Thursday, July 30, 2009

Type 1 Civilization

There is an interesting and thought-provoking discussion on the topic of a Type 1 Civilization underway at Anyone interested in participating should. I have recently added my comments. I am looking forward to participating in the discussion.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

TAPS again... some more

It’s easy to write-off individuals who dispute the logic or validity of paranormal or religious phenomena as cynics who reject every scrap of evidence because they want to disbelief. Again, that assumes several points that aren’t proven. 1) the individuals who disbelief do so because they want to and 2) that anyone who disagrees with ‘evidence’ does so because they don’t believe (but a lot of these people aren’t really into proving things anyways so…) . I don’t necessarily disbelief in the idea of ghosts (I don‘t necessarily believe in them either). I haven’t arrogantly condemned it as impossible (it isn’t). My only real statement is that I see no evidence, as of yet, to persuade me to believe that ghosts are real and that the evidence (or lack of it) will ultimately inform my decision.
(The real definition of skepticism is “an attitude marked by a tendency to doubt what others accept to be true”. BTW: doubt is defined “to feel unconvinced or uncertain about something, or think that something is unlikely”. Neither of those definitions translate to the nigh-religious denial zeal that’s conjured up when ‘believers’ use the word skeptic. When somebody has absolutely no REAL evidence… well that’s not very convincing is it? So how could one help but feel uncertain?)
I take no particular joy in poking holes in other peoples theories. I don’t even object to the idea of paranormal investigation. What I object to is the notion of certainty when there isn’t any, and selling that certainty to others for a tidy profit. Everyone should be a skeptic where matters of the paranormal are concerned. That’s a sweeping statement, but think about it. All of the hypotheses advanced by TAPS are riddled with contradictions and errors in reasoning. Even if they weren’t riddled with flaws, they would still only be hypotheses.
( The definition of hypothesis is: “a tentative explanation for a phenomenon, used as a basis for further investigation”. A hypothesis is not a definitive conclusion.)
Personal experience is often sighted by ghost believers. “I know what I’ve seen.” But do you? Even if I had seen a ghost I couldn’t be 100% sure of what I’d seen. Anyone is capable of hallucinating, myself included. How could I possibly rule it out? If were 99.9% certain I had seen a ghost, some small marginal part of my psyche would have to acknowledge that, however unlikely, I may have hallucinated my experience. Even if someone else claimed to have the exact same experience/hallucination I had, how could I be sure? One of us would have to tell the other one detail or another first in order for it to be confirmed as the same experience. How could I be 100% sure they weren’t simply agreeing?
I have never seen a ghost, in spite of the fact that I’m quite enthusiastic about chasing them down. The going theory regarding why I am not able to see ghosts in locations where numerous other individuals have had encounters is because I don’t believe in ghosts. What are they now? Pixies? The fact is that the existence of real things is not contingent upon the belief of would-be spectators. Real things exist independently of belief and there is absolutely no reason to think ghosts would be an exception… unless, of course, they aren’t real.
(For those of you who are curious… real is defined as “1) having actual physical existence 2) verifiable as actual fact e.g. legally or scientifically 3) existing as fact, rather than as the product of dreams or the imagination”)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

TAPS, and EVP, and EMF (oh my!)

Hey Mom, this one’s for you! My Mom and my niece share a fascination with paranormal phenomenon and paranormal investigation. Both of these manifest as a fascination with the Sci-Fi show Ghost Hunters. For those of you who may not be familiar with the show the basic plot is that these two guys, Jason and Grant, head an organization called TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) that is dedicated to investigating paranormal phenomenon. Part of their appeal is that they’re just regular guys (who happen to have their own TV show) - they aren’t scientists or psychics. In fact, they’re so ordinary that they moonlight as plumbers (TAPS seems to be the central focus of their lives). By day mild mannered plumbers, by night the Ghost Hunters! Like Batman, these two ordinary guys go into allegedly haunted locations with all the coolest gadgets; EMF meters, digital voice recorders, thermal cameras, video cameras, walkie talkies, and cell phones.
In short they have the most scientific ghost hunting gear, which sounds like an oxymoron, I know. They make a big deal out of how scientific their endeavors are. If you have the DVD series, watch it for yourself. They say it again and again and again. The TAPS mantra seems to be that, since they use scientific equipment and all, that if they can’t recreate or explain any phenomenon that they record then they have confirmed the presence of an entity. Well, that seems perfectly reasonable at first glance, but when you really begin to evaluate the premise of their organization it quickly begins to unravel. The idea of hunting ghosts scientifically assumes to ideas which are unproven.
The first being that ghosts exist at all. There is no undeniable evidence that ghosts do exist, hence before you can hunt them you first have to demonstrate their existence. The second assumption is that the equipment they possess has the ability to detect ghosts at all. If no one has proven ghosts exist then how can any one have the slightest idea what kind of equipment would detect them?
First, is the EMF (electromagnetic field) meter. An electromagnetic field, for those of you who don’t know, is created by a moving electrical charge. The field is composed of electric and magnetic fields that are generated at right angles. The Earth has an electromagnetic field. So do people, cell phones, microwaves, video cameras, and much more. (What isEMF?)An EMF meter is designed to measure these electromagnetic fields, and occasionally they pick up anomalies. The TAPS (as well as others) believe that these anomalies are entities that are manifesting themselves.
In order to prove, however, that the anomalies are caused by ghosts they would first have to prove that they weren’t caused by anything else. The sheer number of uncontrolled variables (the cell phones they use in scene after scene, the camera man following the team, the power cables we watch them unroll at each location) ensure that any EMF reading they get will never be considered scientific. They seem entirely satisfied with their EMF technique however.
The basis of their argument seems to be the Law of Conservation of Energy which states that energy can never be created or destroyed. (Law) Since human beings are bioelectric machines, whose energy creates an electromagnetic field then (according to their theory) that energy is not destroyed. Instead it somehow maintains its viability. This energy is allegedly what they detect with their gadgets. But the notion of a ghost creating an EMF doesn’t make any sense when you think about it.
Imagine if you will the entire deceased human populous from now all the way back until time began. Think of how many people that would be. If all those people were roaming around in energy form we would all have three eyes from the constant exposure to high levels of electromagnetic radiation. I’m exaggerating, but not by much. In particularly established population centers like Egypt, Greece, and Rome you couldn’t swing a ghost buster without hitting an EMF spike.
Paranormal experts address this by saying only some entities produce an EMF when they are manifesting. Well what about when they’re not? The energy disperses into the atmosphere. But hold on a second! If the theory is that since humans produce an electromagnetic field which requires an electric charge, and an electric charge is energy, and energy can never be destroyed but instead goes on to become a ghost then what happens to the ghost when the electromagnetic field ceases to exist?
Do the ghosts die?
It happens all the time. One of the TAPS investigators detects an EMF spike then- POOF- it’s gone with the wind. Did the ghost stop being electromagnetic? Living things give off a consistent EMF reading- they aren’t inclined to start and stop giving off an electromagnetic field for no reason. Why would a ghost be any different?
Another unproven claim that’s advanced by TAPS and other paranormal organizations is that ghosts draw energy from other sources. Draining camera batteries. Leeching heat from the air. The standard spook bit. But if ghosts are energy, then why would they need to draw more? To make themselves manifest, of course!
But if that’s the case then ghosts are the most utterly ineffectual people I’ve ever heard of, because each episode someone’s batteries are drained or Donna feels an anomalous cold spot, but the ghosts can’t seem to muster enough energy to impact their surrounding in the least. So my question is: they’re gathering energy so they can manifest to do what precisely? Nothing? Kind of anticlimactic isn’t it?
Another quick question- what about animals? If anything that is bioelectric can become a ghost, then animals can as well. If you add the total of all the animals which have ever died to the total of all the humans that have ever died a picture begins to form of just how unlikely it is that the electromagnetic field of a dead entity would persist. For those of you who argue that animals don’t produce an electromagnetic field consider this- some animals, like sharks, have sensory equipment capable of detecting the electromagnetic fields created by a variety of animals. The shark’s sixth sense is made possible by the Ampullae of Lorenzini, which are jelly-filled pits lining the sharks’ snout. (The Six Senses)
Then there is EVP (electronic voice phenomenon). Essentially EVP is the recording of sounds which resemble human speech, and typically take the form of a single word or phrase. It’s very compelling because, unlike EMF, you can hear the ’otherworldly’ voices for yourself. In some cases I’ve heard what sounds like a voice very clearly, and other times it was a real stretch to call it a voice.
Typically, they play the alleged “message from beyond” in a sound byte where it’s separate from the other noise, amplified, and with a subtitle accompanying it just to make sure you understand what the ’voice’ is saying. The whole situation is designed like one of those optical illusions, only in this case, someone generously points out the hidden image. As anyone who has seen one of those optical illusions can tell you, it’s very difficult to unsee it. Each and every time you look at the picture, you can’t help but see the hidden image.
In fact, the phenomenon has a name. It’s called auditory pariedolia, which is defined as “interpreting random sounds as voices in their own language”. Some experts have dubbed the phenomenon “Rorschach audio”. (Electronic Voice Phenomenon)
It is odd that all the EVPs I’ve heard in real life have been in English. Given the rather bloody history that surrounds the founding of this nation, don’t you think it’s likely at least one EVP would capture the voice of a deceased American Indian speaking in his or her native dialect? If I were recording the voice of a real person, I may not understand the American Indian dialect, but I wouldn’t be inclined to think it was the wind either. What about the Creole language in the South? French? If I’m correct, there have been EVP’s captured in these languages in Louisiana, but unsurprisingly they were recorded by people who spoke these languages.
Other explanations of EVP exist outside of the Rorschach audio theory. One such explanation is called “RF injection”. RF injection occurs when a sufficient RF (radio frequency energy) is a recorded by a high-gain audio device resulting in a distorted version of baseband audio. (Possible Explanations)
What reason would a ghost have to manipulate white noise to create an EVP? Wouldn’t it simply make more sense to use that energy to manifest as a full-bodied apparition? So what does happen when the electromagnetic field created by an entity disperses and it loses its energy? Well, that depends on who you ask.
Some say the ghost flies to outer space, or it goes into another dimension, or it isn’t made of energy at all. Remember that the entire argument for using an EMF meter is that ghosts carry an electrical charge, and I thought the reason why ghosts were ghosts was because they couldn’t or wouldn’t go to another dimension? If ghosts are already in another dimension then just where do these investigators think they’re sending the ghosts when they help them “cross-over” or expel a malevolent spirit? It wouldn’t do much good to banish a malevolent spirit to a dimension that it’s already in when it has clearly demonstrated it can still interact with this dimension. Some proponents of this theory say there is yet another third dimension that ghosts go to when they cross-over. So what properties make this third dimension so special? If a spirit can go there, couldn’t it theoretically come back?
That is the heart of the issue. When you strip away the pretense of any scientific credibility, you’re left with dark ages explanations for things. Dimensions? Outer space? C’mon! These are the same answers spiritualists in the 19th and early 20th century had. These are the same answers given by mediums which are decried by organizations like TAPS. Having gadgets doesn’t make you a scientist, and there is something decidedly unethical about borrowing credibility that you haven’t earned.
If you enjoy watching shows like Ghost Hunters for the entertainment factor, more power to you, but don’t be fooled into thinking that what you’re seeing is anything more than a technologically advanced Ouija session. It seems like organizations patterned after TAPS are popping up like weeds, and typically they pander to the most vulnerable elements of society; people who have lost loved ones, the mentally ill, the rejected, or people seeking a genuine spiritual experience. Like a religion they comfort these individuals by offering acceptance and the promise of an afterlife- for a nominal fee.
I will admit that not all organizations charge for membership, but a lot do. This isn’t including all the entrepreneurs who earn a pretty penny hawking ghost hunting gear to the desperate.
Some people have cited physical evidence recorded by the TAPS crew. A door opening (even though there was a door on the other side), a lamp and tablecloth being pulled ever so slowly from some force out of frame, a chair moving. Well that’s all very nice… and terribly convenient. While I have no evidence to suggest that they faked it, it would be unreasonable to pretend that they couldn’t or that it’s impossible that they would. After all, I’d say human corruption is fairly well-documented… and you don’t need an EMF meter to detect it either.

Works Cited

WHO- What is EMF?-

The Law of Conservation of Energy-

The Six Senses-

Electronic Voice Phenomenon-

Possible Explanations For EVP-

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How I Spent My 4th of July (SUVs and Hubris- the American Dream)

A hundred flyers papered the town, advertising the fireworks. Hung in grocery stores and plastered to wooden poles in the midst of summer festivals. Useful things, like the library and mail service were closed, but the ice cream parlor was open. All around me, in every direction I looked, I found myself engulfed in an ocean of humanity. Currents of chattering, laughing people brushed past me, and I took comfort in feeling completely anonymous. I enjoy being, however briefly, part of a crowd. I think everyone does- there is something primal about losing one’s sense of individuality and becoming an extension of the whole. Carnival rides spun playing music that often times opposed the screams of delight coming from their passengers. More eerie still were the moments when the shouts of the passengers, the mechanical grind of the machines, and the music seemed to become a single sound. Then the sun went down. The rides ceased, and the sky exploded with fireworks. The crowd ooed and ahhed at all the appropriate moments, and when the show was over the spectators applauded. I clapped too. Then I gathered my blanket, brushed off my jeans, and stood to leave.
A familiar face was in the darkness. His name was Danny, and he was someone I had known a long, long time ago. He shook my hand and said it was good to see me (I doubt it), and that it had been ages since he’d seen me (it had been a year since I moved). I said nothing. I simply stood there, my hand being shaken vigorously like a dog throttling his favorite chew toy. He asked me questions about our move, and about our new place. He carefully measured my responses, diligently transcribing them in the rear of his mind so he could return to our old neighborhood and recount them to the folks we left behind. I told him that our new place was so much better than the one we left. He stood there staring at me, a deep smile carved across his face like some hideously grinning sculpture in a funhouse. In the dim light, the grit-tooth smile was more repulsive than it eve had been in the day time. I was eager to change the subject.
I talked about the fireworks and the carnival and the tiny flags that blossomed like prairie flowers in a field. He said America was the still the greatest country in the world. “If you’re a real American you gotta love Independence Day,” he said. I told him that I thought the point of being a ‘real American’ was that you didn’t ‘gotta’ do anything. Wasn’t the ideal that defined America’s existence- freedom?
He stared at me, without hearing me, and went on. We talked for a few more minutes and then I walked away. The crowd had thinned in a matter of minutes, leaving me and my daughter standing in the middle of a lonely grass field. I felt a moment of panic and disorientation. I had never been to the park in complete darkness, and I hadn’t been paying attention to the way we’d come. The walk home was an uneasy one. The streets were desolate, the houses were darkened, and all the businesses were closed. My daughter and I wove our way through a ghost town, and finally arrived on our doorstep.
Morgan was half asleep by the time we crossed the threshold and moments later she was sleeping peacefully in he day clothes. I considered waking her, but I am thoroughly convinced that no self-respecting parent would wake up their seven year old after a day of carnival rides, and games, overpriced sodas, and the 90 million obligatory trips to the bathroom that inevitably follow- so I covered her with her comforter and let her sleep.
Some time between that moment and midnight I laid down on our sofa and fell into a dreamless, restless sleep. The things that Danny had said had bothered me, as did the glibness with which he said them. I was awoken by Chaz, who came in tired and carrying a bundle of junk he’d brought home from work. I asked him how his day had been. “Slow” he answered as he sunk into the sofa. I told him about my encounter in the park.
What bothered me in the end is nothing so prosaic as nationalism or some other much-maligned woe. I just didn’t like the bad science of the statement. The foundations of our national consciousness make no sense, and have no real basis in any objective fact. Still the greatest country? How so? Most Americans I know would agree that America is the ‘best’ country, but few have been out of the country, and fewer still have lived abroad- so the statement cannot be true. This isn’t merely my opinion versus their opinion- it is a matter of what ‘best’ means. ‘Best’ implies a direct comparison, and in order to compare something in any meaningful way, one needs to have a basis for the comparison.
For example, I can’t truthfully say that you make the best fried octopus, since I have never had that dish, and your fried octopus is quite likely to be my only experience of the culinary curiosity. Even if I were inclined to humor you with hyperbole you would probably disregard it, and you certainly wouldn’t put it on a bumper sticker and expect it to be taken seriously. It could very well be true, but I would have no way of knowing.
There is an obvious and dangerous undercurrent of hubris in absolute statements. Countless fables and tragedies have instructed humanity in the dangers of believing that ones’ own beliefs are infallible. Faith is a serious liability- after all if America is the best, and it fails, how can we explain that? How can the ‘best’ country be the fattest? How can test scores in science and math be plummeting to embarrassing lows in the ‘best’ country? Shouldn’t we have the ’best’ scores? If the economy of the ‘best’ country in the world is in a breathtaking tailspin from which it seems unable to recover what does that mean? When the ‘best’ people in the world sprout monstrous, hate-filled rhetoric how does one explain that?
Well, you can’t. In order to explain the realities of life in the ‘best’ country (in any country populated by humans for that matter) requires concocting an explanation outside the obvious frailties of the human condition. We’re not fat because we eat too much; we’re fat because we have gland disease… which was given to us by the terrorists. We’re not in a hopeless academic decline because the country lacks any meaningful sense of personal accountability but because (insert administration) messed up our educational system, and if we can only unlock the magic combination of tests and teacher ratios then the sheer superiority of our nation will shine through. That’s the real danger of nationalism- it divorces us from a real and necessary sense of humility… a crucial understanding of our shortcomings.
The manifesto of our country declares that “all men are created equal”. If all men are created equal, then none can be better than the other. Wouldn’t it be un-American to say that America is the best country? Or that Americans are the ‘best’ people?
I have never believed that America is the best country- in fact, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a best country. Yet, America is nothing if not in love with the idea of some utopia that lingers ever out of reach. Those that become disillusioned with an American Utopia tend to look elsewhere, passionately declaring allegiances to France, or Britain, or Canada… Sadly, the word utopia literally means “noplace”. The word originates from the Greek “ou” or “not” and “topos” meaning place.
The crux of America’s identity was formed around rebellion- a tragedy because all rebels are ultimately destined for extinction. Those who are successful at rebelling overthrow the system, and hence are left with nothing to rebel against. Those that fail can rebel indefinitely, but often times their rebellion outlives the thing which inspired it in the first place. In either case, succeed or fail, rebels either have to resign the thing that gave them their identity or constantly invent things to rebel against.
I woke up far too early the next morning. Dogs were barking. Days that begin with early mornings are rarely good. My grim prediction was self-fulfilling. The sun rose steadily, and along with it the temperature. By mid-morning the air was hot and thick, making it hard to breathe. I went for a walk, stepping over a heap of desiccated fishfly corpses that lay moldering in the sun. The stench from the hundreds of little bodies was sickening and salty, and lingered in the humid atmosphere. Morgan slept late, and Chaz made lunch. Slowly the midday unfurled, like a coiled serpent unfolding itself in the sun, and the heat gave way to a purple, crushed-grape sunset. The 4th of July came and went. Eventually the rides and the people emptied out, leaving behind sparkler sticks and paper cups, and flyers as a reminder that it had been here. I saw an enormous SUV nearly run over several kids playing in the parking lot. There was a clear sticker on the back window that said “my kid is on the honor roll at…” It’s big, speeding backend disappeared before I could read the sticker which had been deliberately placed there to brag to unconcerned passersby about the achievements of the driver’s child.
God Bless America. Yeah right.