Saturday, June 27, 2009

Dead Celebrities and Living Idiots.

I hear Michael Jackson died. Well, I couldn't avoid hearing about it, it was around eighty percent of the news. You'd think a whole platoon of Michael Jacksons had been wiped out. I hadn't planned to say anything about it because, while I liked some of his music, I was never a 'fan' and never met the guy. Besides, it irritates me that soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq rate no more than a passing mention, but a pop star dying takes over the whole of the news.

The usual outbreak of bad taste jokes appeared, as always happens when a newsworthy figure dies. Farrah Fawcett escaped that part because an easier target died just after her. That's human nature, we always make jokes about death because nobody likes to think it can happen to them.

Conspiracy theories started at once, as did some particularly bizarre accusations. There are those out on the internet asking 'Why was his doctor there? Did he kill Jackson deliberately?' Well, I hear Jackson had been on painkillers since an incident where his hair caught fire and he was badly burned, and that he was frail, he had a heart condition, and he had exhausted himself preparing for his tour. So the doctor being present isn't really anything of a surprise. I think he just wore himself out.

The most bizarre thing I've come across lately is an accusation that we are racist towards Bigfoot and it's Michael Jackson's fault.


Okay, let's take this apart piece by piece. Bigfoot is a cryptid, which means that although it's been sighted, its existence has never been conclusively proven. No specimens have been collected, alive or dead. Being racist to Bigfoot is the same as being racist to the tooth fairy.

If Bigfoot does exist, then it's a different species. Not a race of humans. In which case, being racist to Bigfoot is the same as being racist to an armadillo. Either way, an ignorant and ridiculous misuse of the term.

The argument goes like this:

1. Michael Jackson was nicknamed 'Jacko' by the tabloids. It's a coincidence that it rhymed with Wacko.

2. An alleged young sasquatch captured in 1884 was also called 'Jacko'.

3. 'Jocko' is a slang term for ape, and 'Jacko' must therefore be a corruption of that word.

Therefore Michael Jackson, in using the nickname 'Jacko', is being racist to Bigfoot.

I don't swear on this blog but I'm tempted here. Cryptozoology is doing its best to be seen as a credible scientific area and idiotic pronouncements like this just set it back firmly into the Crank Zone. So let's put a bit of reality into the thing.

1. Michael Jackson was not nicknamed 'Jacko' by the press. He was nicknamed 'Wacko Jacko' because he slept in an oxygen tent, was best friends with a chimp, built a massive amusement park in his backyard, and other things that any self-respecting eccentric would love to be able to afford. The rhyme was not a coincidence.

2. No rock-solid evidence for the alleged captured sasquatch remains. The sasquatch did not name himself 'Jacko' because there is no record of him speaking. His captors gave him the name, derived from Jack, a common name, and they were unaware of 'Jocko' as a slang term for ape because a) there were no apes where they lived and b) it probably started with Devo's song 'Jocko Homo'. There is no link.

3. 'Jacko' as used by the press is obviously derived from 'Jackson', not from some obscure slang term hardly anyone has heard of.

I think what infuriates me more than the insanity of this twisted form of logic is the comments below the article such as - 'I feel that if it was racism, it was unintentional racism, mostly'. What the hell does that mean? I was going to comment there myself but I doubt I could keep my temper.

The world is full of idiots.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


It's midsummer's eve. Technically, since it's 2 am here, it's midsummer's day but the sun won't be fully up for another couple of hours. I always plan to stay up all night because this is a prime night for an investigation, but it's overcast and has been raining heavily. Again. For some reason, the weather here is lousy up to midsummer and improves afterwards. Every time I've stayed up on past midsummers, all I've seen is a lightening of the clouds. Tonight I won't bother.

My Calendar of Everything tells me that the solstice happens at 5:46 GMT (that'll be 6:46 because we're on British summer time, GMT plus one hour. The sun will have risen well before then.). The solstice does not refer to a time or place on Earth, but to a time and place in space. One of two points in the Earth's orbit when it is closest to the sun - the tilt of the axis means that the northern hemisphere gets midsummer and the southern hemisphere gets midwinter. Six months from now will be midsummer in the southern hemisphere and midwinter in the north. At the equator, it makes little difference.

This year I'm just going to sleep through it. The weather makes any attempt to capitalise on the date absolutely pointless and really pretty unpleasant. So I won't get any photos to show off.

Instead, here's something to go 'wow' at.

Now that's what I call photography.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Camera 2 view.

The first attempt went well so here's another.


I stuck with MPEG 1 because really, there's nothing detailed to see, no ghosts to spot and it takes ages to load bigger, better quality files. It's just a method demonstration (and a test of whether I can defeat the computer in this video fight). Again, it's short, in three parts: daylight, night and the point at which the string died. There is a lot of background noise from the heating system which is still on to a ridiculous level, and from equipment around the lab and in the building. I'll use better sound gear to try to pick out anything important. I don't think the video camera microphones are up to the job.

Camera 1 has a light which is set to come on when it gets dark. So, it flashes at first before staying on. I left it on because it gets so dark out there at night, no camera can see properly and if they can't see, they can't focus so all you get is blurry images. Camera 2 has the facility to turn off autofocus but Camera 1 doesn't. I don't quite trust the place enough to leave the expensive cameras when I'm not there - these old ones do the job well and they cost me very little. It's an isolated building, an easy target for a bit of night larceny.

Another irritation is the loss of the old plastic floppy disk. Transferring files using USB sticks or memory cards is, admittedly, handy because they take up little space and hold loads of data. It's just that you can't find any when you want one! I know there are loads of them around but I still had to open a new packet to transfer these.

The computer I use for photos and video is separate from this one, off the internet and with all the memory-clogging stuff removed. Offline, it doesn't need antivirus and firewalls getting in the way so even though it's a few years old it can handle video very well. It does mean I need to find some way to keep track of those USB sticks and memory cards though.

Now, the big question - are these videos causing download problems? If not, I'll try better quality settings. Blogger allows up to 100 Mb videos, these are about 10Mb. Or, I could put them on YouTube and just link to them.

Any preferences?

An experiment about an experiment.


I hope this works. If it does I'll post better quality video. This is a test post, really.

What the video shows is the view from Camera 1 on the night I tried out the electroluminescent string. No evidence of any ghosts, but that's okay. I wanted to see if the electric string was a viable and potentially useful device. In principle, it is. The batteries lasted eight hours, which is more than enough for most investigations.

The video is low-quality MPEG because I used the smallest file size possible for this test. The original is on VHS-C tape, transferred to the computer through an interface called 'Dazzle' and then edited with much swearing using the not-at-all-intuitive but actually pretty good software that came with it. You can just about see the shape of Camera 2 on its tripod on the right.

This edited bit has three sections, you'll see the time change in the bottom right of the screen when it moves between sections. The camera was on time-lapse so the seconds jump. First, in daylight at about 10:30 pm, then in darkness around 11 pm, then the point at which the electric string failed at about 3:30 am.

Assuming anyone can access this, I'll put up the Camera 2 view in better quality.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

New Olympic event: grave robbing.

I'm glad I'm not an archaeologist. Finding old coins and rusty swords would be great, but finding something like this would be far less great.

A hole containing 2000-year-old headless bodies might be exciting to those who are interested in such things, and I fully appreciate the need to research if we are ever to find out anything, but it's too close to Burke and Hare territory for my liking.

There is a distinction between archaeological finds like this and digging up fresh corpses, but where is the line? How long do you have to be buried before 'respect for the dead' expires and you become fair game for a museum collection?

It's not a career I'd do well in. My first instinct would be 'It's a grave. Cover it up and leave it alone'.

You never know when they might get annoyed.

Electric String.

I have never seen the point of infrared motion sensors. Particularly the kind that sound an alarm when they detect something. So what? Someone or something, perhaps a mouse, set off a motion sensor in a room nobody was in and no camera was filming. It means nothing. Besides, if ghosts set off infrared motion sensors, why aren't burglar alarms going off all over the place? They all use the same sensors.

The presence of a ghost is almost always accompanied by a reduction in temperature. They absorb heat, they don't reflect it. They will do the same with infrared. We need an alternative kind of motion sensor.

Sometimes they might appear on film. Or maybe not. If not, then filming any kind of sensor that covers a whole room is no use. Something out-of-shot could have triggered it. No, the detector must be completely in shot and only activated by something that's also in shot. Whether you can see the ghost or not on the film, the sensor must be arranged such that nobody out of shot could have affected it.

So I bought some electric string. Perhaps better known as flexible electroluminescent filament but I prefer to call it electric string. It's quicker. This is sold as a toy, really, and kids use it to light up their bikes or stitch along the sleeves of their jackets. What I have here is one battery-powered unit capable of running one to four electric strings. Each filament is about a metre long. I attached four. Cost, I don't remember but it was peanuts.

I tried this out last night. The battery box sat on a table in the middle of the room and the strings I set out in four directions to the walls. Then I set up two video cameras so that they could see the strings and each other. So, it was not possible to tamper with either the strings or the cameras without being caught.

The strings were not taut. They were loose enough so that anyone - alive or dead - brushing them would make them move. In this instance there was no movement but the night was not wasted. The batteries died after eight hours - I have it on film - and the electric string was visible throughout the night. So I know I have eight hours' worth of illuminated motion detector I can leave to check for movement when I'm not around, and since it's both filmed and illuminated I'll know for sure if a mouse moves it.

If I can work out how, I'll post some snippets of film. The video editing programs I have are designed for film makers and I'm not one, so it could take a day or two and some very, very bad words before I work out how to do it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A quick tip.

Some things you take for granted so much you never think to mention them.

One thing I always have handy are a few zip-lock plastic bags, in case of sudden dampness. Small items such as voice recorders can be sealed from the rain in seconds.

Last night I set up some cameras, indoors. When I returned today it was raining. So much water fell from the sky I thought a sea must have evaporated somewhere. So I decided to leave the cameras and take the tapes home. Even so, it was a hundred yards to the car park and I was certain to be soaked.

That's where the zip-lock bags came in handy. I was drenched but the tapes were fine. They are now being transferred to computer, which unfortunately means playing the whole tape. There's no quick way.

Zip-lock bags; cheap, almost weightless but indispensable.

A promising location.

Today I listened to a witness.

It wasn't an interrogation. I asked no questions and demanded no answers. It works like this.

I've been looking at a likely location for a while. I've heard sounds but seen nothing definite and so far, recorded nothing. Initially, I doubted the place was a haunting since I thought it was far too new and had no likelihood of deaths on the premises, no reason for a ghost to visit. I actually had it marked as a 'control' location where I could calibrate equipment with zero paranormal activity.

Today someone said 'This place is haunted, you know?'

Such volunteered information must be treated with caution. Never lead the witness on. Adopt a sceptical but not scornful attitude because the latter will silence them. Just listen and ask for details, always taking the fine line between credulity and derision. No encouragement and no discouragement. Just listen.

The place in question is noisy anyway. There's a heating system that permeates the place with a constant grinding and the occasional BANG-clatter-clatter. Pipes creak and groan as they heat and cool. There are voices that come after a ringing sound and say 'I'm afraid there's nobody here, but if you'd like to leave a message...'

There are other things.

This volunteer told of footsteps at night when nobody is around, banging doors, people feeling someone push past, cold spots. I have checked his descriptions with others in the place and they agree. Without prompting.

The place isn't as new as it looks. New roof, new facings on the walls, new double-glazed windows make it look modern but it's been here a long time. It used to be a watermill. I have yet to find how far back it goes.

What interested me particularly was the description of what others have experienced. Staying here late, I have not felt anyone push past but I have heard doors bang (all doors are closed and most are locked. I checked that myself), I have heard footsteps and I have felt cold spots. The main entry doors are locked with a code-lock. The place is ten miles out of town and you'd have to drive to get here at night. It's not the sort of place you pass on the way to anywhere.

I have set up cameras over a few nights but there is no light out here at all at night. No street lights or other outside lights. The cameras record black screens. Tonight I have set up a new form of motion detector. With two video cameras, both of which can see the illuminated detectors and, if I've aimed them right, each other. So any tampering with one camera will appear on the film in the other.

I'll describe the detectors later. With a lot of luck, I might even have evidence that they work.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Do cameras lie?

The short answer is 'no'. Cameras record the image they are pointed at, to a degree dependent on the available light and the abilities of the camera. They don't add anything or hide anything. The camera cannot lie.

Film reacts to much the same range of light as the human eye, although it's also pretty good at recording ultraviolet light that we can't see. That's why adding UV filters is a good idea because high levels of UV can cause a 'haze' which makes the picture look foggy. Plus, if you ever bash the end of your camera, a cheap UV filter is a much easier loss to bear than an expensive lens. Film isn't good at picking up infrared unless you use specific infrared film and filters - it's tricky stuff to use.

Digital cameras see well into the infrared and ultraviolet, far beyond the range of wavelengths the human eye can pick up so your digital camera can spot something that's invisible to you. Look into the end of your TV remote and press a button. You don't see a thing. Look at it through a digital camera and you'll see the IR light - because the camera sees it and displays it on its screen, but the screen shows it as a bright spot, not in infrared, so you can see it.

Cameras can't lie but they do sometimes show things outside our normal range of vision. Those things might or might not be paranormal. A IR-reflective pattern on a wall might look like a face, you won't see it but your camera will. Or it could be a ghost. How to tell? Well, if you take the same photo in the same place another time, and the face is exactly the same, it's probably just a pattern on the wall.

There are reasons to be cautious when using infrared lighting, and illuminating such patterns is just one of them. As it stands, IR lights are very useful because digital cameras can't see when there's no light at all. They can see perfectly well with IR illumination. Or UV, which has exactly the same potential problems. Most use IR because it's cheap and easily available, and UV can damage skin with long exposures.

One enterprising researcher has come up with the idea of using UV in combination with blue light, so he can see too. Blue lights in line with the UV means he'll know where his UV lights are pointing and keep out of their way. It also lends a low-level illumination, not enough to interfere with an investigation but enough to see where you're pointing your cameras. Blue LEDs are a cheap and portable light source. Somewhere, I have a small battery-powered set of these I used once for Christmas lights.

The guy with the new light source has a ghost photo here. Bottom left of the picture, there's a face emerging from a white blob which is, I suspect, his UV light reflecting on a pillar. What's missing is a photo of the scene in normal light which would show if there's any formation that could cause such an image, but it looks pretty good as it stands. The white blob does spoil it since it means there's a concentrated UV spot which could result in odd reflections so I hope he tries again.

The other thing about light and cameras is that it affects autofocus. Especially with older video cameras or small-lens ones, lack of light means the autofocus can't 'home in' on anything so pictures go in and out of focus while the camera searches for an image. This shows up in this link (thanks to SW for the tip) and it spoils what might have been a very good piece of film. Something is moving in shot, could be a ghost, could be a reflection, could be anything but the reaction of those present mean it's not just visible in the camera this time. They all saw and reacted to it. If only the camera had been set to manual focus. Most can do that, even my old JVC tape cameras can do it, as can the more modern hard-disk ones.

One of the comments on that link says they should buy top-of-the-range equipment or they 'won't be taken seriously'. I tend towards the opposite view, I don't take gadget-fads seriously. Just because my camera cost more than yours, doesn't mean the ghosts will only want to be photographed on mine and will refuse to be seen on yours. The cost of the camera is irrelevant, to a degree. A phone camera will never get a great photo of anything, the lens is too tiny and well, crap, and the pixel-range too small.

With cameras, optics are the most important thing. You need a wide lens for low light. A little lens won't let enough in so no matter how many megapixels are behind it, it won't be able to see much. Older, bulkier video cameras tend to have wider lenses and in most cases, really good ones. They are also very cheap on eBay, and cheap is good when most outings risk getting all your equipment soaked by rain.

Illumination is important in night photography but it doesn't have to be visible light. Your digital camera will work in UV and IR too. Having some low-level visible lighting sounds like a good idea - even with a previous daytime visit to look for potholes and trip hazards, sometimes you forget where they are.

Your camera can only tell you what it sees but always keep in mind that what it sees and what you see are not always the same. Its range of vision, especially digital, is far greater than yours. Your camera only sees what's illuminated, and they are designed for normal use. Trying to film in the dark with no lights is not normal use. Switch off autofocus and practise doing it manually.

You don't need top of the range equipment. You need to be in the right place at the right time and be fully conversant with what your camera can and can't do. Don't buy more complex equipment. Learn to use what you have to the best of its ability. Buying something that's even harder to use isn't going to help at all, especially if you have to scroll through menus while all around you, the paranormal goes unrecorded.

In this subject, luck is far more important than money.

Orbs In Space.

Activity in the paranormal has picked up all of a sudden. There's a lot of it about at the moment. First off, the UFOs. I'm no expert in this subject but it does appear to suffer from the same level of 'noise' as ghost research. There's just so much junk to sift through to find the real events.

NASA have released some footage taken in space that appear to show UFOs. Well, they are objects, they fly and they are unidentified so they are UFOs. That's the definition. Whether they are alien spacecraft, dust, debris or orbiting jellyfish thrown into space by a hurricane, nobody can say. They're in the news here as 'just released' but they've actually been around for years. The ones in this film look to be travelling upwards and might be some kind of craft - but if so there are a hell of a lot of them!

The cable shown in this film was used in an experiment to generate electricity. It broke loose, coiled itself up like a phone-wire and floated away - but I'll bet it was electrically charged by the time that happened. So it would attract all manner of floating bits and pieces in the same way that static electricity attracts bit of paper. The camera was unable to focus on the floating bits, and they looked, to me, like the orbs made famous by digital cameras. No, I don't think they are ghosts who hitched a ride on the space shuttle. I think they are bits of space junk. I think that way because there is no purpose to their movements. They look like bits of junk in an electrical field, not carefully controlled spacecraft.

The British government have also been letting the UFO files out. These have so far shown more about the government's obsession with secret spy planes than anything extraterrestrial. To be fair, the British government was only interested in whether the UFOs were enemy spy planes. If they weren't, they didn't investigate further.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, there's been a sighting of UFOs which look and act just like the paper lanterns with candles inside that you light and send floating into the night sky, but nobody seems to have thought of that. Even though there were twenty UFO's and the lanterns come in packs of ten...

There are still genuinely inexplicable accounts of UFOs out there, but finding them is next to impossible among the paper lanterns, hot-air ballons and dust. I sympathise with those study that subject. All that noise, all those wrong or even faked reports and photos, makes finding the real thing difficult and worse - it makes the whole subject area a target for derision.

If only there was some kind of filter.