Monday, October 25, 2010

The Mind Lamp, $190.00 well... spent

I first heard about the Mind Lamp from Matthew Smith, when he posted a link on his Facebook.  The article he linked to, which was at BusinessInsider.com, made me furrow my eyebrows.  Let me give you a glimpse of what I saw.

MILLION-DOLLAR IDEA: Lamp That Can Read Your Mind - It Turns The Color You're Thinking About

By Eunju Lie


Is today's idea brilliant or a bomb?
The Idea: The Mind Lamp is a $189 electric lamp with a random-event generator (REG) built in. When plugged in, the lamp gives off a white light before cycling through eight other colors.  It then stays on the one that you're thinking about.
Mind Lamp: 60-Minute Time Lapse from Psyleron on Vimeo.

You can read the rest of he article here.
Quite a statement, huh?  If I were a parapsychologist, I would gift one of these to every major skeptic I knew.  "Dear James Randi, I know we've had our differences in the past..."  
Of course, the article didn't answer any of the questions that automatically popped up in my mind.  What percentage of the time does this work?  How long does it stay on the target color?  How long does it take to reach it?  I don't know if you're like me, but I hate the feeling of a writer ignoring my most pressing questions.  It's one of the few things that can get me to voluntarily go and research something, often with a frown and tension in my spine, waiting for the pressure of the mystery to be relieved.
The Mind lamp doesn't seem to be on Wikipedia, even though it's been around for at least a year.  So I went to the official website, and found some stuff about random-event-generators and stuff that, if I already knew the lamp worked, might be interesting.  Maybe.  
And then I found the BoingBoing Gadgets review entitled, "Review: A few days w/ the Mind Lamp [verdict:trippy]"  Well, that's more exciting than anything I had looked at before, not only because I had found someone who had bought and used the thing, but because the verdict was the ever-suggestive trippy.  
The experience relayed in that article was not that trippy, though.  Steven Leckart describes failing at producing the desired effect a couple of times, and then perceiving an effect later, but only when he wasn't paying close attention.  Don't rely on my spin, of course, read the article yourself.
It at least answered the question of what the Mind Lamp experience is.  The lamp doesn't, as the first article I read suggested, simply "Stay on the one you're thinking about."  If it does work, it takes some practice, and apparently some meditation classes.  If it doesn't... 
If it doesn't work, you'll still get people telling you that it does, to put it plainly.  I've never seen the device, never tried to focus my mind on orange, or green.  I do know, though, that if it was run by a random-event generator, and, for whatever reason, it did not respond to our thoughts, there would still be just enough coincidences, in the form of, 
"It worked the third time," 
or 
"It definitely worked over half the time," 
or, 
"I thought about blue for a while, and then when I thought about red it went blue!" 
or 
"I could tell when I was really focused, because then it usually worked," 
that it would be a marketable product.  
I'm not saying it doesn't work.  As I've said, I haven't spent the $190.00 to become a pioneer.  All I'm saying is that it doesn't have to work.  Because even if it didn't work, I'm sure it would still work fine.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mistaking manatees for mermaids

Beautiful image created by Esther Kirby (flickr link)
Manatees are beautiful, elegant animals, their grace matched only by their charm.  Their powerful, sleek bodies inspire wonder in boaters as pods of them race alongside fast-moving vessels.

Or, is that dolphins?

Either way, manatees are sea creatures, so it leaves them open to being mistaken for other sea creatures.  Mermaids, for instance.

I don't know if you've heard this, but it's often cited that old sailor's tales of mermaids were actually based on sightings of manatees.  This story has a wonderfully absurd feel to it.  How, after all, did they mistake these bulky, slow, not-getting-a-date-for-prom sea mammals for halfway beautiful heart breakers of the sea?  It's a common stereotype that sailors get notoriously horny when between ports, so how much pent up lust does it take for a man to mistake a sea-cow for a possibly-consenting fish-like partner?

I guess my real question is, who figured this out?  After a sailor came to port with tales of pruny-fingered women of the deep, who fact-checked him?  The subject of his story is still in the far reaches of the ocean.  Was there a weak-armed bubble-burster on board who re-identified the creature, and then, when the boat landed, told everyone about how he had out-smarted the other sailors?

Let me tell you what I think, because you knew I would.  I don't think anybody that hasn't eaten a good ounce of magic mushrooms is going to see a mermaid when looking at a sea-cow.  It has zero of the markers that would indicate a mermaid.  The front half doesn't look like a woman, the back half doesn't look like a fish, and it's slow, casual movements will never remind anyone of anything but a sea-cow.

I honestly don't know where the belief that mermaids were actually manatees came from, and if someone came up with it in a quick spurt of whack-a-mole debunking, I have to wonder why the individual chose, of all of the creatures in the sea, the manatee as a mermaid stand-in.  But his conclusion apparently can't be that absurd, because people love quoting it to each other, never considering that it's likely not true.

I mean, maybe, if you're feeling sarcastic, a submerged manatee looks a little like a beautiful woman.  Maybe a PT Cruiser looks like a bigfoot.  And, in a hundred years, when that sentence has bled out of this blog, and into the society, people will be looking back, thinking about how silly it was that we mistook the strange-looking car for the missing link, and not considering that it probably never happened.

On a related note, read a curious story from 2009 about mermaid sightings off the coast of Israel.  I don't believe that the creature sighted is a mermaid (though wouldn't that be exciting?) but I believe just as strongly that it was not a manatee.  More on this story later, when it's even further out of date.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 18, 2010

When climate change becomes personal

A 2010 poll conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication have revealed some trends in belief that aren't that surprising.  2,030 American adults were polled, and asked questions about climate change. Not hard ones, either.  It turns out, about 45% of the people polled understood that CO2 traps heat, and 57% understood that this is what's referred to as the greenhouse effect.  Wait a minute...

Anyway, there's a lot of information (and please take a look at it yourself, as you have the freedom to do so), but the end result is that Americans (I am one of these) get a big F on knowledge about the shift of the climate.

But can you blame us?  Not only do we have a lot of misinformation going around, and neither the time nor the attention span to sort through it, but, even if this issue is knocking on our door, it hasn't yet put its muddy boots on our couch.  What I'm saying is, however immediate of a problem climate change is, it's not as immediate as paying for Alicia's Karate classes, or picking up Robert from the airport.  Summers are still hot, winters are still cold, and climate change is, to most of us, just a thing on the news.

Call me a pessimist, but I don't think that any real effort is going to be put forth by the public until it's too late.  And what I mean by real effort is, do you know how sometimes you think you're trying your best to, say, clean up the house, but then you hear that the in-laws are coming over in thirty minutes, and you're suddenly a coked-out Mr. Clean?  We're not good judges of our own potential, and nearly all of the time that we think we're giving something our best effort, we later find out that we were actually half-assing it.

So, when will we start really caring, with our full attention, about the climate, and our impact on the environment?  When will we stop pretending that carrying a half-dozen reusable shopping bags in the trunk of our hybrid is going to change a thing?  Especially if we forget them before we go into the store.

The day we stop tearing down mountains to get at the ore hidden underneath, stop putting walls across rivers, stop laminating the soil with endless asphalt, and do away with the idea of healthy population growth... well, I'm just afraid that it will be a very dark day.  A day when a Florida hurricane doesn't stop blowing until it's over Nebraska.  A day when people can't move to a northern state, because they're all frozen over.  A day when our crops stop flowering, and we just plain don't know why.

I'm not into fear mongering.  I'm actually a fairly laid-back person.  However, while I do have faith in people, as individuals, I don't have much faith for people as a society.  When I try to think of how far it will have to go before climate change becomes an immediate concern--something that's as important to day-to-day life as repairing the dishwasher--I can't picture it.

People make speculations all the time as to what it will look like when it gets really bad, but no matter how many PhDs the person has, or how many TV shows they've been on, it's all guessing.  We can no more predict the future of our climate than we can predict next weeks Lotto numbers.  It's too complex.  The only thing that we can predict is that, if you consider consistency and stability good, it probably won't be good.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

NASA photoshopping images of space?

Image taken from foxnews.com, but really from NASA
NASA-watching conspiracy theorists found something to latch onto recently when one of them noticed that NASA's picture of the day, when the contrast was increased, had received some very obvious touching up.  The image of Saturn's moons apparently had something very large behind the smaller moon, Dione, which the space agency had effectively erased.  What are they trying to hide?

The evidence, posted by NASA itself, and fed through your own image-editing program, is fairly compelling.  Around the blacked-out pixels, a green and red aurora can be seen.

Well, how is the dark and conspiratorial National Aeronautics and Space Administration going to spin this one?  We caught them red handed, editing their own images, after all.  The official explanation, against all expectation, turned out to be entirely reasonable.  The image had to be photoshopped, because the Cassini probe takes photographs with a green filter, a red filter, and a blue filter, one at a time (not good for birthday parties) and the objects pictured were in motion relative to the camera.  So the person working on the images had to take the full-color image of one moon, and paste it onto the full-color image of the other moon, painting over the red and green version of Dione.  To me, this explanation fits the evidence provided perfectly.  And I'm glad, because if there was a space ship behind that moon, it would have to be bigger than Dione itself, which is about seven thousand miles across.  I think that deserves an anxious emoticon.  : /

Once again, the excited boy in me is disappointed by cold, boring reality.  This time a photographic process curbed my enthusiasm, but in the past it has also happened because of specs of dust, dreams, and people who are simply dishonest.

And, every time there is something like this photograph, something that is quite compelling, and really makes you wonder, and then that thing gets (I won't say debunked) shown to be more ordinary, it highlights the fact that there's so little really compelling evidence out there.  Our videos of UFOs are all taken from thousands of feet away, the best video of a little gray alien we have is an admitted hoax, then there's the Oliver's Castle video, which I've already discussed.  Our best bigfoot video, our best Nessie photograph.  Miss Cleo.  Milla Jovovich.

I want something I don't believe in to be true.  I want the laws of nature to somehow result in telepathy, or for an alien civilization to, as it turns out, be visiting us frequently, and to finally decide that they want a guest spot on the Tonight Show.  I want to be able to change the channel with my mind.

How many animals have been filmed as rarely as Bigfoot?  I would expect the Planet Earth crew to at least have found one by now.

So I guess I'll just sit, and read the various paranormal news blogs on the web.  And when  Barack Obama finally declares that the politicians have been shooting pool with the extra-terrestrials since the forties, I'm going to wait on the champagne for a week or so, because I'm sure, the next day, someone is going to prove that the speech was not given by the president, but by a man in a Barack Obama costume.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Getting into Heaven

I was raised religious, and at the age of ten was pretty sure that most people were going to Hell.  Getting into Heaven, after all, seemed to be just a little harder than getting into MIT.  People would sell it to me like it was not that hard, but I could read between the lines.

I would be sitting in Sunday school, or talking to one of my fellow church kids, perhaps the scripture-worm that grew up in the Ned Flanders house, and was so religious that it was just a tiny bit awkward for the rest of us.  I would hear

"There's only one thing God isn't able to do.  He can't let sin into Heaven."

"Wait... what?"  As I understand, your sins pretty much stick to you like burrs, and you have to ask for forgiveness to get them cleaned off.  This brings up the very practical problem of dying after you've recently sinned.

Say you haven't asked for forgiveness since before bed last night, and you coveted your neighbor's wife at about noon today (she does, after all, make him steak every Wednesday).  This is the sort of question the preacher won't take too seriously.  After all, we're talking about your lifestyle, we're talking about eternity, we're not talking about fine print that your lawyer can argue over the pearly gates.  This is real life, though, and even the best of us is likely to die with a sin or two stuck to the legs of our pants, and it's a serious question that deserves a serious answer.  That is, unless you want a seriously shitty afterlife.

There's also the assumption that you can't ask for forgiveness after you die.  Would that be cheating, or does a confession even count when you're a spirit?

Christianity, to me, always seemed to be more about the letter of the law than the spirit of it.  It was reiterated to me, many times, that you would be very surprised at who is in Hell.  In other words, you can be a good person, but unless you did this, and avoided this, you're not going to have a good time after you die.

This whole getting-approved-for-heaven thing has always seemed too much like a scam.  If you happen to die with a clean slate, based on these rules, then you get to live here, where it's always sunny, and the lions are as friendly as can be, and you can continue to not sin* for an eternity.

Well, who's getting in?  Not the Muslims, or the Buddhists, or the Hindus.  Not the aboriginal nature-lovers or the polytheists.  Nobody before zero AD (because no Christ means no Christianity).  No atheists.  Definitely no Scientologists.  None of those unlucky boatless legion that couldn't kick their legs for forty days during the great flood.  Plenty of good Christians have probably done some sins that they're not that regretful about, so nix them.  And I sure hope you didn't want an attractive person sexually between praying last night and getting hit by a truck this afternoon.  You are tainted by the very urges you are burdened with.  I think Saint Peter's job as Heaven's bouncer must be an easy one.  "Nobody gets in except for the big guy, and he comes in the back door."

I think we've been duped.  Just like getting taken in by the "Get a Free iPad!" banners, we've entered into a contract that we can't follow through with, and our very bodies, supposedly created by God himself, are our biggest enemy on the insurmountable climb to perfection.

God doesn't want us in Heaven.  That's where he keeps all of his stuff.  If we were wandering around in his domain we would probably leave hand prints, grimy with sin, all over his nice white couch and flat screen TV.  He wants us to be good, though, so we sign the contract, hoping that if we do this, this and this, he'll let us visit.  But there's only one key to that door, and he's not getting copies made any time soon.

That is assuming, of course, that the Christian God exists.  From what I've heard about him throughout my life, though, I hope he doesn't.  Sinful or not, he doesn't sound like a good person.

*I think that some sin is good, in moderation.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The alternative to science

I sometimes wonder, if there does happen to be a God, if he's frustrated about how much we know.  He gave us eyeballs, so we can see sunsets, dropoffs and wild boars, and somehow we know about dna, atoms and quarks.  He gave us legs to get around, and we're flying across the world 30,000 feet above sea level.  He gave us mouths to talk, and we're communicating with computers that God himself would probably be impressed by.

These brains, that he probably thought were good enough so we could make rakes and spears, have gotten us a long way out of the savannas and mud huts.  We do things that should be impossible daily, breezing through at least fifty miracles just to get ready for work.

Human ingenuity has gotten us here, but it wouldn't have gotten us this far without science.  Science is modern magic, giving us as much awe and wonder as Zeus with his lightning bolts.  For how important science is to our modern lifestyle, most of us (this includes me) know pitifully little about it.

A friend of mine once said that the science fiction and fantasy genres are interchangeable, that the role that magic plays in one, technology plays in the other.  I'm not entirely on board with the basic premise, but there is some truth to the statement.  To we lay people, there doesn't seem to be much science can't do.  We don't always think of the research process, the grants, the journals, the trial-and-error, the trying to turn hypothesis into theory.  We just think of the end results.

Science isn't technology, even though it often uses technology, and sometimes results in new technology.  Science is just the narrowing-down of truth.  It's getting rid of all of the alternative explanations until you seem to be left with only one, and then seeing if that one conforms to reality.

It's easy to get irritated with the scientific process, especially when results are slow in coming, biased for political reasons, or when the accepted paradigm gets turned over, and it turns out that everyone has been thinking the wrong thing for the last twenty years.  Not to mention that the very cool-hearted impartiality that science embraces can be off-putting, as in the case of vivisection, or, for some, stem-cell research.

If you want the truth, though, science is necessary.  In its most basic form, science arises naturally in our behavior, when we're investigating who knocked down the vase, or who was it that wanted you to call them back.  Almost every day, there's occasion to gather evidence, cross possibilities off of your list, and even--like putting a dog treat on the counter to see if the puppy can even get up there--experimentation.

Even if you frown on some scientists, or some experiments, you should never frown on science in general, because it's just a part of being human.  It's not the opposite of paranormal belief, it's not the opposite of religious belief.  It's the opposite of guessing.  It's the opposite of assuming everything, knowing nothing, and learning only the most basic of facts.  Knowing the leaf falls, but not knowing why, nor wondering why.  Because once the wondering process starts, discovery is inevitable.

The alternative is the blissfully ignorant life of your pet, or the woodpecker in the back yard.  A life of love and loss, a life of survival and the gradients between desire and contentment.  Perhaps a satisfying life.  But a life in a world no bigger than your own stomping grounds, with no knowledge, or interest, of what's over the hill.

And maybe it's because I am a human, and I'm built to wonder, but I couldn't live that way.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Start dowsing today!

When I was maybe ten, I was at my grandparents' house, and there were some aunts and uncles there, as there tended to be during that time period.  One of them called me into the living room, and handed me two L-shaped pieces of wire hangers, about a foot long, with the short part of the L being handles.  They told me that something was hidden in the living room, and that I was supposed to hold the two pieces of wire loosely, by their handles, with the length of them pointing forward, and then I was supposed to follow where they pointed, to lead me to the hidden object.

I don't remember how conclusive the results were, but they couldn't have been that good, because I remember them talking about how well it worked for my cousin, which sounds a little like they needed to change the subject.  This was my first encounter with dowsing.

Different people have varying definitions about what dowsing is, but there are some common elements.  A dowser is someone who uses an instrument that relies on physics to gain information.  So, in this definition, a tarot-card reader is not a dowser, but someone scrying with a pendulum, walking around with a forked stick, or using the L-shaped wire hangers like in my example, is a dowser.

And addendum to that definition would be that the feedback from the dowser's instrument/s seems always to rely on the minute, unconscious movement of the muscles.  Called the ideomotor effect, it's what makes the pendulum swing, and what makes the tensed branch dip.  Our minds dictate these movements, even if we're not causing them intentionally.  Contrary to popular belief, most popular writing on the subject does not contradict this.  Most instructional books on dowsing seem to come from the point of view that, yes, our subconscious is moving the objects, through our muscles, but since our subconscious is connected to the rest of the universe, it's still a good source of info.

You can do it yourself, with no practice, and at no cost to you.  I encourage you to, even sitting in front of my blog.  Go find a nut (not a bolt, but a nut) and maybe a foot and a half of fishing line, or thread. Tie the heavy one to the end of the long one.  You now have a pendulum, and are ready to tap into the knowledge of the universe.

Grab the length of string between your finger and thumb, and put your elbow on the desk.  Bend your wrist so that the string is hanging parallel to your forearm, and the nut is about an inch from the surface of the desk.  Following me so far?  Now (and keeping a straight face, you silly skeptics) tell your fancy new pendulum something with your mind.  Start with, "Pendulum, please swing counter-clockwise."  I'm not sure if it's psychologically important that you address it as pendulum, but that's what I did.

It's important that you try your hardest to keep your hand still.  When the thing starts to swing, as it likely will, it should be pretty surprising.  Once you've had it swing counterclockwise, and clockwise, and along the x axis and the y, it's time to start getting more information than you put in.  It's at this point that the whole things starts breaking down for me.

You may not expect it to give you the lottery numbers, or tell you what the neighbor is watching on TV, but as I experimented with this I was at least interested in whether it could tell me what I already knew, but was unable to remember.  Things that, if my unconscious mind is the sponge it's supposed to be, should be in there.  I tried to remember where I had put my headphones, and, using the pendulum, narrowed it down to within a foot of my bedroom television.  Well, unless I'm quite blind, that was a miss.  For how fascinating it is to watch the thing swing on command, when it came to practical applications it stopped impressing me pretty quickly.

Maybe it's because I'm a skeptic, and I'm resistant to things that are just a little too nifty.  I can't say.  Feel free to email me with any dowsing stories you've got.  It seems like something that taps into the unconscious mind should have some practical applications, but I have never had any luck on that front.

So, there you have it.  If you've followed my directions, you have a firsthand understanding of the ideomotor effect, and you can test, yourself, in your living room, whether dowsing works.  I'd say that, with that kind of opportunity, you shouldn't enter another single debate on the subject until you've tried it.  Because, of course, an ounce of experience is worth a pound of speculation.

And all it costs is a nut and a string.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Fabrication Post - October 5, 2010

The following is not true.

When I was a kid, I had a friend that everyone thought was pretty strange, but being that I was a bit of a geek, and a bit outside of any recognized social circles, we got along fine.  His name was Darren, and I didn't think he was strange at all.  I was friends with him until I was about twelve, and he ended up moving with his parents to Arizona, and I never really heard from him again.  The internet wasn't really a thing at the time, and I wasn't one to write letters.  Our friendship ended the way friendships ended for me during childhood, quickly and cleanly.

Well, I was visiting my mom about a month ago, and I found an old picture from a birthday party, and there was Darren.  I had completely forgotten about him until I saw that picture.  Especially the way that he looked.  There was something a little off about it his face, which I hadn't really noticed when I was a kid, but everyone else had.  I guess he was probably handicapped in one way or another.  Not Downs Syndrome, but something that changes the way you look.  His eyes were too big.

The strangest part about seeing his face again is that I realized I have been dreaming about Darren pretty frequently.  For instance, I had a dream that I was driving a small car across an impossibly long, impossibly tall bridge, and he was the guy that was sitting next to me, talking to me.  Or, in one dream I was playing tennis, and he was the guy watching.  Not exciting dreams, but my point is that I had completely forgotten about this kid, and now the grown-up version of him is appearing in just about every dream I have.

One thing I have noticed is that, if this guy touches me in my dream, let's say he reaches out and pokes my arm, I wake up sore in that spot.  I sometimes get bruises, or little triangular dots where he contacted me in a dream.  Of course, I'm sure the mind can create bruising as well as it can do anything else, but it's unnerving.  I've been waking up after a full night's sleep feeling dead tired lately, barely able to do my blog, barely able to shower or even eat breakfast. And when I think about it, all I can think about is Darren, with the big eyeballs and the small chin.  Thinking about him makes me feel nervous, and I'm not entirely sure why.  I have this urge to move out of town, to escape my dreams, which doesn't make a ton of sense, but the urge is strong.  

I found his Facebook profile last week, and there he is, just like in my dreams.  He moved back to town, and works as a truck driver.  In his profile picture, he's sitting in front of his computer desk, the picture not taken with a webcam, but taken with the computer sitting in the background.  You can see out the window behind him, and the strange thing is that it almost looks like his house is where my house should be.  As in, you can see my across-the-street neighbor, with the blue mailbox with flowers growing out of it, and the little yeild sign with the squirrels on it, and it looks like they're right across the street from him.  It's just a couple of little centimeters in the corner of the image, but I've racked my brain over it a lot.

I haven't got the balls yet to add him, but I'm sure it's inevitable.  

Monday, October 4, 2010

A message for those that debunk

I've never debunked anything in this blog. I'm not saying it will never happen, but it never has, and I'm not in a hurry to scratch that off of my to-do list.

provocative image
One thing that I do here is to give possible explanations for things that can balance out the seemingly impossible explanations given by others. Maybe your bigfoot is a man in a suit. Maybe your balls of light are computer generated. Maybe your out-of-body experience is a very interesting kind of dream. If I have to believe it, then I'll believe it. If I don't have to, however, then I'm not going to make that leap.

Unfortunately, if you were to take one of these posts, add a bit of name-calling, and then type "Case closed" at the end, you'll have something that looks like what you might expect from many of today's professional skeptics.

A few examples:

"For those who may need further evidence for my contention, the proof can be found at http://tinyurl.com/ye9d9lp -- where it is clearly seen that the “facilitator” is looking directly at the keyboard, while the subject is asleep!" (link)
-James Randi

"She also owns the copyright to Ramtha and conducts sessions in which she pretends to go into a trance and speaks Hollywood’s version of Elizabethan English in a guttural, husky voice." (link)
-skepdic.com

"I kid you not; for some reason the best way to deliver this wonder drug is through the well-established time-honored drug delivery system that is the soles of our feet. This is so ridiculous I don’t even know where to begin." (link)
-Bart Farkas

My fellow skeptics may not see any real problems with the preceding excerpts, but a fan of any of these stories may find one or more of those statements offensive.  And I think this is the gulf that should be bridged.  Are we just entertaining other skeptics?  Or are we writing to educate those that will listen?  Who is your target audience?  Who comments in your blog?  Where does your traffic come from?

When you start with the assumption that a belief is silly, and then go from there, you've already lost your most important audience.  Talking to those you disagree with, rather than joking with those who are on your side, takes awareness, and it's something that I'm still trying my best to master.

I don't think mermaids are real, but if my only piece of evidence is the word Duh, then I might as well not be talking.  Because until you stop debunking, and stop finding different ways to write Case closed, then you'll always be seen as just another asshole skeptic.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Gliese 581, my new favorite Earth

Scientists have found a planet that's not so terribly different from this one.  Read the discovery.com article.  It's about three Earths big, and is the right temperature to hold pools of liquid water.  Astronomer Steven Vogt makes a point in the linked article that there's no reason to believe that there is not liquid water on the planet.

I'm a skeptic, but I'm not threatened by the idea of aliens.  Like most things that normally fall under the umbrella of paranormal, aliens are an exciting idea, whether or not we're talking about advanced civilizations, or just a few ferns on some distant rocky ball.

Statistically, it's being said that there might be lots and lots of planets like this, being that this one was found after "looking at just nine nearby stars."  So if Earths are so common, maybe there are some cities full of quasi-people out there looking at our Earth in their telescope, just wondering.  Hell, maybe some of them have visited us already.  If the technology for such a feat is, in fact, possible (though I have no strong reason to believe that it is) then it's not outrageous to think that we've already been visited.  I'm not going too far down that logical road, though, because I've seen where it can lead.

I only have one issue with the linked article, and that's the last line.  I don't know if you can chalk it up to news sensationalism, or just an excited scientist speaking beyond the evidence (probably both). But, "It's pretty hard to stop life once you give it the right conditions," is a statement that is hard to back up.  It may be true, but it really may not be true, as well.  So far, we only have one example of life happening, and that's us and our family here on Earth.  That statement sounds like a skateboarder saying that everyone has an innate talent for skateboarding, or a drug addict saying, "If you can get some crack, you're going to smoke it."  Let's get a bigger sample before we start saying what's inevitable.

I'm excited about the discovery.  I might be on a high percentile of excitedness, in fact.  But let's not get carried away.  The facts are exciting enough without an expert making guesses.  Guesses that most people are going to take to heart, just because he's an expert.  Like I've said before, an expert is not an authority figure, and no number of PhDs gives someone the power to change the truth.

I'm not saying the statement is false.  I'm just saying we don't know if it's false.  But what if it turns out to be true?  Wouldn't that be something?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The evolution of psychic ability

The idea of psychic abilities is an exciting one, and I'd love to believe in it.  Even being able to read someone's mind, or tell the future, 1/100 of the time would make me feel like one of the X-men, or at least a student in Xavier's School for (somewhat) Gifted Youngsters.

One way to examine a belief is to pretend, every once in a while, that it is real, and implications of the belief will often reveal themselves to you like images on an old Polaroid picture.  When I assume that psychic abilities are real, I suddenly have a million questions.  For instance, where does natural selection play a part in the development of these senses?  How, exactly, do they interact with our existing senses, and the functions of the body?

A big red question mark that appears in my mind is, why would an ability or sense that would be very handy in survival be restricted to so few people, and hidden so deep as to be nearly inaccessible to the rest of us?  There are no other senses that do this.  Sight isn't something that's restricted to a small percentage of the population, and then disbelieved by the rest of us.  Hearing isn't an exclusive club.  So, why would extra sensory perception, which would make important decisions so much easier, alert us when someone/something means to harm us, and perhaps even let us know which mate would make the best offspring (yes, we are animals, get over it), be so poorly developed after so many millions of years of evolution?  I would expect something so handy to be prominent enough in our perception that nobody would have the luxury to disbelieve in it.

I'm suddenly curious if anyone has tried to breed animals for psychic ability.  Perhaps mice.  If the mouse pushes on the card with a triangle, he gets a treat, and if he pushes the card with three wavy lines, then audio of a cat yowling is played.  Which would be unpleasant for a mouse, of course.  Perhaps we could coax the effect out.  I'm going to comment in Dean Radin's blog about this.

Maybe I'm looking at it the wrong way.  Maybe psychic ability doesn't have a strong selection pressure.  Maybe knowing the future makes people worry, and then become ill.  Maybe knowing what other people are thinking about someone will make them want to kill themselves.

We have to wonder why nature would keep such secrets, and what good it could have done us throughout the development of our species.  And we also, as always, have to consider that this effect may not exist in the first place, in which case all of this would make a lot more sense.  And, at the end of the day, all I really want is for the world to make sense.

Yeah, I know.  Good luck, Cal.  Thanks.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Believing in lucid dreams

I was shopping at Fred Meyer one time with my daughter, when I had the most peculiar realization. I realized that I was not at Fred Meyer with my daughter. I realized that my daughter was at home, in bed. More importantly, so was I.

I was lucid dreaming. A lucid dream is a dream in which you know the state you're in. You realize that everything around you is just dream scenery, and as far as restrictions, and consequences, you're pretty much off the radar. I've been lucid dreaming occasionally since I was a kid. Back then, my highest priority during these moments was trying to shoot fireballs out of my hands. At twenty-eight years old, I'm now past the fireball stage.

A lot of people have never had this experience, or perhaps they've had it once, and then never again. Some people have never had it, but they've got a half-dozen books about how to induce it. It is a great experience, and is not a waste of time, which is spent sleeping, either way.

Before the 1970s, lucid dreams were not recognized by science, because they could not be induced, and then tested, in a laboratory setting. A couple of people had a couple of clever ideas, though, and it turned out that they could be tested.

If I had been born before that time, though, I would have, as a lucid dreamer, been placed in the category of UFO abductees, telephone psychics, and seance mediums. I would have been either a liar, or ignorant, and people like James Randi would have been calling me the equivalent of a woo-woo. The lucid dream is an example of a fringe belief that was eventually accepted by science.

We have to wonder what fringe beliefs of today are the scientific realities of tomorrow. I know that if it's ever proven that people can communicate between minds, (and, for whatever reason, this ability was evolutionarily made very obscure and difficult to harness) it would be the beginning of a scientific revolution.

Unfortunately for the future of parapsychology, it seems that most of these hidden abilities also happen to be things (like shadow people, synchronicity, and dowsing) that would seem to happen even in a ghost-free God-free world. It could be that, while our minds are set up to be fooled into believing these things, these things are also, coincidentally, sometimes real. Or, it could be that our minds are set up to be fooled, and they just keep getting fooled.

If life after death, though, or the interconnectedness of minds, is ever proven, even if it's only proven to me, I am ready and willing (hopefully able) to jump over the fence and shove the truth down everyone's throat, with vigor and enthusiasm. Because these sorts of abilities, if they really were real, would have sweeping implications in all parts of life. In short, it would be a big deal.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My experience with shadow people

I think we've all seen a shadow person or two. These are beings of controversial origin that look pretty much how you would guess, like living, standing shadows. You have the best chance of seeing them out of the corner or your eye.

I don't know if there's a name for this, but I have a white shadow person. When I do dishes at night, and I'm tired, I can see him (or her?) standing right by the fridge. If I turn my head at the correct angle, this person appears between the edge of the white refrigerator door, and the very edge of my periphery. I don't know why this person is so interested in my dish-doing, but I try to put on a good show.

Of course, I'm being silly. If I trusted everything I saw out of the corner of my eye, I would be a very nervous person at night, when the sunlight goes away, and I'm dead tired in spite of a video game that needs to be played. I see so many little shadow dogs sitting on the floor, and shadow people sitting on the couch, and shadow creeps hiding in the laundry room, that, if I believed they were all sentient beings, I would be calling the Catholic church for an exorcism.  

Our brain makes people, whether or not people are there. It's so sensitive to people, faces in particular, that it can make people out of just about anything. Without trying too hard, we can see a face on the front of a car, or a mailman in the thick needles of a fir tree, or a man riding a horse in the drywall. Not only do we see faces, we see faces with expressions. My entertainment center looks mighty surprised right now. But if I got a wider TV it might look like it was smiling.

In our peripheral vision, which is probably less detailed than you think, our brain's person-finding software is working hard to see if anyone is there, and if there is the faintest possibility that what it's seeing could be a person, it's going to show you a person. If that person is all dark and smudgy, you get a shadow person. If that person is made out of the door of a fridge, and a water cooler a few feet away, you'll get a reverse-shadow person.  

This is another instance where it can be unwise to believe your own eyes. Especially the corners of your eyes, which are always a bad witness. You'd never identify a mugger by standing at a right-angle to the lineup, after all. You would never try to catch a baseball by looking to the side.  

Our poor brains try their hardest to do what they can with what they have. They're the most advanced computers on the planet, but they're handling such a gargantuan heap of data every second that things do get filed into the wrong categories, and the wrong emotions get triggered, and we end up with an anomalous experience that, in the end, may have never existed outside of our own experience.

Because, in the end, everything we see, hear, feel, taste and smell depends entirely upon our brain's passive, running-in-the-background interpretation of what's going on around us. These are based on light waves, vibrating air, particles floating near our faces, and electrical signals from the skin. The closest that any of us will get to directly experiencing something is just reading the reports that our senses write out for us.  

When the sense of sight tells you something, you have to take it with a grain of salt, because not only is sight a bit superstitious, but it's also perfectly confident of what it's saying. And that's always a bad combination.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Not a post about reincarnation

No blog today.  Wrote a long post about reincarnation, but did some fact-checking and found out that my main theme (that there are more people now than ever in history) seems to be incorrect.

So here's a video called "UFO Base in Brazil."  



Very believable, the way he's saying it.  I'm impressed.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Placebo Effect is my favorite effect

These days, trust is something many of us have left behind.  People don't leave their bicycles unlocked, most of us look for fine print before we sign even the most benign contracts, and we take the claims printed on product packaging with a grain of salt, always.  This is because we are lied to, all the time, and we are used to it.  Dishonesty has a thousand different faces, and we've seen these faces on our newscasters, salespeople, politicians, spokespeople, mascots, CEOs, and Milla Jovovich.  Our guard stays up, because when there is money to be made, people say whatever it is they need to say to get some of that money.

Over time, as we've learned more about the way the human body works, this distrust has even spread to our medications and our folk remedies.  Even treatments that work like a charm are questioned.  Maybe they're not really working.  Maybe it's just the placebo effect.  

The placebo effect, if you don't know, is when there's some condition in the body, a treatment is given, and the body heals simply because of the belief that the treatment will help, even when the treatment is just a sugar pill, or a saline injection.  Pharmaceutical companies deal with the placebo effect regularly in their drug trials, where they'll only release some drugs if test subjects given the medicine actually get better than test subjects given only a sugar pill.

You'll hear the placebo effect mentioned once or twice when a form of alternative medicine is being debunked.  "Well, of course shaking a snake over your abdomen fixed your ulcer, but did it do better than the sugar pill?"  

Yes, the placebo effect is very handy when you're debunking bunk, and it's very handy when you're testing drugs, but I sometimes feel like I'm in the vast minority in thinking that we should take a closer look at it.

I mean, Asprin's great, and Amoxicillin is oh-so-delicious in its liquid form, but I could have swore that it's generally accepted (and backed by great body of evidence) that certain bodies, in certain instances, can heal themselves without medicine.  And not just drink-plenty-of-fluids healing, but quick, dramatic, medicine-style healing. 

Drugs often fool our bodies into doing things.  Make more of this hormone, create more of this neuropeptide, shut off these nerves real quick.  Well, it turns out that, some of the time, our bodies can be fooled the same way, just by what we believe.  Our brain is in charge of all of this, it can naturally do many of the things that the medicines can artificially do.  

So, why are we not using this?

Yeah, we don't want doctors handing out sugar pills to ill patients, but there has got to be a way to harness this facility.  We're a clever species, after all, and, just like we were told as children, we can do anything we put our minds to.  If I were to choose between filling my body with expensive and unpredictable chemicals to treat something and... well, not doing that, then I'd go with the second choice every time.

But modern medicine is not rushing to fund studies on this.  At least, not as quickly as it's rushing to fund the nice medicines that will be on the class-action lawsuit commercials a year from now, "If you've taken Yaz...." 

I guess this is why I'm not so ferociously against alternative medicines.  If people aren't going broke over it, and aren't making their conditions worse because of it (two things that do happen), then it seems that alternative medicine is a great way to employ the placebo effect.  I say this not with derision, but with cautious optimism.

As I've said before, I'm not a truth-purist, and when it comes to truth vs. practicality, the second one, in my mind, is sometimes more important.  

So, if your friend's homeopathic acid-reflux medication seems to work wonders, leave him/her to it.  The only thing is, you can't tell them the secret behind their remedy, because that will make it stop working.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why The Fourth Kind left me feeling sad

I was recently lied to by someone that I care for.

I'm not an entertainment blogger, by any means.  I don't keep up on movies or TV, and have a hard time watching anything that annoys me even a little bit.  Not only that, my opinion of what's good, as far as media is concerned, often varies wildly from what I hear other people say is good.  I really enjoyed The Last Airbender, for instance.  All of this is fine with me.  I waste enough of my time without wasting it trying to keep up on the new releases.

With this in mind, you'll forgive the tardiness of my post.  I understand that The Fourth Kind was released on DVD some months ago.  I've seen movie posters, and thought, "Oh, some alien movie."  Then my significant other bought it for me, a few days ago, and I was a little more intrigued.  This is supposed to be like a documentary.  I enjoy watching documentaries about the paranormal the same way I enjoy watching stage magic, trying to figure out exactly where I might be getting misled.

So, at night, in a dark room, by myself, I watch it.  The first scene is Milla Jovovoich, as herself, basically emphasizing that what I'm about to see is real, and here's the real archival footage, and all that.  I know how it works, I've watched documentaries before.

The movie is pretty creepy, and the footage (which runs alongside dramatizations of the footage) is pretty remarkable.  However, I have to mention something.  When you're watching youtube, and you sometimes make the realization, "That's what it really looks like when someone falls down the stairs!" or " That's what it really looks like when someone drives a truck into a living room!" we can feel that what we're looking at is what actually happened.  There's a certain quality that real footage has that movie scenes do not.  A bit of randomness, a lack of grace, unflattering camera angles.  It's the flavor of reality.  The archival footage on The Fourth Kind did have a bit of this flavor, but it was not strong.

The movie ends with Milla talking as herself again, urging me to make my own decision about what to believe.  Of course, I immediately jumped on the internet to help me decide.  It turns out that the fakeness of the footage is old news.  I'm not one to take any debunker's statements without questioning them, but everything I read made sense, Google Maps showed me that the real town looks very very different that the town in the "archival footage."  In short, it was a movie.

I think one of the reasons I'm a skeptic is to balance out my natural naivity.  Naivity that would have me think that a documentary is a documentary, and that a movie would not go so far out of its way to convince me that it is real, when everyone involved knows that it is not.  I guess my belief was that if a documentary comes out that is not factual, it is because the creators are actually fooling themselves, not because they are trying to fool the audience.  My thinking was incorrect.

But I think the thing that hurts most is that Milla Jovovich, whose career I've watched blossom since I was fifteen years old, would break through the fourth wall, go out of her way to talk to me as herself, and then lie to my face (or a camera that represents my face, at least).  This is not what I would expect out of the loveable Leeloo in her masking tape outfit.  This is not what I would hope for from the dangerous (but honest?) Alice, firing guns with both of her hands.  This is not alright.

Should you watch the movie, if you haven't already?  I can't tell you.  I'm not a movie critic, and I don't like movie critics.  If you really want to watch a documentary, though, I'd say check out The Cove, or Outfoxed, or The King of Kong.  Good ones, and they don't need a beautiful woman to convince you that they're real.  But I'm pretty sure they are.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Montauk Monster eats my cat food

Today's story comes from the field of cryptozoology. In 2008, a strange beast, about the size of a cat, allegedly washed up dead on the shores of Montauk, which lies on the eastern tip of New York. It was photographed from many different angles, and became a relatively big news story, drawing the attention of many, including skeptics.

People sat at their desks all around the world, ready to debunk the so-called Montauk Monster (Click the link to see the creature. I didn't want to ugly-up my blog with it). All manner of animal species were thrown at the corpse, with hopes that one would stick. Some called it a raccoon. Some said that it was a sea turtle sans shell. Some called it a large water rat, a dog, a sheep, a sloth, or even a biological experiment. William Wise, director of Stony Brook University's Living Marine Resources Institute, has a wonderfully credible name, and he said that it was simply a fabrication. The body was never studied in-person by scientists, so any guess is as good as any other, right?

Well, no. Just like not all evidence is created equal, not all speculation is created equal. For instance, even a modestly educated man like myself can tell that the beast was never a sea turtle. Firstly, the turtle's spine is actually a part of its shell, secondly... well I hope you'd have to hit someone over the head pretty hard before they thought that thing was a sea turtle, is all I'm sayin'. If it's not obvious to you, then I probably don't have the power to convince you.

It wasn't a rodent. It has some rodent-y features about it, for sure, the teeth are wrong. Those are not the kind of teeth that chew holes through our drywall and plastic cereal canisters. A rodent's mouth is pretty distinct.

As for a latex fabrication, it's not a bad guess, but I personally don't agree. Some things have a certain realness that you can see, and while this sense is not so hard to fool, it tells me that this nasty thing was actually a living creature once.

After doing some of this modern internet version of research, it seems likely that this poor thing is actually a drowned raccoon. It's not obvious, but taking a look at a raccoon skeleton casts some light on the subject. I'm not 100% sure that's the case, but it sure seems to be.

I think two things are interesting about the story of the Montauk Monster:

1. How quickly we latch on to something mysterious, just because it's mysterious. Without this kind of reaction, science would have never been founded. But, then again, neither would have religion. I imagine that, when we were still a new species, we ran into the mysterious so often that we probably spent most of our time giving things labels and explanations that would later become mythology.

2. How quickly many of my fellow skeptics, when confronted with something that is mysterious, will scramble to debunk it, worried less about the truth, and more about getting that blemish off of their worldview. This is whack-a-mole debunking, and when the average person reads that kind of nonsense, they may come away thinking that they live in a world where something that's obviously not a turtle may be a turtle. After all, science is counter-intuitive often enough that some people just believe everything a professional skeptic says.

To those of us that do write for the public, let's think twice before becoming too hasty with explanations. Whether you like it or not, there are people out there who hang on your every word, and will be bringing up your conclusion in discussion boards for years to come. "That was debunked back in 2008!"

So let's tread a little more carefully, and not make a fool of these people by jumping to foolish conclusions. Sometimes your worldview has to be a little blemished. Mine is pock-marked and scarred beyond recognition. The trick to it is to know that you don't know it all.

Get that one down, and you'll be fine.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A note on Fabrication Friday #2

I'm not doing Fab Friday just on Fridays any more.  It should still be about once a week, though.  FYI

Fabrication Post - Sep 18, 2010

The following is not true.

Just out of high school, I worked for a construction company, Collins Construction, for about six months. It turned out that it was the same construction company that my fifth grade teacher's (Mrs. Collins) husband owned, and it was a strange reunion seeing that teacher again after about a decade.

Anyway, I was a heavy guy at the time, and it took me about a month of nine hour days to get really used to the level of physical labor at that job. It was always obvious how dangerous it was, and there was a really serious injury about once a month on any given job site. We kept a lot of hydrogen peroxide around, just because it gets blood out of fabric.

About five months in, I finally decided that it wasn't what I wanted to be doing my whole life, and I'd saved up enough for a down payment on an apartment, and a couple months rent. The accident happened the day before I was scheduled for an interview at the courthouse on the West Side.

I didn't see what exactly happened, but from what I understand Emanuel was driving the backhoe, scooping up rocks and gravel out of the bottom of this swimming pool in a backyard that had ended up being bedrock about five feet down. He wasn't being careful, and I guess a fairly large sharp chunk of granite slid off of his scoop, slid across the top of a shed (I don't remember hearing this) and then hit me straight on. From what people told me, a sharp edge of the rock cut through my arm pretty cleanly, breaking the table, and the flat part of it hit my head. I woke up in the hospital two days later, and the arm was just gone. I was angry, because I thought they had to ask before they took a limb. I was in shock.

Long story short, they sent me home one week later, telling me to keep the stump elevated, and to clean the gashes on my face and shoulder daily. I didn't care about the gashes, I just wanted my arm back.

I had been reading about the Law of Attraction before the accident, and I had a lot of faith in that, and I wondered if I could actually grow an arm back using it. Of course, I had nothing to lose.

I didn't tell anyone about my project, because they would just talk me down, and that wasn't what I needed. Every night, though, I would do a really simple visualization of my arm just growing back, like a newt's arm. I would see it over and over until I fell asleep, and then I would usually dream about it. I never lost interest, because my missing arm had become the focal point of my life. I didn't want to learn how to do things one-handed, I wanted two.

After doing this for about three months, my stump, which had been feeling fine, suddenly flared up with pain, and I went back to the hospital. They did an x-ray, but didn't tell me what was wrong. They sent me home with pain meds.

It was another three months before my mom (yeah, moving out had been put on the back burner) noticed me re-tying off my left sleeve. I hadn't even thought about it, only knowing that my stump was feeling tight in the sleeve. I told her, and we looked at it. It still looked the same way that it had, but we compared it to photos from after the surgery, and it was definitely longer.

And that's what happened, over the next two and a half years. I would keep visualizing, and then there would be a horrible pain in my arm, and it would regenerate itself about a half inch. It's been a decade now, and I'm typing this with two hands. I could show you the photos, and I could have my doctor write a testimonial, but there's no such thing as proof in the age of photoshop. You're either going to believe me or you're not. I just want to give the message that nothing is impossible, when you use the power of your mind.

PLEASE READ

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Oliver's Castle video

There are a lot of people who will tell you, with great conviction, that crop circles are created by balls of light. I've heard people say that they give off microwave radiation, that makes the crops wilt in certain chosen spots, creating the formations we see in aerial photos, on the news and on the internet.

In this day and age, the age of nearly ubiquitous video cameras, one might wonder where the video evidence is of this process. It doesn't take long on Google, though, to find that such a video does exist, and it's from a slightly earlier day and age. Simply called the Oliver's Castle video, it's low-quality footage of a field that, after some low-flying balls-of-light visit it, is suddenly marked with a telltale crop circle. The footage is pretty remarkable to see. Please take a look if you haven't seen it before.

Well, the man who took the footage (look at timestamp 3:40), John Wabe, confessed a couple of years later that he did, in fact, create the footage himself, on a computer, in a television studio. Case closed, right?

No, when it comes to belief, it's never case closed. The Oliver's Castle footage was so important to the balls-of-light create crop circle groups, that even a videotaped confession has not wiped out the following of that video. A man told me online, the other day, that the actual man who'd taken the footage has disappeared, and the man who made the confession was an impostor. I can't disprove that, so I just shrugged. This website states that the video withstands closest analyses. That's a very powerful statement. I'm going to show you, though, that the video does not withstand a slightly more distant analysis.

Watching a documentary on the subject (the one linked above), I saw what has to be the best piece of evidence for the video being a fabrication. In my mind, the best evidence is always the evidence that you can see for yourself, without any experts or celebrity middle-men muddying the waters.

If you look at the first couple seconds of the video, there are balls of light flying around the field. Now, this might be because Hollywood has us expecting the camera to be where to action is, but most of us don't immediately notice that, during those first couple of seconds, the cameraman is not following the balls of light. Why not? As it turns out, his camera is actually framing the spot where a crop circle is about to form.

As in, he was aiming the lens at nothing interesting, yet.

Then, suddenly, out of this nothing interesting, a crop circle appears. He doesn't even catch the edge of it, and then focus. He's immediately staring straight down into it, and then it develops like a Polaroid nearly dead-center in his camera's eye.

One trick many of us have picked up in the age of digital trickery is to ask, "Why was he filming this?" If a video depicts a newspaper boy being attacked by a chupacabra, you have to ask why someone was even filming a newspaper boy in the first place. So, in the Oliver's Castle video, you have to ask why he chose to film a section of perfectly normal field when there were mysterious balls of light bobbing around the place.

If you look at John Wabe's confession (or impostor John Wabe, whatever the case may be) this fits perfectly with that. If you look at the people telling us that the debunking of this video was a hoax itself, this does not fit with that. And, unlike the government paying this man to make up a phony story, this is something you can actually see with your own two eyes.

So, why was he filming that spot in the middle of the field? Well, because there was a crop circle there, and he wanted to have a bit of fun. Why else?

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why we hoax

People hoax things sometimes. We can all agree on this. But, when we get to attached to an idea (whether it's Eastern religion, spirit channeling or the Shamwow) we get blinded to the hoaxter possibility. "Well, this and that may be wrong, but at least I can tell that he/she is being honest."

While I call into question anyone's ability to tell whether someone's being honest, that's a different matter for a different day. Much of the time, an individual has a very clear reason to be dishonest, which may look like dollars in the US, or pounds sterling in the UK, perhaps yen in Japan, but it all amounts to the same thing. Money has been a great power in the campaign to turn otherwise good people into scam artists since its invention. As the saying goes (and I'm not entirely sure it's true) Everyone has their price.

But then that leaves all of these other things. Things where something happens, and there is no clear motive for someone to have lied, or faked evidence. They're not making tourist money, book money, talk show money or movie rights money. Sometimes the hoaxter, if there actually was a hoax involved, has hidden from public view. In these cases, those of us that are rather attached to the idea of something being real may argue that it was not a hoax, because obviously the perpetrator would have nothing to gain, in the measure of dollars, pounds, or yen.

When it comes to fooling people, though, there's always a motive. Even if the trickster is losing money in the exercise, there is always a motive. That motive is fun.

It's fun to fool people. Whether you want to throw on a bigfoot costume, video-edit balls of light making a crop circle, or just give a moving testimonial on the internet on how ipecac helped your ulcers. I don't know if you're like me, but I think there's something very thrilling about telling a tall tale, and having people hang on every word.

It is fun to fool people. I don't know if I'm special, or if this is just a quirk of the animal we call Humanity. Untold millions of practical jokes have happened, and very few people ever gained a dollar off of them. Youtube is crowded with things like cell-phone radiation popping popcorn, a giant Lego-ball rolling down a street, not to mention the ridiculous chain-emails that get sent my way, giving me the most absurd advice I may have ever gotten.

I recently read an article in WIRED magazine (yes, I'm a few months behind) about this very subject. It's called Cognitive Surplus: The Great Spare-Time Revolution. It's a very good read, and is basically a discussion of something that we all already know, but doesn't really seem to be fully integrated into many of our worldviews. Besides biological imperatives (eat, drink, watch Beyonce music videos), and reward-punishment type motivations, there is a third drive, which amounts to just doing something because it interests you. This is why Wikipedia exists, it's why Youtube exists. Hell, it's why half of the modern internet exists, including this blog. Don't let the ads fool you, my fortune cookies do not mention money.

So, the next time you hear a knocking on your window, and nobody is there when you look, keep in mind that someone might be having a great time at your expense. The next time you see gigantic footprints when you're out camping in the Pacific Northwest, don't discount the possibility that there is someone with a big rubber foot watching the newspapers, waiting for photographs of his handiwork. And next time you get a convincing email telling you that hugging your kid causes Ebola, don't let the kid suffer for someone else's jollies.

I think we're all tricksters, at some level. And I'm sure we were that way long before the invention of money.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Polite Skeptic Interview: Matthew Williams, circlemaker

Matthew Williams is a circlemaker.

After a strange experience earlier in life, Matthew took to investigating the paranormal. His investigation into crop circles showed him a world that he didn't expect. One thing lead to another, and he found himself out in the fields, with a stomper-board, some surveyor's tape, and a group of good friends, making his own contribution to the UFO mythology. Everything went fine until, wanting to prove a point, Matthew sent a diagram of an upcoming crop circle to Author and UFO researcher Whitley Strieber, and then wound up with police at his front door.

Matthew's arrest was something of a blessing in disguise, suddenly allowing him to become more public about the art of crop circle making, and to speak out against circle researchers who, in his view, often skewed evidence, not to mention, from time to time, flat-out lying about their findings.

Matthew Williams explains on his Youtube Channel that crop circle makers are not hoaxters, but artists, and that the wonder that the circles inspire in the public give them joy. Another message is that, even though it's humans that make the circles, the circles themselves are still surrounded by mysteries that even the men with the boards can't begin to explain.

Matthew gives us a look into a secretive world of the circlemaker, a world that very few know about, and even fewer have firsthand experience with. It's fascinating, and evidence that both the images of the grinning prankster, and the artistic UFOs, are both very simplistic when compared to the reality of the situation.

The Polite Skeptic: It would be commonly expected that someone with your experience would be skeptical of paranormal things. Why is it that you aren't, and could you give a rough estimate of what percentage of crop circle makers are skeptical?

Matthew Williams: I started off as a skeptical child, reading books about the paranormal but seeing them as just wide tales, and treating what I was reading as fiction turned into fact, perhaps in the same way that I viewed religious books. Then, my cynical mind took a powerful bashing when I experienced something odd whilst driving over a mountain road one night. I saw a triangular light, with a placement that would have made it hundreds of feet in size. It was standing vertically in front of a mountainside, behind a tree line. I lost sight of the object after, and to this day am no nearer to knowing what it was, although parts of my investigation led me to ask even more questions about our faculties for perception and our recall of strange events. This was my trigger moment, if you like.

After this point, I was in a position where I had to state that I could not understand my experience, and I felt pity and empathy for those who, like me, might be retelling their genuine experiences and having no way to fully understand what it was they saw. My interest in the paranormal became rekindled, and I dug out my old books and read the pages with a new vigor, to learn what I had perhaps missed previously. Now the words on the page had a meaning to me, and a gravitas, that they had not had before. I started to meet people who were interested in the paranormal, and through talking about interests, and eventually interviewing people about their strange experiences, it became clear I was starting to become an investigator of sorts.

If we skip forward a long way to me now being a circlemaker, and believing that the circles we create are a paranormal trigger for not only the circlemakers, but for the people who visit the circles afterwards, I am still interested in investigating and relaying strange experiences to others as truthfully as I can.

To answer your question, nearly all circlemakers I know have claimed to have had odd experiences whilst out at night. Whereas many circlemakers try their hardest to work out what these experiences were, they are left scratching their heads. Up until this year, all bar one major circlemaker had told me of their own strange experiences. This year though, out of the blue, I was told that this major circlemaker had recently seen a silent, black, triangular object fly over him, and his team members had seen this as well. I would like to be able to do an interview to record his experience, but this circlemaker is a bit like Banksy, and a bit shy of being known by face or name. So the interview, if it does take place, will have to be anonymous.

So that just about wraps up all the circlemakers as having strange experiences, and being far more open-minded towards their place in circlemaking and their ability to connect with strange stuff by being out in the fields. Even if they do one day manage to convince themselves of rational explanations for their experiences, they certainly do not have any rational explanations at the moment.

Would you recommend circle making for someone who's interested in studying supernatural things?