Saturday, June 28, 2008

Lights in the sky

William B Stoecker:

Debunkers are fond of "explaining" ufos as ball lightning, swamp gas, etc., but, inasmuch as we have next to no understanding of such phenomena, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, for example, ball lightning is a ufo.

After all, the term"ufo" doesn't mean Pleiadian beam ship or Sirian mother ship; it means "unidentified flying object," and is an admission of the fact that there are objects or phenomena flying around in the sky that we don't even begin to understand.

In fact, there are a multitude of luminous phenomena in and beyond our atmosphere that we don't even begin to understand, and they all seem to be interrelated in some fashion; indeed, they may be different forms of the same thing.For centuries, people have reported seeing moving balls of light, usually in swampy areas; these have been called swamp lights, will-o-the-wisp, or jack-o-lanterns.

Debunkers claim that these are nothing more than glowing or burning methane gas released by rotting vegetation in swamps. While there is no doubt that methane is produced this way, there is no known chemical process that would cause methane to coldly luminesce. And for it to burn, there would have to be something to ignite the gas, and most swamps don't come equipped with spark plugs.

If bubbles of methane were somehow ignited, they would simply produce a brief flame just above the water level. Yet scores of witnesses have reported discrete balls of light moving through the air, and holding themselves together for many seconds. Burning gas expands, rises, and cools. Ever turn on the gas range in your kitchen and have to chase a fireball around the room? I think not. In addition, many observers have reported a seeming awareness on the part of the lights; they seem to react to a human presence.

And then there is so called ball lightning. This has been reported by so many reliable witnesses that mainstream science has had to admit that it exists. Tesla and others have even produced what appears to be ball lightning in laboratories, or from lit candles in microwaves (don't try this at home), and researchers have produced similar effects by hitting silicon with an electric arc, leading some to suspect that natural ball lightning may be caused by ordinary lightning hitting sandy soil, but the lights they produced were only a few centimeters in diameter, and lasted, at the most, for one or two seconds.

By contrast, witnesses have reported natural ball lightning over a meter in diameter and lasting many seconds. It has been reported entering sealed aircraft cabins and closed rooms. At a Church in Devon, England on 10/21/1638, witnesses reported an eight foot fireball that killed four people and injured sixty. The problem with trying to explain it is that a ball of hot, glowing gas, or plasma, would, like the burning methane discussed earlier, tend to expand, rise, and cool very quickly.

But not only do we not understand ball lightning (if, indeed, it is lightning), we don't fully understand ordinary lightning. In addition, satellites and high flying aircraft have photographed "red sprites," dim, red flashes as high as ninety kilometers with filaments extending down toward thunderclouds, often in clusters. Also photographed are blue jets that shoot up as narrow cones from the tops of thunderclouds.

The sprites somehow produce gamma ray bursts, and no one has any explanation for any of this.Earthquake lights are another phenomenon that mainstream science admits is real, but cannot explain. Sometimes the lights are seen before or after the quake, and are typically white or bluish glows like an aurora. There are also reports of glowing spheres, or what appear to be flames coming from the ground.

Usually they are silent, but sometimes a crackling sound is reported, indicating that they might be electrical in nature. Theories include the release of methane from the ground, but, if so, what ignites it? Another theory is that ball lightning is an electrical discharge due to the piezoelectric effect (quartz crystals subjected to sudden impact or pressure produce electricity), but ball lightning has been reported at sea.

How would electric discharges find their way through hundreds of feet of sea water? Also, if the reports of glowing balls are correct, we are faced with the same problem as with swamp lights. What powers the glowing ball, and what holds it together? Also, earthquakes have caused electromagnetic disturbances and low frequency radio emissions in the 10-20 KHz range. This, too, is a mystery.

Michael Persinger, a psychologist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, is the organizer of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program. He has stimulated the temporal lobes of volunteers with weak magnetic fields, causing them to sense a "presence" in the room. This has led him to theorize that ufos are earthquake lights, and that the earthquake-caused electromagnetic disturbances somehow cause people to hallucinate full-fledged abductions.

It is quite a stretch from sensing a "presence" to the kind of experience alleged abductees report. In addition, abduction experiences usually happen when there is no earthquake, and often far from any fault lines. Persinger has theorized that even between quakes there may be strain on the rocks inside the Earth, and calls this the Tectonic Strain Theory.

Chris Rutkowski of the University of Manitoba has pointed out that common household electrical appliances subject people to far stronger electric and magnetic fields than have been produced by earthquakes, but do not cause hallucinations.British researcher Michael Devereux, like Persinger, believes that lights may appear even when there is no earthquake, and he has organized the Dragon Project to study what he calls "earthlights."

At a very few ancient ruins he has detected magnetic and radiation anomalies, and possibly infrared and ultrasound effects. Note that crop circles are also commonly found near ancient ruins in England. Devereux has come to suspect that the lights are in some sense alive or aware, possessing at least some level of intelligence.Videographer Jose Escamilla taped what he calls "rods" at Midway, New Mexico on 3/19/94 and many times since. He thinks that researchers like Ivan T. Sanderson and Trevor James Constable may have photographed them in the late nineteen fifties, and Constable used infrared film.

Basically, the rods appear to be some sort of bizarre flying creatures with rod-shaped bodies and projecting fins, that move through the air, and apparently through water and even solid rock at such speed that they are normally invisible to the human eye. When videotape is played back in extreme slow motion, they often appear. Before anyone accuses Escamilla of a hoax, consider the fact that dozens of other people have also taped them.

In one case, researchers taped some nocturnal moths, and, when the tape was played back in slow motion, the moths took on the appearance of rods due to a doubling effect inherent to videocameras. But many other rods have offset fins in multiples of three, an effect impossible to achieve with insects, whose wings are in multiples of two.

Escamilla points out that a rod photographed in Maryland appears to be partly behind a cloud, indicating that, whatever it was, it was colossal in size. In many of these videotapes, the cameras appear to be focused on infinity, making it difficult to explain the rods as insects very close to the camera. Escamilla and other researchers have also reported a seeming awareness on the part of the rods; often they swerve to avoid people.

I have discussed with Mr. Escamilla the possibility that the larger rods may be identical with at least some of the flying dragons of folklore. The idea that ufos, or some of them, may be some sort of bizarre life form, is very old. Whatever they are, they are worthy of further study, and, as common as they seem to be, studying them shouldn't be all that difficult.It should also be fairly easy to study another phenomenon reported in recent years: orbs.

When electronic cameras are used with a flash attachment, fairly often glowing balls of light appear, that were not visible at the time to the photographer or other people present when the picture was taken. Naturally, the manufacturers claim that these are not artifacts of the cameras caused by some defect. Debunkers claim that they are merely dust motes in the air. Perhaps so, but they appear in some pictures and not in others and seem to have no connection to the amount of dust present.

Researcher Paul J. Muir claims to have photographed them near ancient English ruins, or sacred sites, apparently making them identical to Devereux's earthlights. At some of these sites he claims to have triangulated their position using two cameras, apparently ruling out the dust mote theory, and, like Devereux, he has reported magnetic anomalies at some of the sites, and says that the orbs are electrically charged.

Note that these reports of electromagnetic anomalies seem common to many of these various phenomena, and have also been reported by ufo researchers.If orbs and rods would seem to be easy to study, the same is true of mysterious lights that show up over and over at the same locations. One of these would be Marfa, in West Texas, where balls of light, usually reddish in color, flashing off and on rapidly, have been seen by numerous observers, and also photographed and videotaped.

Debunkers claim that they are distant car headlights, but they are seen in directions away from the roads, and, anyway, were reportd in 1883 before there was even a rail line in the area, let alone any automobiles. As with all of these phenomena, most professional scientists refuse to investigate them, leaving that task mostly to amateurs, whom the professionals then disparage. It might be useful to get detailed seismic and geological data on the area, to see if the lights cluster around fault lines or near certain minerals or ground water.

Acoustic data should be collected, as some observers have reported a high pitched hum. Infrared and low light cameras should be used, and geiger counters and ultraviolet detectors, and, although the lights are only reported at night, that doesn't mean that they are not present by day, only invisible.Similar lights have been reported on and around Brown Mountain Ridge in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, dating back to pre-Civil War and Indian accounts, which would appear to rule out the convenient car headlight theory.

They are seen floating among the trees and sometimes larger lights split into several smaller ones, something also reported with ufos.The League of Energy Materialization and Unexplained Phenomena Research, or LEMUR, have detected them with infrared and moving across rock faces. They have activated geiger counters, but this may be due, not to radiation, but to the ionization of the air. LEMUR has also measured electrical currents moving through the ground, and radio emissions in the 140 KHz range.

They appear to be more common in times of high solar activity. There are thrust faults in the region, and caves and springs, and quartz and magnetite are common minerals around the ridge. One man claimed to have touched one and received an electric shock. All of this suggests something electrical in nature, but what? Note that caves and springs are reportedly also the site of many paranormal events.Another of the many areas where mysterious lights are reported is Hessdalen, Norway.

Linda Moulton Howe and some Norwegian researchers have done a fairly detailed study of these lights. They have come to believe that about ninety five percent are not solid objects, but plasmas emitting low frequency radio, and varying in brightness and size but not in temperature. The researchers have somehow determined that some five percent of the lights contain solid objects, polished spheres up to forty centimeters in diameter.

Some are visible only in infrared, large lights have been seen emitting smaller ones, and they seem to have a complex structure of many small components vibrating around. A ufo of the flying triangle type has also been reported at Hessdalen. In the town of Silver Cliff, Colorado, there are two cemetaries on Mill Street about a mile south of town, where numerous observers have reported a multitude of small lights in many colors flying around, and even following people.

This certainly suggests some kind of awareness, and the cemetary location suggests that the lights may be paranormal in nature, but no one knows for sure. Again, it would be easy for professional scientists to do a detailed study, if any of them cared enough to bother.And then there is Toppenish Ridge on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washingtom State, just east of the volcanic Cascade Mountains and in an area with several fault lines. For decades, many, many witnesses have reported flashing red and white lights and a few blue or orange ones moving around; often they move jerkily, or back and forth.

Fire lookouts, people whose observations generally have to be trusted, have often reported them. Much original work was done by David Akers on behalf of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the astronomer who evolved from a ufo debunker into a ufo investigator. He found no magnetic anomalies.Clearly we are dealing, at the very least, with a natural phenomenon or several phenomena, that challenge our basic understanding of physics.

If these things are alive or aware in some way, the implications are disturbing. Could they be a bizarre life form? Or are they paranormal entities, challenging the current atheist/materialist paradigm? Or are we wrong to draw a line between life forms and the paranormal? Are they perhaps part of a continuum, or is all life in some sense paranormal?

And, since these are, by definition, ufos, does that mean that all ufos are a strange natural phenomenon, or bizarre life forms, or manifestations of the paranormal? Or are some of them spacecraft of unknown origin, while others are paranormal? Why do we assume that all ufos are essentially the same thing? Things may be more complex and strange than we can understand.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Emergence of Virtual Sex

From Virtual Sex to No Sex?

An inquiry from a journalist about the phenomenon of sex in the virtual world Second Life got me waxing eloquent about a topic interwoven with my Cyborg Buddha book project: the future of sex.

Here is my thesis: the two most important developments in the technological control of sex are both already occurring; first separating sex from physical contact, and then establishing our control over our sexual feelings altogether.

Sex is already moving in a virtual direction, between widespread access to and use of porn, phone sex, video-interactive sex, sex in virtual worlds, and eventually teledildonics, the use of body suits and tactile equipment controlled from afar.

Electronically mediated sex and porn are safer (no diseases or pregnancy), easier (lengthy courtship and foreplay are unnecessary), more convenient (available any time you are) and more likely to be exactly what you want (your partners can be anyone, or anything, you desire, without any physical defects).

The virtualization of sex has progressed from the first erotic paintings and photographs to sex in Second Life. Teledildonics is the next step, and it has been around since the early days of the Web. But the equipment has been so crude that it has not provided a very interesting experience for many. In about ten years however I’m sure that Wii-sex will be quite popular.

The growing sophistication of AI and robotics to detect human emotion, anticipate human desires and respond in ways that simulate a human response will also speed the virtualization of sex. People who are too busy, shy, or unappealing, or whose preferences are too elaborate or taboo to reveal to a living person, may turn to robot sex as an alternative.

Of course, we will have a serious problem of robot rights if and when machine minds achieve true self-awareness - perhaps a problem of apocalyptic proportions - and this would effect robot sex like everything else. (It would be bad if the first god-like AI was a former sex slave.)

Lots of people are horrified that virtual sex and porn are reducing desire for and tolerance for physical sex, especially with spouses or partners. But I think that this is first a matter of individual preference; many will still prefer body sex. The decline in physical sex will also soon be overcome by neurotechnologies that control and channel sexual desire.

Soon, in addition to Viagra, we will have chemicals that increase and channel desire itself. Right now we can chemically castrate pedophiles and turn off their obsessive thoughts about children, along with all of their sex drive. We can stimulate sexual desire in men and women by increasing their testosterone. We can increase feelings of trust and bonding with oxytocin.

Eventually we will be able to directly stimulate the parts of the brain that desire specific partners or experiences. In the future we will be able to specifically turn off sexual thoughts about children, and turn on appropriate sexual thoughts about adults. We will be able to make gays straight, and straights gay, and everything in between. There will be no more necessity for sexual boredom between long term partners.

We will be able to wire ourselves to only desire sex with our spouses, to only desire it in-body, and to desire it according to an agreed upon frequency. Or we can turn off our jealousy, and turn up our libidos, if we have agreed to a polyamorous lifestyle.

When we have our brains laced with nano-neural networks (40 years?) we will eventually be able to experience completely virtual body sensation, so we can have equal or better quality sex with partners in virtual reality, or with combinations of virtual reality and material reality; two real people in a virtual space, a virtual partner in a real space, two real and one virtual person in a semi-real space, whatever.

Nano-neural networks and new psychopharmaceuticals will also allow us to modify and enhance sexual and emotional experience, to have orgasms as long and hard as we like, or no orgasms, or to have an experience of cosmic love and oneness instead of an orgasm, experienced as a bolt of tingles through every inch of our body.

Also, as we gain complete control over the neurochemistry of sex, love and bonding we can make conscious, explicit choices about our feelings and desires. Just as we have prenuptial contracts for property, partners may agree to lock their love and sexual desire onto their partners for a specified period, or at least go to marital counseling to have adulterous feelings modified.

This technology will also be a huge boon for celibate religious orders, who will be able to turn off their mendicants’ sexual feelings. (Perhaps not taking your celibacy pill will be the mark of true self-flagellant.)

I suspect that as the range of sexual choices expand, and the potential for sexual addiction grows, a lot of people will adopt either strict monogamy or even celibacy, channeling all that energy into other pursuits.

The challenge will be to remain a liberal society as the birth rate drops and the risk of virtual sexual obsessions grows. These neurotechnological controls over sexuality could enable new forms of Puritanism and repression in authoritarian societies, “curing" homosexuals and enforcing monogamy on people against their will.

We will have to work hard to defend cognitive liberty and sexual liberalism against the forces of repression, partly by developing the means for people to control and channel their own sexuality. The debates over the limits on sex in virtual worlds is only the beginning.

Written by:
James Hughes Ph.D., the IEET Executive Director, is a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut USA. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. He produces a syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Key to All Optical Illusions Discovered

Humans can see into the future, says a cognitive scientist. It's nothing like the alleged predictive powers of Nostradamus, but we do get a glimpse of events one-tenth of a second before they occur.

And the mechanism behind that can also explain why we are tricked by optical illusions.
Researcher Mark Changizi of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York says it starts with a neural lag that most everyone experiences while awake. When light hits your retina, about one-tenth of a second goes by before the brain translates the signal into a visual perception of the world.

Scientists already knew about the lag, yet they have debated over exactly how we compensate, with one school of thought proposing our motor system somehow modifies our movements to offset the delay.

Changizi now says it's our visual system that has evolved to compensate for neural delays, generating images of what will occur one-tenth of a second into the future. That foresight keeps our view of the world in the present. It gives you enough heads up to catch a fly ball (instead of getting socked in the face) and maneuver smoothly through a crowd. His research on this topic is detailed in the May/June issue of the journal Cognitive Science.

Explaining illusions

That same seer ability can explain a range of optical illusions, Changizi found.
"Illusions occur when our brains attempt to perceive the future, and those perceptions don't match reality," Changizi said.

Here's how the foresight theory could explain the most common visual illusions — geometric illusions that involve shapes:

Something called the Hering illusion, for instance, looks like bike spokes around a central point, with vertical lines on either side of this central, so-called vanishing point. The illusion tricks us into thinking we are moving forward, and thus, switches on our future-seeing abilities. Since we aren't actually moving and the figure is static, we misperceive the straight lines as curved ones.

"Evolution has seen to it that geometric drawings like this elicit in us premonitions of the near future,” Changizi said. "The converging lines toward a vanishing point (the spokes) are cues that trick our brains into thinking we are moving forward — as we would in the real world, where the door frame (a pair of vertical lines) seems to bow out as we move through it — and we try to perceive what that world will look like in the next instant."

Grand unified theory

In real life, when you are moving forward, it's not just the shape of objects that changes, he explained. Other variables, such as the angular size (how much of your visual field the object takes up), speed and contrast between the object and background, will also change.

For instance, if two objects are about the same distance in front of you, and you move toward one of the objects, that object will speed up more in the next moment, appear larger, have lower contrast (because something that is moving faster gets more blurred), and literally get nearer to you compared with the other object.

Changizi realized the same future-seeing process could explain several other types of illusions. In what he refers to as a "grand unified theory," Changizi organized 50 kinds of illusions into a matrix of 28 categories. The results can successfully predict how certain variables, such as proximity to the central point or size, will be perceived.

Changizi says that finding a theory that works for so many different classes of illusions is "a theorist's dream."

Most other ideas put forth to explain illusions have explained one or just a few types, he said. The theory is "a big new player in the debate about the origins of illusions," Changizi told LiveScience. "All I'm hoping for is that it becomes a giant gorilla on the block that can take some punches."