Friday, January 30, 2009

Hospital hauntings.

Derby Hospital is calling in exorcists because staff and patients have reported seeing ghosts. It seems a little odd. This hospital has been around for a very long time, so why now?

I suspect they'll be inundated with local ghosthunters, and it's a hospital so it's not going to be easy to get access. Patients aren't going to like having video cameras around.

Well, at least reports are picking up again. There's been little in the way of reported activity for months because the papers have been full of the woes of the economy. The economy is still a mess but there's only so many ways to say 'doomed'. Whether you consider ghosts real or not, it's good to see something in the news that isn't about the imminent collapse of civilisation.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


It's been freezing here lately (Global warming? Where's my share?) so I have been browsing the Internet, looking at the latest waves of alleged ghost detectors in use and on sale out there.

I say 'alleged' because there is no such thing as a ghost detector. We don't know what ghosts are made of (and if anyone says 'ectoplasm' I'll say fine, show me the chemical formula). If we have no idea what something is made of, we can't design a detector to find it. Never hand over money for anything labelled 'ghost detector'. There is no such thing - yet.

It is currently held as fact, though it might not be, that ghosts affect electrical and magnetic fields. It's possible, even likely that this is the case, but not proven. We have to start somewhere so let's look at electrical/magnetic fields and see if they change significantly when odd things happen or when manifestations show themselves. Sounds easy? Well, it's not.

The modern world has an unseemly level of background electromagnetism, especially inside any building with any form of electrical wiring. This is not constant: a fridge switching on in one room will send a measurable pulse through the entire electrical system. Lights turned on and off, anything like that, will send pulses all around the wiring. EMF meters will record these as spikes.

Many researchers perform a 'background level check' before starting, but this is usually done in daylight and is therefore worthless. The lights aren't on, the heating might not be on, in fact most electrical items are off during the day. The background level is the level you measure when nothing's happening, but under the same conditions as those prevailing when something is happening. The difference between the measurement you get when there's activity, and the measurement you get when there's not, is what you need to record.

Lately, I hear of 'proton magnetometers' and laser-with-mirror motion sensors and trifield meters and a host of other super-sensitive detectors. Don't buy them. These are highly sensitive measuring devices, sensitive enough to detect pocket change moving. That's below the background level, and anything below the background level is not realistically detectable. Furthermore, if you report measurements that are lower than the level of background noise, no scientist will ever accept it as proof of anything at all. In any subject. Ever. So spending thousands on super-sensitive machinery is a waste of money unless you're engaged in those physical sciences that the machines were designed for. They were not designed for ghosthunting. They are far too sensitive for that.

It's a question of magnitude, and of magnitude of difference.

If a ghost is largely composed of electromagnetic energy, then the presence of a ghost should produce a lot of it in the immediate vicinity. There should be a big difference in the electromagnetic fields noted in the absence or presence of the ghost. Not some trivial, barely detectable movement of the needle. A big difference. If the theory is correct and ghosts are electromagnetic in nature, you don't need high-sensitivity meters to see the difference. In fact, at too sensitive a setting, the needle will go offscale and you won't get a reading.

So a cheap meter is perfectly adequate to test this theory - and remember, it's a theory, it might be wrong. How much money are you willing to risk wasting, if it turns out that the electromagnetic theory was wrong?

I stress that the theory is not proven but there are reasons for supposing that some form of electromagnetic energy is involved. One of these reasons is the scarcity of ghosts and ghostly activity in daylight. During the day, the world is awash with light, and light is electromagnetic energy. It would be a strong-willed ghost indeed who could manifest against this huge background level. I don't think ghosts are afraid of daylight. I think they're overwhelmed by it. Rather like walking into a gale or trying to be heard over a crowd.

At night, in low light, there is far less background energy for the ghost to overcome. Even so, in order to manifest, there must be a significant energy cost and this must be detectable by some means.

It's not going to need something working in nano-scales and costing mega-bucks. When deciding which measuring devices to buy for ghost investigations, always keep one thing in mind.

You will need some serious evidence (ie big numbers) if you're going to convince anyone. So whatever you measure, if it's not showing a big difference, it's not useful.

Paranormal investigation does not require huge investments in fancy equipment you can't really use. Don't listen to anyone who tells you it does, because you'll find they're more interested in the kudos of having fancy gadgets than in the investigation.

Start small and start cheap. Except the camera. That has to be the best you can afford.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

UFOs again.

I don't want this to become a UFO blog because that's not what I do, but the news is so full of them lately it's hard to turn a blind eye.

The latest report concerns the leader of the UK Conservative party, which is likely to win the next election even though they're all politicians and none of them can be trusted so it doesn't make much difference who wins.

He has stated that once he becomes Prime Minister, he will release any and all information held by the UK government on UFO sightings, contacts, all of it. I have no idea what information they might have, if any, but I'd be interested to find out.

Don't get too excited yet. Remember, this is a politician's pre-election promise.

As with all such promises, it's best to have a large pinch of salt handy.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Pareidolia 2: simulacra

I've already found a site that covers non-UK phenomena. It was (ahem) in the sidebar here, the Paranormal Review, which covers a lot of US-based reports. I really should check my own links more often.

Back to pareidolia. Here's a photo from the Paranormal Review. Can you dismiss this as pixellation? As an interplay of light and shadow? If so, why? (The Hampton Court ghost below it has been shown to be a hoax since that was published. This one has not been.)

Note that the image of the ghost is incomplete, and that it shows almost as a phosphorescent outline, as if it's made of glass and lit by a light source we can't see. Entire apparitions, in full colour, are extremely rare as far as I know, although such apparitions would pass for real people unless you tried to touch them so it's impossible to be certain. This incomplete, almost two-dimensional image is typical of most photos and allows them to be easily dismissed as faked, Photoshopped (you could do far better than that with Photoshop, really) or just good old pareidolia. Once you have a scientific sounding Latin name for something, one that sounds like a medical condition, it's a weapon too irresistible to use. It's appearing in debunking reports everywhere.

It is rarely correctly applied, however. 'Faces' in treetrunks or rocks are more correctly termed simulacra, and Fortean Times has a collection of these. Some can be amusing, some can be revolting. If I had drunk most of a bottle of fruit punch and then found this, I would not be considering whether it might be a mould. I'd be too busy being violently sick. Then I'd take it to someone to get it checked. It was a mould, but how many could tell that at first glance? It's not pareidolia. This is not an imaginary image superimposed on a noisy background, it is a three-dimensional object that looks like something else. It's a simulacrum.

As is the rock that looks like a bigfoot on Mars. A British astronomy magazine published the entire Mars Rover image, in which it is clear that the 'bigfoot' is about an inch or two tall, is three feet from the Rover, and is a rock. Here, a sceptic uses the term 'pareidoliacs' to refer to this simple act of the mind as if it were a disorder. It is not. Everyone's brain does this. He also uses the sceptic's tactic of equating a pareidolic image with delusion, as if he cannot see it himself. He can. I know it's a rock, he knows it's a rock, but anyone who has seen only the severely clipped version of that image does not know for sure it's a rock. They are fooled by perspective, not delusional. They are not 'pareidoliacs' and neither are those who deliberately clipped this image to produce the hoax because no such condition exists.

Here again, pareidolia is elevated to the status of a neurological/psychological phenomenon, when it is simply normal brain function.

You aren't sick if you see Elvis in a piece of toast. You aren't deluded unless nobody else can see it. That does not mean Elvis goes around haunting toasters. It means that the specific pattern of hot and cold areas in the toaster along with the specific distribution of moisture and protein in that slice of bread combined to produce an image that looks a bit like Elvis. Everyone can see that image. It's a simulacrum.

When you stare at an untuned TV and you think you make out a face in the fuzz, that's pareidolia. Nobody else can see the image you see, it's just your brain trying to make sense of static. Others might see faces but they won't see the same thing as you. You can't photograph it because it's not there. It's in your mind. It's pareidolia. We all do it, it's natural.

Water seeping through concrete and then running down will often fan out. The dirt and minerals it carries can form a simulacrum of a cowled monk, or the Virgin Mary, or perhaps the Grim Reaper. Rocks and trees often form shapes that can look like faces to the mind that's looking for faces - and that's everyone's, believe it or not. They are not supernatural. They are simulacra.

The thing is, 'simulacra' doesn't sound as scientifically official as 'pareidolia'. The former describes a shape while the latter sounds like there's something wrong with the person who sees it. That's quite a powerful put-down, it's easy to equate wrongly with 'delusional' and it's one step from calling the claimant insane.

Simulacra are entertainment. Pareidolia is a natural function of the human brain. They are different things and neither is supernatural. Using pareidolia as if it refers to a form of insanity is resorting to dirty tricks, and if sceptics are so certain of their position they should not need to do that.

Pareidolia and pixellation are the two main tools of the 'debunker' who feels no need to explain their position further. Yes, many - I'd go so far as to say most - images are not what they seem, but if they've been filmed or photographed they are not cases of pareidolia unless only one or two people see them. They might be simulacra.

There is, of course, the one possibility that these sceptics dismiss from the outset. Before they've seen the image. Before they know it exists. Even before the photograph is taken.

The possibility that it might be real.

Paranormal calendar.

The Paranormal Database has released their 2009 Paranormal Calendar for those who wish to watch out for specific events in the UK. It's a 3 Mb download in PDF format.

Not sure about the format this time, the background makes it hard (for me) to read. I find the online version much easier to see. There's also a section on weather dependent phenomena - although these are always difficult to chase. Things reputed to happen immediately after a storm are okay, if you're always ready and as long as you don't fall asleep before the storm ends, but quite how you chase something that happens just before a storm is more difficult to determine. That must be down to pure luck, since weather forecasting seems to be even less reliable than some of the reported manifestations.

If you're in the UK, or interested in paranormal phenomena in the UK, the site is invaluable. Most of the reports come from England, but that's more to do with the numbers of people reporting than the spread of phenomena. As the database grows, I expect it will even out across the country.

I hope it grows big enough to spread beyond the confines of the UK but that's asking for a lot of work from the site owners. So, does anyone know of sites cataloguing similar events for other countries?

If I can remember how, I could put the links in the sidebar.

Monday, January 19, 2009


In the comments here, Southern Writer asked for a discussion on pareidolia.

That could be a long, long discussion so I'll just start it off with this post and see where it leads. To make things challenging, I'll first refer to a fundamentalist sceptic site which dismisses the entire thing as the ramblings of disordered minds, and extends it to cover bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and UFOs.

Which somewhat undermines their argument. Pareidolia refers to the human habit of seeing faces and humanoid or animal shapes in random patterns. if you watch the clouds, you'll see faces form. If you stare at trees or bushes moving in a breeze, or even standing still, you'll see faces. If you're bored enough to stare at the fuzz on an untuned TV, you'll see faces and 'recognisable' shapes.

What you won't be able to do is photograph or film them. They're not there. They are something your mind is making up as it tries to decipher the random image before it. Even the Moon, where we all clearly see the 'man in the moon' - take a photo and the face is harder to visualise. So, why faces?

We like to think, especially in Europe and the US, that we live in an industrialised and logical world. No witchcraft, no magic, no supernatural, no religion, can alter the Scientific Truth of the concrete and steel that surrounds us. We can take a small device from our pocket and speak to someone on the other side of the world. We can use this same device to take a photograph and transmit it anywhere on the planet. Telepathy? Vague images and feelings transferred between only a few individuals? How can it compete?

Science does not study most aspects of the paranormal because, let's be fair, science has no need of those results. Who cares about remote viewing, when someone with a tiny camera and a pocket computer with wireless broadband can take a photo, put it on the internet and make it instantly available to anyone, anywhere, who has access to a terminal? But I digress. That's a different argument.

We believe we are civilised and advanced. We grew up with it. But think - anyone my age, and many younger, can remember when VHS recorders first appeared. Many remember vinyl records and the thrill that was the first compact audio cassette. Many alive today recall the first television sets - we're talking 1950's here for general availability. The first motor cars appeared around 1904, were restricted to walking pace and had to have a poor sap walking in front with a red flag. There are few who remember that, but there are some. Certainly my grandmother would have seen those days.

The stuff we see around us is new. It's not that long ago we were mostly living among woodland and shrub, and not too many generations before that, our lives would depend on recognising a threat before it killed us. Bear, tiger or other human - they have faces. So our brains look for faces. Sometimes they see faces where there are none, but better to have false alarms than ignore a real one. Our brain searches patterns for faces because it's one of the brain's functions.

One of the best descriptions I ever heard came from a curmudgeon of my acquaintance who refers to humans as 'monkeys with fancy toys'. He's not far wrong. The pace of progress far outstrips our mental development. Inside, we are still watching for the threat in the woods, still searching for faces.

So we will see faces in pixellated images. We won't all see the same ones. That's why I put up photos without comment, without even saying I think there's a ghost in there most of the time, because I want to know if anyone sees what I see.

It works the other way, of course. A sceptic will claim 'pixellation' and feel no need to prove it. Take a look at this image.

Ciaran O'Keefe states that it's pixellation, light and shadow. It might be. Does he take any steps to prove his hypothesis? Of course not. Saying 'Pariedolia' is sufficient. I don't know if that's a ghost or not, but I can't dismiss it as easily as he does.

There is such a thing as pareidolia. However, it's now used by sceptics in much the same way that 'Get thee hence, Satan', was used by the old exorcists. Saying it dispels the threat.

This post is long enough. I'll continue later.

Friday, January 16, 2009

It's illusion, really.

I’m no physicist, so it comes as a surprise to me that they consider it impossible to destroy ‘information’. That’s what a black hole is supposed to do: since nothing gets out it isn’t possible to find any information about the star that collapsed to form it. Although some now believe that the information might be encoded in the event horizon surrounding that black hole, so it isn’t lost.
The conservation of energy part is easy enough. The total amount of energy in the universe is constant. Sometimes it’s locked into matter, sometimes it’s free energy, but the total is always the same. It’s the ‘information’ part that interests me. What’s the definition of it, in this context?

Does anyone know?

My head holds a lot of information. Does physics declare that it’s not destroyed when I forget some of it, or when I die and rot away? Or is it merely the information that ‘I once existed’ that’s conserved? Where, and how?

More and more, these details of science support the idea that there’s more to the universe than we know. More and more, they support ideas that those referred to as cranks and lunatics have come out with for centuries. Note that there’s a definite scientific limit here: an idea is not a theory, it’s just an idea. Only when some kind of testable scenario appears can it be called a theory. No such scenario yet exists for most of the ideas, but some are reaching the point where they could be testable.

Quantum physics can interlink two subatomic particles in something called entanglement. These particles can then be separated and anything that affects one will instantly affect the other.

Theoretically, if they are separated by enough distance, the transfer of information between these particles will occur faster than the speed of light. It sounds impossible but quantum physics insists it’s true.

A theory I heard of a long time ago has resurfaced – that this three-dimensional universe is a projection from a two-dimensional surface that acts as the boundary of the universe. In effect, it’s the skin of a balloon and we’re inside it, but we’re not really. We’re on that skin and the reality we experience is merely the projection of the skin into the inside of the balloon. A sort of hologram. The idea is back because there’s now some experimental evidence to suggest it’s possible.

Scientists, and those who profess the scientific method but without scientific training, tell me that ghosts cannot be real because it offends their view of the logically structured universe they see.

Quantum physics and astrophysics are telling me that nothing is real. None of what we see, touch, taste, smell or hear is reality. It’s all illusion. A projection of pixels from the edge of space.

Information is conserved. Information can transfer faster than light speed. The whole universe is a holographic projection. So, the information in each of us might be conserved when these bodies die, because these bodies aren’t real anyway. That information could take the form of a ghost, or another form, or it could be dispersed throughout time and space. It could reside in the skin of that balloon until it gets re-projected as someone else. It needn’t take eternity to get here, either.

Those are ideas, not theories. They can’t be theories until there’s a way to test them. There won’t be a way to test them until after the physicists’ related theories are fully formed. So there won’t be an answer, or even a theory, tomorrow.

Still, theories come from ideas, and even if most ideas fall by the wayside, if there are no ideas then there’s nothing to investigate. The ideas here might be wrong but they might not be. It’s not so easy to tell at this stage.

There’s one thing I’ll always like about quantum physics though. It makes most of my ideas look positively banal.

(If you haven't seen this week's New Scientist, issue 2691, 17th January, take a look. All this and more is in there).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Limits in photography.

I originally took this photo because it was funny. The pedestrian crossing in the foreground was painted halfway across the road and stayed that way for weeks. In a strict interpretation of the law, the pedestrian has right of way to the middle of the road and after that, they're on their own. (I blurred out the car registration and the sign on the right, but that's the only modification).

It serves another purpose though. See the bus in the distance? Despite the original being a 10 megapixel image, it's not possible to read what it says on the bus destination board. If you enlarge it, you get this:

No matter how you enlarge or filter that image, all you see is a yellow blur. That's because digital images are built of pixels, and the number of pixels defines how far it can be enlarged. Keep going, and you'll get a lot of coloured squares.

A similar issue applies to real film cameras. They can produce much finer detail than digital, but the film has a grain made up of particles of silver nitrate, and there is a limit to enlargement. It depends on the ASA rating: film with finer grain produces better detail but needs more light to do it. So a 400 ASA photo will show grain if enlarged to 8x10 but will take photos in poor light. A 25 ASA slide film will give you images you can project on big screens, but needs very good lighting to produce those images.

Southern Writer sent me some links to a new process called Penetrating Photographic Process (here and here) and asked what I thought of it (well, I think she did it to get me moving again. The blog has been somewhat spartan of late - so thanks for the e-prod, SW ;)). My first impression of this process is that it's nothing more than an artefact generating system.

I am not saying the original UFO photos were faked. They might well be real. The second link does look especially impressive. What I take issue with is the enlargement of those images beyond the capabilities of cameras, whether film or digital. I think this penetrating photographic process is a load of hokum, but it's easy to prove me wrong.

Take that photo of the bus. It would require far less enlargement and processing than was used on those UFO photos. If you want me to believe that the penetrating photographic process has any basis in reality whatsoever, just tell me the destination and bus number in that yellow blur. Better yet, show the enhanced image that reveals the information.

Yes, I do know the answer. And no, I don't expect any PPP practitioner has ever validated their method on a mundane target such as this, even though it's the first thing any decent scientist would do.

Those running this process charge for their work. Before I'd be willing to pay out, I'd want to see some evidence that it works.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The ghost bus.

I'd heard of ghost ships, ghost carriages and cars, ghost trains and even ghost planes. I have never before come across a ghost bus. On reflection, that is a little odd. It's the only mode of transport that doesn't seem to feature in those stories. Well, I've never heard of a ghost Segway but those are new.

So when a search turned up 'ghost bus' I was intrigued. Unfortunately it has more to do with deception than with anything supernatural.

The ghost bus runs once a week and nobody ever gets on. No station on its route knows about it, no timetable shows its name. In fact, it's more shocking than a supernatural bus. It's a complex and bizarre cover-up. As long as the ghost bus runs, the government don't need to admit they've closed the railway service it replaces. They don't even need to let prospective passengers know it exists.

In the UK, we are all well aware that our government is based on lies. We prefer not to have it proved to us every day, so we can pretend there is some honesty hidden in there somewhere.

All the same, I'm now intrigued by the idea of a ghost bus. Has anyone ever heard of one?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Long New Year.

Yes, I'm at home, sober, not socialising, not watching TV and trying to ignore a barrage of fireworks that made me think the Israelis were coming. Some of those pyrotechnics break the Geneva convention, I'm sure.

I know it's a party night but I picked up another cold. Since it's -5C (about 20F) outside and I well remember what happened last time I took a cavalier approach to a cold, I decided to stay in.

I used to like the New Year TV shows, but then I was always fairly well dosed with chuckle juice by the time they came on. If you've ever considered watching New Year TV sober - don't. It's dreadful. The shows are designed for the booze-addled mind and watching them sober can result in grinding of teeth and flinging of remotes.

So, I was thinking... what is this new year thing anyway? Our planet goes around the sun, and at some arbitrary point on the way it moves from 2008 to 2009. Not all at once - people in New Zealand are waking up with hangovers now, while the USA has a few more hours to prepare. The transition takes 24 hours to complete and then we go around until we get back here again, and it starts all over.

There's no flag in space that tells us where the changeover point is. There's no 'Go' square. The annual year-change is arbitrary and, sitting here as possibly the only sober person in Scotland tonight, I've had time to think.

In rough terms, this is what I've been thinking. I warn you, it can be dull...

We're roughly 93 million miles from the sun (on average, our orbit is elliptical not circular but I have a cold and I'm not feeling up to calculating ellipses so this is all estimate). If our orbit was circular, that would be a distance of pi x 2 x 93 000 000 around the circumference. Which is a long way. It's 584336233.6 miles, in fact.

It's so far that it takes a whole year to get right round. Well, 364.25 days. Which means that the Earth travels through space a distance of roughly 1.6 million miles in 24 hours. Wherever you are - or were - at midnight tonight, you were 1.6 million miles from where you were at midnight last night, even if it was in the same bed.

It also means that New Zealand's New Year point on the circumference of the Earth's orbit is nearly a million miles earlier than the UK, and about 1.6 million miles earlier than Alaska.

So it doesn't just take 24 hours to get this whole New Year thing sorted out, it takes 1.6 million miles too. No wonder it seems to last forever!

Well, I'm sure it's all rather dull, but that's what happens when you leave a scientist to his own devices while everyone else parties. It doesn't matter too much - this time tomorrow I'll be 1.6 million miles away...

Sometimes that has considerable appeal.