Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

A smile without a cat

Every time I hear some new discovery in quantum physics, I think, "Okay, it can't get any weirder than this."

Each time, I turn out to be wrong.

A few of the concepts I thought had blown my mind as much as possible:

  • Quantum superposition -- a particle being in two states at once until you observe it, at which point it apparently decides on one of them (the "collapse of the wave function")
  • The double-slit experiment -- if you pass light through a closely-spaced pair of slits, it creates a distinct interference pattern -- an alternating series of parallel bright and dark bands.  The same interference pattern occurs if you shoot the photons through one of the slits, one photon at a time.  If you close the other slit, the pattern disappears.  It's as if the photons passing through the left-hand slit "know" if the right-hand slit is open or closed.
  • Quantum entanglement -- two particles that somehow are "in communication," in the sense that altering one of them instantaneously alters the other, even if it would require superluminal information transfer to do so (what Einstein called "spooky action-at-a-distance")
  • The pigeonhole paradox -- you'd think that if you passed three photons through polarizing filters that align their vibration plane either horizontally or vertically, there'd be two of them polarized the same way, right?  It's a fundamental idea from set theory; if you have three gloves, it has to be the case that either two are right-handed or two are left-handed.  Not so with photons.  Experiments showed that you can polarize three photons in such a way that no two of them match.
Bizarre, counterintuitive stuff, right there.  But wait till you hear the latest:  three physicists, Yakim Aharonov of Tel Aviv University, Sandu Popescu of the University of Bristol, and Eliahu Cohen of Bar Ilan University, have demonstrated something they're calling a quantum Cheshire Cat.  Apparently under the right conditions, a particle's properties can somehow come unhooked from the particle itself and move independently of it -- a bit like Lewis Carroll's cat disappearing but leaving behind its disembodied grin.

The Cheshire Cat from John Tenniel's illustrations for Alice in Wonderland (1865) [Image is in the Public Domain]

I'll try to explain how it works, but be aware that I'm dancing right along the edge of what I'm able to understand, so if you ask for clarification I'll probably say, "Damned if I know."  But here goes.

Imagine a box containing a particle with a spin of 1/2.  (Put more simply, this means that if you measure the particle's spin along any of the three axes (x, y, and z), you'll find it in an either-or situation -- right or left, up or down, forward or backward.)  The box has a partition down the middle that is fashioned to have a small, but non-zero, probability of the particle passing through.  At the other end of the box is a second partition -- if the particle is spin-up, it passes through; if not, it doesn't and is reflected back into the box.

With me so far?  'Cuz this is where it gets weird.

In quantum terms, the fact that there's a small but non-zero chance of the particle leaking through means that part of it does leak through; this is a feature of quantum superposition, which boils down to particles being in two places at once (or, more accurately, their positions being fields of probabilities rather than one specific location).  If the part that leaks through is spin-up, it passes through the right-hand partition and out of the box; otherwise it reflects back and interacts with the original particle, causing its spin to flip.

The researchers found that this flip occurs even if measurements show that the particle never left the left-hand side of the box.

So it's like the spin of the particle becomes unhooked from the particle itself, and is free to wander about -- then can come back and alter the original particle.  See why they call it a quantum Cheshire Cat?  Like Carroll's cat's smile, the properties of the particle can somehow come loose.

Whatever a "loose property" actually means.

The researchers have suggested that this bizarre phenomenon might allow counterfactual communication -- communication between two observers without any particle or energy being transferred between them.  In the setup I described, the observer left of the box would know if the observer on the right had turned the spin-dependent barrier on or off by watching to see if the particle in the left half of the box had altered its spin.  More spooky action-at-a-distance, that.

What I have to keep reminding myself is that none of this is some kind of abstract idea or speculation of what could be; these findings have been experimentally verified over and over.  Partly because it's so odd and counterintuitive, the theories of quantum physics have been put through rigorous tests, and each time they've passed with flying colors.  As crazy as it sounds, this is what reality is, despite how hard it is to wrap our minds around it.

"What is the most important for us is not a potential application – though that is definitely something to look for – but what it teaches us about nature," said study co-author Sandu Popescu.  "Quantum mechanics is very strange, and almost a hundred years after its discovery it continues to puzzle us.  We believe that unveiling even more puzzling phenomena and looking deeper into them is the way to finally understand it."

Indeed.  I keep coming back to the fact that everything you look at -- all the ordinary stuff we interact with on a daily basis -- is made of particles and energy that defy our common sense at every turn.  As the eminent biologist J. B. S. Haldane famously put it, "The universe is not only queerer than we imagine -- it is queerer than we can imagine."

**********************************

Some of the most enduring mysteries of linguistics (and archaeology) are written languages for which we have no dictionary -- no knowledge of the symbol-to-phoneme (or symbol-to-syllable, or symbol-to-concept) correspondences.

One of the most famous cases where that seemingly intractable problem was solved was the near-miraculous decipherment of the Linear B script of Crete by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, but it bears keeping in mind that this wasn't the first time this kind of thing was accomplished.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, this was the situation with the Egyptian hieroglyphics -- until the code was cracked using the famous Rosetta Stone, by the dual efforts of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion of France.

This herculean, but ultimately successful, task is the subject of the fascinating book The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick.  Dolnick doesn't just focus on the linguistic details, but tells the engrossing story of the rivalry between Young and Champollion, ending with Champollion beating Young to the solution -- and then dying of a stroke at the age of 41.  It's a story not only of a puzzle, but of two powerful and passionate personalities.  If you're an aficionado of languages, history, or Egypt, you definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


Friday, October 29, 2021

Tunnel Vision

A few years ago I was in New York City, and for a country hick I got pretty proficient at using the subway. I was on the F train one morning when there was a slowdown -- something about a train delayed for mechanical reasons, slowing down all the other trains that shared that line -- and sitting there on the stopped subway, looking out into the dark tunnel, I noticed there were grimy-looming alcoves, probably for workers to use when making repairs. 

So naturally, considering how my mind works, I started wondering what monsters might be lurking down there -- and the result was this story.

Enjoy!

*******************************

The F subway train, from Queensbridge Station to 34th Street/Herald Square, rattled along the track at 6:30 a.m., carrying Adria Haines to her job at Starbuck’s.  Even though she had only lived in New York City for three weeks, Adria was adjusting to city life, and most of her anxiety about having to ride the subway to work had evaporated.  It was already being absorbed into the ordinary parts of day, so familiar that they hardly merit a thought.  This was despite her mother’s dire warnings about “city people” who were almost all amoral, and who would rob you blind if you dropped your guard for a moment.

“Don’t make eye contact,” Vera Haines had told her daughter, two weeks before her planned move from the rural streets of the little upstate town of Guildford, New York to the crowds and noise of New York City.  “Try not to call attention to yourself.  If you stand out, you’re more likely to be mugged.”

“Mom,” Adria said, “just yesterday you told me that I should look tough and self-confident, because otherwise people would know I wasn’t from the city and would mug me.”

“Well, yes.  Of course.  Self-confident and able to take care of yourself.  But not flashy.  You know what I mean.”

“Not really.  I don’t know how to be anything other than what I am.”

“That’s an odd thing for a theater major to say.  And let me remind you that it wasn’t so long ago that you spent hours pretending you were Athena and Medusa and all of those other mythological women you love so much.”

Adria rolled her eyes.  “Mom, I’m not a child any more.  And you know what I meant.  I’m not going to get mugged, so you need to stop worrying.”

“You don’t know what it’s like.”  Vera sniffed.  “And those tiny, squalid apartments you’ll be living in… I can’t believe you’re leaving here for that.”

“If I want to get anywhere in the theater world, I have to live in New York, mom,” Adria said, her voice tired.  This had been a constant refrain for almost six months, since she had announced her decision to move to the Big City, and it was beginning to sound dubious even in her own ears.

“I just want you to be safe, dear.  It’s a big, scary place.”

“It’s just a place, mom.  Yes, it’s a big place.  But it’s no scarier than anywhere else, and it’s a hell of a lot more interesting.”

And indeed, in her three weeks of residence, she hadn’t seen anyone more threatening than a drunk homeless guy who sat in the Herald Square subway station, mumbling to himself and in his moments of greater lucidity asking for money.

The train stopped at Roosevelt Island, and then at Lexington and 63rd, and as the train pulled away from Lexington, Adria dozed off, despite the fact that her iPod was blaring Tegan & Sara in her ears.  Her fingers, closed around her backpack strap, relaxed.

There was a shudder as the train pulled into the curve that began its traverse southward down the center of Manhattan Island, and the train braked.  The tunnel lights, which before had been flying past too quickly to see, slowed to a heartbeat’s pace, and then slower still.  Adria half-woke, and her eyes opened to see the walls sliding past the windows, interspersed by dark openings into service corridors.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Downtowngal, Subway train in tunnel, CC BY-SA 3.0]

And that’s when she saw the figure of a man in the gap outside the train window.

He had his back to the train.  He was clothed in crumpled folds of some dark material, whose color was uncertain in the dim light.  She could make out the lines of the edge of his head, one ear, and saw the curve of his neck where it met the collar of the shapeless garment he was wearing.

And just as the train squealed to a complete stop, the man moved, turning toward the train window, and she saw that he had no eyes.

His face was skeletally thin, with skin stretched tight over high cheekbones.  Long, yellowed teeth were exposed by lips pulled back in a grimace.  Where his eyes should have been were two dark, empty cavities.  Yet he moved toward the window with purpose, and reached out one bony hand toward Adria.

Then the train gave a lurch and the figure slipped backwards into darkness.

All of this happened in less than five seconds—it takes longer to tell than it did to occur.  Adria jerked to full wakefulness, suppressing a scream at the last possible moment, and looked around her.  No one else had reacted.  The elderly African American woman sitting across from her had her eyes closed, one hand clutching a purse.  The preppy young man next to her was staring at an e-reader of some kind.  The middle-aged businessman in the seat next to Adria was perusing a newspaper.

Adria rode the rest of the way to 34th and Herald trying to convince herself that she’d been dreaming.  By the time she got to Starbuck’s and donned her apron, she had more or less succeeded.

***

For the days following the incident, she found herself staring at the gaps in the subway tunnel wall as she rode to and from work, and was especially alert as the train rounded the curve after Lexington.  She didn’t doze on her daily subway ride, and in fact had to force herself to breathe slowly, to try to keep her heart rate normal.  But a week passed, and then two weeks, and gradually her fear faded.  The train didn’t slow down again, and she saw no sign of the eyeless man in the tunnel.  The whole experience was mentally filed under “odd dreams I’ve had.”  In fact, she had almost forgotten about the incident, when, three weeks later, it happened again.

She’d had insomnia the previous night, probably triggered by a late afternoon cup of strong coffee with a friend, and didn’t get to sleep until after 2 a.m..  When her alarm went off at 6:30, she felt as if she had just closed her eyes, and she showered and ate breakfast in a sleep-deprived mental fog.  When she boarded the train at a little after seven, she sat down and dozed off almost instantly.

It wasn’t at the same place.  This time the slowdown was just past Roosevelt Island.  The train’s brakes creaked, and an announcement came on, “We are being held in place by the dispatcher for a few moments because of a routing problem on the tracks.  Thank you for your patience.”  Adria stirred from her drowsing, and opened her eyes halfway.

On a concrete ledge next to the track was a child, bound with hempen ropes.

The child was female, dressed in ragged clothing.  She had unruly dark hair, and wide, staring eyes.  She was standing upright, and the ropes twisted around the body, holding her legs together and her arms to her sides.  A dirty cloth gag was tied across her mouth and around the back of her head.  At this point, the train was still moving slowly, and the image of the tied child slid past and vanished.

The child’s eyes never left Adria’s the entire time, imploring, terrified.

Adria’s whole body jerked, and her head rocked back and soundly smacked the window behind her.  This brought her to full wakefulness, and she stared at the dark glass across the aisle, breathing hard.  An athletic-looking teenager, sitting on the same side of the train as she was with a backpack at his feet, looked at her oddly, but then looked away again.  Other than him, no one else seemed to notice.

Adria tried to regain control over her racing heart.  That boy had been facing the window, too.  Surely he must have seen her?

But he showed no sign of having seen anything odd.  She looked over at him.  He met her eyes momentarily, and then looked away again, the thought of, Stop staring at me, crazy chick, clearly readable on his face.

The announcement repeated, and the train stayed motionless for another minute.  Adria scanned the black gap outside the train window, looking for any sign of a person out there, but there was none.  Then, without warning, the subway creaked into motion again, and soon the walls were whisking by too fast to see.

She should call the police.  She opened her backpack, but paused as she reached for her cellphone.

What if it had been a dream?

She looked over at the teenager, who had resumed staring at the window across from them.  She cleared her throat.

“Excuse me?” she said.

The boy looked at her again, a little reluctantly. “Yeah?”

“Did you see anything in the window?  When the train stopped?”

He frowned at her, the expression that said You’re a nutjob deepening.  “No.”

“Just after the announcement came,” she persisted. “In one of those gaps.  The service corridors.”

“No,” he said again.

“Were you looking that way?”

He looked around, but the other people on the train were steadfastly ignoring them, were immersed in books and newspapers, listening to iPods.  “Yeah,” the boy said.  “I was looking.  There wasn’t anything there.”  He looked uncomfortable.  She had the impression that if she persisted, he’d get up and move to another seat.

Adria swallowed, and attempted a smile.  “I guess I must have been dreaming.”

The boy didn’t respond except to shake his head, and went back to looking at the tunnel lights flashing by in the dark windows.

Adria was glad to arrive at her stop, to get away from the teenager and the other people in the train, but mostly to ascend the escalator out of the depths and see sunlight again, leaving behind the dark, empty tunnels—inhabited by an eyeless man and a bound child, who were still down there, they were, it couldn’t have been a dream, it was too real…

Her heart was still pounding when she arrived at work

During the lull following the morning Starbuck’s rush, Adria leaned on the counter, recalling the image she’d seen in the window.  Although it had been over in moments, she could recall minute detail—the way the girl’s unkempt hair had fallen across her shoulders, the coarse fibers of the rope that bound her, the horrified look in her large, luminous eyes.  She thought back to the slouching figure of the eyeless man she’d seen three weeks earlier, and shuddered.

“Wake up, Ade,” said her coworker, a multiply-tattooed New York University student named Jonah.

“I wasn’t asleep.”  Adria shuddered again.

“Out partying late last night?”  He gave her a grin.

“No. I…”  She stammered, fell silent, closed her mouth, and looked away.  Jonah raised one eyebrow, and she could tell what was going through his mind: She’s got guy problems.  She sighed, but at that moment a customer came up, and the next five minutes were involved in making a mocha cappuccino.

“Jonah,” she said, after the customer had taken his coffee away, “have you ever had weird dreams when you’re just dozing?”

Jonah’s face became animated.  “No, have you?  My psychology professor was just talking about those last week.  Dreams in light sleep.  They’re called hypnagogic experiences.  Only about five percent of people experience them regularly.”

Adria managed a smile.  “I’ve had a couple of doozies.”  She described her visions of the eyeless man and the bound girl, interspersed between interruptions to attend to other customers.

“Wow,” Jonah said, “that is so cool.”

“Cool?” Adria said, a little heatedly.  “It wasn’t cool.  It was scary as hell.”

“Well, yeah.  But dreams in light sleep are just pretty unusual.  Most people dream in REM, which is a much deeper stage in the sleep cycle.”

“Why would it start happening all of a sudden?”

He shrugged.  “So, you’ve never had them before?”

She shook her head.  “And why does it just happen on the subway?”

“I don’t know. I could ask my professor if he has any idea what could be going on.”

At that point, a cluster of people came into the store, and all conversation was tabled for a time.

***

Over the next two weeks Adria tried her hardest to stay awake on the subway.  She also attempted to forget what she’d seen, to dismiss it as bad dreams, but the residual fright of the visions she’d seen stayed with her.  She woke at night, shivering and drenched with sweat, thinking about the hollow cavities in the eyeless man’s face, and the bound girl’s terrified expression.

She pondered, briefly, if she should try to find an alternate way to get to work.  Adria had no car, and in any case trying to park daily in Manhattan would have eaten the lion’s share of her salary, if it were even feasible.  Buses were a possibility, but were costlier than a subway pass and took about five times as long, given the necessity to cross the Queensboro Bridge.  In the end, she resigned herself to taking the subway, but vowed to stay awake the whole time.

That resolve lasted a week, and was defeated by Benadryl.  The combination of stress and bad dreams finally left her sleep deprived enough that she caught a cold.  She didn’t feel bad enough to justify staying home—and she hadn’t worked long enough to have accrued any sick time—plus, the symptoms could be kept at bay by taking cold medicine.  The antihistamine, however, hit her like a pile driver, and she was asleep five minutes after sitting down on the subway.

The train jolted to a stop at Roosevelt Island, and after picking up three people—one was the teenager who had given her the odd look the day she’d seen the bound girl—it rattled into life again, and the doors closed.  Adria’s eyes opened slightly, just as the window slid past the end of the station and across a slab of blank concrete.  A few feet further on was a rectangular opening, chest high, with a bleary-looking light giving it dim illumination.

Crouched in the opening was a twisted grotesque, a figure that was not much taller than a child, but had an aged countenance covered with a fine maze of wrinkles.  The face was asymmetrical, the chin angling to one side, and the left eye far closer to the bridge of the nose than the right one was.  The forehead slanted back, fringed by a thin covering of gray hair.  The creature was leaning forward, its long arms in front of it, hands on the edge of the opening, the fingers splayed out like a frog’s.  She could see the taut muscles in its legs, as if it were about to spring at the train.

And then it was gone.

This time Adria did scream.  Everyone in the train turned to look at her.  She stared at the now-empty window, darkness alternating with flickers of light as the train gathered speed, and then she looked from one face to the other of the people who shared the train car with her.  And she burst into tears.

***

She had more or less gotten herself back together by the time she arrived at work, but Jonah recognized something was wrong before she’d even hung up her jacket.

“Damn, Ade, what’s wrong?”  His eyes widened.  “Oh, god, it happened again, didn’t it?”

She nodded, fought back the tears that were just beneath the surface, and successfully modulated her voice as she answered, “Yeah. It did.”

“I won’t ask you to tell me the details,” he said.  “Not till you’re feeling better.  But I did ask my professor about what happened to you.  He said that it’s unusual for hypnagogic experiences to happen consistently in the same place, but other than that, he said what you’re experiencing is ‘classic.’  That’s what he called it.  You feel like you’re awake, but you’re not, and you see something that isn’t real.  You are still aware of where your body really is—your bed, the sofa, or in your case, the subway—but crazy shit happens.  Then you actually wake up, but you still feel like you’re where you were in the dream state, so it really seems like you’ve been awake the whole time.  He said that people find them really disorienting.”

“That’s the truth,” Adria said.

Jonah started to fill the coffee maker with grounds.  “He said that it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.”

“Well, that’s good.  I just want it to stop, though.  It scares the hell out of me every time it happens.”

“What does?” Lissa, an even more recent hire than Adria but whose accent showed her to be pure Bronx, leaned against the counter and grinned.  “I like scary stuff.”

“You wouldn’t like this,” Adria said.

“Try me.”

Adria gave a brief description of what she’d seen—leaving out most of the details of the hideous dwarf-figure she’d glimpsed out of the window only a half-hour earlier.  That one was simply too fresh, too real, to bear more than a glancing consideration.

“Sounds like you saw the Tunnel Monsters.”  Lissa popped her gum and grinned again.

Jonah rolled his eyes.  “Get to work, Lissa.”

“You ain’t doing much, yourself, Jonah.”

“What are the Tunnel Monsters?” Adria said.

“My uncle told me about ‘em.  My aunt used to tell me to watch out for muggers and rapists on the subway, and my uncle said, ‘Naw, what you gotta look out for is the Tunnel Monsters.’  Then he told me that when they dug the subway, they found out the tunnels was filled with all sorts of creatures.  It’s because New York is such a big city, he said… so many people, and we’re all afraid of so many different things, so to keep all that fear from building up, we just stick our fears down in the subway tunnels.  And that’s where the Tunnel Monsters come from.  Some can hurt you, some can just scare you, but they all sit down there and wait.  And they can tell who is weak, and if you let your guard down, the Tunnel Monsters will catch you and steal your soul.  Then you won’t be afraid any more, because you won’t have nothing to be afraid with.”

Adria thought about the eyeless man, draped in his folds of cloth, and the bound, terrified child, and the horrible grotesque dwarf that had been about to spring at the train, and then she looked at Lissa, still smiling and chewing her gum, and Adria’s thoughts went into a dizzying spiral, I will not faint.  I will not faint.  I will not

She opened her eyes in the back room of the Starbuck’s, with a wet cloth on her forehead, and Jonah looking down at her with concern in his dark eyes.

“Damn, Adria, that was freaky.  I thought we were going to have to call 911.”

“I’m…”  She started to sit up, but he put pressure on her shoulders, and she slumped back into the chair again.

“Uh-uh.  No way.  I’m not catching you again.  You almost hit your head on the counter the first time.”  He gestured angrily toward the door into the main part of the shop.  “I told Lissa she should mind her own goddamn business from now on.  She’ll take your shift—you should just go home and rest.”

“But… I’d have to get back on the subway.”

“You could call a cab.”

“I can’t afford it,” she said weakly.

He knelt next to her.  “Look, I know this probably won’t help, but Lissa is full of shit.  There are no Tunnel Monsters.  You’re just having some weird dreams in light sleep.  It’s something scientists know about, and they’re scary, but they can’t hurt you.”

“Lissa said they could.”

Jonah rested one hand on her shoulder, and looked into her eyes.  “Adria, you know what is real.  It’s what’s around you.  These visions, whatever they are, are not real.  They are lies, created by some subconscious part of your mind.  They’re only able to scare you if you let them.”  He looked at her, his forehead creasing with worry.  “Do you believe me?”

She didn’t respond for a moment, but finally just nodded.

“Good.  Now go home, get some rest.  And if it happens again, just remember what I told you.  You know what reality is, and where it is.  You’ll be okay.”

***

In the end, she decided to take the subway home.

Jonah was right.  These were just weird nightmares.  They were frightening, but she didn't have to let them freak her out completely.  She shuddered.  And now, she was going to get home, crawl into her warm, safe bed, and sleep for the rest of the day.

Sleep…  The antihistamine was still coursing through her veins, and before she got to Lexington and 63rd she was already fighting to stay awake.  As the subway creaked its way around the eastward turn, her eyelids were sagging, however desperately she struggled to keep them open.  But she wouldn’t sleep… she wouldn’t…

This time, the pause was only momentary.  The train didn’t even come to a complete stop.  The openings into the service corridors crawled by slowly enough to see the damp walls, the yellow light bulbs that seemed to illuminate almost nothing.  And in one of the openings, there was a smoky, shadowy figure, so dark that it seemed to absorb every photon of light that struck it.  Adria looked toward it, horrorstruck, thinking, Oh, god, it’s happening again…  The thing seemed to register her presence at the same time as she did its.  It turned toward her, its face shifting and flowing like clouds in a windstorm.  Two eyes, black as pitch and visible only because their glossiness made them shine against the dull slate gray of the creature’s face, regarded her with curiosity.

A dream.  Only a dream.  They couldn't hurt her.  Not real.

And that’s when there was the sound of shattering glass, and the thing thrust both hands right through the subway window, grabbed Adria by the shoulders, and yanked her out of her seat and out into the dank, still space of the service corridor.

She tried to scream, but nothing came out but a strangled squeak.  She felt her shoes dragging against damp concrete, and smelled mold and a faint whiff of ozone, axle grease, and sewage.  Then she was unceremoniously dropped, and fell, arms splayed, to the cold cement surface beneath her.

Adria looked up, and saw the Cloud Man looking down at her, his face undulating and roiling, glittering black eyes staring at her with malign intensity.  But he wasn’t alone.  She was surrounded by a crowd of dark figures, moving and jostling each other to get a look at the prey that the Cloud Man had captured.  She saw the skeletal form of the Eyeless Man, and the twisted, asymmetrical face of the Dwarf, his mouth open in a grimace of soundless laughter.  The Bound Girl was standing in the corner, the gag still across her mouth—but her luminous eyes no longer seemed fearful, they were filled with a triumphant mirth at Adria’s capture.  Nearer, she saw other nightmare creatures.  There was a pale man, nearly as thin as a stick-figure, clothed in black.  It had no facial features, its head as smooth as an egg, incongruously topped by a silk top hat.  There was a dog with a man’s face, leering up at her, tail wagging.  When she looked at it, one eye closed in a salacious wink.  A white-faced woman nearby, dressed in a nightshirt, had the wild, savage expression of an actress in a mad scene—a Lucia di Lammermoor, an Elvira, an Ophelia.  Nearer was a tall, powerful figure, wearing nothing but a loincloth.  Its rippling, muscular torso was human, but it was crowned by the head of a cat.  The cat’s head looked at her, the ears turned in her direction, and the dark pupils in its golden eyes narrowed to slits.

“Look at what I caught,” the Cloud Man said, his voice hoarse and airy.

“We could eat her,” the Dog said, licking its human lips with a long, red tongue and smiling at her.

The Madwoman opened her eyes even wider, and she gave a wild peal of laughter.  “No!  Let’s keep her. We can keep her here forever!”

“You can’t,” Adria said, her voice high and tight with terror.  “You have to let me go!”

“Have to?” the Eyeless Man said, his long, thin fingers reaching toward her, and the dark folds of cloth that draped him rustling softly.  “We don’t have to do anything.”

“Nothing we don’t want to,” said the Madwoman.

“What are you going to do to me?” Adria said.  In her mind she could hear Jonah’s voice, solid and reassuring: These visions, whatever they are, are not real.  But the Dwarf came up to her, his warped face tilting as he looked at her.  He prodded her with one foot.  “Get up,” he said, in a rough voice.

Jonah was wrong, they were real…  Adria's heart gave a painful gallop.  That dwarf-thing touched her.  They were real.

She struggled to her knees, and then to her feet.

“You’re one of us, now,” the Cat Man said, in a rumbling bass that was a little like a growl.

“I’m not a monster,” Adria breathed.

There was a stir among the assembled figures.  “Monster?” the Dwarf said, his voice mocking. “Monsters, she said.  Well, maybe you’re a monster, too, girl.”  And the voices of the others, hundreds of others receding back into the darkness of the tunnel, echoed, Monsters monsters monsters monsters

“If she’s not now,” the Dog said, “she will be soon.”

“Please, let me go,” she said.  “Why are you doing this to me?”

The Dwarf glanced up at the Madwoman, and his asymmetrical mouth gaped open in a grin, revealing a few broken and jagged teeth.  “Why not?”

The Madwoman cackled laughter.

The Cat Man looked at Adria, and his long whiskers twitched.  “Perhaps we’d let you go if you could win against us in a game.  We like games.  There hasn’t been anyone down here to play in such a very long time.”

“Yes!” the Madwoman shrieked.  “A game!”

And the echoes started up, A game a game a game a game

The Dwarf reached out and touched her leg.  Adria whimpered and backed away, and brushed against the folds of the Eyeless Man’s clothing.  She recoiled, but then forced herself to stand still.  It wouldn't do her any good if she fell onto the tracks.  Maybe if she could just stall them, another train would come along, and someone would see her and rescue her.

And she said, “All right, I’ll play.”

The Cat Man smiled, revealing long, pointed canine teeth, and his ears swiveled toward her with interest.  “Very well.  We will ask you three questions.  If you answer them all correctly, we will let you go.”

“Okay,” Adria said.  “Go ahead.”

The Eyeless Man turned toward her, the dark, empty sockets seeming to look into her mind, and his long fingers caressed the air.  “It is the commonest thing the universe.  As long as it reigns, the bravest man cannot utter a sound.  And yet it can be destroyed by a gentle breeze.  What is it?”

Adria looked at the Eyeless Man.  It was a riddle game.  Just like in all of the myths and folk tales she used to read when she was young.  She forced her mind to become still, to stop the whirling chatter of fear that was swamping her, and as her thoughts fell silent, that very act gave her the answer.

“It’s silence.”

There was a murmur of surprise from the crowd of nightmares around her.

“Well, she has a brain!”  The Madwoman giggled.  “Let me have a chance.”  She pushed her way forward, and got very close to her.  One clawlike hand reached out and clutched Adria’s shoulder.  “Try your little mind at this one.  It is the substance that fills the space between one day and the next.  The poor have it, and the rich need it.  You can fill a glass with it, but cannot pour it out.  And if you eat it, you will die.”  She released her grip on Adria, and looked around, eyes shining in triumph.

Adria looked down, frantically thinking of all of the evil substances she had ever heard of, but none of them seemed to fit the other pieces of the riddle.  “What do the poor have?” Adria whispered out loud, and someone nearby—she thought it was the Dwarf—laughed at her, a cackling, harsh sound in that chill and cheerless place.  “And what is between one day and the next?” Adria suddenly looked up.  “Nothing!” she said, and her voice rang from the dripping walls.  “If you eat nothing, you will die!  The rich need nothing, the poor have nothing, and a glass can be filled with nothing, but you couldn’t pour it out!”

The Madwoman took a step back, and her grin turned to a snarl.  Her eyes glittered dangerously.  Then she stepped forward, her long-nailed fingers came up, as if she intended to slash at Adria’s face.

But the Cat Man pushed her aside with one powerful arm, and said, “No.”  He stood in front of Adria, towering over her, his furred ears almost brushing the ceiling of the tunnel.  He crossed his arms over his massive bare chest, and said, “Well enough.  But answer this one.  Where are your fears before you were afraid of them, and where do they go after you are no longer afraid?”

Adria looked up at his feline face, the golden eyes narrowing at they stared down at her.  She knew suddenly that here was the most dangerous one.  The others wanted to play with her, or keep her here.

The Cat Man wanted to destroy her.

But then she remembered Lissa, cracking gum in her mouth and smiling as she told Adria her uncle’s tales, and the answer rose up in front of her, like a blindingly bright beacon.  And down there, in the dark tunnel under the city, surrounded by monsters, she said, “Where are my fears before I was afraid, and where are they after I’m no longer afraid?"  She pointed at the figures who surrounded her.  “They’re here.  They’re right here.”

And the Cat Man’s lips pulled back, and his mouth opened, and he gave a deep, guttural hiss, but said nothing.

“And now, you have to let me go,” Adria said.  “I answered your three questions.  Now you have to let me go.”  But nothing happened, and none of the creatures moved.

“I told you,” the Eyeless Man said.  “We don’t have to do anything we don’t want to do.”

“But that isn’t fair.”  Adria's voice trembled.  “You said you would.  You gave your word.”

“Maybe we lied,” the Madwoman said, her fierce grin returning.

“You can’t lie!” Adria shouted.  “That’s not how the game is played!”

The Cat Man said, his voice nearly a purr, “We made the game, we make the rules.  We lie if we choose to.”

And Adria had a realization as sudden as her knowledge of the answer to the Cat Man's riddle.

Lies.  It was all lies.  That’s what Jonah had said—not real.  He told her to just remember that they’re all lies, and that she knew what reality is.

So it was another riddle, then, wasn't it?

She looked up at the snarling figure of the Cat Man, caught his golden gaze and held it.  “Now, I have a riddle for you all.  See if you know the answer.  When everyone around you is lying, and nothing around you is real, where do you find the truth?”

None of them answered.  She looked from grotesque face to grotesque face, and they all regarded her with fear and hatred and impotent anger, but no one spoke.

“And I know the answer to that, too,” she said.  “The truth is right behind you, where it’s been all along.”  She turned her back on the Tunnel Monsters, and there, still moving slowly, was the subway train.  She saw, just for a moment, her own body sitting facing the window, her eyes wide open in a horrified stare.  Then, like a rock from a slingshot, she was flung toward the train.  She felt a momentary jolt, and heard the creatures behind her screeching their frustration in defeat.

Then she was once again facing forward, looking out of the dark, unbroken window of the F train, which gave a shudder as it picked up speed.  She took a deep, uneven breath, and looked around her.  No one in the train was looking at her.  Everyone was in exactly the same place as they had been the moment before the Cloud Man grabbed her.

She reached up, and touched her face.

This.  This was real.  Jonah was right.

Lies and dreams can only hurt you if you let them.

And her eyes closed, and she drifted off to sleep, and only woke up when the train stopped at Queensbridge Station, and the doors opened to let her out.

**********************************

Some of the most enduring mysteries of linguistics (and archaeology) are written languages for which we have no dictionary -- no knowledge of the symbol-to-phoneme (or symbol-to-syllable, or symbol-to-concept) correspondences.

One of the most famous cases where that seemingly intractable problem was solved was the near-miraculous decipherment of the Linear B script of Crete by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, but it bears keeping in mind that this wasn't the first time this kind of thing was accomplished.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, this was the situation with the Egyptian hieroglyphics -- until the code was cracked using the famous Rosetta Stone, by the dual efforts of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion of France.

This herculean, but ultimately successful, task is the subject of the fascinating book The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick.  Dolnick doesn't just focus on the linguistic details, but tells the engrossing story of the rivalry between Young and Champollion, ending with Champollion beating Young to the solution -- and then dying of a stroke at the age of 41.  It's a story not only of a puzzle, but of two powerful and passionate personalities.  If you're an aficionado of languages, history, or Egypt, you definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


Thursday, October 28, 2021

False alien alarm

In yet another blow to those of us who would dearly love to find incontrovertible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the signal that the Breakthrough Listen project detected in 2019 and which seemed to be coming from Proxima Centauri (the nearest star to the Sun) turns out to be...


The signal was certainly intriguing.  Proxima Centauri is not only close, at only 4.2 light years away, it is known to have a planet orbiting in the "Goldilocks Zone" -- not too hot, not too cold, juuuuuust right -- i.e., at the a distance that allows it to have liquid water on its surface.  The nature of the signal was curious in and of itself; it was at around 982 megahertz, and lasted for five months, giving the scientists at Breakthrough Listen a long time to study it.  "My first thought was that it must be interference, which I guess is a healthy attitude, to be skeptical," said Danny Price, an astronomer at the University of California - Berkeley.  "But after a while I started thinking, this is exactly the kind of signal we’re looking for."  After significant analysis, the signal -- BLC1 (Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1) -- was the first to pass all of the project's screening benchmarks.

When you have a bunch of hard-headed scientists saying, "Okay, maybe," to the rest of us extraterrestrial aficionados it seems tantamount to an outright admission.


Sadly, though, our hopes were doomed to be dashed once again.  Turns out, BLC1 isn't from Proxima Centauri; it's a radio signal originating right here on Earth.  The Breakthrough Listen team found that the signal showed a frequency drift similar to that exhibited by inexpensive crystal oscillators commonly used in computers, phones, and radios.  The scientists suspect that it came from a malfunctioning or poorly-shielded piece of electronics, and the signal stopped when its owner either repaired it or shut it down entirely.

"It definitely had me wondering ‘what if?’ for a bit," said Sofia Sheikh, also of UC-Berkeley.  "Many groups assumed that if you had a detection that only showed up when you were pointed at the source, that was it, break out the champagne, you’re done.  As technology changes, the way we vet signals also has to change — and that hadn’t come together until BLC1."

Surprisingly, the scientists didn't appear to be as disappointed as us laypeople.  "It’s really valuable for us to have these dry runs," said Jason Wright, an astronomer at Pennsylvania State University.  "We need these candidate signals so we can learn how we will deal with them — how to prove they are extraterrestrial or human-made."

So what we need is a real-life Ellie Arroway to keep analyzing the data until we do find a signal that comes from extraterrestrial intelligence.


But until she comes along, the scientists over at Breakthrough Listen will continue listening -- and hoping for a breakthrough.  Me, I hope it happens soon.  I'd love to live to see evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, because some days, terrestrial intelligence seems to be in awfully short supply.

**********************************

Some of the most enduring mysteries of linguistics (and archaeology) are written languages for which we have no dictionary -- no knowledge of the symbol-to-phoneme (or symbol-to-syllable, or symbol-to-concept) correspondences.

One of the most famous cases where that seemingly intractable problem was solved was the near-miraculous decipherment of the Linear B script of Crete by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, but it bears keeping in mind that this wasn't the first time this kind of thing was accomplished.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, this was the situation with the Egyptian hieroglyphics -- until the code was cracked using the famous Rosetta Stone, by the dual efforts of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion of France.

This herculean, but ultimately successful, task is the subject of the fascinating book The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick.  Dolnick doesn't just focus on the linguistic details, but tells the engrossing story of the rivalry between Young and Champollion, ending with Champollion beating Young to the solution -- and then dying of a stroke at the age of 41.  It's a story not only of a puzzle, but of two powerful and passionate personalities.  If you're an aficionado of languages, history, or Egypt, you definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Antique ghosts

I've long been curious how far back beliefs in the supernatural go.

From what we know about ancient religions and mythologies, belief in something that transcends ordinary human experience seems nearly ubiquitous.  I suppose that without adequate scientific model to explain natural phenomena, nor even the tools to study them, deciding that it must be supernatural forces at work is natural enough.  What puzzles me, though, is how detailed some of those beliefs are.  The ancient Norse didn't just say that there was some powerful guy up there causing thunder somehow; they said it was Thor throwing a giant hammer called "Mjölnir" that was forged by the dwarves Brokk and Sindri, but while they were forging it a fly bit Sindri on the forehead and made him stop pumping the bellows (the fly was Loki in disguise, trying to fuck things up as usual), so the hammer came out with a handle that was too short.

So I guess our belief in the supernatural is not the only thing that goes back a long way.  So does our penchant for telling elaborate stories.

A recent analysis of a 3,500 year old Babylonian artifact that had been gathering dust in the British Museum has shown that our belief not only in gods but in ghosts has a long history.  The tablet came to the attention of Irving Finkel, one of the world's authorities on cuneiform and ancient languages of the Mesopotamian region.  And when Finkel took a look at the tablet, he realized the previous translation had been incomplete and at least partly incorrect.  The text is about how to get rid of a ghost -- and the front of it has the faint outlines of a male ghost being led at the end of a rope by a woman.

The gist of the text is that the way to deal with a haunting is to give the ghost what (s)he wants.  In this case, the ghost is horny and wants some female companionship.  How exactly the owners of the haunted house would talk a (living) woman into being the ghost's lover is an open question.

"It’s obviously a male ghost and he’s miserable," Finkel explained.  "You can imagine a tall, thin, bearded ghost hanging about the house did get on people’s nerves.  The final analysis was that what this ghost needed was a lover...  You can’t help but imagine what happened before.  'Oh God, Uncle Henry’s back.'  Maybe Uncle Henry’s lost three wives.  Something that everybody knew was the way to get rid of the old bugger was to marry him off...  It’s a kind of explicit message.  There’s very high-quality writing there and immaculate draughtsmanship.  That somebody thinks they can get rid of a ghost by giving them a bedfellow is quite comic."

The exact details of the ritual are as complex as the story of the forging of Thor's hammer.  You're to make figurines of a man and a woman, then, "... dress the man in an everyday shift and equip him with travel provisions.  You wrap the woman in four red garments and clothe her in a purple cloth.  You give her a golden brooch.  You equip her fully with bed, chair, mat and towel; you give her a comb and a flask.  At sunrise towards the sun you make the ritual arrangements and set up two carnelian vessels of beer.  You set in place a special vessel and set up a juniper censer with juniper.  You draw the curtain like that of the diviner.  You [put] the figurines together with their equipment and place them in position… and say as follows, Shamash [god of the sun and judge of the underworld by night]."

It ends by cautioning, "Don't look behind you."

Once again, you have to wonder how they figured all this out.  Were there other ghosts they tried to get rid of, but they only clothed the female figurine in three red garments, and it didn't work?  Did they serve the beer in alabaster vessels instead of carnelian, and the ghost said, "Well, fuck that, I'm not leaving."  What happens if you use cedar wood instead of juniper?  Most importantly, what happens if you look behind you?

Whatever the source of those details, it certainly demonstrates the antiquity of myth-making.  "All the fears and weaknesses and characteristics that make the human race so fascinating, assuredly were there in spades 3,500 years ago," Finkel said.

Here in our modern world, we tend to blithely dismiss such beliefs as "primitive" or "unsophisticated," but it bears keeping in mind that they were trying to explain what they experienced, just like we do.  Our scientific advancements have allowed us to peer deeper, and (more importantly) to make tests of our explanations to see if they fit the data -- but what the beliefs of the ancients lacked in rigor they made up for in a strange and intricate beauty.  And this little tablet gives us a window into a long-gone civilization -- making me wonder what other artifacts are still out there to be discovered, and what else we might be able to learn about the myths and folklore of our distant ancestors.

**********************************

Some of the most enduring mysteries of linguistics (and archaeology) are written languages for which we have no dictionary -- no knowledge of the symbol-to-phoneme (or symbol-to-syllable, or symbol-to-concept) correspondences.

One of the most famous cases where that seemingly intractable problem was solved was the near-miraculous decipherment of the Linear B script of Crete by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, but it bears keeping in mind that this wasn't the first time this kind of thing was accomplished.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, this was the situation with the Egyptian hieroglyphics -- until the code was cracked using the famous Rosetta Stone, by the dual efforts of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion of France.

This herculean, but ultimately successful, task is the subject of the fascinating book The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick.  Dolnick doesn't just focus on the linguistic details, but tells the engrossing story of the rivalry between Young and Champollion, ending with Champollion beating Young to the solution -- and then dying of a stroke at the age of 41.  It's a story not only of a puzzle, but of two powerful and passionate personalities.  If you're an aficionado of languages, history, or Egypt, you definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


Tuesday, October 26, 2021

The burning fields

It will come as no surprise to regular readers of Skeptophilia that I have a peculiar fascination for things that are huge and powerful and can kill you.

I'm not entirely sure where this obsession comes from, but it's what's driven me to write here about such upbeat topics as giant predatory dinosaurs, tornadoes, hurricanes, massive earthquakes, supernovas, gamma-ray bursters, and the cheerful concept of "false vacuum decay" (which wouldn't just destroy the Earth, but the entire universe).  I'm guessing part of it is my generally anxiety-ridden attitude toward everything; after all, just because we don't think there's a Wolf-Rayet star nearby that's ready to explode and fry the Solar System doesn't mean there isn't one.  I know that worrying about all of that stuff isn't going to (1) make it any less likely that it'll happen, or (2) make a damn bit of difference to my survival if it does, but even so I don't seem to be able to just relax and focus on more positive things, such as the fact that with the sea-level rise predicted from climate change, it looks like here in upstate New York I may finally own ocean-front property.

It's also why I keep regular tabs on the known volcanoes on the Earth -- on some level, I'm always waiting for the next major eruption.  One of the potentially most dangerous volcanoes on Earth is in Italy, and I'm not talking about Vesuvius; I'm referring to the Campi Flegrei ("burning fields," from the Greek φλέγω, "to burn"), which isn't far away from the more famous mountain and seems to be powered by the same magma chamber complex that obliterated Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 C.E.  Both Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei are highly active, and near the top of the list of "world's most dangerous volcanoes."

The problem is, the three million residents of Naples live right smack in between the two, only twenty-odd kilometers away from Vesuvius (to the east) and Campi Flegrei (to the west).  (For reference, Pompeii was nine kilometers from the summit of Vesuvius.)

The Campi Flegrei, looking west from Naples [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Baku, VedutaEremo2, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The problem is that volcanoes like these two don't erupt like the familiar fountains of lava you see from Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii, and the current eruption on La Palma in the Canary Islands.  The most typical eruption from volcanoes like Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei are pyroclastic flows -- surely one of the most terrifying phenomena on Earth -- a superheated mass of steam and ash that rush downhill at speeds of up to a hundred kilometers an hour, flash-frying everything in its wake.  That the Campi Flegrei volcanoes are capable of such massive events is witnessed by the surrounding rock formation called the "Neapolitan Yellow Tuff."  A "welded tuff" is a layer of volcanic ash that was so hot when it stopped moving that it was still partially molten, and fused together into a solid porous rock.

A video of a pyroclastic flow from Mount Unzen in Japan in 1991

The Neapolitan Yellow Tuff isn't very recent; it came from an eruption about 39,000 years ago.  But there are signs the Campi Flegrei are heating up again, which is seriously bad news not only for Naples but for the town of Pozzuoli, which was built right inside the main caldera.

That people would build a town on top of an active volcano is explained mostly by the fact that people have short memories.  And also, the richness of volcanic soils is generally good for agriculture.  Once Pompeii was re-discovered in the middle of the eighteenth century, along with extremely eerie casts of the bodies of people and animals who got hit by the pyroclastic flow, you'd think people would say, "no fucking way am I living anywhere near that mountain."  But... no.  If you'll look at a world map, you might come to the conclusion that siting big cities near places prone to various natural disasters was some kind of species-wide game of chicken or something.

In any case, the good news is that a recent study showed that even if Campi Flegrei is (1) heating up, and (2) eventually going to erupt catastrophically, there's no sign it's going to happen any time soon, and it's pretty likely we'd have plenty of warning if an eruption was imminent.  

But still.  Such phenomena make me feel very, very tiny.  And once again, thankful that I live in a relatively peaceful, catastrophe-free part of the world.  Our biggest concern around here is snow, and even that's rarely a big deal; we don't get anything like the killer blizzards that bury the upper Midwest and Rocky Mountain states every year.  Given my generally neurotic outlook on life, I can't imagine what I'd be like if I did live somewhere that had serious natural disasters.

Never leave my underground bunker, is probably pretty close to the mark.

**********************************

Some of the most enduring mysteries of linguistics (and archaeology) are written languages for which we have no dictionary -- no knowledge of the symbol-to-phoneme (or symbol-to-syllable, or symbol-to-concept) correspondences.

One of the most famous cases where that seemingly intractable problem was solved was the near-miraculous decipherment of the Linear B script of Crete by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, but it bears keeping in mind that this wasn't the first time this kind of thing was accomplished.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, this was the situation with the Egyptian hieroglyphics -- until the code was cracked using the famous Rosetta Stone, by the dual efforts of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion of France.

This herculean, but ultimately successful, task is the subject of the fascinating book The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick.  Dolnick doesn't just focus on the linguistic details, but tells the engrossing story of the rivalry between Young and Champollion, ending with Champollion beating Young to the solution -- and then dying of a stroke at the age of 41.  It's a story not only of a puzzle, but of two powerful and passionate personalities.  If you're an aficionado of languages, history, or Egypt, you definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


Monday, October 25, 2021

Ghost purchases

It seems like every day I'm forced to face the unfortunate fact that I don't seem to understand my fellow humans very well.

All I have to do is to get on social media or -- worse -- read the news, and over and over again I think, "Why in the hell would someone do that?"  Or say that?  Or think that?  Now, I hasten to add that it's not that I believe everyone should think like me; far from it.  It's more that a lot of the stuff people argue about are either (1) matters of fact, that have been settled by science years ago, or (2) matters of opinion -- taste in art, music, books, food, television and movies, and so forth -- despite the fact that "matters of opinion" kind of by definition means "there's no objectively right answer."  In fact, at its basis, this penchant toward fighting endlessly over everything is a good first choice for "things I completely don't understand about people."

As an aside, this is why the thing I keep seeing on social media that goes, "What is your favorite _____, and why is it _____?" is so profoundly irritating.  (The latest one I saw, just this morning: "What is your favorite science fiction novel, and why is it Dune?")  I know it's meant to be funny, but (1) I've now seen it 873,915 times, and any humor value it might have started with is now long gone, and (2) my reaction every time is to say, "Who the fuck do you think you are, telling me what my favorite anything is?"

So, okay, maybe I need to lighten up a little.

Anyhow, this sense of mystification when I look around me goes all the way from the deeply important (e.g., how anyone can still think it's okay to smoke) to the entirely banal (e.g. people who start brawls when their favorite sports team loses).  A lot of things fall somewhere in the middle, though, and that includes the article I ran into a couple of days ago showing that people will pay significantly more for a house if it's supposedly haunted.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

The data, which came from the British marketing firm InventoryBase, looked at the prices people were willing to pay to purchase a house with an alleged ghost (or one that has a "bad reputation").  And far from being a detriment to selling, a sketchy past or resident specter is a genuine selling point.  Comparing sales prices to (1) the earlier purchase price for the same property, adjusted for inflation, and (2) the prices for comparable properties, InventoryBase found that the increase in value is significant.  In fact, in some cases, it's freakin' huge.

The most extreme example is the house in Rhode Island featured in the supposedly-based-upon-a-true-story movie The Conjuring, which was purchased for $439,000 (pre-movie) and sold for $1.2 million (post-movie).  It's hardly the only example.  The house in London that was the site of The Conjuring 2 is valued at £431,000 -- £100,000 more than it was appraised for in 2016.

Doesn't take a movie to make the price go up.  "The Cage," a house that was the site of a medieval prison in the village of St. Osyth in Essex, England, has been called one of the most haunted sites in Britain -- and is valued at 17% higher than comparable properties.  Even more extreme is 39 DeGrey Street in Hull, which has a 53% higher appraisal value than comparables -- despite the fact that the house has a reputation for such terrifying apparitions that "no one is willing to live in it."

InventoryBase found several examples of houses that were objectively worse than nearby similar homes -- badly in need of remodeling, problems with plumbing or wiring or even structure, general shabbiness -- but they still were selling for more money because they allegedly have supernatural residents.

I read this article with a sense of bafflement.  Now, to be fair, I'd be thrilled if it turned out my house actually was haunted, primarily because it would mean that my current opinion about an afterlife was wrong.  The problem is, at the same time I'm a great big coward, so the first time the ghost appeared I'd probably have a brain aneurysm, but at least then I could look forward to haunting the next resident, which could be kind of fun.

But if I was in the market for a house, it's hard for me to fathom spending tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars extra for the privilege of sharing my house with ghosts.  No, for the privilege of supposedly sharing my house with ghosts; I'm guessing in the Disclosure Statement there's no requirement for anyone to prove their house is actually haunted.  So I'd potentially be spending a year's worth of salary (or more) just for unsubstantiated bragging rights.

Anyhow, this brings me back to where I started, which is that I just don't understand my fellow humans.  A great deal of their behavior is frankly baffling to me.  Given how poorly I fit in with my blood relatives -- "black sheep of the family" doesn't even come close to describing it -- I've wondered for years if I might be a changeling.  The problem with that hypothesis is that I look exactly like my dad, so any contention that I'm not really his son is doomed to be shipwrecked on the rocks of hard evidence.

And like I said, it's not that I think my own view of the world is sacrosanct, or something.  I'm sure I'm just as weird as the next guy.  It's just that the ways I'm weird seem to be pretty different from the ways a lot of people are weird.

So maybe I shouldn't point fingers.  Other folks are weird; I'm weirdly weird.  Weird to the weirdth power.  This means that people are probably as mystified by my behavior as I am by theirs, which I guess is only fair.

**********************************

Some of the most enduring mysteries of linguistics (and archaeology) are written languages for which we have no dictionary -- no knowledge of the symbol-to-phoneme (or symbol-to-syllable, or symbol-to-concept) correspondences.

One of the most famous cases where that seemingly intractable problem was solved was the near-miraculous decipherment of the Linear B script of Crete by Alice Kober and Michael Ventris, but it bears keeping in mind that this wasn't the first time this kind of thing was accomplished.  In the early years of the nineteenth century, this was the situation with the Egyptian hieroglyphics -- until the code was cracked using the famous Rosetta Stone, by the dual efforts of Thomas Young of England and Jean-François Champollion of France.

This herculean, but ultimately successful, task is the subject of the fascinating book The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone, by Edward Dolnick.  Dolnick doesn't just focus on the linguistic details, but tells the engrossing story of the rivalry between Young and Champollion, ending with Champollion beating Young to the solution -- and then dying of a stroke at the age of 41.  It's a story not only of a puzzle, but of two powerful and passionate personalities.  If you're an aficionado of languages, history, or Egypt, you definitely need to put this one on your to-read list.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


Saturday, October 23, 2021

Illuminating the beginnings of a mystery

I recently finished reading Adrian Goldsworthy's book How Rome Fell, and was impressed enough with it that (you may recall) it was last week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week.  I've always had a fascination for that time and place -- Europe of the "Dark Ages," the mysterious and poorly-documented period between the slow and tortuous collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century C.E. and the consolidation of the Frankish state during the eighth.

Part of the reason for my interest is that it is a mystery.  If you push back much earlier than Charlemagne, you get into some seriously sketchy territory.  The most famous example is King Arthur, whose legendary status is obvious, but whose historicity is dubious at best.  But he's hardly the only one.  Take the account of the founding of the Merovingian Dynasty (immediately preceding the Carolingians, founded by Charlemagne), from the seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar:

It is said that while Chlodio was staying at the seaside with his wife one summer, his wife went into the sea at midday to bathe, and a beast of Neptune rather like a Quinotaur found her.  In the event she was made pregnant, either by the beast or by her husband, and she gave birth to a son called Merovech, from whom the kings of the Franks have subsequently been called Merovingians.

I had to look up what a "quinotaur" was.  Turns out it's a beast with the front half of a bull and the back half of a fish.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jacques63, Quinotaure, CC BY-SA 4.0

So Merovech's father was either (1) a guy named Chlodio, or (2) a fish-bull-thing.  What's amusing is that the author of the Chronicle of Fredegar seemed to consider these as equally plausible, so decided to include them both.

So if you go much before 750 C.E. or so, the actual facts become so interwoven with mythology and folk history that it's hard to tell what, if any, is real.  (I mean, the issue of Merovech's father is pretty clear cut, but that's the exception.)  When you get back to the second century and earlier, things improve drastically -- we have, all things considered, great records of the Roman Empire at the height of its power -- but as it started to disintegrate, people found that writing stuff down was less of a priority than avoiding starvation or being chopped into tiny bits by the latest group of invaders.

This is why a recent discovery in Turkey is so exciting to me and others who share my interest in that time and place.  At the site of the ancient city of Blaundos, about 180 kilometers east of the Aegean Sea, archaeologists have discovered a necropolis that was used as a burial site during the time when the Roman Empire was heading toward collapse -- from the second to the fourth centuries.  What they're finding is impressive, to say the least.

"We think that the Blaundos rock-cut tomb chambers, in which there are many sarcophagi, were used as family tombs, and that the tombs were reopened for each deceased family member, and a burial ceremony was held and closed again," said Birol Can of Uşak University, who headed the team excavating the site.  "Some of these tombs were used as animal shelters by shepherds a long time ago.  The frescoes were covered with a dense and black soot layer due to the fires that were set in those times.  But [we were] able to clean some of the paintings, revealing the vibrant floral, geometric and figurative scenes painted on the walls.  Vines, flowers of various colors, wreaths, garlands, geometric panels are the most frequently used motifs.  In addition to these, mythological figures — such as Hermes (Mercury), Eros (Cupid) [and] Medusa — and animals such as birds and dogs are included in the wide panels."

The team has only begun to investigate the site; just cleaning the panels to expose the brilliantly-colored art beneath the layers of grime is a slow and painstaking process.  Eventually, the entire complex will be studied and restored.  After that, they're planning on doing DNA and chemical analysis of the remains of the people buried there, hoping to find out their ages and cause of death, nutritional habits, and ancestry.

The latter is of particular interest to me.  When the "barbarian tribes" -- the disparaging moniker which the Romans used to lump together the people of northern Europe, including Celts, Gauls, Goths, Allemanni, Suevi, Marcomanni, Franks, Vandals, and so forth -- began to chip away at Roman territory, the Roman citizens who lived in border regions began to accept the inevitable and "allowed" them to settle.  In some cases, the now-apparently-civilized barbarians were granted Roman citizenship.  (In fact, one of the most famous and powerful Roman military leaders in the fourth century, Stilicho, was a Vandal by descent.)

So finding out the ancestry of the people of Blaundos will be interesting, especially comparing the earliest to the latest remains to see how (or if) the same kind of ethnic melding happened here that was happening in other parts of the Empire.

In any case, the discovery is extremely cool, and may clarify our picture of the beginnings of one of the most mystery-shrouded time periods in the past two millennia.  It'll be interesting to see what more they turn up.  I'm guessing, though, that they're not going to find evidence of women getting knocked up by fish-bull-creatures.  Call me a doubter, but there you are.

**********************************

My dad once quipped about me that my two favorite kinds of food were "plenty" and "often."  He wasn't far wrong.  I not only have eclectic tastes, I love trying new things -- and surprising, considering my penchant for culinary adventure, have only rarely run across anything I truly did not like.

So the new book Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Guide by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras is right down my alley.  Wong and Thuras traveled to all seven continents to find the most interesting and unique foods each had to offer -- their discoveries included a Chilean beer that includes fog as an ingredient, a fish paste from Italy that is still being made the same way it was by the Romans two millennia ago, a Sardinian pasta so loved by the locals it's called "the threads of God," and a tea that is so rare it is only served in one tea house on the slopes of Mount Hua in China.

If you're a foodie -- or if, like me, you're not sophisticated enough for that appellation but just like to eat -- you should check out Gastro Obscura.  You'll gain a new appreciation for the diversity of cuisines the world has to offer, and might end up thinking differently about what you serve on your own table.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


Friday, October 22, 2021

Who the hell is Mary Hansard?

I had a very peculiar thing happen to me while working on my work-in-progress, a fall-of-civilization novel called In the Midst of Lions that I swear was not inspired in any way by 2020.  (In fact -- true story -- I first came up with the idea for this book when I was in college.  Which was a lot of years ago.)

The main characters, a bunch of academics who are very used to the easy life, are caught up in a sudden societal collapse.  I'm always interested to think about how perfectly ordinary people would act in extraordinary circumstances; this is kind of the crypto-theme of all my stories, actually.  In any case, these four professors from the University of Washington end up having to flee the rioting and violence on foot, crossing the Washington Park Arboretum, a two-hundred-acre garden south of the campus, on their way to a safe haven.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Joe Mabel, Seattle - Arboretum Bridge 01, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Completely unexpectedly -- not only to them, but to me -- they meet someone in the Arboretum. Here's the scene where they come across her:
Cassandra was the first one to spot her—a woman sitting cross-legged with her back to the trunk of a fir tree, watching them approach with a broad smile on her face.  She was perhaps forty years old, and the most remarkable thing about her appearance was how completely unremarkable she looked.  An oval face, even features, light brown hair in a loose ponytail, neither particularly attractive nor at all unattractive, she was the kind of person you might pass a dozen times a day and never notice.

But here she sat in the Arboretum as the world collapsed around her, apparently unconcerned.

“Oh, hello,” she called out in a pleasant, melodious voice, and waved.

Soren exchanged a puzzled glance with Cassandra, who shrugged.

As they neared, the woman stood, moving a little awkwardly, but with no evident self-consciousness.  Soren jerked to a halt until she raised both hands to show that she was unarmed.  “Don’t be afraid,” she said.  “I mean no harm.  In fact, I’ve been waiting for you all.”
When I finished writing this, I said -- and I quote -- "what the fuck just happened?"  She was not part of the original plot.  The idea was that they'd cross the Arboretum, dodging snipers and rioters, and reach their goal safely.  But suddenly there's this... this person, sitting there waiting for them.

Oh, and her name is Mary Hansard.  Don't ask me where that came from.  Her name came along with her character, waltzing into the story from heaven-knows-where.

I know I tend to be a pantser (for non-writers, authors tend to fall into two loose classes: pantsers -- who write by the seat of the pants -- and plotters -- who plan everything out).  But this is ridiculous.  I honestly had no idea this character even existed.  Afterward, I had to figure out (1) who the hell Mary Hansard was, (2) what role she was going to play in the story, and (3) how she knew the four fleeing professors were going to be coming through the Arboretum.

I would love to know where this kind of stuff comes from.  I mean, "my brain" is the prosaic answer, and is technically right, but when this sort of thing happens -- and it's far from the first time -- it feels like it came from outside me, as if the story already existed out there in the aether and I just tapped into it somehow.

I also know enough that when this occurs, it means something is going really right with the story.  When I've had these sudden shifts in course, following them usually leads to somewhere interesting that I wouldn't have otherwise discovered.  But to say that it's a little disorienting is a vast understatement.

Especially since I knew -- knew for a complete certainty -- that the mysterious, ordinary-looking Mary Hansard would become one of the most central characters in the story.

Here's a bit that comes later, that gives us more information about her -- and how she knew the four would be there in the Arboretum:
Was part of her empathy due to her foreknowledge of what she herself would soon be feeling?

Probably, but just as she’d told Dr. Quaice, that knowledge wouldn’t change anything.  On the other hand, it did bring an odd sort of comfort.  Soren had told her something like that, the day all this started, when he described how he had the courage to cross the Montlake Cut while a sniper was taking potshots at them.  He knew he had to do it, so at that point it became like a thing already accomplished.  His fear was no longer relevant.

That was one advantage of her foresight.  The confusion between future and past meant it was all one thing.  It was the not-present.  And being not-present, it couldn’t hurt her.  If pain lay in the future, it was as removed from her as her memories of a broken arm when she was twelve.  Neither one had any impact on the present as it slowly glided along, a moving flashlight beam following her footsteps through the wrecked cityscape.  The events of the past and the future were frozen, fixed and unmoving, like butterflies trapped in amber.

So much for the idea that authors have the entire story in their heads from the get-go.  Personally, I love it when stuff like this happens -- wherever it comes from.  Writing, then, becomes as much of an act of discovery as it is an act of creation, and all the writer can do at that point is let the horse have his head and hang onto the reins for dear life.

**********************************

My dad once quipped about me that my two favorite kinds of food were "plenty" and "often."  He wasn't far wrong.  I not only have eclectic tastes, I love trying new things -- and surprising, considering my penchant for culinary adventure, have only rarely run across anything I truly did not like.

So the new book Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Guide by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras is right down my alley.  Wong and Thuras traveled to all seven continents to find the most interesting and unique foods each had to offer -- their discoveries included a Chilean beer that includes fog as an ingredient, a fish paste from Italy that is still being made the same way it was by the Romans two millennia ago, a Sardinian pasta so loved by the locals it's called "the threads of God," and a tea that is so rare it is only served in one tea house on the slopes of Mount Hua in China.

If you're a foodie -- or if, like me, you're not sophisticated enough for that appellation but just like to eat -- you should check out Gastro Obscura.  You'll gain a new appreciation for the diversity of cuisines the world has to offer, and might end up thinking differently about what you serve on your own table.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]


Thursday, October 21, 2021

Relaxing the controls

I've been a musician for over forty years, and I think I'm reasonably good at my instrument, but there's one thing I've never learned how to do: improvisation.

To be fair, the two styles of music I've played the most -- classical, and Celtic folk music -- are not known for incorporating improv.  I took a workshop some years ago about how to free up our playing, and the teacher did a couple of improv exercises with us.  I found them extremely challenging, and even that is probably an understatement.  "Damn near impossible" is closer to the mark.  I've always been wound a little too tightly, and letting go of my inhibitions, just making stuff up and not caring if I make mistakes, is not easy for me.  My reaction was mostly to freeze up, sit there with a panicked look on my face, and pray for my turn to be over.

Now, in my own defense, I think I'm pretty good at playing expressively.  Music for me is very emotional, and being able to express emotion through playing (or singing) is at the heart of performance.  So I think I can play a piece I know evocatively -- but as for doing true improvisational music, taking a basic chord structure and making up a tune on the spot to go with it, I don't know that I could ever learn how to do that fluidly.

My band, Alizé, performing at the Eastman School of Music

So I'm always a little in awe of people who can.  I remember some years ago heading up to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where my band and I were performing a set of French folk tunes for a bunch of students who were mostly studying classical and jazz.  The amusing thing is that we seemed to fall square in the middle of the two groups of students.  The classical students, used to playing exclusively from written music and reproducing it perfectly from the dynamics markings, were kind of boggled by the fact that I and my band members didn't have to plan ahead when to switch from one tune to the next in a medley, when one of us would take a solo, and when we were going to end.  It was all decided on the fly and communicated between us by eye contact and subtle body language.  The jazz players, on the other hand, probably felt what we were doing was rudimentary; in the jazz tradition, improv is pretty much what you're aiming for right from the beginning.  If that wasn't apparent enough, after our session we attended a performance by some of the senior jazz students, where they had a music stand with a set of cards, one of them for the time signature and the other for the key signature, and invited the audience members to come up at random intervals and change one or the other.  As the piece progressed, they had to modulate rhythm and key to match whatever the cards were at the time.  Going from one key to another can be straightforward -- C major to A minor, for example, isn't difficult -- but going from C major to F# minor is a huge jump.  But they did it smoothly, their transitions clean and seemingly effortless, putting to shame our simple tune changing when one of us wiggled his/her eyebrows.

What's clear, though, is any kind of musical flexibility -- being able to play something more than what's on the sheet music -- requires that you get out of your own way and relax.  How good improvisational musicians accomplish that was the subject of a study out of Georgia State University published last week in Scientific Reports that showed the relaxation of control you have to master to improv well is actually reflected by what is happening in the brain.

The researchers hooked twenty-one skilled jazz musicians up to a fMRI machine and had them do one of two things -- either to listen to a standard twelve-bar bebop chord progression and imagine what they might sing to go with it, or actually to improvise the singing on the spot.  What they found was that two places in the brain -- the default mode network and the executive control network -- both changed in activity level during the task.  The default mode network has its highest levels of activity during wakeful rest, what we'd usually call "daydreaming" or "mind wandering."  The executive control network is most active during complex problem solving and accessing working memory.  What the researchers found is that in both groups -- the ones who actually sang to the chord progression, and the ones who imagined it -- the activity in the executive control network decreased and the activity in the default mode network increased.  Further, the cross-talk between the two systems slowed down significantly.

So my sense of improv requiring "getting out of your own way" is pretty close to the mark.  We have to damp down the executive functions of the brain so that the creative parts can be accessed more fluidly.  "We saw that when expert musicians are improvising, the brain is interfering less with their creativity," said study co-author Martin Norgaard.

Myself, I wonder if the same phenomenon explains something I've experienced many times, which is when I've run into a plot problem while working on a novel.  Figuring out "why did that character do that?" or "what happens next?" can often seem intractable.  And I've found that hammering away at it -- presumably using my executive control network -- seldom works.  It's much more productive to put aside the laptop and do something entirely different, like going for a run.  Nine times out of ten, while I'm out there, running along and listening to music, the solution will pop into my head, seemingly out of nowhere.

It's fascinating to see researchers beginning to get a handle on that most mysterious of human abilities -- creativity.  Apparently, wherever creativity ultimately comes from, it requires relaxing the control you have over what your mind is doing.  It's still unknown why it expresses differently in different people -- music, art, dance, or storytelling -- but the idea that the release mechanism might function the same way in all of them is intriguing.

And now, I think I'd better get to work on my novel-in-progress.  I've got a couple of unresolved plot points to figure out that have been remarkably resistant to the beat-it-unto-death approach, so maybe "working on my novel" this morning will look to the outside world like "going for a long run."  Hey, whatever works to get my overactive executive control network to simmer down.

**********************************

My dad once quipped about me that my two favorite kinds of food were "plenty" and "often."  He wasn't far wrong.  I not only have eclectic tastes, I love trying new things -- and surprising, considering my penchant for culinary adventure, have only rarely run across anything I truly did not like.

So the new book Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer's Guide by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras is right down my alley.  Wong and Thuras traveled to all seven continents to find the most interesting and unique foods each had to offer -- their discoveries included a Chilean beer that includes fog as an ingredient, a fish paste from Italy that is still being made the same way it was by the Romans two millennia ago, a Sardinian pasta so loved by the locals it's called "the threads of God," and a tea that is so rare it is only served in one tea house on the slopes of Mount Hua in China.

If you're a foodie -- or if, like me, you're not sophisticated enough for that appellation but just like to eat -- you should check out Gastro Obscura.  You'll gain a new appreciation for the diversity of cuisines the world has to offer, and might end up thinking differently about what you serve on your own table.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]