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With a lens less than an inch across, the typical camcorder has a rather myopic view of the world. Any light source more than a mile or so away simply cannot be resolved with any detail. Distant lights--streetlights, flares, alien headlights, even--become "point sources." Like the stars in the night sky, there's no detail to be made out in them.
The narrow lens of a camcorder focuses the light of a point source onto an electronic chip, which gets excited, so to speak, and releases a pattern of electrons, called pixels, that is translated into an analog signal which is put on videotape. What eventually comes out is your television's attempt to describe how the electronic chip reacted when it was struck by the light of a distant bonfire, for example.
The actual light from that bonfire is long gone, however, and has nothing physically to do with the electronic signal on your videotape.
Which is a shame. Astronomers have long known that you can learn amazing things from that original source of light.
Unable to reach the stars for tests, scientists figured out how to perform experiments on the light coming from them instead. Using prisms or gratings, astronomers separate that light into its constituent colors, called a spectrum, which allows them to determine a star's chemical make-up. This process is called spectral analysis.
Trying to do spectral analysis on the image produced by a camcorder, however, would be like testing a portrait of Abraham Lincoln for his DNA. The man and his image are two very separate things.
Still, Jim Dilettoso claims to perform just that kind of magic.
On a computer monitor, he brings up an image of Comet Hale-Bopp. The comet has a line segment cutting across it and, in another window, a corresponding graph with red, blue and green lines measuring the brightness of the slice.
He shows similar frames with similar line segments cutting through streetlights, the known flares captured by Channel 12, and the 10 p.m. lights of March 13.
Each results in a different graph.
It's rather obvious that the graphs are simply measurements of pixel brightness in the cross-sections he's taken.
But Dilettoso claims that the graphs show much more. To him, they represent the frequencies of light making up each of the images. He claims he's doing spectral analysis, measuring the actual properties of the light sources themselves, and can show intrinsic differences between video images of streetlights, flares, and whatever caused the 10 p.m. lights.
Because the graph of a known flare is different than one of the 10 p.m. lights, Dilettoso concludes that they cannot be the same kinds of objects.
In fact, Dilettoso claims that the graphs of the 10 p.m. Phoenix Lights show that they are like no known light produced by mankind.
The fallacy in Dilettoso's analysis is easily demonstrated. When he's asked to compare the graph of one known flare to another one in the same frame, he gladly does so. But he admits that the two flares will produce different graphs.
In fact, Dilettoso admits, when he looks at different slices of the same flare image, he never gets the same graph twice. And when he produces some of those graphs on demand, many of them look identical to the graphs of the 10 p.m. lights.
When he's asked to produce an average graph for a flare, or anything that he could show as a model that he uses to distinguish flares from other sources, he can't, saying that he knows a flare's graph when he sees it.
It's an evasive answer which hints at the truth: Dilettoso is only measuring the way distant lights happen to excite the electronic chip in camcorders (which is affected by atmospheric conditions, camera movement and other factors), and not any real properties of the sources of lights themselves.
Met with skepticism, Dilettoso reacts by claiming that his methods have been lauded by experts.
"Dr. Richard Powell at the University of Arizona believes that my techniques are not merely valid but advanced to the degree where there was nothing more that they could add," he says.
Powell, the UofA's director of optical sciences, confirms that he spoke with Dilettoso. "He called here and I talked to him, and I could not, for the life of me, understand him," Powell says.
"I don't know how you take a photograph or a videotape after the fact and analyze it and get that information out. We didn't say that his method was valid, we said we didn't have any other way that was any better," Powell says.
Hearing that Powell denies calling his techniques "advanced," Dilettoso claims that Media Cybernetics, the company which sells Image Pro Plus, told him that the software package would do the kind of spectral analysis he does.
Jeff Knipe of Media Cybernetics disagrees. "All he's simply doing is drawing a line profile through that point of light and looking at the histogram of the red, green and blue. And that's really the extent of Image Pro. . . . Spectroscopy is a different field."
New Times took audio and videotapes of Dilettoso describing his image processing to Dr. Paul Scowen, the visiting professor of astronomy at ASU. Scowen left Great Britain in 1987 and received his Ph.D. in Astronomy at Rice University in 1993; he now uses the Hubble Space Telescope to study star formation.
"All Dilettoso is doing is extracting a brightness profile. It makes no statement about frequency distribution. What he's getting his knickers in a twist about is he's heard the term 'spatial frequency' and he's confusing it," Scowen says. "He's getting his terms mixed up. He knows the words, but he doesn't understand the concepts behind them."
Scowen notes that when Dilettoso is asked about the limitations of camcorders and videotape, he repeatedly responds: "It's all I've got."
"He's not saying the rest--that it's insufficient," Scowen says.
Curious graduate students peek over Scowen's shoulders, shaking their heads at the videotapes of the Phoenix Lights and Dilettoso's claims about them.
"Nobody asks astronomers to take a look at these images. And that's what we do for a living," says Ph.D. candidate Steve Mutz.
Professor Rogier Windhorst walks in and asks what his students are poring over. Someone tells him Dilettoso claims to be doing spectral analysis from videotape.
"Oh, you can't do that. It's bullshit," Windhorst barks.
"It's a consensus now," Mutz says with a laugh.
Among the true believers, Jim Dilettoso makes even more surprising claims. At the Seventh Annual International UFO Congress, Dilettoso compared the Phoenix Lights to other UFO sightings through the years and in many parts of the globe.
"If we theorize that the lights are intelligently guided, or perhaps that the lights are perhaps the intelligences themselves, we might find that this new activity is unrelated to disc-shaped flying saucers. . . . It may be that these are light-beings," Dilettoso told his audience.
To the press, Dilettoso's careful not to make such outrageous claims. He and his partner,Michael Tanner, instead disseminate a confusing seven-page summary of the many accounts of the 8:30 vee formation, and rather than deduce that different witnesses interpreted the same phenomenon in different ways (which humans have a tendency to do), they suggest that Arizonans actually saw different gigantic triangular crafts at different times and different places. Mitch Stanley is mentioned in a single line: "An amateur astronomer in Phoenix [actually Scottsdale] wrote it off as a formation of conventional airplanes."
As for the 10 p.m. event, Dilettoso asserts that his video analyses tell him flares could not possibly be what Mike Krzyston and others captured on videotape, saying, "I don't know what they were. I just know that they weren't flares."
A credulous media, more interested in hyping the Phoenix Lights mystery rather than taking a sober look at the evidence, have repeatedly broadcast those claims. The Discovery Channel, in its October 26 program UFO's Over Phoenix, reported the results of Dilettoso's "high-tech sophisticated optical analysis" as if they were fact.
To its credit, the Discovery Channel did perform another, and apparently solid, test to the flare hypothesis. The network submitted Krzyston's footage to Dr. Leonid Rudin at thePasadena image-processing firm Cognitech. Rudin was also given a daytime shot from Krzyston's yard showing the distant Sierra Estrella, which is invisible in the nighttime video. Rudin matched the day and night shots frame by frame, lining them up on a distant ridge. The result: an animation loop showing that the flares are not only above the Estrella, but blink out as they reach the top of the mountains, precisely as distant flares would.
In a "10-Files" episode, KSAZ Channel 10, however, questioned the Cognitech analysis. Krzyston insists to Channel 10 that the objects were hovering below the Estrella ridgeline and couldn't have fallen behind the mountains. Channel 10 suggested cryptically that Cognitech purposely faked its test--"Has the footage been altered? And by whom and why? The mystery continues"--and showed its own test, which a Channel 10 production man claimed took "not long at all," proving that the 10 p.m. lights in Krzyston's video were well below the Estrella ridgeline.
New Times asked Scowen to perform the test himself, using two frames grabbed from Krzyston's original video and a 35 mm daytime photo taken from Krzyston's yard by UFO researcher Dick Motzer. After a half-hour of careful scaling, positioning, and rotation with imaging software, Scowen found a good match for the ridge visible in both shots. His results: The flares are just above the Estrella ridgeline or right at it, just as Rudin at Cognitech had found.
Afterward, Scowen was shown the "10-Files" episode and its claim that Channel 10 matched the frames quickly. He wonders how they could have checked several parameters in only a short time. "You have to make sure that the zoom is set the same way. If it's a standard camcorder, there's no numeric readout of the zoom. . . . Did the guy at Channel 10 match the scale? My guess is that he just laid the two pictures on top of each other."
Rod Haberer, producer of the "10-Files" piece, says that he's "comfortable with what we put on the air." But when he's asked what software the station used to match and scale the daytime and nighttime shots, he admits that they didn't use a computer at all. Channel 10 simply laid one image from Krzyston's video atop another in a digital editing machine.
Scowen says it doesn't surprise him. "We're used to dealing with this with the lay public. People do the minimum until they get the answer they want. In science you have to go back and check and recheck to make sure you're correct. I think Cognitech did a great job," Scowen says
Rudin says his firm took its job seriously when the Discovery Channel asked it to match the images. "I testify in a court of law routinely; I'm a diplomate of several forensic societies," Rudin says. "Basically, you're talking to the guys who do this for a living."
Told that an astrophysics professor found the Cognitech experiment more convincing, Haberer suggested that his station had merely presented a different point of view, as if the question of a flare falling either behind or in front of a mountain had more than one answer.
But that's entertainment, which is what the nation is likely to get on March 11, when the UPN network devotes a half-hour to the Phoenix Lights in its program "UFO: Danger in the Skies." Producer Hilary Roberts says that Dilettoso is featured prominently and that no, her network did not independently examine his claims. His "analysis" will be one of several voices presented uncritically in the program. "We want the viewer to decide who's right," she says, apparently unconcerned that the public can hardly decide what's true when media deliver unexamined claims as fact.
Perhaps no news organization, however, has been as accommodating to Jim Dilettoso as the Arizona Republic. For weeks following the March 13 incident, the Republic promoted flying saucers in nearly every section. Dilettoso could be found on the front page, claiming to have found a drawing in his attic which, underneath another image, mysteriously depicts an alien autopsy; the article suggested that Dilettoso's Shroud-of-Turin-like autopsy drawing has something to do with a flying saucer which supposedly landed in Paradise Valley in 1947.
But the Republic's business section topped that story with a glowing July 1 account about Dilettoso and the cutting-edge things he does at Village Labs.
The paper reported that Dilettoso was on the verge of creating a massive supercomputer network which would give PC owners access to supercomputing power, and claimed that Village Labs and TRW had each invested $3 million in a computer called RenderRing1. One benefit would be the ability to send entire movies over phone lines at incredible speeds. His system would make Tempe the nexus of a special-effects processing center: Village Labs was already helping well-known firms with their special effects, Dilettoso claimed, and had a hand in the complex effects of the movie Titanic.
Dilettoso's sales pitch sounds familiar. Five years ago, New Times profiled him and his futuristic plans ("High Tech's Missing Link," April 21, 1993). Back then, those ambitions were largely the same: Village Labs would develop massive computer networks that would change the movie industry.
Dilettoso also told New Times he had an undergraduate degree from the University of Hartford and a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from McGill University in Montreal. But records at the University of Hartford showed that he had taken a single math class there; McGill University said it had never heard of him.
Today, Dilettoso denies that he ever claimed to have college degrees. "I have 160 to 180 college credits scattered all over the place. I tell people that all the time," he says when the subject comes up.
There's another version of the Village Labs story that Dilettoso is not as quick to tell: that rather than operating from income generated by his computer wizardry, Dilettoso has for years been the beneficiary of eccentric millionaire Geordie Hormel, the heir to the Spam fortune, who pays Village Labs' bills.
Until last year, that is. Hormel pulled the plug on Village Labs in July 1997, and court records show that after Hormel stopped paying rent, the building's owner, the Marchant Corporation of California, sued to kick Dilettoso out.
Marchant's attorneys argued successfully that Hormel, not Dilettoso, was the lessee, and a Superior Court judge found in favor of Marchant, ordering Dilettoso and Village Labs to vacate the premises. But Dilettoso convinced Hormel to bail him out one last time; Hormel shelled out $62,000 for a bond that would allow Dilettoso to file an appeal--and he occupies the building in the meantime, the rent covered by the bond. Hormel says he now regrets paying for it.
Last week, Dilettoso's appeal ran out. He says that Village Labs will vacate the building in a matter of days.
Hormel's wife Jamie contends that Dilettoso and Village Labs have existed primarily through her husband's largess: "[Geordie] has paid everything. He's paid rent and salaries and lawsuits for when Jim didn't pay salaries."
Geordie Hormel confirms that since the company's founding in 1993, he has put about $2 million into Village Labs. But he's reluctant to criticize Dilettoso, afraid he won't get any of his investment back.
His wife is less shy, saying, "[Dilettoso]'s just a liar . . . I mean, there was an article in the Republic in the business section on him and it was such a lie. . . . He tells Geordie that we're going to get money from TRW in three more weeks, then strings him along for a few more weeks. It's happened for years."
Dilettoso defends the Republic article, saying that Village Labs had invested $3 million on the project with TRW. But he later admits that no actual money was put up by his firm; the $3 million figure was a total of Village Labs' rent and salaries since its inception, most of which was supplied by Hormel. He also admitted that Village Labs' "design" work was unpaid.
TRW spokeswoman Linda Javier says that in fact neither side put up cash in the project. "We didn't make any investments. We used a system that was built on our own with R&D funding." Asked about Dilettoso's claims, Javier responds, "He has a different way of looking at things."
Says Jamie Hormel: "Supposedly he was working on that Titanic movie. [But] I haven't seen him do one thing he was supposed to have done."
Dilettoso claims that in Village Labs' work on the special effects for Titanic, he collaborated with a Digital Domain engineer named "Wook."
"Wook said that Mr. Dilettoso's and Village Labs' contribution to the production of Titanic was nothing," says Digital Domain's Les Jones. Wook concurs.
When he's pressed about the claims made in the Republic story, Dilettoso says that it's true the various deals have not materialized. But he says he was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy by a TRW executive who wanted to learn Village Labs' techniques and then promote them as his own.
In the meantime, he continues to shop his plans of linking supercomputers, and entertains reporters in front of a bank of computer screens in a studiolike room which he uses for his UFO alchemy.
Perhaps Dilettoso's greatest trick: helping transform Frances Emma Barwood into a national poster child for the UFO movement.
But he meant for that poster child to be someone who already had global notoriety:Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
It was to Arpaio that Dilettoso steered an EXTRA film crew on May 6. When the crew found the sheriff out to lunch, they went to City Hall in search of another public official to interview. Frances Emma Barwood says she found their questions reasonable--why hadn't local government done anything about the sightings? And she brought it up in that afternoon's city council meeting. She wasn't prepared for the avalanche of attention, praise and ridicule that would follow.
She also didn't expect to see Arpaio grovel.
Barwood's instant celebrity was the kind of attention Arpaio craves. So, at a veterans' function a few days later, Barwood says Arpaio begged her to send him a letter, officially asking his office to investigate the March 13 lights.
She says she promised to do so. But only hours later, Arpaio aide David Hendershott called her and told her not to send it. She says he didn't explain why.
Hendershott says Barwood remembers things incorrectly. He claims it was Barwood who asked if she could send a letter to Arpaio requesting the posse's help interviewing witnesses.
"That's not it at all," counters Barwood, who says that Arpaio pleaded with her in front of veterans who later told her they were surprised to see him so agitated.
Barwood pressed on as the only public official asking why local, state and federal governments didn't take an interest in what seemed to be a questionable use of Arizona airspace, at the very least. Barwood was told that the city had no air force and could do nothing about the sightings. The Air Force, meanwhile, told her that it had gotten out of the business of investigating UFOs and that it was a local matter.
Barwood and the many who saw the lights were understandably frustrated.
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base's spokesman Lieutenant Keith Shepherd didn't help matters. Shepherd told news organizations, including New Times, that the base had no planes in the air at the time of the 8:30 and 10 p.m. events. In her investigation, however, Captain Eileen Bienz of the Arizona National Guard later heard from National Guard helicopter pilots from a Marana air base that they had spotted a group of A-10s heading for Tucson at about 10 p.m.
Only after Bienz asked Davis-Monthan about the planes did Shepherd confirm that the Maryland Air National Guard had used the base for its winter exercises and had dropped flares southwest of Phoenix that night.
Shepherd told New Times that he had earlier spoken about the base's own planes. Reporters had simply asked him the wrong question.
It's no wonder that so many people believe the military maintains a UFO cover-up.
The military's reluctance to divulge information also led to confusion about what was seen on radar that night. The media have widely circulated reports that the 8:30 and 10 p.m. lights were mysteriously invisible to radar.
But a formation of a craft or crafts traveling at high altitude over Phoenix would have been monitored by FAA radar operators in Albuquerque, not at Sky Harbor Airport, says air traffic controller Bill Grava, who was on duty at Sky Harbor that night and witnessed the later, 10 p.m. lights. Grava says that if five planes in a vee passed over Phoenix at 8:30 p.m., they would have been represented by a sole asterisk on consoles at Sky Harbor--not something that would have raised the curiosity of operators. As for the 10 p.m. event, Grava acknowledges that the North Tac range is beyond Sky Harbor's radar; if planes dropped flares over the range, it's no mystery why they would not have appeared on consoles at the airport.
Luke Air Force base has more powerful radar systems. But Luke's Captain Stacey Cottonsays that radar operators at the base were asked if they had seen anything unusual that night, and answered no. She says that a formation of five planes--traveling at high altitude above Sky Harbor's and outside of Luke's restricted air spaces--would not have been considered unusual. Neither would a flare drop over the gunnery range.
Whether the 8:30 vee formation did register on the FAA's radar monitored in Albuquerque will apparently never be known. Despite the fervent activities of UFO investigators in the days following the sightings, no one bothered to make a formal request with the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office for radar tapes of the Phoenix area for March 13. If anyone had made such a request by March 28, there would be a permanent record for the public to examine, says the FAA's Gary Perrin.
Meanwhile, no base or airport has come forward to identify the five planes that traveled over Arizona seen by so many people, including Mitch Stanley and his powerful telescope.
It's hard to blame Barwood for calling for more openness in government.
On the other hand, Barwood lamely complains that she's been unfairly labeled the UFO candidate. She asserts that her campaign really has nothing to do with space aliens.
She says this as she waits to speak at the International UFO Congress, sitting at a table with her paid UFO campaign consultant, while they're entertained by the piano playing of a man who wears a cross of his own blood on his forehead in his efforts to spread his message that angels and space aliens are one and the same.
Her January 13 press conference to announce her candidacy was only slightly less weird.
Barwood was flanked by a collection of oddballs that included several UFO dignitaries as well as emissaries representing Arizona's militias, patriot movement and anti-immigrant groups.
Barwood did her best to deflate the weirdness by talking about mundane, secular secretary of state things. Such tasks are the nominative reward for winning the post, but Barwood admits that she wants it simply because it would put her only a heartbeat away from the governorship. "If Arizona had a lieutenant governor, I'd run for that," she says.
Barwood says she's frustrated that reporters only want to hear about her thoughts on UFOs (she's never seen one, but at the UFO Congress, she makes it clear she thinks the Phoenix Lights must have been some gigantic, triangular spacecraft or military project). The militia-friendly conservative tries to make reporters understand that she's more interested in other issues, such as guaranteeing Arizonans the right to carry arms in any place and in any way.
But the UFOs will not go away.
When Barwood finishes her press conference, a woman ascends the podium to make her own, unscheduled announcement.
"I would like to speak to the press also. I know what the lights over Phoenix are. I know what's going on with the federal government," she says. "It's my husband. Col. Berger J. Addington, who is the king of kings, the lord of lords. He flies the stealth. He builds cities. And he should flesh up here pretty soon in his multiracial skin. . . . He is the true president of the United States."
The woman is politely led away from the podium, and Barwood can't suppress a grin.
Expect more of the same in the coming months.