ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP bloggerWelcome to the ASSAP paranormal blog! Though this blog is aimed at anyone interested in the paranormal, it will be of particular interest to the paranormal research community. Updated frequently, but not regularly (don't expect something new every day!), it covers any paranormal topic, as well as highlighting recent changes to the ASSAP website. You may not notice it but this site changes on an almost daily basis.

Whenever new information becomes available on a subject ASSAP covers, it is added to the relevant pages of the website straight away. So, just because you've read a page, don't assume it will still be exactly the same when you next look. That way the ASSAP website remains an up to date research resource.

The photo (above right) is the ASSAP blogger himself, out looking for anomalies wherever they are to be found, so that you can read about them here.

Important note: If anything in this blog does not make sense, try following the links in text! If it still doesn't make sense, that's probably my fault ...

Previous blog pages ... (including ghosts, UFOs, poltergeists, flying rods, miracles, orbs, hypnotic regression, big cats, vampires, near sleep experiences, premonitions, shadow ghosts, paranormal photos, auras and dozens of other subjects)

27 November 2009: Hearing EVP without a recorder!

The title doesn't make any sense, obviously. EVP is about hearing a voice on a recording when nothing when heard at the time. However, one possible source of voices in EVP recordings is formant noise. This is an ambient noise that happens to contain two or more frequency peaks in a harmonic ratio. This is not as unlikely as it sounds. If you hit a piece of metal you will usually hear a single frequency plus several harmonics. It doesn't sound much like a voice but some other struck or vibrated objects might.

The point is that you can probably hear some sources of formant noise 'live', as well as by recording them. They may appear more obviously voice-like in a recording if they have been processed, to remove noise and filter out certain frequencies, for instance (as some people do to 'enhance' the voice).

So what noise sources could produce formant noise that someone might hear directly as voices? I can only say from experience at the moment. I've noticed two sources, though I've no doubt there are many others. One is electric fans. It helps if the fans do not run completely smoothly and its noise varies in pitch a little. As well as 'voices' heard directly in the fan noise, a second noise heard IN ADDITION to the fan can often sound strangely voice-like. It is worth experimenting with this to see what 'voices' can be generated, and recorded, in this way.

Another source I noticed recently was a rather noisy washing machine. It was doing the wash cycle, rather than the spin. Heard in the distance, it sounded a bit like somebody talking, at times. It only happened occasionally so it probably requires particular conditions, and maybe even a particular model or machine! The acoustics of the building probably play a part too.

Clearly the common link is rotating electrical machinery. It might depend on the speed of the motor being similar to voice frequencies. It might act in a similar way to white noise. It could explain reports in hauntings of voices or whispering. It is certainly something worth looking for in investigations.

26 November 2009: Even psychics misperceive

We all misperceive but only a few people notice it happening. Most people probably dismiss misperceptions as a 'trick of the light' or 'imagination' or just don't notice them at all. But there are some people who definitely notice these strange, but entirely natural, phenomena. One group is people, like me, who are aware of misperception and so freely admit to being deceived into seeing a human figure by a distant bush or tree. But another group that probably notices misperceptions is psychics.

Psychics, or at least those who believe they are psychic, would tend to interpret misperceptions as paranormal. If they see a human figure that 'turns into a tree', they might interpret it as the ghost or spirit of a person who was standing in front of the tree, so blocking it from view. So, is noticing misperceptions another possible contributing factor to people thinking they're psychic? Here's the list so far:

  • have good latent memory (or cryptomnesia)
  • notice misperceptions more than other people
  • get more near-sleep experiences than other people
  • have good unconscious insight
  • are super recognisers
  • believe in the paranormal
  • often get random thoughts 'as if from nowhere'
  • are good at recognising patterns
  • are good at unconscious cold reading
  • have had one or more striking weird experiences
  • have synaesthesia, temporal lobe epilepsy

It would, no doubt, be possible to test for these traits. I'm pretty sure anyone with most or all of these would not need much convincing that they were psychic!

25 November 2009: Paradox or coincidence?

I watched the first episode of BBC's new drama series Paradox last night. Though billed as science fiction, my fear was that it would just be another detective show 'with a twist' (like all the others).Then something fascinating happened. We saw a big, and tragic, coincidence come slowly together. Because of the way the plot worked, we knew what would, or might, happen before it did and could see exactly why it occurred.

What was interesting was how several small coincidences came together to make one big one. This is typical of many reported paranormal incidents. They appear paranormal only because they are unlikely. Coincuidence is often dismissed in such cases as being less likely than the paranormal! However, the fact that a coincidence is unlikely does not mean it can never happen, only that it is rare. So if someone is walking home from a party in fancy dress, there is a good chance SOMEONE will see them and that witness might just think they are a ghost.

It was heartening to see a popular TV programme showing how unlikely events can happen as the result of relatively trivial unconnected events. Such coincidences may be impossible to anticipate but that doesn't make them paranormal.

24 November 2009: Demons and entities

One of the subjects that the reality TV ghost hunting shows have brought to the fore is the idea that some paranormal cases involve 'demons' and other non-ghostly 'entities'. Though ASSAP has come across one or two such cases down the years, they have proved very rare indeed.

It is difficult to differentiate between reports of such entities and regular hauntings. Both involve a series of unexplained paranormal events, often associated with a place but sometimes a person (as often happens with a poltergeist case). Looked at purely in terms of what actual events are reported, rather than how it they are interpreted by witnesses, there is usually no obvious reason to say that it is not a haunting. The idea that 'demons' are involved generally comes down to the attitude of the witnesses involved or those they have spoken to about the events.

For this reason, and given the fact that the majority of cases reported to ASSAP involve hauntings, there seems no obvious reason to investigate such cases in any special way. As in all reported cases of paranormal activity, the investigator should always be sensitive to the opinions and beliefs of the witnesses. However, to call a case demonic, rather than a haunting, would require clear cut evidence of something quite out of the ordinary. On past experience, it is likely that most such cases will have xenonormal explanations just like the majority of hauntings.

23 November 2009: Why faces?

I have asked this question in the past but without any totally satisfactory answer. Why do people consistently report seeing faces in photos, not to mention all sorts of objects like the patterns in tea leaves in a cup or a biscuit? I recently read that babies will stare for longer at pictures of faces than other drawings. This implies we have an innate recognition of human faces.

It probably is a survival trait gained from evolution. Human babies, unlike many other animals, are entirely dependent on their parents from birth and for a long time afterwards. It is therefore important that they recognise human faces and seek them out as a source of help. Young children are also good at detecting the shape of snakes though they do not necessarily fear them.

In order to perceive objects we unconsciously use our experience of seeing similar things before. When we see something we've never seen before it can cause a xenonormal experience where our brains effectively guess what we are seeing and substitute something else in (like a ghost)! There are several things which we recognise from birth, however, probably for their survival value, like human faces and snakes. Maybe such innately recognised objects produce a stronger reaction than those things we learn to recognise by experience.

It still leaves unresolved the question of why people don't seem to have a problem with the idea that a disembodied face should appear in a bush or a biscuit. If it really WAS a face, why would it be there and what, if anything would it mean? Ghosts are usually whole figures or sometimes partial ones but not usually just faces. Perhaps the idea comes from fiction, as with so many of the odder unsubstantiated ideas about the paranormal. For instance, Scrooge sees Marley's ghost's face in his door-knocker in Dickens' Christmas Carol. Marley later appears as a transparent figure, also something rarely if ever seen in real ghost reports!

20 November 2009: How popular is the paranormal?

Yet another film, Paranormal Activity, about our subject is released soon in the UK. There seems to be a never ending stream of such movies and TV shows at the moment. People don't make such shows unless they think they will make money so, presumably, there is a big audience for them out there.

When ASSAP started, in 1981, the paranormal was already popular. We were then one of maybe a few dozen groups in the UK. Now there are hundreds out there. This apparent increased popularity is, no doubt, driven mainly by the reality TV ghost hunting shows. But is it anything more than a media-driven effect? It is difficult to say.

What is clear is that there is an enduring public popularity for the subject that the media recognises. So why should this be? I suspect it is due to our fascination with mystery, horror and stories that break us out of the patterns of our everyday lives. My own interest has always centred around scientific explanations but I think I am in a minority there.

19 November 2009: Impossibilities in the night

RobinThe other night I was up in the early hours, long before dawn, when I heard a Robin singing in the pitch black outside. It wasn't just a quick note or two but full ongoing song, as you might hear in the daytime. It isn't the first time I've heard birds that are normally only active by day calling in the night. Once on an investigation I heard crows calling on and off all night, much to my amazement. And when sleeping in a seaside town you soon learn that gulls keep very odd hours, calling loudly in the middle of the night.

Most people would only expect to hear owls and one or two other bird species at night (like the rare Nightingale). So a report of a Robin singing at night would either be seen as a mistake or possibly weird, even paranormal, by some people. Many paranormal reports rely on the apparent impossibility of an occurrence to justify their anomalous label. And yet, there are rare natural occurrences that only a few experts and enthusiasts are aware of, like night-singing Robins, which is a fairly common thing in the UK.

If you think you've come across something that is 'impossible', and therefore possibly paranormal, it is always wise to reserve judgment until you've consulted all the relevant experts!

18 November 2009: The problem with paranormal theories

On the web, you can come across a lot of paranormal theories. By 'paranormal theories' I mean those that explain paranormal phenomena, such as ghosts being spirits, using elements beyond current science. Conventional scientific theories tend to expand or change to accommodate anomalies or other new evidence. They explain the mundane as well as the unusual. By contrast, paranormal theories tend to be isolated, with no connection to the rest of scientific theory, explaining only the anomalous.

To fix this problem, some paranormal theories are 'attached' or 'inserted into' conventional scientific theories, like quantum mechanics. However, they sit there uneasily. The paranormal aspect may require quantum theory to work but quantum theory does not require the paranormal aspect. Quantum theory is complete in itself without any need for the paranormal. Though quantum theory is often seen as an explanation for paranormal phenomena, there would need to be a lot of other new stuff added to make it produce such weird phenomena.

For instance, entanglement is often mentioned in connection with paranormal phenomena. But two particles need to interact physically to become entangled and the entangled state is very easily broken. Clearly to explain something like telepathy between two people a long way apart, who may not even have met, there is much else required. But there is no obvious evidence for the existence of this 'much else'. Nor is it required to make conventional quantum mechanics work. There remains a gulf between conventional science and quantum theory that simply shoving the two together cannot fix.

17 November 2009: Haunted nights

I don't spend many nights in haunted buildings these days, though I used to. Even though I cannot say I ever experienced anything dramatically paranormal, there was usually an intriguing atmosphere to savour. Most haunted buildings seem to be old, many of them large and open to the public during the day. There are lots of castles, stately homes and old pubs among them. They are fascinating buildings and having exclusive access to them for hours is a rare and exciting privilege.

There is always a feeling of tense anticipation when you first arrive to set up at an old mansion. The place is often hundreds of years old and has a certain atmosphere, whether haunted or not. Many such places are centrally heated nowadays which takes the chill off what can otherwise be desperately cold buildings. There are often creaky old floorboards that echo every time you move, particularly stairs. Wood paneling is often a feature of such places, adding to the echoes.

Though it is usual for there to always be at least two people in a room during a vigil, sometimes you get left alone for a few minutes in a haunted hot spot. It is at such times that you gaze around the room, willing something weird to appear in the temporary silence. Such moments, between formal sessions or while setting up or packing away, tend to be good for really strange things happening. That is the way with the paranormal, it prefers to creep up on you when you're not looking for it. Of course, this could be explained by misperception but it might also be a feature of the paranormal itself.

Being on a vigil is not all fun, of course. There are long periods when nothing happens and you decide regretfully that maybe you've come on the wrong night. And there is the formality of filling in reports and monitoring instruments. But what keeps you going is the thought that at any moment, something really extraordinary could happen. And if it doesn't there is always next time.

16 November 2009: A tale of two ducks

MallardRecently, someone asked me if I'd seen n advertising poster with a duck on it! As this was fairly unusual, I thought about it but said I hadn't. Then they described the poster in detail and I realised I HAD seen it after all. Indeed, I remembered thinking how unusual it was at the time.

So how I had I failed to remember this unusual poster seen only days previously? This is my explanation. When I was first asked about the poster I had, in my mind's eye, a picture of a Mallard, the most common duck species in the UK (pic right). However, the poster featured another species - a Tufted Duck! I realised that my mental picture of a Mallard had actually blocked me from accessing the poster memory until other details were forthcoming. It was as though I had the wrong visual key to unlock the memory. If the poster HAD featured a Mallard, I'm sure I'd have remembered it instantly.

We are used to the idea of psychological expectation making us see what we expect to see, particularly in misperception. But in this case expectation was actually blocking a memory. Had more details not been supplied I would still now think I had never seen the relevant poster. My Mallard was a default assumption my brain had made. Such assumptions are produced both by general life experience and belief.

This shows how strongly expectation can affect memories, both in aiding and preventing accurate recall. This effect can, of course, affect witness testimony. In particular, strong belief, either of the witness or those they discuss an incident with, can affect what is recalled and what is forgotten. It is unfortunate, though inevitable, that witnesses are likely to discuss strange experiences with many people before they are formally interviewed by a paranormal investigator. If any of those people hold strong beliefs, it could seriously affect the final testimony.

12 November 2009: Are we haunted by our own brains?

The word 'consciousness' is used a lot in paranormal research. Ghosts are seen by some as conscious, OOBEs and NDEs as consciousness wandering free of the physical body and so on. Although consciousness remains a contentious term in philosophy and science, most neuroscientists now see it as essentially self-awareness and some memory functions. It is the bit of your brain that gives you a continuous wide-screen, surround-sound view of the world around you. It is where you make executive decisions, like what to eat for lunch.

That leaves the unconscious functions of the brain. This is where nearly all the really exciting stuff actually happens, like perception and motor control. We only see the edited highlights of what the unconscious does which is probably why so much attention is paid to the much more conspicuous consciousness. Science is only now starting to realise the enormous amount the unconscious bits of our brains do for us, largely unnoticed. The fact that we don't notice what is going on above our noses may be key to understanding many paranormal reports.

It now seems likely that much of what is reported as paranormal may actually originate in the unconscious part of our brains. For instance, misperception is probably responsible for most reports of ghosts and haunting activity. A further large chunk of the remaining such reports are probably accounted for by near sleep experiences. Latent memory (or cryptomnesia) may account for many reports of apparently psychic experiences.

If only more people more aware of how the unconscious bits of our brains worked, and how they affected the conscious bit, the number of paranormal reports would probably reduce significantly. It is our lack of understanding of how things like perception works that often makes us see things as paranormal when they are xenonormal. We are, indeed, haunted by our own brains.

11 November 2009: Beware fast moving objects in torchlight!

The other day I was looking around a dusty, dark corner with a torch. I was startled to see 'something' moving around rapidly. I thought it might be a spider or some small insect scuttling away from the torchlight. Then I noticed something odd. The 'something' moved back to where it came from and then set off, equally quickly, in another direction entirely. This was one hyperactive critter!

Then the penny dropped! The 'something' only moved when the torch moved (though in the opposite direction). In fact, it moved in perfect synchrony though covering a much larger distance. So it appeared to be the shadow of an object in the torchlight. That hardly solved the mystery because there was nothing obvious to be seen in the torchlight beam! This was getting decidedly spooky!

After a careful search I finally discovered what was causing the fast moving shadow. It was a tiny spider suspended in a fine web that was barely visible. The spider was not moving at all but its shadow was, whenever the torch did.

It occurred to me that this sort of thing could easily happen on a ghost vigil, which many people insist on holding in the dark despite the problems it causes. Any object suspended by a thread, or even a pattern in a pane of glass, could throw a fast moving shadow on a wall. It would appear to move a lot even when the illuminating torch only moved slightly. Without proper investigation, the incident could easily be recorded as a rapidly moving object or ghost!

10 November 2009: Why only some people see ghosts

Some people see ghosts quite regularly. Others see maybe one in a lifetime and a lot never see any at all. Quite a few paranormal researchers are in the last category, despite attending many vigils. The usual reason given for this disparity is that some people are 'sensitive' to ghosts while others are not. But could there be another explanation?

We know that most ghost sightings have xenonormal explanations, like misperception. That should not exclude any particular group of people because we all misperceive. So is it more a case of expectation? Are those people who never see ghosts expecting too much, like a Hollywood moment, when in reality most sightings are just brief glimpses of shadowy figures?

Since I've got used to the idea of misperception, I've seen several ghosts (or, at least, human figures that weren't actually there). Before that, I'd never seen even one ghost, despite decades of trying. I may have set my expectations too high because reports I'd read of what others had seen. However, we know that reports can get exaggerated. So maybe I actually HAD seen ghosts already but dismissed them as imagination or a 'trick of the light'. Perhaps the witnesses who prompted the reports didn't dismiss such sightings so readily.

So, to all those people who have tried but never seen a ghost, you may be trying too hard and expecting too much. Next time you see a shadowy figure out of the corner of your eye, look around and it disappears, maybe it isn't a 'trick of the light' but the ghost you so want to see!

9 November 2009: Media studies

I went to see the film 'The Men who Stare at Goats' recently. Though the reviews I'd read were not encouraging, I enjoyed it. The subject matter is the US military's alleged development of psychic spies. The film claims to be based partly on true events but doesn't say which scenes are real and which fictional. For some reason this seems to be seen as a bad thing by some film reviewers but it didn't bother me.

There is a yawning gap between real paranormal research and its image as portrayed by TV and films (even in the 'reality' TV shows). Anyone who has seen such a film and then gone on a serious ghost vigil might wonder if it is even the same subject!

There is little doubt that there was a US military project for remote viewing - Project Stargate. Whether it resembled the events portrayed in the film, I've no idea. However, I thought it was, perhaps bizarrely, the closest portrayal of real paranormal research I've ever seen in a movie!

6 November 2009: What are the chances?

Have you ever been to a fancy dress party? Did you have to walk along a public street in costume, maybe from your car to the venue, feeling a little conspicuous? Or even worse, did you travel on public transport? And did you wonder what people who saw you might think? It is quite possible that, if you were in a historical costume, a witness might think you were a ghost! That would be a strange feeling - being reported by somebody as an apparition!

And yet, if you were to suggest to a witness that, given the circumstances, they may have been watching someone in fancy dress, rather than a ghost, you would probably get a frosty reception. The problem is always that a witness believes they've seen something extraordinary. A suggestion that it was someone in fancy dress sounds like you are trying to 'explain away' rather than simply 'explain' their sighting.

As with 'distraction' ghosts (see yesterday), a witness may remember 'new' details, not previously mentioned, that rule out someone in fancy dress. Maybe these new details are real. But maybe they are confabulation. Once again, a reconstruction might help - there may be things that the witness should have noticed but didn't, for instance.

Some witnesses will put forward the argument that 'what are the chances of someone in fancy dress just happening to walk by'. But looked at from the point of view of the party-goer, what are the chances that a passer-by will just happen to see them as a ghost? Perhaps fairly high!

5 November 2009: I just keep seeing ghosts!

I was standing on a street corner yesterday, waiting for someone, when I casually noticed a woman walking towards me along the pavement. Hearing a noise, I looked up to see a passing aircraft. After watching it for a second or two, I gazed around again. The woman, who should have been much closer by then, was nowhere to be seen! She had disappeared! Was she a ghost?

Given the direction the woman was walking, she should have gone right past me. Instead there was no sign of her anywhere in the street. However, a brief inspection revealed a side road she could have taken which would explain her vanishing trick.

This is, of course, an example of an apparently paranormal experience being generated by distraction. I had speculated on this possibility here just the day before (3 Nov). So, it would appear that it is more than just a theoretical possibility!

If, in my excitement about seeing a 'ghost' I had forgotten all about the aircraft, it would have been easy to label the experience a ghost sighting. If I had been interviewed by an investigator, a question about how the figure vanished might have jogged my memory about the plane. However, it would have been easy to say 'I only looked away for half a second and she couldn't have walked far in such a short time'. This sort of statement comes up a lot in real cases.

A reconstruction could have cleared the matter up, with someone playing the 'ghost' and another person the witness, on the site of the incident. Nevertheless, when you want to believe you've seen something extraordinary, when in reality you haven't, it is easy to convince yourself - notice how my 'second or two' became an unrealistic 'half a second' .

It's funny how almost as soon as you come across situations that could theoretically produce xenonormal phenomena, they actually happen! Soon after I deliberately started taking photos of falling leaves, for instance, I saw 'anomalous photos' that looked very similar.

4 November 2009: The 'garden polt' is playing again

Garden poltergeistAfter a couple of quiet months, our local area 'garden poltergeist' is up to its old tricks, moving shoes around under cover of darkest night. Back in August the culprit was finally caught in the act in broad daylight. It was, of course, a fox. Indeed, there are probably several foxes in the area up to similar tricks, moving or knocking over garden ornaments, as well as footwear, to the puzzlement of residents.

You might well ask, how do these foxes find shoes to move around in the first place? Who leaves shoes outside? I don't know the answer to that but I have noticed a possible clue. I saw some trainers left outside someone's house just a few weeks ago. I guess it's to air them or dry them, like leaving out washing (which no doubt also attracts the attention of foxes from time to time). Oddly, the shoes moved locally were not trainers at all, so their exact origin remains a puzzle.

Oddly enough, I can't recall any cases of people reporting objects moving, or going missing, in gardens to ASSAP. If these things happen a lot, I guess people don't think it's paranormal. Or maybe they just don't notice these occurrences in the first place. Either way, I bet they wouldn't guess who is really responsible.

3 November 2009: Do distractions play a part in paranormal reports?

Imagine you are walking along a country lane alone and it is getting dark. It is quiet but suddenly you here a noise from a bush beside the road. Startled, you turn to look but see nothing unusual. You look forward again and there is a fox, which you hadn't seen before, standing motionless in the middle of the lane, staring at you. It quickly runs off.

How might this incident be reported? In many cases, a witness might say the fox just appeared 'as if from nowhere' in the middle of the road in front of them. Many will forget the couple of seconds they were distracted by a noise from a bush.

I wonder how often momentary distractions like this, forgotten afterwards by the witness, may explain apparent appearances or disappearances of objects or figures? A couple of seconds may be all it takes for an animal or human to move in or out out of the witness's field of view while they are looking elsewhere.

Though it easy to demonstrate that (a) we are easily distracted and (b) that we miss things when this happens (many magicians's tricks use distraction or misdirection), it is difficult to know how common it might be in producing paranormal reports. If someone realised, or remembered, that they were momentarily distracted they probably wouldn't report such an incident as weird or paranormal. But if they didn't remember any distraction, how can investigators possibly know after the event?

You could ask the witness what was going on at the time of the incident. This might jog their memory about things other than the weird event. A close inspection of the site of the sighting might reveal frequent distracting things happening all the time. But for many cases, we may simply never know!

2 November 2009: Everyone knows what a ghost is!

I was just reading some comments on a website about research into ghosts. The diversity of opinions about ghosts was amazing. What was disconcerting was that they were just opinions, not the results of research or even personal experience. No evidence was put forward to support these opinions apart from the odd anecdote about third parties.

The paranormal seems to be one of those strange fields of study where opinions, based on little or no evidence, seem to carry as much weight as actual research results. For instance, if you read our article about ghosts, it was written as a result of surveys and many case reports. It effectively lists points that a theory of ghosts must explain but that doesn't stop most people speculating without limit!

For instance, it is obvious from this evidence that there is little support for the idea that ghosts are spirits. And yet that is exactly what most people think they are. What makes it alright for everyone to hold an opinion on ghosts even when they know next to nothing about the evidence, I wonder? I suppose it is just one of the things you have to get used to in our field. Like getting a funny look from people when you say you are a paranormal researcher, just before they tell you what they think ghosts are!

1 November 2009: November is the spookiest month

Misperceived 'woman'To me, November is always the spookiest month. It is probably the month when I've attended more ghost vigils. It is also traditionally the time of the ASSAP investigator training weekend, including this year. But there is more to it than that.

November is a month of long nights and long shadows, even in the middle of the day. It is month of falling leaves and bare trees, of howling gales and dense fog. It is at the gateway to winter and feels slightly melancholy.

Many people would probably choose October as spookier because of Samhain. But, unless your a Pagan or Witch, Samhain is for most just an excuse for a party or a charity vigil. For serious students of the paranormal, November somehow feels more authentic, now that all the tongue in cheek newspaper articles have been recycled and the pumpkins tossed away. It is the month when serious work begins.

For more info on the photo above, see October's blog.

This month's (October) website figures are an average of 13759 hits per day - a striking jump up from last month's 11080 and another all-time record! It is normal for hits to rise sharply in October because of Halloween! Still a gratifying total though!

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© Maurice Townsend 2009