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Archive for the 'Ghosts' Category

Redesigning the Ouija board


“I enjoy Ouija boards as handsome declarations of the alphabet”, Monte Thrasher wrote me last year. We have since exchanged some ideas and he shared a couple of his fascinating ideas and concepts, such as his “Oracle” project of redesigning the Ouija board.

“It occurred to me that a standard Ouija board is clumsy and labor intensive. For one thing, you use A over and over, but it’s set way off to one side”, wrote the artist. “So why not group all the vowels at the center for easy access? And Q always needs a U, so place those two together, and so on.”

“This lead me to study cryptography statistics. T is the most common consonant, and it groups most often with E, so set them side by side, and so on. I thought of making the common letters larger and the rare ones smaller. What I ended up with was a curious image, something like an oculist’s eye chart gone mad, a seemingly random mishmash of letters. Here’s an early sketch:” Improved Ouija Board

“In the final version the Oracle Board wasn’t much to look at. I realized that my statistical approach to language required, not a graphic approach like these charts, but a statistical one, a sprinkling of little letters across a field; lots of E’s, slightly fewer T’s, and so on, following the well-known set of ETAOINSHRDLU etc., from the most to the least common letters in English.”

“Visually dull but oracularly fruitful. True, its ‘messages’ were full of misspellings and garbled stuff, but any querent using the board is welcome to keep or discard whatever parts of the message he or she chooses, since it’s all equally meaningful. Or, as one clairvoyant said, the Dead make typos too.”

And this was just the beginning. From keyboard layouts to word clouds,  from the Fox sisters spiritual telegraph to the iPad spirit board apps and beyond, we will explore the idea of redesigning the Ouija board.



Here’s the Wikipedia entry for “ETAOIN SHRDLU”, that is, a nonsense phrase that linotype operators sometimes casted by simply typing the first two vertical columns on their keyboard, much like we may type “qwerty” or “asdfg”, with the difference that old linotype keys were arranged by letter frequency.

That is, “etaoin / shrdlu” are the twelve most commonly used letters in English language.


Does this linotype keyboard arrangement somewhat reminds of what Thrasher suggested for an improved Ouija board? But let’s leave that aside for a moment.

What about the idea of also having the letters of different sizes according to their frequencies, as in Thrasher’s early sketch… have you not seen something similar on any blog?


Above, a Wordle of the article “Mind Under Matter”. As a default, the most common English words such as “the”, “you”, etc., are removed, for the word cloud to clearly represent the most used relevant words in the text. And it works beautifully – even without reading the whole article one can realize it refers to the brain, illusions and consciousness quite a lot.

If we on the other hand create a word cloud without removing the “the”, “you” and everything, we get something like this:


Not very useful to quickly capture the gist of the article… but then, as it has all the words arranged by size according to their frequency, such a Wordle would be particularly useful if we wanted to rewrite the text, word by word, simply by moving… a planchette, as in an Ouija board.

And the amazing thing is, this Wordle was created automatically. You could, for instance, create a wordle for the Bible (with or without removing the most common English words) and have some great fun having the “spirits” remixing it.

I can’t express how amazingly cool it is that a novel information visualization technique can be used to automatically create an improved Ouija board following the lines of the original suggestion by a talented artist such as Monte Thrasher.

This interplay of superstition, art and technology is quite beautiful, and as we will see in the next post, actually goes way back.

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Amazingly faked hoaxes

Or are they hoaxed fakes? Fact is, they are amazing works by “The Faking Hoaxer”. Keep reading for much more, including making ofs and ghosts.

Read more

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Blurred by an angel


“My name is Marcio and I’m sending this photo for you to explain this phenomenon, I assure you this is no hoax. I don’t know when it was taken, I just know it was captured during a religious celebration, and it looks like an angel… what can you tell me about it?”

One of the most interesting photos I have received (click to enlarge), it no doubt looks like an angel, complete with wings and something in its hands… perhaps a harp?

Perhaps, fact is that there are some other white blurs in the photograph that don’t remind of any obvious religious imagery, and perhaps more importantly, there’s a little girl in a white dress in the same pose as the “angel”.

Or the opposite would be more appropriated.

We can explain the image as the result of long exposure of the film, which captured all the bright elements in the image – like those white and shiny – whilst the photographer shook his camera, by accident. Mix some pareidolia, and we have this image.

The illustration below may help to understand the effects in action here:


Highlighted in red are the sources of the blurs: the girl’s white dress, the white shirt of a man sitting at left and the shiny metal microphone stand up in the stage. All these elements were reflecting the ambient light, as well as camera flashes, producing the blurs that we highlighted in green.

The yellow arrows point the movement blurs produced by other sources of light and that are everywhere in the image. They also explain the “wings” of the angel, which are in fact blurs of the same white dress. Note the camera movement could be either going up or down, depending on the fact that the blurs were captured before or after the rest of the image.

Also note that the relative position between the white angel and the blur on its left side exactly matches the relative position between the little girl’s dress and the man in a white shirt. This match gives us reason to think our interpretation is correct, and this angel of light is just a blurred image of the little miss singing.

A real angel, indeed.

[With thanks to Marcio Silva for the image]

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“UFO” live on BBC Breakfast News?

“Is it a bird? Is it a plane? An unidentified flying object is spotted by a BBC Look North webcam.” – BBC, Daily Mail, Sun

Though Nick Pope has already termed it “a genuine mystery”, as in previous cases the explanation here may be very mundane. Not a bird, not a plane but…

Let’s take a look first at another “mysterious” footage captured in Brazil in 2001. Notorious spiritualist leader Chico Xavier was hospitalized, and a cameraman captured a quick pair of lights that seemed to come from the sky directly to the window of Xavier’s room!

Shortly after this phenomenon was captured, Xavier’s health got “miraculously” better. He identified the light as the spirit of his own mother. Obviously, for a spiritualist leader, the light was a spirit.

Around a year later Xavier passed away, and local TV show Fantástico had the footage analyzed by the occasion. They quoted Ricardo Bárthem, physicist at the Rio de Janeiro Federal University:

“The most probable hypothesis is that it was a lens effect, as it’s not a light coming from the sky that was cast in the building, it’s not something bright wandering around that space. It seems to me it’s due to a moving object off camera, something that went around, reflecting the sunlight. The Sun is behind the building, so it’s shining over a car, something that passed behind the camera.”

That is, the moving specks of light are internal reflections of intense sources of light in movement off-camera, which were not recorded in the videos but were captured by the most external lenses of the camera. Probably not a bird, not a plane, just reflections.

Or perhaps it’s a coincidence that both Xavier’s “spiritual” light and BBC’s “alien” light were captured in the morning, with the Sun still low in the sky.

Considering these two cases are indeed simply reflections from the sun into windshields or some other surface, it’s interesting that the exact same original phenomenon is interpreted in completely different terms according to the social context.

At the hospital where a religious leader is being treated, the lights are understood and promoted by the general media as a possible spiritual manifestation. At a morning live TV show, they are classified as UFOs even by BBC.

Why a UFO couldn’t visit a religious leader in the hospital or the spirit or that leader’s mother couldn’t appear at a morning British TV show are questions only an inconvenient skeptic would ask.

Either way, both are very similar and could be explained as reflections of the Sun, making those considerations unnecessary.

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Michael Jackson’s Second Coming

Over two and a half million viewers – and that’s just for the dramatic music version above. That is the “Michael Jackson’s Ghost” video spreading through the intertubes, which originally aired on Larry King (click for the original segment).

As everyone that watches it a couple of times must have considered, the “ghost” is simply a shadow. There are many people walking around the ranch (who can be seen in other parts of the tour video), and it’s obvious one of them cast that shadow. Simple as that, if there’s any doubt, this enhanced version below can make it even clearer:

Pay attention to how the shadow follows the countour of the fireplace. It’s also clear in this other video, captured from TV. Just a shadow. A real ghost would probably look like this.

The unimpressive shadow is just part of the whole exploitation phenomenon of the pop icon’s death. In a slow news day, instead of Jesus one can see Michael Jackson’s face on a roasting pan in Lajeado, Rio Grande do Sul… Brazil! Yes, Brazil!


And that’s not all. As with Elvis (and Morrison and even Hitler), to some news of the death have been greatly exaggerated. Jacko is still very alive, after successfully executing his elaborate plan to escape the debts and burdens of fame and killing his own double (or evil twin, something like that). And there are photos of a man with an umbrella taken after his death to prove it!


A shadow, burned fat pareidolia and a man with an umbrella. If you want the real thing, you have to look for a credible news source. Weekly World News, of course, which spotted Michael Jackson dining with Elvis.


Seriously, you can bet that after today’s burial and ceremony, many other videos, reports and sightings of Michael Jackson’s ghost – or of him alive – will pop up. That is the predictable nature of human gullibility.

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