Monthly Archives: July 2009

Paranoia Will Destroy Ya: Watching Those Watching Us

Is it just me?

Or do I get the sneaking suspicion I’m being watched?

In my younger days — getting farther and farther away in my review mirror — I never used to be paranoid. How does the old joke go …? Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

For me, paranoia started in early 2002 while living near the U.S.-Canadian border. One day out of nowhere these really high towers appeared, each equipped with a movable camera attached to the top. Being a journalist, I inquired as to their sudden existence and found they were part of a beefed up response to border security issues brought on by the paranoia of the U.S. Government and it’s response to 9-11.

But no one would answer as to who was on the other end of the continuous video feed of the high-powered cameras that had the capability to zoom in to details inside any house or vehicle window within it’s scope. And no one would say if a recording device was or wasn’t hooked up to that feed.

Jump cut to current days and a couple of articles in different publications catch my eye. One was in the North Mason Life in the July 15 edition. “Sheriff’s Office to Install Mobile Terminals.”  Essentially, some outside funds are being used to install mobile data terminals (MDTs) in Mason County prowlers and have the effect of being able to broadcast dispatch calls without going out across public airwaves. On the face of it, this sounds reasonable — why broadcast where you want to be going when any two-bit thief or hoodlum need only plunk down a couple of (stolen) sawbucks to get a state-of-the-art scanner to eavesdrop on police movements? This may be a ludicrous stretch for an anology but serves to make the point: I’m sure another reasonable sounding idea at the time was that of creating a racially pure breed of Aryan during pre-war Germany.

The paranoid side of me questions who will monitor the officers to see if they aren’t abusing this technology to further erode the rights of citizens? Powerful tools such as these  are a great way to fight crime, but they can be every bit as powerful in creating corruption when used by unscrupulous individuals or for nefarious justifications.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Then there is a report in Science Daily about researchers in Oregon and Washington perfecting a new method for determining the extent of illicit drug use in entire communities from the wastewater flushed into a given municipal treatment plant. According to the report, “scientists determined the ‘index load’ of the different drugs — the amount of drug per person per day — based on estimates of the population served by each wastewater facility.”

A report issued in the July 2009 journal Addiction tells of a study completed in 2008 of a statewide mapping of Oregon’s illicit drug use with a one-day testing of 96 municipality wastewater treatment plants representing 65 percent of the state’s population.

So today an entire municipality’s or state’s drug use picture (both legal and illegal) can be determined without the residents’ knowledge or consent. Today’s science breakthroughs routinely leads to tomorrow’s science fiction becoming a reality — often with less than honorable intentions. If science can now successfully test an entire community, how long before a state or federal government agency decides to place a testing device on a individual home’s wastewater flow?

J. Robert Oppenheimer, in helping to harness the power of an atomic reaction, really had no idea how that knowledge and power would be used. Scientists are often one step removed from the political powers that take their research and find new ways to apply it.

Then I read that county officials are busy mounting cameras at intersections with the intent that they can spot “pattern disruptions” and be more effective in triggering a traffic light to change than the older system of underground sensors. Again, on the surface, it sounds fine, but who can say that some government agency or official in the future see a new and more invasive use for the equipment that’s already in place?

You’d think more people would be alarmed about the continuing erosion of their private lives and the ease at which municipal, county, state and federal government agencies can tap that information through usurping of infrastructure already in place.

But then we’re talking about a populace that is ever more comfortable in posting intimate and trivial details about their everyday lives on Internet sites such as Facebook and myspace.

Want a glimpse of what may yet come of a future where we increasingly lose our personal freedoms? Rent the sci-fi thriller “Gattaca.” Then invest in a good high-speed personal DustBuster hand vac.

In Search of Spirits — the ‘Elicits Laughs’ Kind, Part III

The video of the medium channeling spirits during the ghost hunt in Union is finally in (the investigation took place July 11 at the McReavy house). Thanks to Ron at Pixietale Studios for taking more than an hour’s worth of raw video and bringing together the most salient points for a 4-minute clip. I’ve attached it with the Part II blog post (link below).

For the complete story, you can check out the earlier posts: Part I detailing the anticipation of going ghost hunting and Part II, an account of the evening’s events. But if you just want to see the video, then you can watch it from the link below.

Ghost Hunt in Union, Channeling Spirits

In Search of Spirits — The Elusive Kind, Part II

mcreavyhouseunion-919

As the evening sky darkened, distant flashes illuminated the gathering clouds, followed by a low and ominous rumble as the thunder rolled across the sky, accompanied by gusts of wind shaking the alders and pines that surrounded our diminutive camp.

A handful of paranormal enthusiasts — along with an invited, spirit-beckoning “medium” — and a confirmed skeptic (myself) gathered together July 11 outside the McReavy house, perched atop the steep hillside overlooking the Hood Canal in Union, which has stood empty of living residents for nearly 40 years.

The purpose was to investigate purported paranormal activity (read: ghosts) that might be present at the site. My job: to help document the event in video and still digital images. The image above is of the medium channeling “Mary,” a young girl who told us, through tears, of her having great difficulties while swimming alone. The blurred effect is a result of a slowed shutter speed due to only two dim light sources, one directly behind the chair he is seated in and a second coming from a video camera off-screen to the left.

Built by John and Fannie (Gove) McReavy in 1883, the house certainly held the charm of being home to unearthly spirits. Willed to the local historical society by the heirs of the last couple to live in the home — McReavy’s daughter, Helen (who wrote “How, When and Where, On the Hood Canal,” 1960 Puget Press) and her husband — it has long been cleared of most of the interior furnishings. In fact, before the couple died (in 1969 and 1970) it appears they had come into some money and had started a major renovation of the home, both inside and out.

They removed the Victorian style pitched roof in favor of a flat beam and plank venture, essentially lopping off a third-story room just visible in some historical photos. And the first and second floors were in various array of having the interior wood plank wall coverings replaced by sheetrock.

As a result, much of the internal charm was boxed up, as fancy moldings and cornices that framed the doors and windows had all been removed to accommodate the remodeling work.

The reality struck me as a far more poignant story. Imagine remodeling your entire home and in the middle of the work, your spouse dies. For upward of a year, you continue to live in the home, but never complete the work, instead living our your days in a home with one foot in the 19th century and one foot in the 20th century. It must have been a lonely final year for Mr. Andersen.

The only remaining vestiges of the home’s original interior were the doors, hinges and some wallpaper remnants stubbornly clinging to some surfaces. The unfinished basement provided tantalizing clues to former occupants with a mishmash of home knickknacks from rolling pins to teacups and records to steamer trunks covered in the dust of dried mildew. One item of particular interest was the front page of a Good Housekeeping magazine dated 1894 — it was found lying on the floor where it had doubtless been tread upon for decades.

Ivy tenaciously invaded one eastern window, preferring the controlled climate inside to the harsh weather blowing off the canal’s shores to the north.

The house itself had stories to tell — an intriguing one lingered about the internal fireplace with a partially dismantled brick chimney and insert installed. The backside of the fireplace faced a back room where the wall was exposed, showing burned timbers where a chimney fire must have put quite a scare in the residents of the time. They were lucky indeed that a timber house of well-seasoned and dried wood didn’t literally explode in flames, as so many homes of that era would do when exposed to fire.

And where the chimney had been removed, a member of the party discovered a large piece of cut tree trunk, bark still clinging to it, wedged between the first floor ceiling and second floor flooring. We surmised it must have been some tradition of putting a piece of unfinished wood from which the home was being built into the home to either bring good luck or ward off bad.

In an unfinished crawl space along the western side of the home, a large knarled tree stump measuring several feet across was left — obviously deemed too much trouble to try and uproot, they cut it to its base and built the home above it.

But if there were spirits lingering about with stories to tell, they remained elusive to our party.

The medium — by his reckoning — was successful in raising a half-dozen denizens of the past. But proof of this reality must be measured in quantifiable facts and every attempt to question a channeled spirit on a detail that could be fact-checked was adroitly side-stepped or ignored.

For example, when asked what book they last read, each and every one of the channeled spirits answered, “The Bible.” And of the channeled McReavy himself, an important businessman and one of the signers of the state charter, whom you would think would be in keen touch with the world around him and the comings and goings on in his own personally named “Venice on the Hood Canal.” But when I asked him what was the name of the newspaper in town, he replied, “I don’t care about newspapers.” Remember: this is the late 1800s when no other form of mass communication existed. Do you really think a man of his stature wouldn’t care to keep up on the news in his community?

I caught the medium in a few outright errors as well (that hopefully the rest of the group will pick up on as they review the videotaped sessions). His first spirit said he was a visitor in the home in 1880 (remember, it was built in 1883) and later when he channeled McReavy, presumably John as he referred to the home as his and wondered at the renovations, he said he built the home in the 1870s and later referred to the master bedroom as a guest room.

Some of the party saw validation of their beliefs in the medium’s manifestations while others maintained their doubts, but having been a theater major many years ago, I must admit that to me the mood lighting and channeled spirits who each rather conveniently “had to go” after a few minutes seemed more like a poorly staged one-act play than anything even beginning to approach reality.

To get a glimpse of the fun we had that night, check out the video here — apologies for the poor quality, but the lighting was limited.

I know one other member of our expedition was as skeptical as I when he asked a spirit if they liked to eat salmon.

The evening petered out around 4:30 a.m. with everyone succumbing to the Sandman, slinking away to find his or her sleeping bag or tent.

For what its worth, I will share my notes and observations with the group and they are free to include or exclude whatever part they desire as they prepare their report of the happening of the night.

As for me, I continue to remain skeptical, having not seen or heard anything that would change my mind. Although the stories that flowed around the room between channeling sessions and also around the campfire outside were anecdotal and filled with provoking details of secondhand sightings, I chalked up the night as being akin to a grown-up version of camp night, where the campers would gather about a fire nestled deep amid rustling trees and snapping branches as a camp counselor weaved a tale of suspense and terror of a haunted night long ago at the very site.

The scariest moment I had was while driving away and pointing down Main Street on a very, very steep incline and imagining the brakes giving way to a fast and furious ride down the hill, across a short gravel parking lot and straight into the cold waters of Hood Canal. That would be a chilly fright indeed.

New Words Demonstrate Ever-changing Humanity

Attention all you linguists and lexicographers — the venerable scriveners at Merriam-Webster’s wordsmith shop have just released a passel of new words and phrases that have found their way into the newest pages of the 11th edition of the collegiate dictionary.

To herald the event (and certainly to the chagrin of the folks at Oxford), a quarter of the new words have been posted to the M-W Web site and a good quarter of the publicized words are tech-related — such as webisode: a television show viewable on the Internet, vlog: a blog filled with video content and green-collar; denoting an environmentally friendly professional career.

Some the words and phrases have been in use for some time, like zip line, fan fiction and sock puppet — the latter having gained new life with a new, more sinister definition from its original use in the 1950s when it was literally a puppet made from a sock. Sock puppet in the 21st century is defined as a false online identity used for deceptive purposes. A lot of the Web site commentators can relate to that one …

And some of the entries gained stardom and dictionary fame rather quickly — such as waterboarding, staycation and flash mob.

These handful of words join an ever-growing lexicon that can see as many as 10,000 new entries in a decade. The last time Merriam-Webster came out with a new edition — in 2003 — such colorful entries as dead-cat bounce, phreaker, waitron and gimme cap were added to the official American lexicon, as were such other oft-turned words like barista, tankini, longneck, Botox, Goth, brewski and tweener. (Interesting side note: the spell check on the computer on which I write doesn’t like any of the above “new” words — with the sole exception of Goth.)

But as they sow, so do they reap. There is no official documentation as to how many words are dropped from the dictionary each year — who really wants to keep track of that? — but old and antiquated words that have outlived their usefulness or simply fall out of usage do fall from grace with the editors and find themselves unceremoniously tossed into the dustheap of the past.

Such notables from the recent past include vitamin G, microcopy, ten cent store, portapak, pantdress and sheep-dip. These were all expunged from the M-W pages in 2003.

And then there are the rare few who fall out of favor — only to be recalled back into use. Wheatgrass was dropped from the the 8th edition only to be revived once more for the 11th.

So just how do word make the grade to qualify for the dictionary? The good folks at Merriam-Webster track print use of words from books to newspapers (see? They still have a use …) to magazines, such as: the New York Times, the New Yorker, Newsweek, People, Air & Space, Better Homes and Gardens, Cats, Consumer Reports, Yoga Journal, Discover, Harper’s, Library Journal, National Geographic, the New England Journal of Medicine, PC Magazine, Rolling Stone, Smithsonian, Sports Illustrated, Time, TV Guide, Vanity Fair and Vogue, and Chocolatier (from a 2003 article in the San Francisco Chronicle).

They use a somewhat complex tracking system, apply a Google-esque algorithm or two and voila: new dictionary entires are born.

So as much as I would like to introduce a new word or two into the American culture, my chances of writing anytime soon for one of those publications remains slim — unless maybe I can crack the pages of Cats.

In Search of Spirits — the Ethereal Kind, Part 1

Halloween may still be three-and-a-half months away, but I’ll be joining up with a ragtag group of ghost hunters and scaring up some spooky business come Saturday night.

A confirmed skeptic when it comes to the paranormal — I like my monsters and spirits in their Hollywood form and in a good Poe or King story, but that’s about as real as they get for me — it should prove to be an entertaining night watching others raise the goosebump level.

I hesitate to name the site we’ll be headed as I don’t want to alert the “locals” or other uninvited guests to crash the party — let’s just say for now that it’s a regional venue of some historical significance and allegedly has some out-of-print haunted tales to tell, but the caretakers of the estate don’t want to share those stories until after the investigation, just to see if the observations and stories mesh.

The information I currently have is so secondhand, I’m not even sure of who is behind the investigation or how many people are involved, other than the acknowledgment that they aren’t “professional” ghost hunters per se, but more akin to ghost enthusiasts with a medium invited along to spice things up.

Along with my Cracker Jacks (it’s gonna be a long night) I’ll be packing a digital SLR and a digital camcorder. The still camera will be used mostly to record the grounds inside and out while there is daylight. And so as not to wear out my welcome, I’ll pack that away and never invoke the flash, and switch to video once the darkness is complete.

I suspect I’ll capture nothing more sinister or wispy than the fog that is likely to roll in once the night air cools — but hey, I like to have an open mind to new experiences. Even though I shelved my belief in ghosts long ago along with the other books I read on UFOs, Sasquatches, and Loch Ness fishies that I shelved in my adolescent years, it doesn’t mean I can’t entertain the thought of seeing something “that can’t be explained” in rational terms. In fact, I would whole-heartedly welcome a face-to-face with an other-worldly spirit.

I’d have a few questions to ask, like: Is mass transit a problem in the fourth dimension as much as it is here? — Do fleas and mosquitoes exist in the after-life? — and perhaps most importantly — If you can float through walls, then why do clothes hang on to your body?

Searing inquiries indeed.

Do you have any questions you’d like me to ask on the off-chance I get to interview someone’s long-lost uncle? If so, post them to this blog. Who knows? You may be able to finally understand why spirits can so easily communicate through a Ouija board, yet they can’t just pick up a phone and call?

A blog will follow next week recounting our attempts to rouse some spirits.