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Channel 8 News Goes Tabloid

By Ernie Ernissee

The line between news and entertainment continues to become more difficult to resolve. November and February are particularly notorious times of the year since the ratings of TV and radio stations are determined in these months. One sure way producers can increase ratings is to drag out some psychic, astrologer, aura reader, UFO abductee or any "new age" (read "dark age") guru to do cold readings or mystify and amaze the audience with wondrous tales from the other side and other such nonsense.

I speak from experience. I was once a guest on Stacy Taylor's radio talk show. He told me that just mentioning a psychic is coming up next will cause the phones to "light up like a Christmas tree" as they say in the biz. Any talk show host with sufficient ignorance or lack of ethics can just coast through hours of air time by letting folks call up and get some "spiritual advice" on how to run their lives, or get rich beyond belief. But then talk shows aren't news shows. What about the news shows?

Recently KFMB TV Channel 8 presented several feature stories on what they claimed were unsolved mysteries. In one they showed a video of what they called "Roswell Rods," long skinny objects with ripples along the edges captured on videotape. At first blush, they did seem somewhat odd but several clues soon quickly came to mind. First was the fact that they could only be seen when the tape was played back frame by frame. Second, they were blurry, the camera focus being set on infinity.

Although I had a good idea of what was going on, I called a video producer I know, to confirm my suspicions. Before I could even finish explaining the story, his one word answer was "bees."

Hopefully without boring you with technical details, here's the story. A video camera records a scene by capturing individual frames of what it "sees". At the heart of this operation is something called a CCD (Charged Coupled Device) array. It is basically a squarish piece of silicon which stores charges in tiny "buckets" proportional to the amount of light falling on that particular spot on the chip. Thousands of these buckets are arranged in a grid to produce the picture. After a short time, the stored charges are coupled out to the electronics which converts them to signals that can be stored on tape or displayed on a TV picture tube. This occurs thirty times a second and when played back, provides our visual perception with continuous motion.

The big clue was the 1/30th of a second. For non-technoweenie types this may seem like a short time but in the world of electronics, it's an extremely long time. Freeze frame playback displays individual frames of the video from the tape which, of course, displays what was recorded in that particular 1/30 of a second.

I did some research on bees (which consisted of checking my three encyclopedias on CD) and found out two pieces of information which seemed relevant. First, bees fly about 12 miles per hour or 17.6 feet per second. In 1/30 of a second, a bee would travel around 7 inches. Second, insects beat their wings between 2 to 1000 times per second. That translates to less than one to more than 33 beats in 1/30 of a second.

Reviewing the videotape reveals that the rods are anywhere from a few inches to a foot in length and that from 3 to 8 "ripples" project from each side. All this fits an hypothesis that the mysterious Roswell Rods are bees (or possibly some other insect) flying close to the lens (out of focus), their wings, beating several times during the light gathering period of one frame, forming the ripple effect.

This idea occurred to several of my non-technical friends so I'm sure it would occur to any competent video engineer. Channel 8 tells us that no one in their engineering department could figure out what was going on. (Of course not, not during sweeps week).

The real test would be to set up a video camera where bees may be commonly found. I got the idea of bringing a camera to the flower fields in Carlsbad but unfortunately it's the wrong time of year. I think this would be an excellent project for one of our younger members. How about it kids, do you like the idea of succeeding where a big time TV news department failed?


Ernie Ernissee is Vice President of SDARI.