An appeal

Even a total news-phobe like me has heard about the devastating earthquake in Haiti, just about the one place on Earth least capable of coping with such events. And I’m not really one to perpetuate the guilt bandwagon, or the “redeeming act” appeals to show how nice I am. I’m not nice – I’m very blunt, and if fact gets in the way of your feelings, fact wins. Get over it.

But, I’d have to try really hard to be as enormous a fucking asshole as Pat Robertson, who made headlines once again for being the religious leader least able to understand the word, “compassion,” something that (correct me if I’m wrong) I thought was a principle tenet of his faith. You really have to be brain-damaged to take horrible events and try to use them to scare people into the fold. It’s far beyond crass opportunism, dancing merrily into the realm of total fucking shitheel.

And if you’re an atheist like I am, you get to be considered immoral, selfish, and loathsome by that idiot, and many others like him across the country (it seems there are far fewer in other countries around the world.) I’m actually used to it, and don’t really consider the rantings of any religious individual or organization as counting for much. Even so, there’s now an opportunity to throw it back.

Non-believers Giving Aid” is a support effort formed by the Richard Dawkins Foundation as a non-religious avenue of assistance. While Pat pounds his pulpit, Richard is matching the PayPal fees himself to ensure the money you donate goes to help Haiti, period. You can choose to funnel it into Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières) or the International Red Cross, both secular organizations that don’t muddy their assistance with posturing and self-aggrandizement. And by doing so, you’re making a statement that compassion doesn’t come from religion (far from it! but that’s a post for another time.)

Don’t want to give through Richard Dawkins? Fine, don’t. I actually encourage healthy distrust. Just don’t use it as an excuse not to help out. We sit in this country with our DVD players, cars with air-conditioning, and delivered pizza – we’re pretty well-off. We can spare a bit for people that not only have never seen such conveniences, but right now, may not even see light through the rubble. Pick a method and do it.

If you want to give through your church, just compare the condition of the buildings you meet within, against the condition of whatever assistance organization (homeless shelter, soup kitchen, disadvantaged child support, etc.) in town you like. If they don’t measure up, maybe, just maybe, you should see that the money goes where it really should. However you like.

Thanks. I don’t have much of an audience, but I’ll do what I can. Spread the word.

What’s the harm?

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a skeptical account of a ghost story, and believe me, this wasn’t the first conversation I’ve gotten into about what I’ll simply call, “questionable phenomena.” And, both from my own personal experience and from numerous public discussions, I can say that a common response to this is, “Yeah, but what’s the harm?” Who cares if someone believes in ghosts, psychics, or alternative medicine without hard evidence or scientific support? As long as they’re not hurting anybody, leave them be. Right?

Well, here’s my way of thinking. First, we’ll avoid the “slippery slope” style of arguments, where I trot out the cases that resulted in grave misfortune and death. Yes, they exist – but in all honesty, most of those are examples more of people that have serious mental issues in the first place, and it’s difficult to make a case that their belief structure was directly and solely responsible for their downfall. Most people aren’t like that, and wouldn’t ever get so wrapped up in something that they lose all judgment.

So, what of the mild, common cases? How are they bad? We can start with, they introduce a bias to thinking. People who follow UFO accounts in most of the popular media will immediately entertain the notion that a strange object in the sky might just be alien in nature. People who find the idea of alternative medicine intriguing tend to be a bit slower to go to the doctor when becoming ill, which means that they’ll be contagious longer and probably miss more work. And overall, there’s an extremely damaging affect on our advancement. The plethora of ideas that “science can’t answer” – psychic powers, faith healing, alien visitations, secret organizations that control the world – taken together build this concept that science isn’t all that good at determining “truth.”

Science, actually, has provided the answers to all of these. They’re simply answers that too many people don’t want to hear.

What about personal damage? Faith is considered a very personal thing, none of anybody else’s business. And we’ll talk more about that in a moment. But how many people live agonized lives because they’re trying to balance everything, from making a living to having a sex drive, with the concept of inexcusable sin? How many people who suffer misfortune for perfectly normal reasons feel they’ve somehow “earned” this treatment from a vengeful deity? Is it a good thing to see the death of a loved one as a failure, either of theirs or yours?

But this only affects individuals, right? Perhaps they agonize over things, but they’re just doing it to themselves. I’d agree, if I didn’t routinely see that people really enjoy spreading it around to others as well. Do you think kids, that have yet to develop a decent sense of right and wrong, need to have emotional baggage or fuzzy thinking piled on top of that? Generally until reaching adulthood themselves, children see adults as authority figures, imparting wisdom that is unquestionable and unshakable – this is, of course, why churches like starting early. But so much of childhood, adolescence, and yes, often far into adulthood, is spent unlearning many of the things they’re bombarded with in their formative years. Sometimes, this serves to impart a hard lesson that stays with them for the rest of their lives. Other times, it simply turns them bitter, or worse, they never really do unlearn the crap and just perpetuate it to their own kids.

And it’s not just kids that receive the largesse of fractured thinking. Let’s face it, people have a tendency to follow the herd, and alter their thinking to the majority of people around them. How many coworkers talking about a “great new health product” do you think it takes to cause someone to support it too, or at least not view it with a healthy dose of critical thinking? As little as one, if that person is respected, but it rarely takes more than two or three on average.

And we have a wicked bias towards personal accounts. How many people are far more willing to listen to the advice coming from one friend’s personal experience, than the meticulous double-blind clinical trials in a representatively large and varied population performed by universities, hospitals, and professional research institutions? Almost sounds ludicrous when I say it like that, but you know it happens all the time, don’t you?

So, did I just say that one person with questionable beliefs can affect a collection of others? Yes, I did. And I haven’t even touched on the idea that this one person might be a celebrity and reach thousands to millions of people with even offhand comments.

Here’s a funny aspect of the whole thing too: People don’t treat everything they do or think about the same way. Even scientists, who often have to catalog all of their work in excruciating detail and can’t even get their degrees unless they understand tests that eliminate personal bias, can view other interests with a blind eye to critical thought. This is actually pretty common (like the idea of doctors who smoke,) but we definitely have a hard time believing it. So we end up with authoritative figures providing info that we trust, info that really isn’t trustworthy.

Did I just say, “trust nobody?” In a way, yes. More importantly, don’t place your faith in anyone by virtue of their position or social standing. As Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts.” Be aware that when I talk about “people” above and all of their foibles when it comes to questionable phenomena, I’m not just talking about “those people,” I’m talking about us – human beings. It’s a trend we all have and can all fall prey to.

And that means not becoming one of those who helps spread the fuzzy thinking. Believe in alien visitation? Okay, ask yourself why. Because you’ve heard lots of UFO stories? Yeah, me too. Those books sell really well. Wait – did we just find a key element in the idea?

Do you want to know what’s been hard about this post? It’s that I know too many people who hold some of these beliefs, and I’m trying not to make this sound like a personal attack. But to make it brief, there is harm in simple beliefs, and for the other side of the coin, there are numerous benefits to thinking critically, especially making a habit of it. It’s something that we could stand making a lot more popular. And when you compare it to the efforts spent in spreading ideas like ear candling and astral travel, you realize we could stand trying really hard to make it popular.

Just because

scudhouseMaybe I should amend that title to, “Part One.” Is this likely to be an ongoing thing?

Looking for some specific images the other night, I stumbled across this one that I had completely forgotten about. Back in April 2004 (isn’t EXIF info great?) I was living in Florida and maintained a small saltwater aquarium, but not the usual kind. I lived near the Indian River Lagoon, a largely saltwater internal bay between the mainland and the barrier islands on the Atlantic coast, and my tank was stocked with critters collected from there, whatever I could get my hands on (and would fit in the tank – some wouldn’t.) One overabundant resident in the area was the amphipod… heh, “the” amphipod, like there’s only one species. There are probably so many that it’s impossible to get an accurate species count, so don’t go asking me what, exactly, these are. All I know is that they are found everywhere, and if you pull a handful of seaweed out of the water, you’ll have these crawling across your hand in moments as they try to get back into the water. They’re completely harmless, and once you get past the creepiness of a swarm of lice-like crustaceans, you start watching their antics. They are, after all, a bit easier to see than the Sea Monkeys we all grew up with.

Here, an empty snail shell was gathered up with the new seaweed that I would replenish the tank with (a food source for many of the residents,) small enough that it was floated to the surface by trapped air within. The ‘pods thought this was the coolest thing, and swam in and out for quite some time. I was lucky enough to catch it while adhering to the tank glass momentarily, which allowed for a tight macro shot. The largest amphipod seen here could hide easily behind a grain of rice.

I had a lot of fun with that tank, and produced hundreds of images from it, a small fraction seen here. Man, I have to go back to Florida…

You owe it to yourself

ihbbeamrise2This is a topic that’s hard to illustrate effectively, so in order to fully appreciate it, you’re going to have to do at least one outside exercise yourself. But let’s start with, do you do any photography yourself? If yes, good! Now, do you have a film camera? It’s my suspicion that a pretty good percentage of answers (if I actually had readers, anyway) would be, “no.” And to that I say, “Why the hell not?”

I’ve been through the majority of answers to that – I used to be active on several photography forums as digital cameras made their big splash. And I have to admit I was never convinced by those answers. I shoot digital now, and have for several years, so I have personal experience with all of those answers firsthand. And it’s why I don’t shoot exclusively digital (if you were fooled by the statement, “I shoot digital now,” into thinking that it was the only format I used, shame on you.) If you want a breakdown of many of those arguments, I covered them on a dedicated page here.

If you, however, have never run a roll of slide film through a film camera, all I can say is, do it now. There’s a whole other world of photography that you haven’t tried yet. The colors, the vibrancy, the sharpness – I’m not one for enthusing over things, I think it simply makes one sound overexuberant and chases people off, but all these have to be seen. And yes, I hear the argument: “But you can get all of those things from digital! And you can even alter them to your liking on the computer!” I usually hear those things from people who virtually never shoot film, so I’m not really sold on their experience. Just try it first. Come back and tell me I’m wrong if you like.

Now, I can’t illustrate this too effectively for you, no matter how I might try, because this is a digital interface. Everything I display on the blog or website has to be digitized – scanned from the original slide. And this introduces three major handicaps. The biggest by far is something called 24-bit color, which is the default display on most systems and software right now. In essence, you have three color registers (either red, green, & blue, or cyan, magenta, & yellow – RGB or CMYK respectively) and 256 values in each of those. Everything has to be rendered into those registers. And while this might seem like a lot, it doesn’t compare to the analog color of emulsions, which can cover much greater ranges. So subtleties can be lost when converting to digital.

The second handicap is color rendition. Scanners can have issues with different films, in that they don’t seem to recognize the neutral starting point, what we tend to think of as “white light.” So they can scan a slide and produce something that looks very dissimilar from the slide itself, and then the operator has to perform corrections to get this back on track. This can take a pretty good amount of experience, and I routinely re-examine my slide scans and tweak the colors in different ways.

And finally, there is no such thing as a color digital sensor. No, seriously. All they measure is light intensity, how bright the light they receive is, and this applies to both digital cameras and film scanners. But the “image” they get is monochrome. In order to make it color, you have to do the same thing as holding a sheet of colored plastic in front of a B&W TV. That’s right – individual pixels actually have color filters over top of them. Software later interprets this the best it can and converts the image into a smooth field of the similar colors, rather than (like your computer monitor) a matrix of alternating color dots. The end result of this is, you’re stuck with the color filters that the scanner has built into it.

mossystumpYou’re stuck with it for particular film types, too – it’s built into the emulsion. But not all films are the same, and you can switch between ones good for skin tones and ones that make colors pop, ones good for foliage and ones good for low light. Slide films are by far the best for vibrant colors and richness. And they also have traits you may not like at first, like higher contrast and slow ISO ratings. Casual photographers may find they produce a lot of shots they simply throw out.

You see, that’s actually a benefit. Because it makes us slow down and consider the conditions, and what we’re doing with the camera, before we take the shot. For instance, Fuji Velvia 50 is a fine-grained, ISO 50 slide film that has very high contrast. It doesn’t do well in very bright light conditions, because that’s high contrast too, and it can make shadows go completely black. And it forces slower shutter speeds because that ISO rating means it needs more light. But then you see the colors and sharpness it produces, the green leaves and red flowers and blue sky that practically assault your eye, and you’re blown away. So you pay attention to the lighting, and you use a tripod, and a fill-flash or reflector. And you compose your shot, rather than simply grabbing it quickly and thinking you’ll correct it later in Photoshop. Because, trust me, unless you want to hand-paint an image, there’s nothing you can do about details or colors that you never actually caught in the digital image in the first place. They don’t exist to enhance. It’s like enhancing a white piece of paper – what are you gonna do with it?

See that image at top? Yes, it’s been scanned, and trust me when I say it lost something in the process (or you can come by to visit and I’ll show you the slide.) It also is something I probably never could have caught on a digital camera. None that I’ve ever used could handle color rendition in bright highlights very well, so those colors in the sky, with their nice transitions into shadow, tend to lose a lot. I’ve also had really rotten luck with fall foliage in digital, but not with slide film.

Now, of course, comes the stumbling block: too few labs are even processing slide film anymore. In my area (the “Triangle” of Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, NC) there are only a couple of labs in the three-city area that do it, and even fewer of those that hire competent help – I stopped using one because they scratched the film too much. But, long ago, I started using processing mailers, and while it takes a week or so to see the results, they’re also inexpensive and do quality work. The two that I use the most are Fujicolor Processing (handled through Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas) and A&I Color labs in California.

A lot of people seem to think that this means film and processing will soon no longer be available, but there’s two reasons this is wrong. The first is that, there’s still too much demand for film, for just the reasons I outlined above. Fuji has even recently reworked two of its popular emulsions. And the second is that, when you start using it, you and I are going to increase that demand ;-)

treefrog2-7And what films? Well, it depends on your preferred subject. For nature & wildlife, I use all Fuji stock: Provia 100F as a general purpose film, good color and sharpness, fairly high contrast, able to be pushed (which means, exposed and processed at a higher ISO than the rated 100); Velvia 50, simply the sharpest and brightest color film on the market, especially for greens, but very high contrast; and Astia/Sensia 100 (they’re the same thing, Astia is just shipped at an optimum time for the emulsion – it’s a professional/anal thing,) much lower contrast but still with good color, able to be used on bright sunlit days and on people, which I wouldn’t recommend the others for. There are others which perform well too, like the new Provia 400X and Velvia 100F – you probably couldn’t find anything wrong with these either. Other photographers I know prefer the Kodak Elite Chrome series, and these might be more to your liking.

The upside to this is, film cameras have dropped to an all-time low in prices, both new and used – even medium-format gear (much larger slides/negatives) have become affordable, rather than exorbitantly overpriced as it’s been for decades.

So, give it a shot – you have nothing to lose. If you really don’t like it after giving it a fair go, I’m here to be blamed, so fire away. I’m not too worried about it, though ;-)

More playing in the dark

In consideration of the full moon on New Year’s day (well, okay, New Year’s night,) and with recognition of not having done a damn thing for the International Year of Astronomy, I ventured out on the evening of January 1st and tried for some moonlight photos. No, not photos of the moon itself – I have enough of those: full, crescent, eclipses, and so on. I mean photos taken by the light of the moon. What’s cool about this is that the moon is pretty neutral in its reflective properties, and while the light it provides is dim, it’s also pretty close to white. We simply don’t realize this because the low-light capabilities of our eyes lack color perception.

spillwayGiven a long enough exposure, however, moonlight can appear just like sunlight. This isn’t so much fun in itself, unless you have a subject that benefits from exposure times of several minutes. What I usually aim for is enough light to have detail, but still an overall darker effect, and allow for stars in the sky. In art, this effect is called “chiaroscuro,” roughly meaning “bright darkness.” It’s often seen in movies shot at night, because there needs to be a certain amount of light for the cameras, but still give an impression of night, so the actors are often fairly bright against the darker background. Moonlit shots work well for it, though, with more character in my opinion.

My biggest problem has been locating a great subject for it nearby. I’ve been lucky enough to get prime conditions for it while traveling only once, since it takes a clear night with a full moon. I still work for a living, so the times when this falls on a few days I have off are rare, and rarer still that the sky is clear too. So on the first I simply drove down to the Haw River spillway nearby and tried a few shots. What I most like about this shot is the fingers of shadow stretching out across the foam, from a nearby tree, and the trickles of reflected headlights from the edge of the water. Also, check the reflections of the opposite shore in the water above the spillway. When you know this is a six minute exposure, you realize that the water above the spill stayed amazingly smooth.

I wasn’t out there too long, mostly because there wasn’t a whole lot I could do with the subject, but also because I was freezing my butt off – the temperature was just below freezing and a stiff wind was blowing. Yeah, I hear the scoffs of the Canadians, but go stand doing nothing by the camera while the timer ticks down. It seems funny that, not all that long ago, I did a post about night photography where the sweat kept dripping in my eyes and the viewfinder kept fogging up. I seem to have missed the nice middle ground where I could be out all night and be comfortable.

hawtrails-sI did some other frames too, aiming upriver and trying to capture the stars. This one was a four-minute exposure, so I got some limited streaks from the rotation of the earth, and you can tell from the curves that I was pointing almost north – Polaris, the North Star, would be the focal point of these curves had it been in the pic. Click on the pic for a bigger example. One of these days I’ll do a wide-angle shot of the ecliptic plane, the “waist” of the starfield as it were, which splits the difference between the northern and southern arcs – should be a nice warped effect that will make people think I’m messing about in Photoshop (but then again, nearly every interesting photo makes people think that nowadays.)

I just took the digital camera body on this trip, because I wanted a better idea of exposure times, but Provia 100F is the film of choice for things like this – the star colors are much, much richer. The problem with Provia, though, is that it doesn’t like the color register from the orange sodium streetlamps now in common use, rendering them a sickly green, so it works much better far away from city lights. Yes, I still need to do some trips out west, thank you very much – contributions to those expenses can be made through my PayPal account, because the job sure as hell isn’t covering it. Hey, aren’t I supposed to be making some money by blogging? Or was that stuffing envelopes in my spare time? One of those, anyway…

If you do any photography, I encourage you to try this out (I mean full moon photography, not stuffing envelopes, blogging, or working for a non-profit). Both of these exposures were at 100 ISO. The top one is six minutes at f8, the bottom four minutes at f5.6. And yes, a firm tripod is a must – but then, it should be part of your photo equipment anyway. The camera must be capable of “B” (bulb) setting, and a cable or remote shutter release is recommended. Wait for the moon to be high, but directly overheard might be boring – some shadows often help. Two other examples of moon shots can be found here and here.

And more on Florida

I still have to scan in a couple images to talk about from a photography standpoint, so there’ll be even more on the Florida end. But right now, this is just a story.

While The Girlfriend and I were down at Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk in the Everglades, we had started out on the trail into the swamp, but didn’t get very far before coming to a group of people halted on the trail. The reason for this was an alligator, maybe a little over 1.5 meters (4-5 feet) had hoisted itself up onto the trail and laid down for a quick snooze. The trail was only about four meters (12 feet) wide at this point and it was well off to the side. But there are warnings posted throughout Florida about the speed and aggression of alligators, and of course, watching any number of TV programs will impress on you the ferocity of African crocodiles. So being discreet is a better trait than being casual or oblivious.

Anyone that has spent any time around American Alligators, however, knows this is overblown for safety reasons. They not only tend not to care very much at all about anything when they’re not feeding, they’re actually a bit shy. Gators that aren’t in areas where human contact is common often bolt for cover at the first signs of intrusion, but since nothing is big enough to tackle them, they’re often just seen sunning themselves and couldn’t care less about people in the area.

speedtrapThe poor family on the far side of the trail from us, though, had a bigger problem. They couldn’t go anywhere until the gator moved, unless they decided to chance passing close to it. The Girlfriend and I had paused as well, but for my sake, I was more concerned about being in a park area and a ranger/authority figure being upset because I was not respecting the gator’s space. After a few minutes of this, however, I decided waiting for an alligator to finish napping could take 12 hours. So I unfolded the tripod to full length and held it out casually as a lance/polearm, then walked on the opposite side of the trail from the gator, stopped right alongside, and started waving people through behind me. I really didn’t feel the gator was any danger, but if he got seriously aggressive, he’d have the tripod to get through first.

This wasn’t heroic, and not the point I’m making – it was more impatience, and knowing gators for what they are: lazy. But no one seemed to argue it, and took advantage of the path behind me to go on their way. The funny bit is, they often paused behind me to get a nice close photograph of the gator from the side. You see, I’m a big guy, and more than a meal for a smaller gator, and probably slower than most of the people around me, so this made a kind of sense. It didn’t go over well with The Girlfriend, and one woman got scolded by her husband for it too, but I hope at least they got their shots.

hotpursuitThen the gator, well aware of my standing there, decided it had had enough of the paparazzi and hauled itself to its feet. I shifted to allow it room, and it ambled unhurriedly past me and down the trail towards the people who still hadn’t passed, who gave way respectfully. If it wasn’t for the one guy watching warily over his shoulder in this shot, you wouldn’t get the impression anyone considered this anything other than a photo opportunity. And this means that perhaps several people have shots of me getting this image from the other side. The gator, having navigated as much as six meters (20 feet) plopped itself down on the trail again, and I callously left the slowpokes to their own fate and continued down the trail. Part of me was already a little frustrated at the idea that I’d let a large group of people ahead of me on the trail all together, not the best move from a nature photography standpoint, because it means they’re much more likely to scare off anything of photographic interest. I’ll know better next time, and just skip through myself while the gator holds them off.

Florida revisited

Well, okay, no – I’m still in North Carolina (and it’s freaking snowing as I type this). But this is a long overdue followup to my followup.

I had originally said that the last trip was a little disappointing in that I didn’t have any photos that knocked me down. And while I still feel this way, things have changed my perspective slightly. You see, the day before leaving on the trip, I was contacted through my website by someone that wanted to buy rights to some photos from Florida, which was great. I begged off until I got back, and as a result, didn’t inquire as to what they were after. So while there, I shot my typical pursuits in my typical way.

When I got back and asked what they were after, I found out they were looking for basically a panoramic or banner format, which I don’t shoot for in most cases, and that I found to be kind of restrictive. But it also ruled out virtually anything I shot on the recent trip (some of their choices were specific, too, which narrowed things down on their own.)

So. I started looking through my stock for photos that would work and sent them some examples, as well as a starting price. We traded correspondence for a bit, then things died out. This was in May. I figured I’d lost the contract, which happens (and in my cynical outlook, par for the course.)

Since then, I had to reload the blog under different software, and the search for banner-cropped images for the client had spurred my interest. It led to the blog banner you see above, and I started liking the approach more. I realized many more photos than I initially thought would work in that format, and that cropping out portions of the subjects did not always work against them. So there’s over 20 images in that random banner at top now, and I keep adding more.

Then, not that long ago, the potential client got back in touch and said they were ready to get it moving again – they’d simply hit their busy season in the interim. Well, okay then! We talked some more about their goals, and in the end, two shots from the most recent trip ended up among the eight they selected. Those (and the others) can be seen through March 15, 2010 on the site www.gunster.com.

sanibelshells-bHere’s the funny part. One of the images was one I shot vertically, and liked for the depth it produced. On a whim, I had rotated the shot over at a significant angle and cropped it into their format, then sent it along as one of the last round of examples. It’s kind of a lesson in perspective – not the photo’s, but my own, because I would never have thought that it work this way, and did indeed reject it (several times over) when looking for images to send them. However, they weren’t influenced by seeing the original image, nor did they have any kind of attachment to it like I did. I’ve known for a long time that I tend to be very critical of my work, but I don’t discourage this in myself too much because it also makes me work harder for better images. Here, however, it affected the different ways I could see the image – and I used to think I was creative in cropping options!

That’s the original there (with a larger version, and a small addition, in my photo galleries here) and you can see the version they bought at their site (at least until 3/15/10.) The other one from the trip that they liked is the manatee.

So, yeah, I feel a little bit differently about the shots I got on that trip, now ;-)

In the holiday spirit

Okay, two silly little things this morning contributed to this, which I shamelessly then used to exploit the nature of my friend Dan Palmer, who now shares the writing credit (or blame, as you see fit) for this. Short story: A stray song lyric seen in a comic strip, and a nonsense conversation with Dan, suddenly caused a mental rewrite of two lines, and once that started, more followed. And Dan is always up to that kind of challenge. So, with apologies to Mel Torme, Robert Walls, and Nat King Cole…

Crackpots boasting on an open wire
Making claims ’bout planet Mars
Pop-up ads hawking Christmas attire
And folks dressed up in avatars

Everybody spars ’bout Tiger and some mistress ‘ho
Cause they all know they must be right
Tiny tots with their iPods aglow
Won’t find it hard to tweet tonight

You know that Santa’s on his Wii
He’s “pwning n00bs” that chose the PS3
And every online child is gonna Skype,
to “c if rndeers rly no how 2 typ.”

My inbox spills quotes misattributed
And cats that have too much to say
So to sample the heart of each YouTube thread
“OMG THATS SO GAY”

The secret to finding things

You can always find what you’re looking for, provided that the definition of what you’re looking for is vague enough.

I received a call from a friend the other night, one I haven’t talked to in a while. He’s in a new situation: he lives on a farm bequeathed to him by a friend of his when she died, on the provision that he takes care of the farm and animals. Nice setup, but it came with no small amount of responsibility which he seems to be handling well.

At one point, he asked me if I believed in ghosts, and upon hearing that I didn’t, he asked me what I thought about several experiences he’d had. There were a couple of minor ones, like a gate on one field that was typically opened downhill and took some effort to open uphill, that he was pretty sure he had never opened uphill yet had found it in that position on two occasions. Another experience was distantly hearing the doorbell, distinctly enough for him to start tracking it, even though the doorbell doesn’t work.

cemetaryBut his main one was, admittedly, curious. After some bad behavior from one of the former owner’s dogs, he began disciplining the dog (not, by his accounts, in an unacceptable way) and was interrupted by music from the music-box urn containing the former owner’s ashes. To give him credit, he admitted that the urn rested among items that would have been disturbed had the table been bumped or vibrated, and that later attempts to get the music box to begin playing again failed.

Mysterious, perhaps, when presented in this manner. But when I asked him some more specific questions about what he did and didn’t do, he openly admitted that he wanted to believe there was a spirit of the former owner there, and in fact, had felt this compulsion, as if he was being watched over, ever since moving onto the farm.

I had to stop him there and point out that this was hardly mysterious – the value of the farm is not inconsequential, and the bequeathal stipulated that the animals be cared for. There wasn’t any reason to suppose this “compulsion” was anything but honest conscience. But more telling was the idea that he wanted there to be a supernatural explanation, and this is probably the hardest thing to overcome when dealing with assessing things in a critical manner. Desire leads, very rapidly, to confirmation bias, where experiences like the doorbell and the gate are indications of spiritual intervention. He was unable to tell me why such a spirit would play around with the sounds of a distant doorbell, or what the gate opening the opposite way was supposed to mean. They were simply things he noticed that were out of the ordinary that therefore supported the notion.

Now, I now this guy well, and it’s safe to say that while anyone could easily fail to notice that they’d opened the gate uphill on more than one occasion, it’s even more likely for him – keen observation is not what springs to mind when you get to know him. And the doorbell? This wasn’t a case of him telling me that the doorbell had definitely sounded, but that he thought he’d heard it, twice. So that tends to leave the skeptic asking, “What exactly did you hear, and how loudly?” and of course, if the doorbell’s been broken, does he even know what it sounds like? Broken simply means “not working when it’s pressed,” too – loose wires, bad connections? Alternately, wind chimes, TV, radio, glassware tinkling? How many types of sounds imply “doorbell” because of two tones, the second lower in pitch than the first?

Many people would say at this point that this is grasping at straws, or that I haven’t proven the wind chime theory. And this is one of the more amusing arguments that skeptics meet regularly: if the mundane, ordinary explanation has not been firmly established with clinical trials, then it’s okay to start considering the supernatural ones. Um, no. Start with, wind chimes and rocking glassware are proven to exist – ghosts are not. The odds favor wind chimes or rattling vases by a wide margin, right from the start. And, to take this further, let’s say we’ve effectively ruled out wind chimes, glassware, and all other mundane explanations that spring to mind. Are ghosts okay then? Well, that’s kind of hard to say – what kinds of sounds do ghosts make, and why? How do they make them? Do they make them in response to certain things? Let’s face it, the body of evidence (heh!) for ghosts is, um, nonexistent – we have stories, and that’s really it. If we assume spirits can affect the material world in certain ways, why a doorbell? If you were to find yourself, after your death, observing the living and trying to communicate to them, what would be your first choice? Second? Third? How far down the list do “doorbell” and “gate” come?

But wait! The music box urn containing the owner’s ashes! Yes, that’s how I’d communicate! (No, I’d probably type an e-mail while they watched, but that’s just me.) It started all by itself just as he was disciplining the dog! That’s pretty damning! (Okay, sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Well, let’s back up a second. One thing I did indeed ask was, “Did you wind the music box up again, let it play until it stopped, then try to get it to start spontaneously?” No, this had not been done. I regrettably didn’t ask if this was the first time he’d disciplined the dog, though, and I wish I had – that kind of question points out confirmation bias pretty handily sometimes. I did ask if he tried disciplining the dog again, to see if it started the music box again, but he hadn’t done that either – he was already too convinced.

And therein lies the biggest stumbling block. The music box starting at that time can certainly be coincidental – they run on spring tension which gradually releases, and can start again once resistance is overcome through vibration, changing temperatures, et cetera. But is there any chance of him accepting that if he wants to believe otherwise? Not very much at all.

And of course, this is where so-called psychics, ghost hunters, and various other opportunists come in – usually with a fee, imagine that. Seriously, how much skill do you think it takes to face someone who wants to hear they’re being visited by spirits and say, “You’re being visited by spirits”? And how often do you think they’re asked to show how they actually know that? Not often, you say? Not ever, you say? You’re probably right. Because we’ve got this saying, as humans – quit while you’re ahead. Stop asking questions before you get to the answers you don’t actually want to hear – that’s how “truth” is actually defined, after all: “What pleases me.” It seems funny that we can’t face circumstances that aren’t as we wish, even when it means knowing how the world works. Reality is such a drag.

So, my friend resides in a haunted house, wary of doorbells, gates, and scolding the dog. Makes me wonder what the ghost will disapprove of next.

Learn from your mistakes

This is just a stupid quick post. I’m doing updates on the website (you know, the parent site that this blog resides within), and while trying to find something, I looked up my own name in Google Images. Unfortunately, my website doesn’t come up very often.

The reason? My name isn’t associated with the site in too many ways that Google’s search engine will find. Sure, it appears on almost every page – but as a jpeg image of text, which Google won’t find. It’s also in the page tags, but Google has this little criteria: If the page tags aren’t matching the text within a page, it drops significantly on the “match” level. And I rarely include my name on the pages themselves.

So take it from Al Denelsbeck: Al Denelsbeck says, if you want your own name – in this case, “Al Denelsbeck” – to be able to be found in search engines, make sure to put your name (e.g., “Al Denelsbeck”) within the text of the page. And be sure to thank Al Denelsbeck for this tip.