Thursday, July 30, 2009


I'm going to be out of internet range for about a week, so if you leave a comment and I don't respond, I'm not being rude.

I'm being somewhere else.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mediums and recordings.

I watched a 'Most Haunted' episode set in Fort Delaware and was struck by something.

One of the apparitions they (once more) failed to capture on film was in the kitchen, where a woman comes in, lifts the lid of a pot, replaces it and then leaves. Many people have seen this and it's the same every time so I wouldn't call this a ghost. I'd call it a recording. The few who visit regularly will know that I differentiate between real spirit hauntings, where the spirit actually interacts with the living, and recordings that play back the same way each time like a TV rerun and don't interact because there is no actual ghost there.

The thing is, their medium picked up on the spirit of a woman in the kitchen and described what she did.

Now, this is the confusing part. I don't think a spirit medium could pick up a recording phenomenon. There's no spirit present to give them the information. It's just a recording.

But then, we are dealing with untested territory and indeed with matters for which there exists, as yet, no definitive scientific test at all.

So, there might be mediums who can only detect spirits, there might be mediums who can only detect recordings, and there might be those who can detect both. How would we know? In fact, how would the medium know?

If you're detecting something unseen by others and which you cannot measure against a defined scale because no such scale exists, how could you tell whether you were speaking to spirit, demon, or just watching a rerun?

I'm sure there are mediums out there who will say 'I just know, intuitively,' but for a scientist, that's not good enough. How do you know? What are the signs? How do you perceive the differences?

Seriously. I want to collect and analyse this information. There exists, currently, a vast number of theories of the paranormal and this situation can't continue. We really have to start to pin it down if science is ever going to be persuaded to treat the whole field as legitimate research.

So, if there are mediums reading, let me know.

If, by chance, the 'Most Haunted' team are reading, you might increase your chances if you employ people who don't run screaming every time a floorboard creaks or a moth lands on their arm. Just a suggestion.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The long, wet grass of home.

When the rain stops, this is a nice place to be. It doesn't stop often so when it did the other night, as I was heading home, I pulled over to take a photo. During the short dry spells, the constant buzz of lawnmowers can drive you to distraction as everyone scrambles to get their lawns cut before the rain comes back. I get around it by having less lawn, more slabs and gravel.

Yes, that's night. About 10 pm, as I recall.

I live somewhere in the distance ahead, just before the mountains of Mordor. No, I don't take the dirt track with puddles. I take the proper road on the right.

I'm not quite antisocial enough to put up with anything that far from civilisation!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Was that a real fake or a fake fake?

There is some overlap between those who insist everything paranormal is fake, and those who insist the moon landings were faked. It seems some people get so hooked on calling 'fake' they just don't know where to stop. Tinfoil hats have never sold so well.

There are a lot of fakes in every part of the paranormal - there are fake ghost photos aplenty, there are fake psychics, just think of anything to do with the paranormal and someone has faked it. The fakes are so numerous that it's easy, and from a layman's point of view even logical, to assume that it's all fake.

It's not all fake. There are so many fakes out there now, and some of them are so good at it, that it's far more difficult to prove any real incident because someone can replicate that effect by non-paranormal means and use that to claim it's all done that way. An amateur photoshopper can produce a fake ghost photo in minutes, but that does not prove that all ghost photos are fakes. Stage magicians can replicate psychic effects by fakery - and there are many active fakes out there claiming to be real - but that does not prove that all psychics are fakes. It proves the effects can be replicated, it does not prove every incident was done that way.

This, however, is about a non-faked event that has been widely claimed to have been faked. An allegedly reputable British newspaper has even gone so far as to publish a list of ten reasons why the Moon Landings were faked. In case the link doesn't work outside the UK, here they are, with my responses:

1) When the astronauts are putting up the American flag it waves. There is no wind on the Moon.

There is no wind on the Moon, but there is a wire running along the top of the fabric flag. Otherwise it would just flop against the post. When they put it up, it waves because they are moving a flexible flag suspended on a wire. It does not move after that.

2) No stars are visible in the pictures taken by the Apollo astronauts from the surface of the Moon.

It was daytime on the Moon. They used film cameras to photograph an extremely bright foreground. If you take a photo of a scene on a starry night, and you have some form of lighting for that scene, you won't photograph any stars. You certainly won't photograph any during the day. If you were on the Moon, where sunlight is not attenuated by the atmosphere, the brightness of the foreground will mean setting the aperture to a small hole. Starlight will not register on the film. If there were stars in the photos, I would wonder if they were fake. That there are no stars is entirely to be expected. (To photograph stars, you need a very long exposure and a motor that moves the camera as the Earth rotates, or you'll just get streaks. Oh, and you have to do it at night).

3) No blast crater is visible in the pictures taken of the lunar landing module.

The module weighed 17 tons. The downforce of its rocket would have blown away dust from the underlying rock. If there were no underlying rock, the thing would have sunk into the ground. There isn't a crater but there is a radius of blown-away dust, and it's much bigger than the lunar module so it's hard to see. Since there is no air, the dust won't be carried away as on Earth, it'll fall straight back down. So the module is sitting on a rock with a thin layer of dust left on it.

4) The landing module weighed 17 tons and yet sat on top of the sand making no impression. Next to it astronauts’ footprints can be seen in the sand.

Sand? There is no sand on the Moon because sand is produced by weathering of rocks and there is no weather on the Moon. See 3). The module did not land on dust (sand), it landed on rock. That was deliberate. They had plans to go home, remember, and they won't have wanted to have to dig the ship out first.

5) The footprints in the fine lunar dust, with no moisture or atmosphere or strong gravity, are unexpectedly well preserved, as if made in wet sand.

It's not sand and it's not wet. It's fine dust. There is no air to form a breeze to move the dust. There are no worms or insects to disturb it. It never rains. Unless a meteorite hits those footprints, they'll last for ages. They might still be there now. If there were moisture and air, they'd have fallen apart very quickly. Gravity is not relevant to this part of the argument at all.

6) When the landing module took off from the Moon’s surface there is no visible flame from the rocket.

Why would there be? Flames form because of combustion with oxygen. There is none on the moon. You can see flames from a rocket engine in Earth's atmosphere because residual fuel is burning in the air. That can't happen on the moon. All combustion takes place within the rocket engine and any leftover fuel cannot burn once outside the engine.

7) If you speed up the film of the astronauts walking on the Moon’s surface they look like they were filmed on Earth and slowed down.

(sigh) So if you speed up a film, it looks like it was filmed at speed and then slowed down before showing it to anyone? You can make the same claim about 'Gone with the Wind'. The astronauts were still human when they landed on the Moon, they still moved like humans, but under lower gravity they had to make those movements slowly or they'd have hurt themselves. Imagine waking up tomorrow and finding out you're six times as strong as you are now. Try to pick up a cup as you always have, and it'll shatter in your hands.

8) The astronauts could not have survived the trip because of exposure to radiation from the Van Allen radiation belt.

Here is the Van Allen belt. And here's the simple answer. They didn't go naked. The amount of shielding required was calculated from experiments and that amount of shielding was used. That's why the ship looks like it's covered in tinfoil. It was. You could have made a lot of hats out of the shielding they used.

9) The rocks brought back from the Moon are identical to rocks collected by scientific expeditions to Antarctica.

One. The Moon formed from the Earth. It's much the same rock. Two. These will be the scientific expeditions to look for meteorites that might be moon fragments, yes? The clue is in the weathering. Moon rocks might have the same composition as Earth rocks but they have not been weathered by wind, rain, ice or sea. The ones found in Antarctica might have been. It depends how long they were there. Besides, why aren't the moon rocks the same as the gravel you can buy in a garden centre? If it was all a fake, they would be.

10) All six Moon landings happened during the Nixon administration. No other national leader has claimed to have landed astronauts on the Moon, despite 40 years of rapid technological development.

No other nation has bothered to try. The Russians sent up a robotic ship, there have been a few moon probes from other nations, but the expense of sending more people to the Moon can't be easily justified. Besides, we've seen photos of it. The whole place is a dump. There's nothing on that rock worth having. If the astronauts had found lumps of gold or pools of oil, you can bet the entire thing would be populated by now. Nobody else has gone because there's nothing there but rocks, dust, and an American flag and you can get all those things here.

Nixon was a bit dodgy, yes, but he didn't run the space programme. He paid someone else to do it. This is the 'fake by association' game - because Nixon did a few dodgy deals, everything that happened in the whole of America while he was in charge is therefore a fake. It's a ploy I'm very familiar with because it's the same as 'I have a hundred fake ghost photos so all ghost photos are fake'.

What these people can't seem to get their heads around is that the Moon is a different place. It has no air so there's no wind. If the flag moved in the wind, the footprints would have been filled in by wind-blown dust. If the footprints aren't affected, there's no wind, so the flag can't have moved. The arguments are not even logically consistent!

The moon landings really happened. People worked out how to build bridges and tall spires before the invention of cranes, they explored the north and south poles long before the invention of flight, even before the internal combustion engine. Dickens wrote his novels long before the invention of the word processor. Modern technology is all very nice but it was not essential for any of those things, nor was a mega-gigahertz computer with enough disk space to store all the information in a country and fifteen gigabytes of memory necessary to run the lunar module.

They piloted it, you see. People can do that.

People can do a lot of things if they just get off their backsides and stop pretending the world is full of weaklings like themselves.

I despair. The whole world has gone soft.

Reading matter.

The summer is here because the rain is warm and the thunder is louder than usual. It's infuriating but this is Britain and the weather ignores instructions from forecasters as a matter of tradition.

So I have ordered some books, which have now arrived.

Night's Black Agents by Daniel Ogden promises a view of the ancient world's approach to witches and the dead. We shall see. The book of English magic, by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate is a weighty tome, even in paperback. That'll take a while.

So. Reading in the rain sounds good for the time being.

Inside, naturally.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Thriller reprise?

(Thanks to Southern Writer for the tip-off).

The video here claims to show Michael Jackson's ghost at his Neverland ranch. What we actually see is a human-shaped shadow at the end of the corridor, crossing from left to right.

There are a number of possibilities.

It could have been added by a clever editor. It's clear that the presenter saw nothing and there's no suggestion that the cameraman noticed anything at the time. It's certainly possible to fake a video like that. That does not prove it's a fake. It's just one possibility and one that must always be considered.

The camera is looking along the corridor at a brightly lit room. It's daytime so it's safe to assume that the light is coming through the windows. The shadow could be that of someone walking past a window and casting their shadow on the wall. The walker would be out of sight, but the light could cast their shadow across the wall and make it appear to move across the screen. This could be easily tested if we knew what time the film was taken, because the sun would have to be at the right angle to produce the right height of shadow. There's also the possibility of light reflected from a mirror so we'd need to know the layout of that room as well as the time of day.

It could be internal reflection in the camera lens, picking up movement from one side of the camera as a shadow, but I would hope that TV cameras would have good enough quality lenses to avoid that.

It could be a ghost, of course. If so, that doesn't mean it's Michael Jackson. All we have is a shadow.

A very interesting video nonetheless, although I doubt any ghosthunter can be persuasive enough to run an investigation in Neverland so we'll probably never know.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Ethics, the scientist's hell.

Ethical committees serve a vital purpose. They ensure that scientists don't get to graft people's heads onto pig's bodies or jam needles under your fingernails to measure the decibels in your screams. I should say from the outset that I am in favour of ethical committees in general. There does need to be a screen between the public and the genuinely emotionless scientist. Most of us are a bit nuts, in one way or another.

In my case, if I wanted to investigate a haunting in a hospital, say, I would have to make sure I wasn't going to scare elderly patients to death by wandering around in the dark with a camera. I would have to guarantee not to mention why I was there to patients, some of whom would be frightened into a state requiring a continuous supply of bedpans by being trapped in a haunted building (whether it was a real haunting or not) and guarantee not to get in the way of the hospital's actual purpose, which used to be healing people but now seems more involved with making money and handing out new diseases.

Anyway. The point is I would have to ensure that whatever I was investigating, nobody would be harmed, upset or inconvenienced. That's fair enough. Pretending to be a surveyor working at night to investigate the effects of night-cooling on the building was always a good cover in such situations unless you happen across the retired surveyor in Ward 12 who insists on following you around and telling you you're doing it wrong... but that's a different story.

Not so long ago, a submission to an ethical committee consisted of one or two pages - a brief outline of what you plan to do, who might be affected and how you propose to avoid anyone being affected.

Now, an ethical submission is the size of a damn thesis. Every irrelevant detail you can think of is in there. It takes months to get a response which is inevitably 'revisions needed' and then you find that the cretin who asked for the pointless revisions has gone on holiday for a month and won't remember what he asked for when he gets back and then when he does read it he asks for more revisions until you're submitting something that looks exactly like the first version... and then it's accepted. Until someone notices something when you're halfway through the job and stops it for revisions. I am amazed that none of these people have yet been found dismembered in the woods.

Sorry about the random outbursts of rage. It's past midnight and still 30C (about 85F) here. People are melting in the streets. Long-haired dogs are spontaneously exploding. We get about a week or so of this every year. I think it's to stop us complaining about the snow in winter.

Our government hate the rainforests and are determined to destroy them, page by page. There is at least a tree's worth of paper wasted with each of these ethical applications now and there's only one reason. The red-tape brigade have swelled in numbers and each layer of them have to justify their existence by adding some more questions to the form.

It made me wonder. On an apparently unrelated note, I remember an author relating a story. Can't remember his name but he wrote cowboy stories. In one, he had a character pull a Colt 45, and he said the letters came pouring in. He had set the story two years before the Colt 45 was invented. At that time, revolvers were loaded with powder and ball, not cartridges.

I wouldn't have noticed but his readers did. He had to be accurate.

So what about the ethics committees? If Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein now, the book would open with his first ethical submission and end with his 350th revision being rejected and the good Doctor taking up a career as a plumber. It wouldn't make much of a film.

Doctor Jekyll would spend the entire book filling out risk assessments, Van Helsing could not possibly get ethical approval to drive a stake through a corpse so Dracula would win. In 'Alien'. the crew would need to wait for, and respond to, the ethical committee's response before fighting the alien.

If the reality of modern ethical committees ever gets into fiction, expect some extraordinarily boring books and films in future.

Fortunately, abandoned buildings require no ethical assessment. If I was working for someone else, I'd have a raft of health-and-safety and risk assessments to fill out. As it is, I don't.

All I have is common sense. So far I have suffered no ill effects from the absence of paperwork.