DISCLAIMER: This review is a commentary on the tour from the perspective of a skeptic. If you believe in ghosts, don’t have a strong opinion about them, or are just looking to be entertained, your experience may be different. From a service perspective, the people running the tour did an excellent job and are very nice and helpful. And our friend who is much more accepting of the paranormal than we are definitely enjoyed the tour.
My girlfriend Meg, a friend, and I decided to go on a ghost walk last night. I got a gift certificate as an off-beat birthday gift (which I lost for, like, a year), just to get that out of the way. This is my review of the experience.
Before we begin, I will point out that I do not believe in ghosts. Do I still disbelieve? Read on to find out! I bet the fake suspense is killing you!
Appalachian Ghostwalks® is a tour and ghost hunting organization in northeast Tennessee. They do tours all over the area and in southwest Virginia. We took their Jonesborough, TN tour, which according to the guide, is one of the two most popular tours (along with Abingdon, VA). Jonesborough is the oldest town in Tennessee, established in 1779, so there’s been ample opportunity for stories to accumulate. Jonesborough is also known for Andrew Jackson having served as a judge here. He gets incorporated into the tour, which I will talk about later. The tour lasted about 3 hours (really).
One more note, just so I don’t annoy anyone: we didn’t see any ghosts. We saw nothing ghostly. We didn’t even take pictures of any “orbs,” even though our guide said we would have an opportunity to (this isn’t a criticism of him, really; we probably looked annoyed and bored by the end of the tour).
The tour began at the visitor’s center, where our guide gave a basic introduction to the tour and explained a little about the organization and what they do. Now, I’m not exactly fond of ghost hunters. Their methodologies are typically awful and they attempt to take measurements that have no established link to paranormal phenomena. Our guide made a clear point of saying that they do investigations of buildings with no background knowledge. I got the impression that they thought their methods were very thorough and deliberate. They say a prayer upon entering the building and they use dowsing rods to find ghosts or energy spots or whatever.
The tour starting going off the rails about then. First, he talked about using dowsing. People have attempted to dowse and claim Randi’s prize, but none have been successful. There’s just no reason to think that it works. Our guide claimed that the University of Tennessee teaches forensics students dowsing. I can find no evidence of this online, save for a non-credit outreach course that taught dowsing. That’s not an endorsement; those types of classes are typically offered if there are people to pay for them. He then went on to say that people only use 20% of their brains. This is absolute nonsense and anyone with basic knowledge of, well, the world should know that. The 80% is what results in psychic phenomena, he said. Furthermore, the imaginary friends of children are often ghosts, but since adults tell them they aren’t real, they eventually shut down that part of their brain. I’m surprised he didn’t say schizophrenics are driven mad by ghosts, although I think Meg would have tried to slap him had he done so.
This is sort of the thing we ran into over and over. I obviously have not been with them on their investigations and I can’t say certain things didn’t happen. If their experiences lead them to believe in ghosts, fine, I disagree and we can move on. It’s just that nearly everything else he said about their conclusions was full of obvious nonsense. For example, orbs. Our guide believed orbs were supernatural. Immediately he brought up that people say they’re just dust or water droplets. To disprove this (and he did say disprove), they took photos in a room caked with dust and photos in the rain. Only a few orbs! Really? This is your investigative method? We took pictures of dusty stuff and didn’t get as many as we thought? Meanwhile, orbs aren’t too hard to photograph. Paranormal investigators tend to shy away from them now because they’re pretty obviously not supernatural. Later in the tour, our guide told us that our eyes don’t see certain things, but they show up on pictures because cameras don’t know they’re not there. It just takes a picture. So, yeah, digital artifacts are real, people. His mention of our brains filtering things out, which is actually an interesting trait our ours, was probably the smartest thing he said, inadvertent though it was.
To belabor the point, we stopped at a building with several businesses in it. He noted that one spot had a run where numerous businesses failed after short periods of time. Coincidentally, they had found a property deed, baby shoes, and blue bones in the wall. On a visit to New Orleans, they visited a Voodoo priestess who told them that blue bones are used for curses. This information was used to leap to the conclusion that slaves had put a curse on the building. Once the bones were removed, the next business lasted! Until it went under, too. But it lasted longer! This is the sort of logical leap that makes you question any sort of “investigation” these people are doing. Shortly thereafter, we learned that a little girl was haunting a bathroom. They had expanded it to say she was haunting the nearby creek, too, because a man heard giggling. A bit thin, I think.
The bulk of the tour was wandering around Jonesborough, looking at pre-Civil War buildings and listening to ghost hunter stories. I say ghost hunter stories instead of ghost stories because, as Meg noted, the ghost stories were not the macabre sort where things are actually frightening and interesting. They were the sort where candles blow out or an umbrella stops working. These are the sorts of stories that ghost hunters tell because they’re not obviously legends told for entertainment value. They’re ones they can do some “verification” of (meaning they talked to an eyewitness, maybe). But they make for dull entertainment. As do the numerous stories related from previous tours. Is a woman’s purse strap lifting up and falling a good ghost story? No, it really isn’t. It’s also trivial to do accidentally with a marginally stiff purse strap.
We were also treated to the story of Andrew Jackson and the Bell Witch. When the primary, non-skeptic, historian of that story says Andrew Jackson’s involvement can’t be confirmed and that there’s “considerable” evidence he wasn’t in the area, I don’t think discarding the story is too hard. Not only that, the supposed Andrew Jackson quote about the Bell Witch, the only mention he supposedly made, has no primary source. Again, their investigations are one thing, but their incredible lack of critical thinking everywhere else doesn’t make them sound competent.
The tour ended at a church. We were asked to try an experiment. We were to close our eyes and walk slowly down a brick walkway towards the church archway. Our guide told us to stop if we felt “anything, no matter how small.” He would tell us to stop if we were about to hit anything. I walked and found myself a few steps away and left of the arch. Meg and our friend did the same, but to the right. Our guide told us that “sensitive” people stop before the archway without him saying. Those who are sensitive, but “just not ready,” veer off even though they thought they were going straight. This was the climax to the tour. It’s also explained by the fact that the brick walkway is really uneven, we were walking really slow, our legs were tired, and our eyes were closed. People don’t walk in straight lines under these conditions, “sensitive” or not. Oh, and he told us ghosts are linked to gastro-intestinal issues. Yes, you can blame farts on ghosts. We were ready to go home.
Unsurprisingly, we witnessed nothing supernatural. This is what normally happens when you resolve to think critically about paranormal phenomena. Penicillin doesn’t stop working if you examine it critically, you might note. But stripped of my need to skeptically evaluate ghost claims, was this a good tour? The answer is still no. Our guide, while nice, told every story over-dramatically, with terrible voices that made the stories more ridiculous than they already were. The stories are not particularly scary and while the bits of Jonesborough history we got were sometimes interesting, mixing them in with ghost tales almost cheapens them. Three hours is too long. The stories blur together and the cadence becomes clear: claimed ghostly incident, basic rebuttal of a couple objections, handful of follow-up incidents, minor incident nearby at a later date (often on a tour). How many ghost stories can you hear in a row before the basic rhythm starts to bore you?
In the end, the presentation missed the mark for me coming from a skeptical perspective. It may work better if you’re younger or just looking to walk in the dark and hear about ghosts.
Remember how this has been a Montana blog for ages? Since its inception, even? Well, no longer. I am in fact living in Tennessee at this very moment. Now, don’t worry, I’m in the eastern part, closer to Charlotte than Nashville. There are mountains. Smaller, more quaint mountains, but mountains.
There was a Tea Party sticker left on one of the windows of my apartment. Next update I’ll be wearing a confederate flag t-shirt and have an “In God We Trust” license plate. You won’t get a picture of that because it would cause emotional distress and that’s illegal in this state.
(I actually do like it here.)
Chalmers Johnson has died. I read Sorrows of Empire in college, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge of him. This is a pretty good overview of his work.
I remember not being impressed with Sorrows. That’s probably a function of what I wanted out of it: a good argument that there was such a thing as an American empire. His definition was looser than mine was, so I wasn’t happy. Plus, he ventured awfully close to 9/11 conspiracy theory. Thinking back, though, it was a better book than I gave it credit for. The extent to which we have military bases around the world is really astonishing and it does us little good. His warnings about what our foreign policy will lead us to resonate with me more now, as I’m less focused on intentionality and more on consequences. I also didn’t realize that Johnson was Right wing, which is a nice commentary on how Left and Right foreign policy critiques can sound pretty similar.
At this point, I think of him more like Andrew Bacevich: probably correct, but I wish he wasn’t.
That’s what I’m going to do from now on. Name posts sequentially by year.
First, this blog is now hosted by wordpress.com. Because it’s cheaper. Pretty much every link to a single post on this blog is now broken. Exciting.
Second, Dinesh D’Souza is clearly insane. Not, like, normal conservative insane. But truly, madly, deeply insane. But he is an extreme example of why conservatives are such poor political analysts right now. Their sense of proportion (and just basic reality) is completely warped by their need to believe the other side is out to destroy the country and that they are the guardians of truth, justice, and apple pie. The idea that Obama is a pretty basic corporate liberal with no grand plans for radical reform simply doesn’t compute.
But of course, we have 9% unemployment, so Republicans will win big in November. Then they’ll likely implode. It could be spectacular, but not great for the country.
Hey look, it’s March and I haven’t posted anything on here since December. Granted, that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
So I was thinking earlier about how little effect Mere Christianity had on me. I wrote two posts about it over four (!) years ago. I didn’t trash it entirely, but neither did it impress me much. Which causes me some confusion when people mention about important it was to them, whether they’re Christian or not. Did I just read it too late? The amount of mental energy I had to expend to find the flaws in its arguments was pretty minimal. It’s not like I’ve never been affected by arguments for God/religion; the prime mover argument was the entire reason I was a deist throughout high school. In any case, I’m perplexed and I probably always will be.
I find it an amusing exercise to go back and read some of my old posts on here. The Mere Christianity posts are a good example. The post about Expelled and its comment thread is also entertaining (I’m too lazy to go find links). Occasionally it feels like someone else entirely wrote them (the MC posts more than the Expelled one). I read through the arguments and find them to be clever and powerful; well, no shit, why else would I have written them? It’s a weird sort of narcissism and navel-gazing.
I’m almost entirely unable to read Piece of Mind anymore. Excluding the occasions when Steve pops in, it’s a painful exercise in condescension and faux self-reflection. The bumbling, innocent manner in which its done no longer softens it enough. You can read the first paragraph of a post and know exactly where he’s going. I’m pretty sure repeating yourself without your readers noticing is one of the key skills necessary for long-term blogging. I never developed it. Either Mark’s losing his skill for it or I’m becoming more sensitive to wasting my own time.
Of course, I shouldn’t bash anyone’s writing. Half the posts on here are a mess of soft language and qualifications for every statement. The number of times “seems” appeared on this blog is appalling. And of course, this section is another result of that phenomenon; I like Mark and don’t want to bash him personally, so I’ll follow up my criticism with some self-deprecation.
Since I don’t have cable anymore I don’t subject myself to TV news much, but I had a chance to watch Fox News a bit this week (hooray for motel rooms). I’d rather watch Fox than the other networks because it’s more interesting. CNN is the normal sort of brain-dead and Fox is the interesting sort. MSNBC is just annoying. Anyway, they were talking about the “deeming” gambit House Democrats were floating, where they would vote on a package of health care fixes and at the same time deem the Senate version of HCR to be passed. The report implied this was unconstitutional, which is plainly ridiculous, and showed a Democrat saying it would help some members who didn’t want to vote on the Senate bill. Then Brit Hume gave his opinion that it was nonsensical that it would help anyone, since they’re essentially still voting for the Senate bill and everyone would know that. At this point you have to wonder why Hume is getting paid for that sort of analysis. It’s immediately obvious without any foreknowledge of the idea that the point is to allow some House Democrats to say “I have this objection to the Senate bill, so I voted for a bill with a fix for that objection.” The point is not to hide a vote on the Senate bill, but to allow members to defend themselves against certain objections to the bill. Now, this is still stupid politics. Your average college Republican can come up with the attack ads: “Democrats think you’re so stupid that they could hide their vote on the Senate bill from you by voting on a bill that says it is passed, rather than on the actual bill.” You’d think people would demand Fox at least provide competent conservative analysis, but apparently not.
There’s a meme from a couple of popular bloggers where they list the ten most influential books for them. I’ll go with five, since I’m pretty young and books (as opposed to blogs and magazines) have had a lesser impact on my thinking:
5. 1984 by George Orwell – This is the first work of fiction that actually impacted me. Every novel I’d read up to that point, even the ones I liked, had nothing like the emotional impact of this one. The implicit goal of all my fiction reading has been to find other books that have the power that the end of 1984 does. I’ve only found two: The Road and Spin.
4. 9/11 by Noam Chomsky. Do liberals always have a Chomsky phase? This was the first “book” of Chomsky’s I read and his arguments had the curious effect of inspiring a completely different way of looking at things while not quite seeming correct. It took a few years to work through that, but I feel like I’m better for it.
3. Dying to Win by Robert Pape. This turned around what I thought about terrorism and provided a window into how powerful political science can actually be.
2. The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. Books really didn’t have that much influence on my religious views. This Talk Origins article had more influence on me than any book on this list. But this book was still a big deal. The clear and concise way they go through and show the problems with the stories in the Old Testament is incredible. It moves you beyond skepticism about what’s in the Bible to be able to say “this is what doesn’t make sense and here’s why.” It makes the fuzzier New Testament criticism a disappointment in comparison.
1. What Liberal Media by Eric Alterman – The first political book I ever read and the beginning of my interest in partisan politics. The book isn’t the greatest in the world but if I hadn’t read it who knows what I would think about politics right now.
That time of year:
10. Isis – Wavering Radiant. There’s not a whole to say about this one. Isis are good. They have to make a pretty bad album for me not to really like it. This is no Panopticon or Oceanic, but it’s slightly better than In the Absence of Truth. Best song: Ghost Key.
9. Porcupine Tree – The Incident. PT albums are automatically on my top ten lists, the only question is where. The double album idea isn’t a great one; there’s good material on both discs and the first is a coherent whole, but too much of that whole is uninspired. This is really disappointing, as they’ve backed off the heaviness of FOABP and mixed in some older PT sounds. Quality-wise, there’s maybe a top five album between the two discs, even if it wouldn’t be that coherent, but like I said, there’s too much less than interesting material. Best song: Time Flies.
8. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast. This album is missing some of the catchiness of his last two, which were leaner and more accessible, but it’s still a solid album. There’s a lot more layering and depth to the songs which makes up for the lack of hooks. It’s a slightly different direction for him, so it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. Best song: Anonanimal.
7. Russian Circles – Geneva. That was quick. Station came out last year and was good, if underwhelming. It’s hard to live up to something like Enter. Maybe it’s the added distance between that release and this one, but Geneva is a lot stronger than Station. Best song: Geneva.
6. Mastodon – Crack the Skye. Mastodon have never quite clicked for me. Their past few albums have been good, but not quite great. This one is great. It’s proggier than their past albums and has a ton of great riffs and melodies. Best song: Oblivion
5. Mono – Hymn To The Immortal Wind. Mono are not the most original post-rock band. Half the time, they seem to be channeling Mogwai. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, but they’re not typically a candidate for a top ten list. This one seems different to me. There’s less of the wall of distortion that Mogwai uses on occasion and more, almost Explosions in the Sky-esque sounds. Not that they sound like them. It’s hard to explain. It’s just a damned good album. Best song: Ashes in the Snow.
4. OSI – Blood. OSI still haven’t topped their debut, but this is a good attempt. Their last album, by no means bad, was more focused on the electronic aspects of their sound. This one is a little more in the direction of their debut. Plus, you can’t go wrong with Gavin Harrison on drums. Best song: The Escape Artist.
3. Riverside – Anno Domini High Definition. Five songs filled with up tempo prog metal wackiness. It is glorious. It’s always tempting to hope they go back to the sound of their first album, but full-on prog metal suits them and this album is a nice change of pace after the relatively laid back Rapid Eye Movement. Best song: Egoist Hedonist.
2. Amorphis – Skyforger. I sort of forgot Amorphis existed. I thought they’d broken up. I’ve never been their biggest fan, but they’ve produced some enjoyable music. This one I really love, though. It’s the same enjoyment I get out of Nevermore. Are they doing something completely different, something groundbreaking? No. Hell, Majestic Beast is an all out Opeth ripoff. It’s just a great metal album. Best song: Sky is Mine.
1. Katatonia – Night Is The New Day. This was the least anticipated album from one of what I consider my favorite bands. For whatever reason, The Great Cold Distance morphed in my mind into pure dreck, a colossal disappointment after a string of just fantastic albums. After the first listen, I was ready to consign NitND to the same unappreciated corner of my music collection. But then I got hooked on The Longest Year. Then Onward into Battle. Then The Promise of Deceit. I went back to TGCD and found that it wasn’t as bad as I thought, though it still doesn’t compare to Viva Emptiness. Or this. I’ve been listening to it almost nonstop for weeks. I think it’s better than Viva Emptiness and maybe Last Fair Deal Gone Down. And those are two of my favorite albums ever. It’s dark and depressing metal and it’s stellar. I only wish I could say the same about the video for Day and Then The Shade, which apparently is about a goth girl who lost her contact lens in the forest and starts bleeding and vomiting upwards. I hope Lasse Hoile goes blind. Best song: The Longest Year.
Dredg – the Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion. And now we come to my most anticipated album from one of my favorite bands. Catch Without Arms has grown into one of my favorite albums. This…well, this is terrible. Ok, maybe not terrible. I Don’t Know is one of the best songs they’ve ever written (and an agnostic anthem, no less!). Light Switch is damned catchy. Pariah isn’t bad (but something feels off about it) and neither is Cartoon Showroom. But this is a sprawling, 18 track album. There’s not enough solid material to keep it from collapsing onto itself. There’s so much mediocre material that it drowns out the bright spots. There’s only around 25 minutes of solid material (out of an hour); the rest is b-side material at best. I don’t understand it. It’s annoying as hell. And Saviour can go die in a fire. Best song: I Don’t Know.
No doubt the three of you left reading this regularly have noticed that I’m not posting much anymore. For whatever reason, I don’t feel like writing about current events. I like writing (you can’t have over 2,000 posts and not), but I have no desire to say anything about the economy, health care, climate change, or even religion (which is sort of frightening). It’s not that I’m happy with things now that Obama is president; on the contrary, he’s been pretty terrible on the legal issues surrounding the war on terror and the health care bill will be a marginal improvement at best.
Anyway, the point is: this blog is effectively dead, but I still feel vaguely obligated to post to it semi-regularly and this is my attempt to end that. It’ll still be around (unless I become unable to pay for hosting) and it’ll reanimate itself now and again when I get pissed off or have something vaguely interesting to note. But for all intents and purposes, it has ceased to be. It’s an ex-blog.
Or maybe it’s just resting.