Posted: 19 May 2004
Well, shit. It's almost been an exciting morning.
I got out of bed and headed to the bathroom. While sitting and thinking, I grabbed the latest copy of Esquire and flipped around a bit. An insert caught my eye -- a mini-book entitled Men of Metal: Eyewitness Accounts of Humanoid Robots, apparently an excerpt from the book of the same name by this guy Rowland Samuel (read the PDF here). The cover featured a dark, vaguely blurred photo of a view out the windshield of a road at night with something even blurrier off to the right. I started to read it, and soon was beginning to wonder if what I was reading was true. It essentially detailed a journalist's efforts to track down the truth behind a series of events in Oxford, England involving what began to unfold as a giant robot aiding distressed motorists in the middle of the night. One vehicle saved from hydroplaning off the road, one stalled vehicle lifted from train tracks as a train approached, one vehicle saved from plunging into a ravine, etc. The author sought answers and eventually suspected Colin Mayhew, a former BMW engineer living nearby, as having moved on from overengineering the Mini Cooper to constructing a fleet of, well, Transformers from the same parts he'd been designing for the cars.
Upon finishing the excerpt, my interest was piqued. Included were a few snapshots of massive imprints in the ground near the sightings, dents in car bumpers corresponding to marks from a large finger and opposable thumb, etc. What the author also mentioned, though, was that while trying to track down this story, he came across some sort of quasi-hidden website for the robot project. It was said to include schematics, photos, and short videos of the actual robot in action. Excited, I keyed in the URL and hit Enter and, lo and behold, there it was! Colin Mayhew's secret robot project! Astounded, I checked out a couple of the videos. The test of stopping a car was especially cool, as the entire robot, in-frame, knelt down and caught his car as it sped towards a wall in the garage, gently slowing it to a halt.
What if I was the first guy to actually pull this insert out of Esquire and read it? What if I was the first to visit the website and not dismiss it as a hoax? What if this was totally real, and this guy had built a Transformer capable of saving humanity from automotive disasters but didn't want to yet reveal his work?
Ever skeptical, no matter how much I want to believe pretty much anything, I Googled "Colin Mayhew" and that's when it pretty much fell apart. A few blogs and hoax sites turned up "hey, check out this hoax," but with no real evidence or investigation. However, one of these sites summed it up pretty succinctly but also included a link to when it turned up on Slashdot, and that was pretty much that. Leave it to Slashdot users, even at level 5 comments, to point out everything from lack of consistency of the shadows in the videos to the fact that the domain is registered to an advertising agency working with the BMW Mini Cooper. In addition, the book in question has been "delayed due to new findings," according to the publisher.
Personally, my two biggest doubts about the veracity of the thing haven't been mentioned so far as I've seen. One: if this project is so secret, why in hell would Mayhew put schematics, photos, and video on the web? Nothing is safe from Google, that's been proven time and again. Two: the "excerpt" in magazines (and I've since discovered that plenty of other magazines have included it as well) isn't so much an excerpt as it is as complete as it's going to get. The whole story of the journalist's exploration is there, and it ends with a "people may think this a hoax, but the evidence presented here could very well prove my case" bit and ends as though you can hear the X-Files theme song playing. What else would the full version of the book include? I'm guessing either the words "the end" or an actual disclosure of the truth, neither of which are interesting nor applicable to the theme and title of the book.
Ah well, maybe next time.