The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, March 27, 2009

Good Line

Every once in a while, I see a line that gets me just right, a way of phrasing things that just amuses me no end. A classic example comes from Douglas Adams, who described a fleet of spaceships as "hovering int he air exaclty the way that bricks don't."

Today, I saw another example at my friend Evan's blog:

While I am not the biggest fan of McDonald's® I do find their playarea to be a convenient place to sit and talk with my wife without the need for a babysitter.

That's some good writing, Evan.

Envy of the Self

Ahhh, yes, Kay's weekly sin-fest has returned. This week, it’s envy. And I’ll apologize in advance, this essay is being written more out of a sense of participation than because I really have anything interesting to say, so it’s not one of my better ones.

While, like most people, I have directed envy at different targets throughout my life, I find that I am usually the target of my own envy. I know that this sounds rather narcissistic, so allow me to explain.

I have never been good at living in the present. When I am under stress, I tend to look back on the past with a good deal of nostalgia, often wanting to return. When I am calm and optimistic, I look towards the future with anticipation. Regardless, I always wish I was “back there” or “up ahead” and am never really satisfied with where I am now here and now.

For example – when I was in graduate school, I was busy working on my research and not particularly social. While I enjoy being alone, I spent so much time in that state, that it began to feel rather empty. At the time, I looked forward to finishing my degree and starting my career, having some free time, and developing more of a social life. I very much envied the future me, who I was certain would have a decent career, a better social life, a good romantic relationship, and actual free time.

Fast forward a few years, and here I am. My career is generally going as I expected (in some ways better), I am involved with Kay, I have regular social outlets, and I am never really lonely (in fact, I often wish that I had a bit more time alone, but the alone time that I do have doesn’t feel empty now). So, of course, I can’t be satisfied. I look back on my time in grad school and see that my social life was less complicated, that I actually had more time alone, that I had a specific goal that I was working towards, and that life was generally less complicated.

When I actually sit back and assess it fairly, I was neither more nor less happy then than I am now, and yet I was envious of my future self then, and envious of my past self now.

Well, the grass is always greener.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

How to Succeed in Evil (and avoid Watchmen)

I highly recommend against seeing Watchmen, for a variety of reasons that I don’t feel like going into here. However, if you feel the need to get your fix of the superhero genre and you want it in an unusual form, you may want to check out the book that the film is based on, or, better yet, try something new.

Patrick McLean, whose mp3 site and podcast The Seanachai consistently contains some of the best short audio fiction I have had the privilege of hearing, has revamped his on-going story How to Succeed in Evil, the story of Edwin Windsor, the world’s first efficiency consultant to supervillians. The back-episodes contain the story as it originally developed (as well as a couple of side-stories, one of which features a voodoo priest and his army of zombie laborers), and the new episodes contain the new incarnation of the story, as an audio novel.

How to succeed in evil is humorous, though not typically laugh-out-loud funny. Neither is it a straight-up-parody of superhero stories. It is its own animal, and it is a delight to listen to. Should Mr. McLean have the novel published, I will be sure to buy a copy. However, nothing beats listening to the author read his own work.

Actually, if you get a chance, read the Watchmen book (but don't see the film), and then listen to How to Succeed in Evil. They make for an interesting pairing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Obligatory "Pope Condom Comment" Post

So, as you may have heard, the Vatican is lashing out against those who are mocking the Pope because of his rather absurd claims about condoms being one of the causes of the spread of HIV.

Now, the Vatican is reacting to two things, as far as I can tell: 1) the fact that people have the nerve to critice the Pope, and 2) that the criticism of the Pope over the condom comments is overshadowing some of the other things that he said and did during his African visit.

#2 is perfectly valid. The Pope did say and do many other things while in Africa, and they have been eclipsed by controversy over his condom comments. This is problematic from any point of view, and the Vatican has every right to be annoyed with that.


The notion that the Pope should be spared criticism is beyond absurd. Like it or not, think it’s right or not, the Pope is a significant political figure, and as such he is going to be subject to the same types of scrutiny and criticism as any other major political figure. The fact that he would take a position that is at such odds with reality as claiming that the use of condoms may increase HIV transmission richly deserves criticism and condemnation – it’s a view that is out of touch with reality and in a place such as Africa, DANGEROUSLY STUPID for a major political figure to espouse, especially one that a large number of people assume has divine authority.

I have to say that my favorite quote comes from Bishop Bagnasco:

"He represents for everyone a moral authority, which this journey has made people appreciate even more," Bagnasco said.

Ummm, he’s encouraging an abandonment of one of the primary effective tools in the fight against a deadly disease that has engulfed the African continent not because the tool doesn’t work (it does) but because his a-priori assumptions won’t allow him to actually examine the evidence. That alone means that he is not a moral authority. By choosing to ignore evidence in favor of dogma, he has chosen a path that is only going to lead to the death of others. How the Hell is that a moral stance?


By the way, he represents "for everyone a moral authority"? Umm, last I checked, non-Catholics were part of "everyone", and many (maybe most) of us don't consider him a moral authority. If the guy (or his spokesmen) are going to try to assert his moral authority over everyone and not just his followers, then they had damn well better be prepared for more criticism and mockery.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The (Mis)Perception of Sloth

Kay has posted another of the “Seven Deadly Sins” for us all to write about. This week, it’s sloth.

When reading first-hand accounts of the exploration of the American west in the 18th and 19th century, and even more when reading 19th and early 20th century accounts of the lives of the native peoples of the region, a common theme is the alleged sloth or laziness of the natives. When you go digging through the documents, what was perceived as sloth was turns out to be a general lack of interest in agriculture.

This tendency to equate sloth with a lack of agriculture was in part due to the prevailing attitude of the time – that agriculture=labor=virtue (a notion that informed the authors of the Constitution, and explains many of the aspects that seem odd to a modern reader of the document). It was also due in part to the notion that hunter/gatherers simply took what was readily available to them rather than working for their food (in fact, the average hunter gatherer had to have a fairly exhaustive, and hard to develop, knowledge of both the landscape and the resources available in that landscape), and to the fact that the material culture of the natives of the Americas appeared primitive or bizarre to the Europeans, and as such was dismissed without a fair assessment of the skill and knowledge required to produce that material culture.

The life of a hunter/gatherer is one of cycles: feast and famine, seasonal movements, gathering cycles. And it is not strictly correct to claim that people who have such a subsistence strategy are not producing their own food, there is a huge amount of ethnographic evidence that indicates that hunter/gatherers from Australia to Africa to the Americas were well aware of the conditions in which plants and food increased in abundance or productivity, and that they engaged in practices that modified the landscape to bring this about*. Many of these groups may even have engaged in some basic-level gardening, or other forms of proto-agriculture.

So, why didn’t they shift to true agriculture? The early European observers blamed it on laziness, but the truth is rather more interesting.

The shift to agriculture is generally more labor intensive than foraging for food, it is true. However, it is also generally less healthy. Studies that compare the skeletons of early agriculturalists to early hunter/gatherers routinely find that the early agriculturalists suffer more injury and illness as a result of the shift to farming. As agricultural societies develop, they tend to work out methods of production and delivery that alleviate this and eventually result in better health than their hunter/gatherers ancestors. However, this is a process that takes generations, and is not clear to the early proto-agriculturalists.

Also, whereas hunter/gatherers are generally reliant on a broad range of foods such that a lack of one simply requires greater reliance on others (or movement to an area of greater abundance), agriculturalists tend to become reliant on a very narrow range of crops, so that something that reduces the productivity of even a single species may have devastating effects on the people reliant upon that species (and they are less mobile than hunter/gatherers).

So, all of this being the case, it would appear that the correct question isn’t why hunter/gatherers didn’t farm, but, rather, why did the agriculturalists start? There’s a lot of good reasons (ranging from social pressures to ecological changes to conscripted ranges of movement), but I seems that, contrary to what even such generally intelligent people as Samuel Clemens wrote, it wasn’t the sin of sloth that prevented the adoption of agriculture, but rather the virtue of intelligence that prevented it.

*One of the most common examples is the use of controlled burns to promote the growth of vegetation that might otherwise be choked out by other encroaching plants. However, there are other examples in the literature, for anyone who cares to look.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gluttony as a By-Product

Kay has again requested that other bloggers produce entries based around one of the seven deadly sins. This week, the sin is gluttony.

I am having difficulty writing this entry. First off, I don’t think that gluttony as we tend to conceptualize it in the modern U.S. is very interesting, nor do I think it’s particularly deadly or sinful except in its most extreme cases. Certainly, I could try to tie gluttony in to something that I see as more interesting, such as the development of consumer culture, but that really seems to fall more in line with greed, a different sin altogether. I suppose that I could discuss my current attempt to improve my own diet and get down to a healthier weight, but, well, I’m not interested in turning this blog into a some sort of pseudo-Weight Watchers testimonial or an unfunny attempt at a Kathy comic strip (the writer of Kathy already produces enough of those).

Instead, I think I’ll talk about the fact that gluttony – consumption to the point of waste – though considered a sin by the western world (although many of us engage in it, provided we have the means), may be not an end or “sin” in of itself, but rather a byproduct of something bigger.

Sound strange? Well strap in, boy-o, we’re about to go on an anthropological journey.

A common ceremony among prehistoric and Protohistoric* peoples is the potlatch. The potlatch is a huge festival held between people from different villages. The festival typically includes a huge feast and the giving of gifts, often amazingly expensive but fairly useless gifts, as well as the production of huge amounts of food. The leaders of a village would call in favors from people within their own villages as well as people from outside of their village, often incurring great debt that would then have to be paid off. In some versions, gifts were not given, but rather good were destroyed for the visitors to see. Regardless of whether gifts are given or goods are destroyed, the basic message is the same: “Hey, look at me, I’m a big powerful guy who can afford to give you gifts/destroy lots of stuff! And, hey, since I did it for your benefit, you’re now in debt to me, mofo!”

…and it is generally agreed that being a guest at such an event puts you in debt to the event’s organizer. The typical way to pay off such a debt is to hold another event and invite the group that you are in debt to. Of course, you want to make your event even bigger, and invite others as well, to get more people in your debt, but this means that you have to mobilize your community, make deals, and often borrow in order to do this. Before long, everyone is in debt to everyone, and everyone feels like they are owed something by everyone. Internecine warfare tends to break out over not being invited to an event or not being given access to goods before or after an event. So, one needs allies to deal with conflicts, and you gain allies through many avenues, but one is throwing a potlatch and inviting them….and it goes ‘round and ‘round in circles.

And the unnecessary giving or destruction of the goods is itself simply a means to a social/political end, and end that quite possibly everyone would be better off without, but that is now so ingrained in the culture that it can’t be safely removed* – anyone who chooses not to participate will find themselves isolated and vulnerable – a bad situation in a hunter-gather/early farmer world of cyclical resource stress and accompanying conflict.

And the goods that are being over-consumed for these festivals are themselves simply being manipulated by people who themselves are simply being manipulated by the political system in which they live (hmmm, you know, I think there’s a lesson in there for us). Gluttony becomes a side-effect of a social and political system aimed at getting others in your debt and trying to stay as much as possible out of debt to others.

*Ya’ know, sort of like the credit system in the U.S. and Europe.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pluvial Lakes

One of my favorite aspects of archaeology is the fact that we can trace the way that the world looked well into the human past. What did San Francisco look like before a city stood there? What was the Midwest before it was expanses of farmland? It gives me a “hair standing up on the back of the neck” thrill when I think about these types of things, and the fact that we can answer them, and that they needn’t remain mysteries makes it all the better. Let me give you an example.

The town where I live, Scotts Valley, was once host to a mountain lake. My apartment is in a location that was once near the lakeshore. The lake persisted in the area until the early Holocene (so, give or take 8,000-10,000 years ago) and was home to some of the earliest humans in California. If you look at the place now, there’s a definite basin, but no sign of a lake other than a creek that runs through the west side of town.

The location probably looked something like this in the past, but without the clapboard house on the ridge (not my photo):

Now it looks like this (photo from the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District):

So, what happened?

Well, a few things. One of the major ones was climate change during the late Pleistocene and early Holocene eras. A combination of increased rainfall and decreased evaporation led to the formation of pluvial lakes in much of western North America. These largely formed in areas where a previously (and subsequently) arid climate resulted in very few water channels, so water tended to flow into basins but not out of them. A few of these lakes have left small remnant lakes behind them – the Great Salt Lake in Utah being one such example – others have left massive dry lake beds (such as China Lake in southern California). Click here to see a map of where the lakes were and how large they were.

I don’t know that the lake in Scotts Valley would have been considered a pluvial lake – Scotts Valley is not an arid zone, and while it is certainly a basin in which a lake did form, it lacks many of the characteristics of the other pluvial lake regions (such as being a large, flat area). Nonetheless, increased rain and decreased evaporation aligned with minimal outflow resulted in a lake. And, when people arrived in California, they were drawn to this lake. A population of people thrived here, making use of the rich resources surrounding the lake.

Until the lake vanished.

Of course, the lake didn’t vanish all at once. Rain decreased, evaporation increased, drainage improved as a creekbed appeared on the south side, and the lake slowly dried up or drained away. As the lake shrank, the settlements surrounding it moved closer and closer towards the remnant, like a shrinking ring, until all that was left was a creek. The smaller lake and eventual creek, obviously, couldn’t support the same number of people for the same amount of time as the large late-Pleistocene/early-Holocene lake did, and so populations made more use of other locations, and dispersed across the landscape. Which is not to say that the creek stopped being used, but rather that it became less important than the lake had been.

But the lake may not remain gone. The basin still exists, and should we find ourselves in a situation where precipitation outstrips evaporation, and the path of Carbonero creek gets somehow blocked, we could have another lake, this time drowning the town of Scotts Valley (or, more likely, the remains of the town – we’re talking about events that probably won’t happen until the far future). This is what is often referred to as an “oscillating lake” a lake that grows, shrinks, sometimes disappears depending on the long-term weather patterns (though, again, in this case, the creek would have to be clogged to prevent drainage of the waters).

A good example of this sort of lake is Lake Cahuilla, in southern California. Now the basin in which the Salton Sea sits (the Salton Sea is an artifical lake created due to a series of water management mistakes – and it really could be the subject of a screwball comedy), the dry lakebed was one of the larger pluvial lakes during the early Holocene. It grew and shrank depending on the amount of rainfall that occurred during any given period of time. When the lake was large, it attracted numerous settlements as people came to make use of the abundant resources that the lake provided, resulting in a large number of people from a large number of cultural and language groups being present around the edge of the lake. As the lake shrank, the people closed in, again forming a shrinking ring that collapsed in around the remnant lake, leading to conflict, strife, and general bad blood as the different groups impinged on each other’s territory and competed for increasingly scarce resources. But the lake was not static, it would sometimes shrink, sometimes grow, and these oscillations would draw people in, and then mix people up and push some of them out, creating a strange and fragmented cultural/linguistic landscape that confused the hell out of early European explorers and settlers, and continued to confuse anthropologists for a good chunk of time.

Isn’t ecology fun?

At any rate, in addition to the weird thrill that consideration of these past landscapes gives me, it’s also instructive in telling us something about how humans react to environmental change. It touches on how a resource such as a lake (which provides not only water, but also wildlife and plants) can create a way of life, and how the loss of that resource can force those reliant on the resource to have to adapt. In the case of Lake Cahuilla, it also demonstrates how the loss of that resource often leads to conflict as competing groups fight for what is left.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Indulge Me

Just a quick note - apparently, indulgences are back at the Catholic Church. Here is a link to an article on the matter. My favorite quote:

“Why are we bringing it back?” asked Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who has embraced the move. “Because there is sin in the world.”

The sale of indulgences has been outright banned since the 16th century. However, the article indicates that the church will be more likely to grant an indulgence to those who make donations to the church - which isn't technically selling, I suppose...but...well...ya' know.

There are, however, other ways ot be granted an indulgence.

Anyway, I have a love for the concept of indulgences (I'm not being sarcastic, I actually do like the idea), as it introduces a weird form of accountancy to the practice of religion. A particular indulgence will reduce post-death punishment (AKA Purgatory) by a particular number of days. So, you could conceivably try to calculate how long you will spend in Purgatory, and then try to balance this out by indulgences, to come out with a sum of zero.

And, well, that notion kind of appeals to me.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Wrath and the Aftermath

This post is my entry into this weeks’ “7 Deadly Sins” festival being hosted by Kay. This weeks sin is wrath.


To my mind, wrath has always had a connotation of either revenge or justice. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear about the “Wrath of God”, usually in reference to someone paying for some horrible wickedness. As appealing as the notion of an emotion of justice is, it isn’t actually true.

Wrath is really just a typical irrational emotion, and like most emotions it is prone to misfiring. As people, we direct wrath often not at those deserving of it, but at whoever happens to be standing there, whoever we disagree with - especially if we suspect that they may be right, or whoever we decide we don’t like at that moment regardless of the reason. We have all done it, even if only to a small degree, and we have all hurt someone who didn’t deserve to be hurt as a result.

I have an older relative on my mother’s side, who he is exactly isn’t important but suffice to say that most people would expect that he and I would have a close relationship. We don’t, and the reason is a mutual vindictive anger – in other words, wrath.

This relative and I differ on a few points. First off, while he claims to be Christian, the reality is that he is a follower of the creed “there is but one god, and his name is Reagan, and Limbaugh is his prophet.” Second, he has a very macho outlook – there are MANLY things (sports, joining the military, sex with any available woman, voting Republican) and then there are those things not worth of a truly manly man (everything that he doesn’t personally like or do). Third, he seems to believe that anyone who disagrees with him is a threat, so it’s not enough for him to disagree with you, he has to try to crush you so that you will bow to his alleged wisdom.

But, Dr. Jekyll-like, he has another side as well. He has shown himself to be concerned about maintaining family ties, planning gatherings and trips, often generously putting forth money from his own pocket in order to ensure that others may participate. He has shown a concern about the community around him, and worked for some time professionally to try to improve things.

As a kid, I was often the target of both sides.

He did take an interest in me, and often seemed to seek me out for company. However, as I was a bright but sensitive kid, lousy at sports, and with broad intellectual interests that didn’t intersect with his rather narrower ones, I was also often the target of absurd amounts of ridicule and verbal abuse. One of my sisters recalls him going out of his way at times to pick on or belittle me – though I don’t personally recall if I received this treatment more than my sisters did.

As I became a teenager, and began to form my own opinions on a variety of issues, the abuse really picked up. I took an interest in science, which meant that I disagreed with him on almost every subject contained within science. I read books on philosophy, and began to question the rigid moral code that he claimed (but didn’t tend to follow). I read a lot of history (still do), and as such didn’t agree with him on many of his cherished myths (really, you should have seen him explode when I mentioned that Columbus was, in fact, not the first person to think that the world was round). Oddly, I was usually able to keep calm and collected when talking to him – figuring that the best way to counter his bursts of, frankly rather bizarre, anger was to keep calm and try to talk like two rational people.

A typical conversation from this time period went something like this:

Him: Evolution? You believe that shit? You believe that people came from monkeys? God, you are stupid!

Me: Evolution is about genetic change over time, not “people coming from monkeys” – and if you really look into it, it makes a lot of sense.

Him: Oh, I see, you think you’re so fucking smart!

Me: Look, genes replicate at such a high rate that errors in replication are inevitable. It’s also inevitable that sometimes these errors will actually have beneficial…

Him: That’s stupid, and you’re an idiot and a loony if you believe that crap!

Me: Look, you don’t know what it’s even about, if you’d let me just say something…

Him: Why should I listen to you? You’re just believing everything that you’ve been spoon-fed, and not thinking about any of it. You idiot!

No, I’m no exaggerating, that’s really the way he talks to, or rather shouts at, people. The very definition of wrath – a vindictive anger directed at someone who is to be punished – even if their only crime is disagreeing on a subject of which the dispenser of wrath has no real knowledge.

As you can imagine, being steam-rolled over like that gets old, as does having someone insist that you’re the one accepting whatever you’re spoon-fed when, in fact, you’re the only one who’s actually basing their opinions on evidence. However, I managed to keep contact with him through my teens and early 20’s, managing to visit him and his wife at least once a week when I was in town, sometimes more often – each time having to gird myself and prepare myself to keep cool under what was promised to be a verbal beating for no reason other than that I didn’t take his word as gospel.

But by my mid-20’s I had begun to have enough of it.

By this time, I had grown quite tired of being informed that I was immoral because I was not Christian (despite the fact that I led a far more moral life than he), that my opinions didn’t matter because I didn’t have the “decency” and “moral fortitude” to be a party-line Republican, that my education was clearly inferior and nothing but brainwashing because I didn’t accept Rush Limbaugh as a reliable source of information (no joke, I have actually been told this). In short, I had grown tired of being a punching bag for someone who seemed to simply want to have a victim to smack around.

…and as you can see, this behavior of his colored my view more than it should. I say all of this, and all of it is true, and yet he still would demonstrate that he could be a gracious host, a generous person, and a concerned family member. By this time, his outbursts of wrath had begun to spark a gnawing worm of anger inside of me, and that worm began to color my every interaction with him.

And this is where the real problem with wrath comes in. It doesn’t remain one-sided. The subject will eventually become resentful, and then begin reflecting the initial hostility back at its origin. And that is exactly what happened here.

Beginning when I was around 22 or 23, I began to be less civil when he would pick fights with me. I was more likely to shout back and talk over him, just as he did to me and everyone else. Rather than walking away feeling frustrated, I walked away feeling righteous indignation followed by a sense of rage. Eventually, it was difficult for me to think of him without becoming angry. I still tried to maintain a relationship, and still managed to start every visit in a civil manner, though he would invariably pick a topic where he knew we disagreed and began hammering at me until I bit back. All the while, my visits were becoming less and less frequent.

On Fathers Day, 2005* I paid my last visit to his home. At this point, I had not seen him in nearly a year. I had gotten word that his wife, to whom I had been close when I was a kid, had been diagnosed with Alzheimers. I decided that I needed to go and visit, and that I should make a point of trying to rebuild our relationship – he was going to need everyone he could get on his side.

The visit started pleasantly enough, and he asked me about where my career was headed. I told him that I was headed into environmental consulting, and explained a bit about the laws that I would be working with, and how the laws had been made intentionally flexible to allow them to be adapted broadly to a wide variety of circumstances.

He then brought up a local issue, where a developer had stopped working on a project. Generally it had been blamed on environmental concerns (or “fucking environmental extremists” according to this relative), but the situation was, in fact, considerably more complicated and the environmental issues were only a small part of the cause. I tried to explain this, and he would have none of it, and began his usual thing – screaming about my alleged immorality, telling me that I was a traitor to my country for being part of “the environmental movement that is trying to destroy America”, and insisting that I had said that environmental law “doesn’t hold water (in fact, completely different from what I had said). I began by calmly asking him to tone down, and trying to say that he had (I think knowingly) misquoted what I had said. His response – to tell me to shut up, that I had no right to ask him to calm down, and that I was a traitorous liberal who didn’t have a right to speak.

I had had it. I began screaming right back at him, letting thirty years of pent up rage come out in my words and tone. I told him that he was a hypocrite, that he knew that he was wrong and that was why he was afraid of letting me get a word in, and that I wasn’t going to let him push me around.

At this point, over the objections of his wife, he pointed at the door and told me to get out. I yelled “fine, I’m gone” and headed out the door. His last words as the door closed behind me were “your kind makes me sick!”

I was livid, and took much longer to drive back home to Santa Barbara (where I was living at the time) because I kept having to stop along the road, being so enraged that I would have been a menace to other drivers if I didn’t stop to cool down.

And that was it. The relationship, long eroding, now completely destroyed. I saw him once at his wife’s funeral, where I tried to mend fences (and he was quite calm and kind, to his credit), and once afterwards, where he was much calmer even when discussing potentially inflammatory topics. But I can’t bring myself to try again. I know I should, I know I should forgive him, and I know I should let the past go. But, for some reason, I can’t. I feel like I had taken his misplaced wrath for three decades, and I am now somewhat ashamed of myself for allowing that to happen, for not having stood up to him more forcefully sooner. I’m also disappointed with myself for allowing him to provoke me – yet it was not allowing myself to be provoked that led to me feeling like I’d allowed myself to be used as a doormat.

I know I should put the past behind me and forgive him, but I can’t, and I don’t know why. Even writing this essay has been difficult – I have often had to get up and do something else to prevent myself from becoming enraged. Nothing else does this to me, nothing else gets me so irrationally angry and bitter. I find it difficult to think of his good qualities, they seem like a dream that you can’t quite recall after waking up, this anger at him for his abusive behavior is too over-powering, when it really shouldn’t be.

I feel like I could let the whole thing go if only he would apologize, if only he’d admit that he has done wrong and show a willingness to make amends. He won’t, that sort of introspection is beyond him. When I have tried to talk to him since that Fathers Day, I have managed to remain pleasant

And so there it is – I spent several decades as the target of someone else’s wrath, and now I have a storehouse of my own that I cannot let go of, cannot direct at anyone else, and yet must express, and that poisons me to this day.

*No, this relative is not my father. I was at visiting my father in Modesto, and that’s why I was in town to drop in on this relative.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Hitler Was a Geek

Okay, so probably only a few of you will find this funny, as it pertains to a hobby that a small (but growing) segment of the population has. But I thought it was hilarious, and if you are a table-top gamer, you may find it funny as well.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Bible as Ethnography?

I have recently come across this series of blog posts, titled “The Bible As Ethnography.” I have so far only read the introduction, and I am now curious as to how the rest will turn out. The author argues that the traditional notion of a “Middle East” distinct from India and Sub-Saharan Africa is incorrect, and that it is very likely that there was a good deal of cultural diffusion and movement along the coast of eastern Africa into and out of the Middle East and India. When one looks at the maps, this makes a good deal of sense, and certain types of cultures thrived in all areas (primarily nomadic pastoralists). Based on this, the author argues that there is likely a good deal of similarity between the people of Sub-Saharan Africa and the people who composed what eventually become the Old Testament.

Three points struck me in the introduction: 1) the notion that Sub-Saharan Africa should not be treated as an entirely different region than Eurasia, but rather that features that are likely to result in cultural continuity and relations over a larger area (such as coastline along Eastern Africa) should be considered is, I think, quite reasonable and very valuable. The tendency to cut-off regions from each other when studying the past probably reflects our own current preconceptions more than it reflects actual history. In addition, similar adaptations often (though not always) carry similar cultural baggage, and so looking at one such culture, whether through the Bible or through more standard ethnography, may provide a useful perspective for studying another.

2) However, there is a considerable amount of physical distance between the ancient Middle East and pastoralists in southeast Africa. While there are likely to be similarities in these cultures, there are also likely to be some rather stark differences, caused both by the need to adapt to different local conditions and also to the unique culture-histories of each group. So, while sources that describe life in one location may have information applicable to another, there is no reason to expect that any particular idea or concept is valuable across the board – physical and ethnographic evidence should always be used when attempting to move an idea from the realm of “tantalizing possibility” into that of “anthropological data.”

3) The author describes the Hebrew god as a king, and the prophets as intermediaries, and discusses the fact that there are numerous cultures in which the royalty will not communicate directly with the commoners, but will rather rely on intermediaries to take messages back and forth. I’m not sure where he’s going with this. If he’s saying that this is a model for thinking of a removed kingship, well, all well and good and I have no real objection, except to say that it is vital to keep in mind that this is a model and it must not be reified without hard data to back it up.

On the other hand, if he is saying that the Hebrew god and the prophets are directly analogues to an actual royal lineage and their messengers and that these real people become mythologized and deified…well, that’s kinda’ messy. This seems to be directly descended from an idea that was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, that the gods of mythology are simply the mythic remembrances of real people (so, ya' see, there actually was a Zuess, but he was just this really powerful chieftain who eventually become remembered as a thunder god, and the lightning represents the fact that he had a deep voice..and…ummm…). The idea is not completely ridiculous, but it also is not very well supported. There is evidence that some mythological figures may have had real historical antecedents (King Arthur may be a mythologized remembrance of an actual warlord, for example), but there is also plenty of evidence that many of the gods and spirits of mythology are no representative of real people of the past, but are symbolic constructs that evolved over time from earlier concepts – not earlier people.

It is likely that the same is true of Yahweh – there is evidence that the ancient Hebrews were polytheistic, having come from a fairly standard animistic tradition in which the nature spirits eventually evolved into gods, and the gods become fewer in number due to both mythological evolution and the consolidation of power by certain priestly elites, and eventually you end up with a monotheistic belief system. No historical king separate from those he ruled needed.

However, I have not yet read the rest of the essays, though I will endeavor to do so. It looks interesting, but if you decide to read as well (and I think that you should), look out for the author's assumptions – but also be aware that he may have a few surprises and that what look like asumptions in the introduction may be well-supported in the text.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Japan Photos - the First of Many

I had said a while back that I would post some photos from Japan. Well, I figure that now is as good a time as any. These are the first of a number that I will post. The theme of these photos is "mangled English."

Truly, the city of the future.

Yep, the Ooze Charm bar...of course, even I had to have a drink there.

What do you think was being sold here?

I'm not sure if it's supposed to be pronounced "snow berry" or, like it looks - snobbery.

Quite possibly the greatest bumper sticker ever.

Shopping here may be a religious experience.

That's all for now, I'll actually write later in the week - and probably post more photos.