Wednesday, May 25, 2016
English is blessed with a large and fascinating family of w-r words connoting twisting, turning, and turning-into (in the sense of becoming)—think writhing wriggling worms and the wrath of wraiths. (See my ancient post about “werewords” if you are curious.) My favorite of this family is Wyrd, which comes from the Old English weorthan, “to become,” but with a sense of turning or spinning—as in, the “spinning” of the thread of our life. Wyrd (or in Norse, Urthr) was one of the three sister-goddesses, the Norns or Fates, who together wove a man’s destiny and could thus foretell it. Wyrd, as becoming and as turning, represents “what has turned out” or “what will have turned out” or “what you will have turned into.” It is a kind of future-perfect tense, a retrospective view from a future vantage point that can look back and survey the ironic (or even warped) paths a life has taken.
Other than through a common appearance in fantasy novels, including the Discworld series of Terry Pratchett, Wyrd survives now in English solely via the wonderful word weird, and this is thanks entirely to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The “weird sisters” were three prophetic witches living alone in the wilderness, inspired undoubtedly by the Norns, but their role in Shakespeare’s tragedy is far more interesting. Weird didn’t simply mean “strange” as it does nowadays; it meant more a force of compulsion related to prophecy—forcing things to happen because a prophetic person said it. Frank Herbert keyed in on this ancient usage in Dune, where “weirding words” had a compelling force over the hearer.
The concept of Wyrd can thus help us understand post-selection, the quantum physics concept that allows time travel—including time-traveling information (prescience and prophecy)—to exist without producing causality-offending paradoxes. The term comes from quantum computing, where it is simply a filter on the outcomes of a computation: Set a computer to perform calculations and exclude all the various solutions that do not arrive at a desired, “selected” answer. This leaves a range of allowable paths to get to that answer—a certain limited range or degrees of freedom within which information accessed in the past, at time point A, accurately pertains to the future event at time point B. In a way it is analogous to quantum “tunneling”—a particle’s ability to simultaneously take multiple paths to a destination in space—but applied to the time dimension instead.
Applied to the larger universe of causality, which is information by another name, post-selection just means we live in a possible universe, and outcomes are those that have “survived” (think Darwin). Specifically, they have survived any possible precognitive detection by an agent capable or desirous of preventing them, or else have been actually facilitated by prophecy (those feedback loops I’m fond of). Under post-selection, a degree of foresight is purchased at the expense of some degrees of freedom of action and interpretation.
This produces ironic effects that go a long way toward explaining various characteristics of psi and the paranormal more generally. Post-selection is the Trickster, who might also be called the Timeline Guardian. The witches’ prophecies about Macbeth actually shape his destiny, his Wyrd, embodying the ambiguities and peculiarities of prescience in a possible universe, a universe that must sometimes take strange steps to protect itself from paradox. This may even offer a new way of thinking about psychokinetic (PK, or mind-over-matter) effects that seem to occur in the vicinity of precognition.
At the end of the investigation of the historic home, a scream was heard.
Walking through the Octagon House — one of the historic buildings at Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles — Irvine resident Ashley Hansen fumbled through pitch-black rooms until she found the source of the noise: a woman she'd spoken to earlier in the night who was a skeptic when it came to all things paranormal.
Like something out of a horror film, the woman stood ramrod straight, plastered to the wall, not blinking, according to Hansen as she relayed the story. She asked the woman if she was OK.
"She's like, 'I like this house. I just want everyone to leave my house,' " recalled Hansen, who suggested that the woman seemed to be channeling a spirit.
No stranger to the paranormal — Hansen and her dad have been amateur ghost hunters for 10 years — even she was a little creeped out, she said.
Something even more chilling happened later that night: The woman did not remember the episode.
"She didn't remember anything," said Hansen. "She looked at me like I was psycho."
It's incidents like these that keep Hansen and other frequenters of Haunted Orange County coming back for more. Skeptics are drawn to the paranormal events too, if only to disprove them.
It was a tall man all dressed in black and with a big beard and it felt like he was trying to strangle me. My friends say I was screaming desperately, but I don’t remember much.
That’s just one account from a student at an elementary school in Peru where nearly one hundred students were said to experience seizures that looked like demonic possession. The school has a haunted past. Is there a connection?
The incidents of alleged demonic possession have reportedly been occurring at the Elsa Perea Flores School in Tarapato, a major city in northern Peru. Since at least April 29th, students (it appears to be mostly girls) between the ages of 11 and 14 have been fainting, frothing at the mouth, seeing hallucinations, vomiting and shaking as if experiencing severe convulsions. Many of them claim to be chased by a “man in black” trying to attack them. One girl was witnessed struggling to breath, holding her neck and screaming “Take it out!”
Calls for emergency assistance have occurred frequently enough that the local media has covered the story, showing videos on the news and social media sites of trucks carrying screaming children and distraught teachers and parents to hospitals where they’re treated for nausea, anxiety and the other symptoms of their mysterious and frightening condition.
When I was twelve years old, I was fascinated by psychic powers.
Who wouldn’t be? It’s a provocative notion, to be able to reach out and push things around, hear what other people are thinking, or tell the future, all just by using your mind.
I read everything I could find about ESP, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition—the whole gamut of mental abilities that stretched beyond the ordinary. I was a big fan of comic books, where all the heroes were endowed with superpowers, but also of science-fiction and fantasy stories, not to mention straightforwardly “scientific” accounts of what purported to be evidence for human capabilities beyond the normal. I wanted to penetrate the mystery, figure out how this kind of thing could really work.
So eventually I decided on the obvious course of action—I would perform my own experiments. I started with small things like dice and coins, placed carefully on a smooth tabletop. Then I just … thought at them. I concentrated as hard as I could, trying to push the little trinkets across the table with the sheer force of my mind. Sadly, nothing. I switched to easier targets: tiny scraps of paper that shouldn’t require as much force to get moving. In the end I had to admit it: maybe some people were able to push things around just by thinking, but I wasn’t one of them.
As experiments go, this wasn’t the most careful one ever performed. But it was convincing to me at the time. I gave up on the idea that I could move things around with my mind, and became pretty skeptical of anyone else who claimed to have such powers.
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
The human brain has amazing capacities. It contains billions of neurons, allowing it to process vast quantities of information so that we can function effectively. But can we have too much information? Yes, and, in fact, filtering information is one of the brain’s most important functions. Brain filtering is an adaptive strategy and ensures that only the information relevant to our goals is allowed into our consciousness. This keeps us from being flooded with irrelevancies that might distract us.
To introduce brain filtering to my neuroscience students, I show them a video of two teams throwing a ball back and forth, and instruct them to track how many times each team gets the ball. After the students give their answers, I ask if they noticed anything unusual during the video. Typically, they say no. I then tell them a man in a gorilla costume walked across the court during the play. When they watch the video again, they see the gorilla. This is a classical case of the brain filtering out information (the gorilla) irrelevant to the task (counting).
Filtering of information through the attentional pathways of our brain was brought to wide acceptance in the 1950s through the work of psychologist Donald Broadbent. There is still debate regarding where in the brain this filtering takes place, but it is known that the two sides of the brain filter information differently. The left controls information important for language abilities and goal-directed actions. The right controls a broader visual-spatial attention that allows us to take in new experiences on the boundaries of our awareness.
There are a few interesting quasi-naturalistic hypotheses why we see ghosts out there, from etchings in the landscape that play back like recordings, to mental projections from our memory, to bleed-through from other dimensions, but the most parsimonious explanation remains the one that was offered when our species first put pen to paper. Well, clay tablet. It seems that ever since we started recording things in ancient Mesopotamia (the reputed cradle of Western civilization and site of one of the species’ first publishing industries, if we figure written history starts around 3100 B.C.), we’ve posited that ghosts come back because they have unfinished business here on Earth.
Death sucks, given the one alternative we’re aware of. There’s all that rotting. The weeping relatives. The estate litigation. Inevitably, all those smug corporeal types get on with their lives and the business of not being dead, and affectionately write you off as a happy memory or worm food. If you’re lucky they toast you on your birthday. They figure you’re either strumming a harp blissfully in eternal paradise or deservedly combusting in a netherworld of punishment. Ancient Mesopotamians religion was a little less unequivocal. All the dead went to Irkalla, also called by such cheerful names as “the realm beneath the earth”, “the land of the dead”, and “the land of no return”, where the good, the bad, and the ugly eternally dwelt in dreary darkness, ate dirt, and drank from mud puddles, all under the watchful gaze of Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld. Translations of cuneiform texts paint a not so pretty picture in the tale of Ishtar (Inanna), the goddess of love and fertility, and her descent into Irkalla.
As a whole, mankind is a superstitious lot. The world is a cruel place and we need all the help we can get. So, what do we do? We turn to our amulets and charms, our talismans, and sometimes, even our animals with the hope that a little good luck will protect us from whatever’s out there. However, some of those charms have a pretty unsettling story.
10. The Medal Of Saint Benedict
On one side of the medal is the cross of Saint Benedict and an incantation recited to drive away the devil. The letters around the outside of the medal (V.R.S.N.S.M.V.) stand for “Vade retro Satana; nunquam suade mihi vana.” In English, that translates to “Begone Satan! Suggest not to be they vain things.”
Saint Benedict’s teachings have been around for centuries, recorded most completely in the sixth-century writings of Saint Gregory the Great. But the incantation that adorns his medal came much later, and was discovered during a trial for witchcraft. In 1647, a group of women were on trial for witchcraft in the Bavarian city of Natternberg. The women testified that while they did wield the power of witchcraft and the devil, there was one place where they had no power . . . the nearby abbey at Metten. The women claimed the abbey was under some sort of particularly powerful protection, and they were unable to overcome whatever it was.
When the abbey was investigated to find out why it had kept the witches away, the townsfolk actually found something. Painted crosses hung on the walls of the abbey with the same inscription that’s now used on the medal. There was no clue what the letters stood for until they uncovered a manuscript dated from 1415. The manuscript depicted an illumination of the saint holding a scroll and a staff. On that scroll and staff was the entire incantation that’s now associated with Benedict.
The incantation that had stifled the witches’ power went 17th-century viral, and medals stamped with the letters spread across the continent. They became known as being incredibly effective against anyone suffering from demonic possession. They were also believed to give the wearer divine protection, help drive away anything evil, and ultimately bring about peace of mind and a pure heart.
Legends of the Anting-Anting come from the Philippines. It was believed that the amulet protected the wearer from any harm done by bullets or knives and became popular among the county’s outlaws. In his treatise on folklore, John Maurice Miller told the story of Manuelito—the leader of an outlaw band who was kept safe by his Anting-Anting.
According to the story, Manuelito had countless run-ins with the law, and every time, he would walk away. It was said that it didn’t matter how many people were shooting at him, his Anting-Anting would deflect any bullets that even came close to him. During parties and celebrations, he would arm his own men and instruct them to shoot at him, all to demonstrate his invincibility. As the outlaw and his men approached Manila, a group of Macabebes were dispatched to try to put an end to his reign of terror once and for all. They cast their bullets from silver that was melted from a statue of the Virgin Mary. It was the only thing powerful enough to overcome the Anting-Anting and, finally, kill the outlaw leader.
Copies of Manuelito’s charm were made in huge numbers, but the folklore behind making an Anting-Anting is pretty terrible. It was most effective when they were made during Holy Week. One method called for the exhumation of an unbaptized child or an aborted baby. The body was placed inside a bamboo tube, and the liquid that drained from the tube was collected. Then, the fluid was slowly sipped by whoever wanted to gain the protection of the Anting-Anting. Alternately, they could head to a cemetery during Holy Week and place an offering of food and wine on a tomb. Spirits would consume the meal and leave behind a white stone, giving their protection in exchange for the meal.
Just how much loneliness, isolation, and solitude can a person endure before they break, and how can they find the strength to push past it to survive? Throughout history there have been tales of those brave, hardy souls who have endured and struggled through such hardships and somehow found a way to survive the debilitating scourge that true solitude and never-ending challenge can bring. One of the most famous true stories of human triumph over both the outer forces of nature and the gnawing inner forces of depression and grief is that of a British privateer who found himself cast off onto a remote island far from civilization, where he fought against both the yawning chasm of despair and the numerous pitfalls of a rugged land out to kill him, to emerge almost a hero and to give inspiration to one of the most famous adventure novels ever published.
One of the most amazing real life stories of adventure and survival against all odds starts in the sleepy fishing village of Fife, located in in Lower Largo, Scotland, and right across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. It was here in 1676 that a man named Alexander Selcraig, mostly now known as Alexander Selkirk, was born into the family of a humble leather tanner and shoemaker. As he grew older, Selkirk quickly became known as a hotheaded, unruly youth who was prone to losing his temper at a moment’s notice, and it was this fiery disposition that would land him in trouble time and time again. In his teenage years he was known to be constantly unruly in church, drink incessantly, get into brawls, and generally be violent and confrontational towards those around him. One of the worst incidents of this violence occurred when Alex turned his wrath on his own family; beating his father, two brothers, and his brother’s wife with a wooden stick after his younger brother made fun of him for accidentally taking a swig of saltwater.
Monday, May 23, 2016
The Trojan War was a grander event than even Homer would have us believe. The famous conflict may have been one of the final acts in what one archaeologist has controversially dubbed “World War Zero” – an event he claims brought the eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age world crashing down 3200 years ago.
And the catalyst for the war? A mysterious and arguably powerful civilisation almost entirely overlooked by archaeologists: the Luwians.
By the second millennium BC, civilisation had taken hold throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The Egyptian New Kingdom coexisted with the Hittites of central Anatolia and the Mycenaeans of mainland Greece, among others.
In little more than a single generation, they had all collapsed. Was the culprit climate change? Some sort of earthquake storm? Social unrest? Archaeologists can’t seem to agree.
The werewolf of Hull! Witnesses claim they've spotted 8ft tall fanged beast with human-like features nicknamed 'Old Stinker'
A number of werewolf sightings have been reported in woods outside of Hull, sparking locals to organise a a hunt for the beast on the next full moon.
Over the past months, witnesses have come forward to speak of spotting a huge, hairy creature around the Barmston Drain, a man-made channel near the town of Beverley.
Some locals believe the sightings are evidence of a mythical Yorkshire beast called 'Old Stinker'.
A woman who sighted the potential werewolf in December told the Express 'It was stood upright one moment. The next it was down on all fours running like a dog. I was terrified.
'It vaulted 30ft over to the other side and vanished up the embankment and over a wall into some allotments.'
She said that it both ran on all two legs and on all fours, as if with the qualities of both human and wolf.
Our universe is going to die, no doubt about it. One of the most accepted models of the end of the universe is eternal expansion and eventual death by entropy. As the universe continues to expand, entropy increases until everything we know is gone. But what does life look like as the end approaches? That question has given rise to fascinating ideas about the universe and life itself.
10. No Stars Visible From Earth
In 150 billion years, the night sky from Earth will look very different. As the universe races to its heat death, space itself will start to expand faster than the speed of light. Many of us are aware of the idea that light speed is a hard limit on the speed of an object in the universe. However, that only applies to objects that are in space, not the fabric of space-time itself. This is a hard concept to wrap our minds around, but the fabric of space-time is already expanding faster than light. And in the far future, it will have strange implications.
As space itself is expanding faster than light, a cosmological horizon exists. Any object past the horizon would require us to have the ability to observe and record by detecting particles traveling faster than light. But no such particle exists. Once objects pass beyond our cosmological horizon, they are inaccessible to us. Any attempt to contact or interact with distant galaxies past the horizon requires us to have technology capable of traveling faster than the expansion of space itself. Right now, only a few objects are outside of our cosmological horizon. But as dark energy accelerates the expansion, everything will fall beyond this observational limit.
What does that mean for Earth? Imagine looking up at the night sky in 150 billion years. The only things visible will be a few scattered stars that are within the cosmological horizon. Eventually, even those will go away. The night sky will go completely blank. An astronomer in the future will have no proof that there is any other object in the universe. All the stars and galaxies we see now will be completely out of telescope reach. For all we could see, our solar system would be the only thing left in our universe.
9. Our Sun Becomes A Black Dwarf
Right now, our universe has many different types of stars. Red dwarfs—cool stars that give off red light—are among the most common of these. Semantically related white dwarfs also fill the universe. These are stellar remnants of dead stars, made of degenerate matter, that are held together by quantum effects. Currently, astronomers consider white dwarfs to have essentially infinite life spans. The universe is just not old enough for them to have died out. But given enough time, even they will die and become exotic stars named black dwarfs.
Our Sun is on that path. In the distant future, our Sun will eject its outer layers and turn into a white dwarf star, staying in that state for billions of years. As the universe winds down, the white dwarf that was our Sun will start to cool. After 10100 years, it will cool down until its temperature is equal to the background microwave radiation, just a few degrees Kelvin above absolute zero.
When that happens, it will be a black dwarf. As this type of star is so cold, it is invisible to the human eye. Thus, anybody trying to find the Sun that used to give us life will find it impossible to see with optical systems. Instead, they will have to rely on detecting its gravitational effects. Most stars that we see in the night sky will become black dwarfs, but knowing that our warm Sun will devolve into a dark and cold stellar remnant is a little more personal.
On May 18, 1980, a devastating natural disaster created an entirely new landscape across a specific portion of Washington State. We are talking about the eruption of Mount St. Helens, which killed more than four dozen people, as well as thousands of wild animals. Within the domain of cryptid ape investigations there are longstanding rumors that the calamitous event also took the lives of more than a few Bigfoot, something which, allegedly, elements of the U.S. Government and military sought to keep under wraps. The government’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) says of the Mount St. Helens disaster:
“With no immediate precursors, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake occurred at 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980 and was accompanied by a rapid series of events. At the same time as the earthquake, the volcano’s northern bulge and summit slid away as a huge landslide—the largest debris avalanche on Earth in recorded history. A small, dark, ash-rich eruption plume rose directly from the base of the debris avalanche scarp, and another from the summit crater rose to about 200 m (650 ft) high. The debris avalanche swept around and up ridges to the north, but most of it turned westward as far as 23 km (14 mi) down the valley of the North Fork Toutle River and formed a hummocky deposit. The total avalanche volume is about 2.5 km3 (3.3 billion cubic yards), equivalent to 1 million Olympic swimming pools.”