Most self-respecting Universities had quietly eliminated their Parapsychology departments long before I was even born.

Penn State has no self-respect, apparently. They not only had sanctioned student club called the “paranormal research society” in the last decade, but they let these students use the Penn State name in a reality series called Paranormal State. The students clearly identify themselves as “being from Penn State” when contacting people and so the University appears to have condoned a show where their students “investigate” hauntings, get their Jesus on in ways that would make Damien Karras cringe, and document their ghost-busting exploits for the camera.

I described the show to a friend and she said she doubted it would last very long. Then I told her it’s starting it’s FIFTH season. Then we both sat quietly for a few minutes.

Since it’s Ghost Month here at, I thought I’d watch a whole season of Paranormal State while Husband was out doing his Superstar DJ thing.

I barely got through one episode.

You couldn’t pay me to watch a whole season of this show.

So here’s the thing, I don’t care if a reality show is a fabrication (as long as bystanders aren’t being taken advantage of on the show). I don’t think that the presence or absence of paranormal or ghost-hunting shows have any real impact on whether or not people believe in ghosts. (I do worry about people with The God encouraging parents to punish or in essence torture their children for behavioral or medical issues that they believe are demonic in nature. Whether this show supports that unfortunate worldview or encourages that kind of behavior, I can’t say. I didn’t get past the first episode, but I wanted to mention that troubling aspect to things like this before I move on. For more on that subject I’d suggest a book such as Michael Cuneo’s American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty).

What I do care about right at this particular moment is whether the show is good fun or entertaining or even remotely interesting. This show is none of those things. This show is the antithesis of those things. This show made me want to hit myself on the head with a hammer just because it would feel great when I stopped.

Plus it’s full of people praying the devil out of each other, and I don’t need to waste my valuable television-watching time on this. I can see that anytime I want by just riding public transportation.

Nevertheless, I decided to drive my truck around in the tubes of the interwebs and see what others had to say about the show.

The New York Times review makes this excellent point:

It’s too bad that “Paranormal State,” a new series on A&E, is unlikely to find a mass audience, because the parodies it would inspire on shows like “Saturday Night Live,” if it had the requisite level of public recognition, would be delicious.

Listen, even ghost hunters and devotees of the paranormal think this show sucks. A site called Ghost Theory blogs about the show being called out for allegedly blatantly faking an entire episode – called out by the people who were in the episode.

I found a review at ActionSkeptics that sums the show up very well:

Short Version: A&E’s new show “Paranormal State” is the worst, stupidest, most ridiculous fucking thing I have ever seen in any of the myriad forms of visual media. And I’ve seen Plan 9 From Outer Space and about 15 minutes of a Dane Cook stand-up special.

Long Version: I pray to the FSM [flying spaghetti monster] that this show is, as one comma splicing Wikipedian claimed before a recent revision, that the show is, in fact, a Blair Witch style fiction. Beleving that there are people this fucking stupid out there who not only made it to college but then got a TV show all to themselves makes me just a tad homicidal.

The premise (hopefully fictional) is this: Penn State University has the country’s “only collegiate paranormal research society,” a claim I find completely dubious. Some douchebag (referred to hereafter as “Douchebag,” because I can’t be bothered to look up his name), the founder of said organization, only wants to help people who are haunted as he was haunted as a child. He is “searching for answers,” which, as usual in the “Unknown and unsolved” crowd, means he’s already found them.

Let me be completely candid: Douchebag and his buddies make Mario and Luigi from “Ghost Hunters” look like Neils Bohr and Alan Turing. Douchebag is an uber-serious, self-obsessed narcissist, their “methodologies” are more laughable than rods and orbs put together, and, to add insult to injury, they pray and spread around holy symbols like a fucking DnD cleric.

I think he actually makes it sound better than it is.

Variety points out that Paranormal State is brought to us by the same production team responsible for Laguna Beach. That’s quality.

Given that Penn State’s football team has been decidedly mediocre in recent years, students are to be forgiven for finding alternatives to pass the time, and let’s face it, scaring classmates witless is a tried-and-true method for attempting to get laid.

The same excuse hardly applies to A&E, which continues to drift further toward TV’s dark side in its endeavors to entice younger viewers. Even with a regular pre-episode disclaimer, the channel lends credence to paranormal poppycock that consistently generates just enough of an audience to prompt every demo-chasing basic cabler to weigh in with its own straight-faced reality variation on the theme.

“We are students. We are seekers. And sometimes, we are warriors,” Buell says earnestly in the opening credits.

That’s right: The ghost-busting Penn State Nittany nitwits. Hear them roar.

Far more interesting than the show itself is the website Paranormal State Illustrated which turns a critical eye on every episode of the show. This may sound like a ridiculous endeavor, but when you see how clearly disturbed some of the “clients” are and consider the emotional, psychological, financial or even physical harm that psychic scams can do to people, you realize that sites like Paranormal State Illustrated serve an important purpose.

Paranormal State Illustrated has this note on the front page:

According to the Paranormal Research Society’s Web site, the PRS is no longer a student-run Penn State University club. They say that in 2008 it “transformed itself as a professional organization.” What they don’t tell you is that most of the PRS members had already earned their college degree by the time Paranormal State first aired in December of 2007. Also, there is no mention that the PRS club failed to turn in a form listing club officers for the year 2008. Without officers, there could be no members. Without enough officers or members to keep the PRS club active, it became “inactive.” So, it was due to a lack of interest in the Penn State Paranormal Research Society (PRS) club that caused the club to cease. To be clear, there currently is no Penn State Paranormal Research Society college club at Penn State’s, University Park campus in State College, Pennsylvania.

I can’t find an official comment from Penn State about the show, but I did find this guardedly positive (in my opinion), news release from when the show’s star spoke on campus in 2009. Since this was a news release, presumably for wider distribution, and because things like this sometimes get archived in a way that makes deep-linking impossible, I’m going to take the liberty of pasting the whole thing so you can judge the tone for yourself.

Founder brings ‘Paranormal State’ to campus

October 15, 2009

The founder of the student Paranormal Research Society at Penn State University Park and now a producer and cast member of “Paranormal State” on the A&E Network, Ryan Buell recently brought his spirit-hunting message to Penn State Harrisburg.

Buell’s quest to examine and explain paranormal activity began when he was a child in his Sumter, S.C. home one night when he was in bed. He saw something standing in his doorway. “Its face was wide and it had a huge grin,” he recalls. His screams brought his mother to his room, but she saw nothing and went back to bed. Minutes later, “the thing rose up from the foot of my bed,” he said. All he got was a spanking from his mother.

That fear fostered a longtime fascination with things he can’t explain. During his sophomore year at Penn State, he started the Paranormal Research Society, a group of Penn State students and alumni who now travel the nation to investigate claims of paranormal activity.

That led to “Paranormal State” which premiered in December 2007 and now draws an estimated 3 million viewers. He explained that each episode features a different client – bar owner whose wine glasses won’t stay shelved; a young woman whose barn houses black mists; and a couple whose religious relics are burned without explanation.

“There are no official qualifications for being a paranormal investigator,” Buell said. “I’ve spent the last ten years training myself, working with highly regarded professionals in both the paranormal community and in other professions, [including] Catholic exorcists, law enforcement [and] psychologists, to become a well-rounded individual.”

During his presentation, Buell profiled the different types of spirits – ghosts, spirits, and poltergeists while listing for those in the audience typical signs of a haunting which include a sense of being watched, hearing voices, seeing things out of the corner of your eye, witnessing objects levitate and/or move, and even unusual odors.

He pointed out that formal paranormal investigation dates to 1882 in London with the creation of a society of research and spiritualism began in New York in 1848 with a pair of sisters.

He concluded with a series of reasons “spirits return” – unfinished business, to deliver information, to punish living enemies, to protect loved ones, and even the result of a painful or tragic death. And the comment that ghost hunting is “all in a day’s work for him and his cast members.”

I thought about calling Penn State for a comment, but then I realized I no longer cared enough to pick up the phone.

When I was in school we’d get calls from individuals wanting their hauntings documented – sometimes these calls ended up with us in the Physics Department. Confidentiality, and basic human decency, prevents me from blogging the conversations I had when I caught one of these calls, but I can tell you those were interesting days.

Today I’m enjoying the nice weather and finishing a very entertaining book, Mary Roach’s Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. If Roach’s name is familiar, it might be because she’s back on bestseller lists with her latest, Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in the Void.

The chapter (in Spook) on EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) was one of my favorites, for audio-technology-geekery reasons, and also because I was recently reading up on new archeological research regarding the Donner party. I don’t think you can do a graduate degree in audio technology without being asked 10 million times about EVP. I know I couldn’t.

There’s a nice excerpt from this chapter on Roach’s website, so I’m very happy to be able to share it with you:

From the chapter “Can you Hear Me Now?: Telecommunicating with the Dead”

“The National Forest Service has a fine and terribly dark sense of humor, or possibly they have none at all. For somebody, perhaps an entire committee, saw fit to erect a large wooden sign near the site where fourteen emigrants bound for California were eaten by other emigrants bound for California when they became trapped by the savage snows of 1846 and starved. The sign reads: DONNER CAMP PICNIC GROUND. I got here on a tour bus chartered by Dave Oester and Sharon Gill, founders of the International Ghost Hunters Society. IGHS, one of the world’s largest (14,000 members in 78 countries) amateur paranormal investigation groups, sponsors ghost-hunting trips to famously and not-so-famously haunted sites. By and large, we look like any other tour group: The shorts, the flappy-sleeved tees, the marshmallow sneakers. We have cameras, we have camcorders. Unlike most visitors here today, we also have tape recorders. I am facing a pine tree, several feet from a raised wooden walkway that guides visitors through the site. I hold my tape recorder out in front of me, as though perhaps the tree were about to say something quotable. The other members of my group are scattered pell-mell in the fields and thickets, all holding out tape recorders. It’s like a tornado touched down in the middle of a press conference.

A couple and their dogs approach on the walkway. “Are you taping bird calls?” I answer yes, for two reasons. First, because, well, literally, we are. And because I feel silly saying, “We are wanting to tape the spirit voices of the Donner Party.”

Thousands of Americans and Europeans believe that tape recorders can capture the voices of people whose vocal cords long ago decomposed. They refer to these utterances as EVP: electronic voice phenomena. You can’t hear the voices while you’re recording; they show up mysteriously when the tape is replayed. If you do a web search on the initials EVP, you’ll find dozens of sites with hundreds of audio files of these recordings. Though some sound like clearly articulated words or whispers, many are garbled and echoey and mechanical-sounding. It is hard to imagine them coming from dead souls without significantly altering one’s image of the hereafter. Heaven is supposed to have clouds and bolts of white cloth and other excellent sound-absorbing materials. The heaven of these voices sounds like an airship hanger. They’re very odd.”

Good stuff.

I couldn’t find video of her talking about this book, so here’s her delightful recent appearance on the Daily Show, where she and Jon Stewart gab about pooping in space and other weighty (weightless?) issues.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Mary Roach
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Rally to Restore Sanity

Happy haunting!

FMC Policy Summit 2010

It’s time for the 10th Anniversary Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit.

TENTH? This event is 10 years old? No way. I was still in Grad School when this event started and that was just…nevermind. Let’s move on.

Musicians can still apply for scholarships to the Summit and anyone who wants to engage or learn more about public policy, music technology, and technology can still buy a ticket.

Come on, get your music & tech policy fix where all the cool kids hang out! The event starts Sunday (the 3rd) and runs through Tuesday (the 5th) – check the website for programming details and panelist bios.

Monday night, there’s a rock show. And not just any rock show, this is a benefit for Dear New Orleans presented by Air Traffic Control and the Future of Music Coalition.

The show is at the Black Cat and tickets (regular and VIP packages) are still available. Check out this partial line-up:

Bonerama with
Damian Kulash of OK Go
Jenny Toomey and Franklin Bruno
Hank Shocklee (of The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy)
Jonny 5 of Flobots
Wonderlick (and half of Too Much Joy!)
Rebecca Gates
Crossover Clarinetist Mariam Adam
plus special guests!

And, of course, I’ll be there (in the audience). How can you possibly resist?

Still need a push? Don’t know who Bonerama are? Here’s video I found (on their website) of them covering “War Pigs” last year in San Francisco.

I tried harder to find video of them covering “When the Levee Breaks” on youtube because that’s more appropriate but all the videos I found sucked so you get this instead. (I did find video from last year’s FMC rockshow but the quality was not so high – a hazzard of recording trombones with a portable cam and then compounding the loss of low-frequency content by playing it back on computer speaker. You can watch it anyway if you want).

I bet you could see them cover it live if you bought a ticket and showed up at the Black Cat Monday night.

Tomorrow’s the deadline to apply to volunteer for the weeklong Girls Rock DC summer camp (Monday, August 10th – Friday August 14th, 2009). Girls Rock DC is part of a network, and you can find out more about all of the camps at the Girls Rock Camp Alliance site.

Here’s the scoop on Girls Rock DC:


With a base in music education, Girls Rock! DC aims to create a supportive, inclusive and creative space for girls to develop their self-confidence, build community, stand up and rock out!

Following in the footsteps of girls rock camps across the United States, Girls Rock! DC was founded in October 2007 by an all volunteer collective of DC Metro Area musicians, teachers, artists and community organizers. In August 2008, over 80 volunteers built upon their diverse musical backgrounds, connections to local youth and approaches to grassroots organizing to create a week-long day camp for Washington DC area girls ages 8-18. After a very successful first year, Girls Rock! DC is excited to be organizing a second camp this August 2009!

During the week, campers receive small group instruction on electric guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, turntables or vocals, form bands, collaborate to write an original song and ROCK out the stage. Campers learn about the history of women in rock, gender and cultural identity, band merchandise and promotion, conflict resolution and other skills young women need to take over the world of rock!

The application is on the website and the first volunteer training session is coming up in June. You don’t have to be a musician or audio engineer to volunteer – they need all kinds of help and it looks like crazy fun. If you can’t commit, pass this along to your friends.

Today’s New York Times reported on an exciting find that’s being presented publicly at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections conference this weekend.

The 10-second recording of a singer crooning the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” was discovered earlier this month in an archive in Paris by a group of American audio historians. It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.”

Recently I’ve been involved in a fair number of conversations with musicians and band managers where the topic of downloads – complete songs versus ringtones – comes up. Much marvelling then ensues about why consumers are perfectly content to “steal” musical content in the form of entire songs but pay real money for ringtones.

Now, the issue they don’t understand isn’t monetizing their work. They get that selling ringtones is a nice way to make money. They just can’t get beyond the creator’s perspective that the work only has value to the listener in it’s entirety.

The working assumption is that a ringtone is merely a small piece of a larger work, not it’s own entity. The 3 minute pop song has more value because it is “complete,” a supposition that misses some of the psychological and anthropological implications of cellphone ownership and identity-building entirely. I’ve been digging around in The Literature a bit because I’m sure there’s loads of theories about why people choose certain ringtones. I haven’t come up with any great summaries yet, as it’s slow going and I have other things on my mind.

I don’t know why it’s hard to understand that ringtones aren’t really for the phone’s owner. One exception being when someone chooses ringtones that differentiate one caller from another for convenience of amusement, rather than to tell others something about themself as the owner of the phone. Family members calling my phone are signified by the Addams Family theme song, for instance. Jim Dornan, Katherine Harris’s former campaign manager apparently programmed his phone to play the theme from the Exorcist when she called.

Your ringtone sets your phone apart from others in the crowd. Or, paradoxically, in the case of people who load the latest hit, it can help you fit in with the crowd.

Ringtone selection broadcasts information about the individual who owns the phone and it’s information that individual chooses to try and shape the way they are perceived by their peers. Ringtones are not privately consumed like tunes on an ipod, they’re broadcast into the public sphere and they’re loaded with layers of cultural meaning due to the fact that they are also musical.

If you want to focus on the issues relating to cognition, there’s loads of scholarly blahblahblah on the psychology of ringtones over on google scholar. Personally, I’d suggest ambling over to the site of the RutgersCenter for Mobile Communication Studies – they have enough information to keep you busy for a long, long time.

You think history doesn’t repeat itself?

But now we are facing a very new and a very troubling assault on our fiscal security, on our very economic life and we are facing it from a thing called the video cassette recorder and its necessary companion called the blank tape. And it is like a great tidal wave just off the shore. This video cassette recorder and the blank tape threaten profoundly the life-sustaining protection, I guess you would call it, on which copyright owners depend, on which film people depend, on which television people depend and it is called copyright.
-Testimony of Jack Valenti, President of the MPAA, April 12, 1982