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Long Story Short: We hear things



Keeping up with Collins

When last we reported on Chris Collins’ insider trading case, House of Representatives’ general council, Douglas Letter, seemed to accept the defense argument that investigators violated the Constitution’s Speech or Debate clause when searching Collins’ texts and emails. Legal experts say this argument would likely fail, but could cause long delays in starting the trial, which is scheduled for February 3. Prosecutors believe the trial will go quickly once it gets underway.


To sidestep this concern, the feds narrowed the scope of the prosecution, dropping three of the eight charges. But Collins’ defense lawyers say this doesn’t change anything; they still plan to cite the clause at trial. The repercussions could wind through the legal system all the up to the Supreme Court. And that’ll take a while.


A defense setback

In early September, a federal judge rejected two other defense motions demanding that prosecutors release more evidence they have against Collins. This was bad news for the Congressman, but the judge also barred prosecutors from introducing evidence gathered by a separate Office of Congressional Ethics investigation of Collins' relationship with Innate Immunotherapeutics, the Australian biotech firm at the center of this case. The ruling against the defense is one more thing the Collins’ legal team can appeal before the case goes to trial.


A new tactic

The feds then announced that, while they would prefer to prosecute Collins’ son, Cameron Collins, and friend Stephen Zarsky on related charges at the same time as the Congressman as originally planned, they would be willing to separate those trials. This means that while Chris Collins stalls with an assortment of legal challenges, he will watch his son go to trial without the benefit of the Speech or Debate clause as cover. Collins’ lawyers were not happy, citing the cost to the government of two trials. 


U.S. District Court Judge Vernon Broderick—who is presiding over the case—has stated that he does not want anyone’s trial to be delayed. “I don’t intend to move the trial date. The trial date is going to be what it is,” Broderick said to Adam Klasfeld of Courthouse News.


The latest:

On September 12, Collins and his co-defendants were ordered to appear in court to plead to the revised charges. He pled not guilty, and as he came out of the courtroom, he responded to a WIVB news reporter’s question as to whether he will run again for Congress: “I will tell you if I do, I’m very confident that I will win. Polling would say right now, I would win a primary in a landslide.”



The power of belief

A friend I like and respect recently shared with me something of great significance to him. His brother had gone to a location reputed to be haunted and made a recording using his phone, while asking the spirits questions. When the brother got back to his room and listened to the recording, he believed he heard ethereal responses. This is known within ghost hunting communities as electronic voice phenomena (EVP).


Knowing of my skepticism for such things, my friend asked me to listen to the recording with headphones and give him my opinion. He told me specifically what to listen for and where to find it on the recording. I listened but only heard peripheral noise, no words. I concluded that this was a case of auditory pareidolia, a scientific phenomenon in which the human brain interprets random sounds as language. It’s quite common.


Of course, there’s no reason for my friend to accept my explanation. He is open to supernatural phenomena, whereas I believe only in tangible reality—that which can be proven. Who am I to dismiss someone’s personal experience as a mere trick of the mind? Then, too, my friend clearly derives enjoyment out of believing he is hearing ghosts. It introduces a bit of excitement and wonder into his life.


Turning to CFI

Taking my friend’s request seriously, I sent the recording to my friends at the Center for Inquiry (CFI). Many people are unaware that the headquarters for this international organization of scientists, humanists, philosophers, and paranormal investigators is located here in Amherst, near the University of Buffalo north campus. Its board—past and present—include such distinguished luminaries as Paul Kurtz, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, B. F. Skinner, Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, Richard Dawkinsand James Randi. My involvement with the CFI goes way back to when I designed covers and illustrations for Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer.


The tape was forwarded on my behalf to Kenny Biddle, a science enthusiast based in Pennsylvania, who investigates audio, photo, and video paranormal claims. I didn’t send Biddle the tips on where to listen, believing that if there are audible words, he should hear them without prompting.   


The results:

Biddle discovered that the right channel of the phone used for the recording was bad, causing extraneous pops and distortion. He separated the tracks and enhanced the volume dramatically, until he could hear crickets in the background. “When the left and right tracks are separated and compared, the 'swoosh' and 'swish' noises from the clothing [or a hand] are clearly the cause of the metallic distortions we are hearing from the right microphone,” he states. He included a screenshot of the separated tracks, illustrating the difference in decibel levels. The alleged voices appear only on one track, with the damaged mike. “If I had only listened to the combined tracks and didn't amplify the sound, I likely would have thought someone answered ‘yes’ and even ‘not today’ to one of the questions,” he says, “However, once the tracks were split and enhanced, it became clearer what I was hearing.”


That’s when I sent him my friends’ prompts on what to listen for, which includes two short phrases, one of which referred to “Friends of Light.” Biddle could not hear these phrases (without applying a lot of imagination), but he researched Friends of Light, finding several uses of it in history, but none associated with the location where the recording was made. 


Still a believer

I forwarded all this information (and much more) to my friend, who responded with, “Deep stuff, Bruce. Thanks for digging in.....as for me, I'm a believer!  AMEN.” 


“Haha,” replied Biddle when I told him of the response, “I’ve encountered that kind of response often enough.” And there’s the rub. My friend had two choices: use this information as a lesson on how readily the human mind is fooled or continue to believe that he hears words on the recording, despite being presented with contrary evidence, which spoils all the fun. Clearly, he chose the latter. People want to believe. Reason, logic, or evidence have nothing to do with it. There’s great satisfaction in feeling you have experienced something supernatural, spiritual, transcendental. That’s the power of belief.



Get off my lawn

It’s Friday morning, and I’m listening to the seventh or so wave of the Nardin Academy Lip Sync Walkathon, which I’ve renamed “Annoyathon.” The Elmwood Village, where we live, is ground zero for what seems like dozens of summer footraces and marches that block off streets; to get out of our homes, we often go the wrong way on one-way streets. Then, at least once a year, there’s this endless parade of yelping high school girls toting boomboxes blaring pop music.


I walk down the street and meet three nametagged Annoyathon chaperones. I smile and gently comment on the “liveliness” of the students. The women beam back, as one points to a house across the street, and cheerfully states, “Yeah, the people over there are NOT happy.” 


And how does such a walkathon work anyway? Do people give the students money to march around the neighborhood shouting? Girls do this anyway; aren’t fundraisers supposed to involve some sort of effort? Couldn’t someone pay them to walk silently? As a teacher, I always stressed the importance of respecting others.


At noon, their work done, the girls are dismissed for the day.



Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.


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