————–

The best Omni site out there is this one, by Mirko Cukich of Chicago.

April 1, 2009 | 31 Comments

I’ve changed my mind about global warming

The CATO ad is what got me thinking. Maybe the real reason I didn’t sign is because I knew that I might be wrong on global warming.

And if I was wrong, that meant I wasn’t right. If I wasn’t right, then I could be wrong—about a lot of things.

Luckily Gavin Schmidt and I are both based in Manhattan, so I was able to meet him over beers to express my concern.

“Gav,” I said, “Can I call you Gav?”

“No,” he said.

“Gav, I’m beginning to have doubts. Maybe all those doomsday scenarios Jim posits are real.” ‘Jim’ being James Hansen, Scientist, of course.

“Might be,” he agreed.

“And if they’re real, then that is bad news”

“The worst,” he said.

“What strikes me most is your, and Jim’s, sincerity. Your models aren’t making skillful predictions, yet you still believe in them. That kind of unshakable faith impresses me.”

He nodded. “We are firm in our convictions.”

“And I’m not,” I admitted. “At least, not anymore. My doubts about the coming catastrophe are crumbling in the face of such strong belief by so many…” My emotions were getting the best of me.

Gav reached out his hand, tenderly, and placed it over mine. “It’s OK,” he said.

“The constant skepticism and critical thinking I’ve been indulging in are wearying.” I took a sip of beer. “Truth is, I’m tired.”

Gav’s face took on that serene look that fathers get when they see in the distance their prodigal son walking through the field, finally coming home.

But as I gazed into my mug and began to realize, with horror, that even as we sat—with me about to switch allegiances—that we were exacerbating global warming.

“Bubbles!” I shouted, just as Gav was quaffing. “Carbon dioxide bubbles! In the beer!”

Gav spit out his mouthful and lifted his glass and held it to the light. Realization came to him. He put the beer down, hesitated, then stood up and backed away from the bar.

I heard him whisper, “Not that. Anything but that…”

I did a quick calculation: every pint added another one-times-ten-to-the-minus-thirty-two-point-eight-degrees Centigrade to the global average temperature. The logic was undeniable. To honestly embrace climate activism meant that I had to give up beer.

“Gav…,” I said.

He held up his hand. He knew. We stood silent for a moment. He nodded and began to walk out.

As he was leaving, there was only one thing I could say. “Bartender. Another Weihenstaphaner Korbinian Dunkel, please.”

March 31, 2009 | 10 Comments

The ad I wish CATO would have run

I did not think to say this to CATO when they sent me an email requesting I sign their ad. I should have suggested this alternative, and as our Uncle Mike has said, made a stand.

I suggest these modifications to the ad.

Quoting Obama was fine. However, his words are from the time of the campaign. Are there none more current?

Since With all due respect usually means Twwpth, cut it.

Instead lead with, “We dispute the science.”

New meat:

We scientists acknowledge that humans influence the climate. But most claims about the consequences of global warming are grossly exaggerated. There is no need for alarm. Surface temperature changes over the past century have been episodic and modest, and there has been no net global warming for over a decade. What we know about how the climate works comes from necessarily incomplete observations and mathematical models. This knowledge is limited and growing, but still flawed. Our models said we would get hotter but we got colder. Our models cannot make accurate predictions and need to before we can use their output for decision making. We urge that government not mandate behavior until our models improve.

I would have signed that.

March 27, 2009 | 12 Comments

Did a psychic solve the Tabitha Horn murder case?

This was an investigation that I did a long time ago, but I never properly wrote up. I was inspired to finally do so by reading Joe Nickell’s similar sleuthing of the Haunting in Connecticut, mystery, and a movie that opens today.

Background

On Monday, 5 July 1993, Kenneth Norton, 34, a resident of Vestaburg, Michigan (his home was about ten miles from Mount Pleasant and Central Michigan University) was driving to Ann Arbor in his station wagon with his live-in girl friend’s daughter, Tabatha Horn, 3.

They were on their way to see Wendy Michelle Gokee, Tabitha’s mother, who who was at a medical facility in Ann Arbor undergoing tests.

Norton, who at the time was a Correctional Officer at the Carson City Correctional Facility, called the police around noon from the Hop In convenience store in Brighton (which is near Ann Arbor) and reported that Tabatha was missing. Norton claimed he could not remember the last time he saw Tabitha, but said she had certainly started the trip with him.

The state police conducted a thorough search of Norton’s vehicle and when that offered no clues, they began to re-trace Norton’s route, hoping to find evidence of Tabitha’s whereabouts along the way. No signs of Tabitha were found. No one at the Hop In convenience store had seen the girl, nor had anyone noticed anything unusual.

Norton said he left his home at about 7:30 am Monday and first stopped for gas in Alma, which is about 15 miles away. It normally takes about 20 minutes to make this trip, but Norton claimed it took over an hour. When questioned about the discrepancy, Norton said he wasn’t good at looking at his watch and estimating times.

After this odd admission, Police also searched around Norton’s Vestaburg residence, which is actually nearer the town of Winn, Michigan. Norton's residence

After three days, police began to openly suspect that Tabitha’s disappearance was not a “wandering incident” but instead that a crime had occurred.

Suspicion naturally fell on Norton and on Tabitha’s mother, Wendy Gokee. Lt. Frank Hughes of the Michigan State Police offered a polygraph examination to both Gokee and Norton. Gokee took the test: according to Hughes, she passed that test.

Norton refused to take the test or even talk to the police. His refusal was the subject of a front page story on 8 July Morning Sun (a Mt. Pleasant paper, which is the primary paper for Vestaburg and surrounding area).

However, Brighton police and the State police were also quoted as saying that “no solid evidence had been uncovered”, so no arrests were made at this point.

The last person to see Tabitha besides Norton was another child who lived with Norton and Gokee. That child reported seeing Tabitha in bed on Sunday night at 10:30 pm.

That child shared the Vestaburg home with another daughter of Gokee’s, three of Norton’s children, and four of Norton’s brother’s children (the brother was in prison at the time).

I talked to Sgt. Barry Trombly of the Michigan State Police in Mt. Pleasant who reported that Norton’s attitude was extremely suspicious. He was seemingly impassive about losing a girl that was “like a daughter to him.” Trombly was concerned that Norton had refused to take the lie detector test.

On Wednesday, 7 July, the police used a helicopter, dogs and members of the Isabella County dive team in conduct a “cursory” sweep of Gokee’s residence, a country-side home situated in farm land, but nothing was turned up.

The Tip

The next day, Thursday, 8 July, Elizabeth Mahan, 43, a resident of Winn (which it near to Norton’s home), called Janet Flowers, who was the cook at the Isabella county jail, and gave her information to relay to the police about the “location of Horn’s body.”

Mahan claimed she received this information while in a “trance.” Flowers said she turned Mahan’s tip over to Deputy Matt Eckerman of the Isabella County Sheriff’s department.

Norton and Tabitha

It was reported (on the 11th) that Mahan said that the body “would be found in or by a green duffel bag near a wishing well.” (emphasis mine)

Acting on the tip, on Friday, 9 July, Deputy Eckerman returned to the Gokee residence and conducted a more thorough search of the surrounding area. A home about a mile from Norton’s residence had a decorative well in the front yard. Further down the road was a two track, which Eckerman explored.

About 150 yards down the two track, Eckerman spotted a green car seat in the woods, and by it was a fresh grave containing 3-year old Tabitha’s body.

The 1 and a half foot grave was hidden beneath an old mattress. Tabitha’s naked body was wrapped in a blue terry cloth towel and a blue baby blanket, all covered in plastic and wrapped with white surgical tape.

An autopsy later revealed that Tabitha died by asphyxiation, possibly as the result of a bag being placed over her head, or a pillow covering her face. There were no wounds on her body and no evidence of sexual assault.

Ken Norton was arrested later that night and charged with murder.

On Sunday, 11 July , the Morning Sun and the combined Detroit News and Free Press (papers with statewide circulation) both contained front page headlines detailing the body’s discovery.

Morning Sun: “Norton arrested in Tabitha’s death: Caller claiming to be psychic leads police to grave site.”

New/Free Press: “Police follow tip from ‘psychic’ to missing girl’s body.”

On Tuesday, 13 July, the Morning Sun contained another front page headline: “‘Psychic’ heard Tabatha call for help.”

On Thursday 22 July, the Detroit Free Press gave over its “Way We Live” section to report Elizabeth Mahan’s, and other psychic detective’s, sleuthing feats.

It thus appeared that Tabitha would not have been found with the help of Mahan’s psychic divinations. The press certainly credited Mahan with playing a substantial role in solving the case.

Mahan’s Changing Vision

Elizabeth Mahan
A press conference was held by the authorities on Saturday, 10 July (and reported in the papers on the 11th). Lt. Hughes, when asked if he thought Mahan used psychic abilities to locate Tabitha, or she had used more normal means, said, “I just thank God she called us. I don’t care if it was Bozo the clown. If there’s a child out there and possibly alive, we will follow up on every tip. ”

On Tuesday, 13 July, the Morning Sun said that Mahan had been reading tarot cards for neighbors for 17 years. When Tabitha went missing, she claimed she began having “terrible headaches.”

Drawing on powers that have allowed her to have “impressions” for the last 2 1/2 years, Mahan said she meditated and asked Tabitha to tell her where she was.

I went inside myself and I just kept saying, ‘OK baby, tell me where you are.’ I said, ‘I can help you’ and I kept hearing ‘Bad man…bad man…,'” she said, adding by Thursday sher had formed an impression of something green, possibly a duffel bag, along with the image of a wishing well. (emphasis mine)

Note carefully that Mahan’s original statement was that the body “would be found in or by a green duffel bag near a wishing well.” This changed to “something green, possibly a duffel bag.”

The Morning Sun (the 13th; front page) said, “Those two elements of the crime scene–the wishing well and the green seat–may make Mahan’s tip seem nearly accurate…” This was the view of the Free Press and Detroit News as well.

The Sun also revealed that Mahan had never had contact with any of the persons connected with Tabitha. Except for Norton.

“‘He used to come into Ric’s Party Store and I used to work there,’ she said. ‘I didn’t even want to wait on him. I’d get feelings—bad vibes—from this guy.'”

Mahan also said, “I really feel that there was an altercation with a female at least two or three days before he committed this. He was very, very angry and unfortunately poor little Tabatha is the one who got it.” This altercation was not known to police at the time I interviewed them on 26 July.

On Wednesday, 21 July, the Morning Sun again quoted Deputy Eckerman (p 16) who now said “We’d received a tip that the baby was buried in a shallow grave, possibly in green bag near a well.” (emphasis mine) There was never any mention of a “shallow grave” in Mahan’s original tip.

On Thursday, 22 July, the Detroit Free Press devoted an exclusive story to Mahan (pp 1C & 4C). The paper said that “everyone in that central Michigan community” was “emotionally consumed with Tabitha’s plight.”

They also reported that Mahan, who lives just nine miles north of Norton’s home, decided to write Norton’s name in her journal with a question mark after it. Later, while meditating, “I got the impression of a wishing well and something green.” The report then noted how accurate Mahan’s vision had been.

Doubts

Winn/Vestaburg is a very small community: each town is nothing more than a cross roads. The kind of place where everybody necessarily knows everybody. For example, Ken Norton was well known to Elizabeth Mahan prior to Tabitha disappearing.

Mahan also knew that Norton was ex-military and that he was currently working as a security guard at a prison. It was well known to neighbors, and to Gokee’s other children, that Norton was very demanding in his disciplining of the kids.

“He may have been a little strict, but he seems good with the kids,” said Dutch Systermann, who owns the Winn Shopping Center (MS 18 July, p 7A).

Norton was always the prime suspect in the case, even before Mahan’s tip. He was, after all, the last person to have seen Tabitha. His inconsistencies about the driving times were reported in the press. As was his refusal to take the polygraph, or to even talk to the police at all.

And the police had already began searching Norton’s residence, an activity impossible to miss in Winn. Psychic powers or not, it was natural to believe Norton knew more than he was telling.

What about Mahan’s vision? I drove by Norton’s residences and saw that he and Gokee had a decorative wishing well on their front lawn, in prominent view from the road (this might have been on the next-door neighbor’s property; it was close to the property line). Mahan certainly would have been able to see this well.

(That well was not uncommon: I saw at least two other such wells on other properties in the area.)

The well that Deputy Eckerman noted was not the same well as that in front of Gokee/Norton’s residence.

We have already seen that the original vision of a “green duffel bag” morphed to “possibly a green bag” to “something green.”

Deputy Eckerman did spot a green car seat off the two track. The car seat had been one of two in Norton’s car. Under the car seat was and old box spring mattress and a newly dug grave. The body was packaged in two garbage bags, blue towels, tape, and and blanket.

None of these details were foretold by Mahan.

The press jumped on the fact that Mahan had “seen” a well which is indeed near Norton’s house—but failed to mention the well in front of Norton’s own house. And Mahan said a green duffel bag, not a car seat.

The body was not found anywhere near a green duffel bag. The body was not found near a wishing well. The body was found in the woods behind Norton’s property, and Norton was always the prime suspect.

Incidentally, the police told me the area where the body was eventually found was going to be a “marshaling site” the very next day, Saturday 10 July. Sgt. Trombly told me there was to be a “massive search”, some 40-50 people would have been involved in the hunt.

The press credited Mahan with a success, even though only one part of her original vision was at best partially correct—but it was also incorrect as it is possible that Mahan meant to cast suspicion on Norton by leading police to his well.

The press was unable to imagine that Mahan, a humble “soft-spoken” psychic, could have pieced together the same suspicions that the police and the press had had before the body was found.

The calls I made to the Sheriff’s office were referred to the State Police, who had jurisdiction in the case. The officer in charge of the case, Detective Clare Fox, was on vacation and was unavailable for comment at the time I interviewed the State Police. I never did hear from Detective Fox, but newspaper reports indicate he was skeptical of Mahan’s claims.

No other details of Mahan’s original vision are available except was reported in the press. Lt. Frank Hughes, commander of the State Police post, told me that the original “tip sheet” Mahan dictated to cook Flowers was “probably thrown away.”

Did Mahan mention a tree in her original vision? An old car? Candy wrappers, Satan’s evil influence? Were the only things she saw the duffel bag and the well? We’ll never know.

It is always easy to search through a list of possible clues and be able to pick and choose—or redefine them—in order to make a good case, but it does not prove psychic powers.

When I pointed these thoughts out to the police, they understandably demurred. “I don’t care if the tip comes in on a flaming arrow, ” said Sgt Trombly, “Investigate the tip first and the arrow second.” Also, he said it is always possible that so-called psychics may be related personally to the case. To discourage any kind of tips would therefore be unwise.

Lt Hughes

The only documentation of Mahan’s involvement was a copy of the tip sheet Det. Fox made while interviewing Mahan, after the body was found, in order to ascertain whether she was involved in the case. The note contained “highlights” from Mahan’s original report plus follow up questions to see if Mahan was personally involved. I never got to see this sheet.

I wrote the Free Press and the writer of the psychic follow up stories a letter detailing my suspicions but I never received a response.

The case attracted great state wide attention, especially in the small community of Winn. That a local resident and “psychic” helped solve the case was a good angle that helped sell papers. But in-depth analysis of the case casts great suspicions on the accuracy of the visions.

It is reasonable to conclude that psychic powers were not involved and that Mahan’s, and the rest of the community’s, wishes for Tabatha’s safety and subsequent horror at the discovery of her death played a very large role in the confirmation of Mahan’s psychic abilities.