Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Bored? Try this

I recently finished (and thoroughly enjoyed) Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure. A ‘Googlewhack’ is where you enter two words into Google and the search results consist of a single web page. That is, where you might normally see several thousand, or even several million, hits for your search terms, a Googlewhack shows just one hit.

Dave Gorman’s adventure begins when he learns that he, himself, is a Googlewhack. At the time, Gorman’s website was the only one in the world to include the words ‘francophile’ and ‘namesakes’. The book tells the story of what happens when, instead of writing the novel he was supposed to be writing, Gorman is challenged to see if he can find ten Googlewhacks in a row. It’s a great read, and the ultimate lesson in procrastination!

I imagine like many readers of the book, once I’d finished it I was curious to see if I could find my own Googlewhack. The idea is to choose two unusual words that shouldn't really have anything to do with each other. My first attempt, 'hasselhoff infinity' is rubbish. 58,500 hits. Also I realise it wouldn't even qualify as the two words are supposed to be words that would appear in (Hasselhoff wouldn't qualify, unless it is there as a word that means coiffured tit.*) My second attempt, 'tenterhooks felines', fairs a little better but with 24,800 hits it is still a long way off. 'Tenterhooks drummerboy' does better with only 563 hits!... 'Primaeval hotelier' 991 hits... 'Primaeval tenterhooks' 381 hits... 'paraphimosis tenterhooks' 161 hits. By this time I'm getting a little weary and I wince when I discover what paraphimosis means. So I stop.

My difficulty in being able to find even one Googlewhack makes Gorman's challenge all the more impressive. I'll let you know if I ever actually discover one!

*'coiffured tit': 266,000 hits.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Am I going gaga?

That is the question I have been asking myself ever since receiving an email from the man who runs a website called BadPsychics.

As its name suggests, BadPsychics is largely dedicated to exposing ‘psychics’ and ‘mediums’ as nothing more than frauds and conmen (or conwomen); or at the very least as individuals who are deluded into thinking they might have paranormal abilities. The website also hosts a collection of forums on which members debate (or perhaps debunk) the latest psychic to grace our television screens.

The email was to inform me that someone had posted to one of the forums asking if Dr Matthew Smith had gone gaga as they had read that I had been quoted as describing a particular medium as ‘one of the most impressive mediums I have seen’.

You might wonder why anyone would care if I had gone gaga. Well it all stemmed from the fact that the good folks at BadPsychics knew me as a voice for the ‘sceptical community’ through my involvement on a TV show called Most Haunted. My role, as a psychologist and parapsychologist, was to put forward alternative explanations for apparently paranormal occurrences that took place during an investigation of an allegedly haunted location. As far as this programme was concerned, I was the ‘voice of reason’ who did not believe in ghosts and was there to ensure that the rational explanation for any apparently ghostly phenomena was heard.

So to be quoted as describing a medium as one of the most impressive I’d seen clearly raised a few eyebrows. But being sceptical doesn’t, or at least shouldn’t, rule out being open to apparently paranormal phenomena. It is more to do with having a questioning approach to unusual and extraordinary claims.

Mediums claim to communicate with spirits of the dead. By anyone’s account, this is quite a remarkable claim and so it is reasonable to be sceptical. But I am also intrigued. Many mediums give messages that are rather vague and likely to apply to quite a few people, and so they do not provide compelling evidence that they really are receiving messages from the dead.

However, on the several occasions I’ve seen this particular medium perform, he has given messages that seem to contain both accurate and specific details such as names (first and last), dates, even addresses. He has even been known to provide such information under conditions that seem to rule out some of the more obvious non-paranormal explanations like cold-reading. So, yes, I am happy to be quoted as regarding this medium as one of the most impressive mediums I have seen.

The question I am now asking myself is, how does he do it? Is he really communicating with spirits of the dead? Is he drawing upon some other as yet unexplained power of the mind like telepathy? Or is there some other non-paranormal explanation for his apparent abilities?

These are the really interesting questions to ask. And sceptics should ask questions – they should seek to find answers – not make assumptions.

This article was originally published in Paranormal Magazine in October 2009. It is reprinted here with permission.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Normal service has been resumed...

It seems that Phil'n'FernGate has been resolved. It wasn't meant to be a puzzle or a fiendish psychological experiment. Just one of those little things... when I woke up that morning I didn't imagine that a few hours later I'd be posting letters to Sir Phil and Dame Fern (I know they're not, but they should be...).

Sorry to have kept you in suspense by not moving on with fresh and witty posts (yeah, right) to distract you from Lord Phil and Lady Fern. A technical hitch meant that for the past few days I wasn't able to log in to blogger. Normal service has now been resumed (as in you may or may not see a blog post appear from time to time...)

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Phil 'n' Fern

Today I posted two letters. One to Philip Schofield. The other to Fern Britton. Not sure how that happened.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Going South

The sound of broken glass being shoveled into a bin is not the sound you really want to hear at the end of a house move.

Saturday saw us move from the North (well, Knutsford... "posh North") to the South (where they're all posh aren't they?). All seemed to be going well, right up to the point where I pulled out one of the bookcases that half a second later I remembered was propping up seven or eight framed pictures. It was the huge great crash of glass splintering that reminded me of this fact.

As it turned out, it sounded worse than it was. It was the glass in only two of the pictures that had smashed. I'm learning to always look for the positives.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Some people...

A few posts back I mentioned a recently published book on Anomalous Experiences what I edited. A fairly descriptive review of the book can be found here.

All very well, but he doesn't even mention the index once.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

eBay 'eck!

It started with a singing bear. Not just any singing bear. This was Bear. From The Big Blue House. Freya is a bit of a fan of Bear. So, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, Rachel discovered a singing Bear for sale on eBay. At £6, it was a bargain. However, by the time it arrived through the post, we figured Freya would prefer a non-singing version (fickle I know). So Rachel re-advertised the singing Bear on eBay. A few days later and it was sold. For more than double what she paid for it!

With dollar signs in our eyes, we looked round to see if there was anything else we could sell on eBay. Our eyes fell on Freya's old pushchair. Although, of course, it's not just a pushchair is it? It's a pushchair-pram-car-seat combination. Limited edition no less. We had been meaning to sell it for some time, but hadn't got round to it. But buoyed by the success of the singing Bear, I gave it a thorough clean and took a few photos. Rachel did the technical bit of putting the listing on eBay, as I must admit to being an eBay virgin (as in I have never used eBay not that you can bid for my, ahem... well, you knew what I meant). Before you could say, "pushchair combo up for sale," the pushchair combo was up for sale! The auction would last for seven days. We would have to wait and see if anyone would actually bid for it.

Before long, there was an opening bid of £100. Not bad! We would have been happy with that, but there was soon a second bid of £105. Bidder 1 quickly responded with a return, and frankly unusual, bid of £129.99! As far as I understand how eBay works, each subsequent bid is supposed to go up by a certain minimum amount (e.g., £5), but you can put in 'automatic' bids so that if another bidder bids higher than your first bid, it will revert to your automatic bid, if it's higher than the second person's bid (are you following this?). Bidder 2 must have done this because his or her next bid was just a penny more at £130. Bidder 1 must have done the same, as it then jumped to £132. Meanwhile, a third bidder (let's call them bidder 3) had been watching this and upped the ante with a bid of £150!

Things were now hotting up. It was obviously too rich for bidder 2. But bidder 1 was having none of it. He/she hit back with a bid of £165.99. But it was to be short-lived. A few hours later, bidder 3 jumped to £190. Rachel and I just watched as the bids rose. We were just pleased that anyone wanted to buy the pushchair!

Things went quiet for a few days. Rachel assured me this was typical. If there were to be any more bids, they would be just before the bidding deadline, so we didn't expect any more movement for a couple of days. Even if there were no more bids, £190 would have been a good selling price!

As the final hour of the auction approached, we kept an eye on eBay just in case there were any more bids. As Rachel had predicted interest returned. A brand new bidder who we'll call, for the sake of consistency, bidder 4, pitched in with £195. But bidder 4 hadn't appreciated that bidder 1 had been in this from the very beginning (although the name 'bidder 1' in the bidding history may have given it away), and wasn't going to let this Johnny Come Lately (not his real name) steal the glory. Bidder 1 offered £200.

All remained quiet as the final minutes of the auction ticked by. There was less than a minute left when bidder 4 upped the stakes with a bid of £235! But bidder 1 didn't want to lose this. They offered £240. But with seconds to go a bid of £261 from bidder 4. Surely that was it.

5... 4... 3... 2... £266! Sold. To bidder 1.

Exciting stuff this eBaying! Now, what else can we sell?