The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hypocritical Thinking

I often find myself fascinated by the two-faced way in which most, perhaps even all, people approach those things that they agree and disagree with. In my experience, it's very common to see someone criticize, rightly, a particular flaw in the thinking of one person, and then appear to be blissfully unaware that the exact same criticism can be made of their position.

Probably one of the most common places that one sees this is in politics. It is common to hear the left deride, with good reason, the right's tendency to court people opposed to actual science on religious or political grounds (evolution denial or global-warming denial, anyone?), and yet endorse the equally anti-science ramblings of many left-wing folks (for example, a large range of questionable claims about "natural" medicine come from the left*) - and please note that I am using the terms "left" and "right" as they are used in current U.S. political discourse, I personally don't think that we can simply cut politics into two halves like this but that's a different blog post.

Likewise, it's common to hear Republicans ranting about the "lack of rationality" and "over emotionalism" of the Democrats, while concurrently using scare tactics, nationalism, and claims that "if X happens, then the terrorists have won!" to prevent their own members from actually stopping to think about matters.

I recall a commenter on one of my blog posts about Proposition 8 claiming that if gay marriage was made legal by vote, then this would be the "tyranny of the masses" forcing those opposed to gay marriage to accept it as a legal reality, but this same person was apparently unaware that they were supporting the same sort of "tyranny of the masses" to control the personal lives of other people.

Living in Santa Cruz, probably the most common place that I see this is when I hear a proponent of an untested medical therapy state that "medical establishment" is opposed to the therapy because "big pharma" (which is often used interchangeably with "the medical establishment") is driven by the profit margin and therefore would rather keep you dependent on drugs to treat the symptoms than to actually heal you. However, the companies producing herbs, vitamin supplements, homeopathic pills, etc. are also businesses which profit (to the tune of $34 billion per year) from consumers buying products**. In other words, the alternative health industry has the exact same profit motive that the major pharmaceutical companies have!

And as I type this, I can think of the many, many times that people have patiently (and sometimes not-so-patiently) shown me that I have engaged in this very same type of fallacious thinking on various pet issues of mine. I am grateful (if somewhat embarrassed) when people point this out to me, and I know perfectly well that I am unaware (or hiding from myself) of other issues on which I am guilty of this.

That's the thing, all of us are guilty of this, it's a common human trait. Skilled politicians and marketers can cause us to fall into it, certainly, but our own worst enemies are ourselves. We all hold positions that are incorrect, and that we would realize are incorrect if we were able (or allowed ourselves) to view our positions and especially our rhetoric and reasoning as an outsider would, and yet we are masters at fooling ourselves and rationalizing our own positions. Some people do this more than others, but we are all guilty.

So, what is to be done? I don't know. Certainly, pointing it out when you see it may be useful, though most people have built up enough layers of rationalization that this is unlikely to have much of an effect. Accepting that you do it, and trying to be open to criticism when others point it out will help. Still, I don't know that this is something that can be eradicated even within oneself.

*There is, however, one major difference. While such claims absolutely exist on the left, the left has not organized as well as the right, and therefore you don't see concerted efforts to, for example, force medical schools to teach homeopathy int he same way that you see pressure to put creationism into science classes. So, there is a difference, but it's a difference of application, not of type of thinking.

**A particularly high-profile matter at the moment is that one of the things that the anti-vaccination groups claim is that "big pharma" wants to keep putting out vaccines and "pro-vaccine propaganda", while the anti-vaccination folks peddle a long-debunked anti-vaccine report by Andrew Wakefield that was produced fraudulently in order to help Wakefield's own business dealings! In other words, the whole anti-vaccine hysteria was sparked by someone who falsified data to make money from payments from attorneys suing a vaccine producer and also his own work to produced a competing vaccine.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Good Article

I just read an article in Time on the anti-vaccination movement, and it had what I think is one of the best quotes I have read to-date regarding it:

while the far right gets a lot of crap about not believing in science, the left isn't crazy about it either. Only instead of rejecting facts that conflict with the Bible, it ignores anything that conflicts with hippie myths about the perfection of nature. That's why my neighborhood is full of places you can go to detoxify with colonics, get healed with crystals and magnets and buy non--genetically engineered food. We complain less about the liberal side of antiscience because the women who believe in this stuff are generally hot.

I totally get that the idea of injecting a tiny bit of a disease into a child is weird. It's freaked people out for more than a century, often for religious reasons, causing riots in England in the 1850s, a huge uprising in Brazil in 1904 and a polio-vaccine boycott in Nigeria in 2001. Such rebellions against vaccination typically lead to disease outbreaks that put unimmunized kids at elevated risk, and, unless someone does something to stop it, endless New Yorker stories.

Anyway, the article is both fairly good, and quite amusing. I recommend checking it out. That is all.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How to Tell that Your Field Crew is Bored

When you are working in a place like Taft for six months, you have to begin doing something to entertain yourself. I highly recommend taking goofy photos during your breaks. For example...

Listen up, sucka'! This here is our turf

Sometimes it is wise to point out the sacrificial altars to otherwise unwary crew members:

Jack psychoanalyzes a block of concrete:

Of course, sometimes you get to see something cool, like the remains of an old wooden oil pump next to a highway:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

When Archaeologists Have too Much Time on Their Hands

I'm not sure if this is an excellent look at fieldwork, or simply a weird Yotube video...or perhaps both (thanks to Kaylia):

On to cutting edge research:

On a more useful note, here's how you can tell if your field crew needs more to do (thanks to James):

...and, for good measure, who could forget this glimpse into future archaeology, from the good folks at the Pepsi Educational Foundation:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

You don't have to be...

Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician, a significant contributor to Allied efforts to break German codes during WWII, an early innovator in computer science, and the originator of the Turing Test for evaluating artificial intelligence. He was also gay, and was arrested for this in 1952 (remember, it wasn't long back that being homosexual was forbidden by law in most western countries). After undergoing dubious treatments in lieu of prison time, he committed suicide in 1954.

Now, a group of scientists led by John Graham Cumming have successfully advocated for an official apology from the British government for their treatment of a man who was of tremendous important in both the war effort and the development of 20th century technology.

What's interesting to me about this is that, because he has taken on the cause of a man who was persecuted for his sexual orientation, many members of the British public have assumed that John Graham Cumming is gay. He isn't, he's just an honest man who sought to address and injustice.

It gets me thinking, though, of the rhetorical ruse used by many people who wish to discredit their opponents: "well, of course he/she/they would say that, they're a member/members of Despised Group X."

The success of this line is due not to its truth, but to its intuitive nature. Those who would benefit from a change in attitudes or policy would advocate for those changes, so it seems safe to assume that anyone who does advocate for it is doing so for that very reason. Also, if the group benefiting is unpopular for some reason, then those who use this argument can tap into existing wells of distrust and prejudice, making it even more effective.

Leaving aside the illogic of this (just because they might benefit from something doesn't automatically render their arguments incorrect), there is another huge problem with such arguments - very often the people advocating for change are in fact not members of the group that will directly benefit.

For myself, I am fully in support of gay rights, though I am not gay. The reason for my support is simple - I have yet to hear a good, rational reason for the denial of these rights, and the support for such denial comes directly from arbitrary and typically factually incorrect assumptions. In other words, real people are being hurt for absolutely no good reason, and as a decent person who has not turned off my empathy in favor of arbitrary supernatural notions, I believe that this must stop. I don't have to be gay to have a sense of justice.

I also believe that religious parents must be allowed to raise their children with religious indoctrination. Not because I agree with the indoctrination - anyone who has read this blog knows that I absolutely do not - but because the broader impact of prohibiting this aspect of religious parenting is to allow authorities a way to interfere with the family lives of all of us, not just those who I personally disagree with. So, I am in favor of the legality of something that I actually disagree with.

Likewise, I fully believe that marijuana, and at least a few other drugs, should be legalized. The reasons being that our laws are laughably inconsistent in our treatment of intoxicating substances, and prone to arbitrary (and frankly cruel) laws and penalties. If legality was based on the actual properties of a substance, I might be able to get behind such laws, but as is there are no real standards and this creates absurdities (marijuana is illegal, but alcohol isn't? We're worried about the addictive properties of opiates but not of nicotine?). However, I have never used an illegal drug, I have no interest in doing so, and I actually find most of them uninteresting if not distasteful. But, nonetheless, I can not honestly find fault with them without finding fault with legal drugs.

I am not alone. Members of the Libertarian Party, for example, typically advocate for the freedom to do things that they themselves have little interest in. Likewise, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, far from being an evil-atheist organization is headed by a Baptist Minister who recognizes the necessity for religious freedom. And there are many, many other examples that could be cited, but I think my point has been made. The rhetorical claim that someone will advocate a position only out of self-interest is wrong, and those who use it should be ashamed (though the fact that they are using it does seem to indicate no sense of shame on their part).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Norman Borlaug R.I.P.

As you may have heard, Norman Borlaug died over the weekend. He was a seminal figure in the history of the 20th century, and arguably one of the greatest figures in the history of agriculture. His work led to food being available to millions who would have starved to death otherwise.

He was also essentially unknown by the general public. Those few people who knoew of him and espouse allegedly "green" agriculture tended to dispise him because he was an advocate of a wide range of technologies that are controversial amongst the general public including the development of high-yield crops (by both selective breeding and geneitc engineering) and artifical fertilizers.

Now, certainly, the man was not right about everything, and some of the things that he espoused have turned out to arguably not be worth the price or else not really work. However, he also turned out to be right about a good many things - chief among them the fact that favoring low-yielding crops or techniques because of their perceived environmentally-friendly nature will result in starvation amongst the poorest nations. He also understood that the development of high-yield agriculture comes with a price, the loss of biodiversity, and that this loss has potentially severe implications - but so does the resistance to these methods, which will certainly result in starvation amongst the poor of the world.

Endearing him to my anthropologist's heart, Borlaug seemed to understand something very important that is ignored by most people: humans evolved as mobile hunter-gatherers with high rates of infant mortality, regular periods of starvation, low life-expectancies, and high rates of childbirth deaths among women - but when we became farmers, things began to change. Agriculture is no less a technological innovation than is mass transit or electronic communications, and by it's very nature is not necessarilly any more "green" than these other technologies. As with all human technology, we can make agriculture more environmentally friendly, but this comes with a cost in terms of the amount of food available, and we are faced with a dilemma - do we allow people to starve (knowing that, contrary to our social justice impulses, it will be the poorest who do), or do we produce sufficient food knowing that we are likely to do environmental harm in the process? I can respect people going either way, they both address very valid concerns, but we have developed agriculture, the genie has been out of the bottle for 10,000 years, and there is no going "back to nature"...the rhetoric that would have you believe otherwise is either flat-out lies or delusionally optimistic (whether that rhetoric comes from Monsanto or the organic farm down the road).

Borlaug understood this, faced it, and sided with more food for more people. But he was honest about the costs that his position entailed and didn't paint a rose-colored image, and for that reason alone, while I am not sure that I would have taken the same side as him (I'm also not sure that I wouldn't), he is the only major figure in the green vs. industrial agriculture debate for whom I have any respect.

Here's hoping that we see others with his intelligence and integrity. We need them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Antarctica Bound Blogger

For those unaware, there is a contest underway, the winner of which will have the opportunity to cruise on down the antarctic way - and no, I am not a contestant.

The basic idea is that the blogger who receives the most votes in this contest will be sent way south to write about the experience. To that end, might I recommend that you take a look at the offerings of Grrrl Scientists?. She is, as her blog name indicates, a scientist - and evolutionary biologist in fact - who keeps an excellent blog about her work and her field. I recommend checking it out. And if you find her writing worthy, as I certainly do, then vote for her at the Quark Expedition blogger contest website. If she makes it on the trip, she'll be sure to write wonderfully thought-provoking and informative entries on her experiences as a scientist at the coldest continent.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My Wild and Wacky Forest Adventure Part II

Part the Second: You Are What You Eat, or the Macrobiotic Cult Goes a'Courtin'

Some time back, I posted an entry about the chaos that ensued the first time I entered the Tahoe National Forest. this project ended up being so full of strange stories (involving everything from collapsing canyon roads to dangerous modes of transportation to driving through freak snow storms, and so on and so forth) that I had intended to write a series detailing these stories in the sequence in which they had occurred. As you can tell by the fact that it is now a year later and this series has not appeared, I flaked.

Instead, I have decided, I will write up a "greatest hits" version of the series, with the stories out of sequence, as that will allow me to write what interests me at a given moment. Perhaps I'll work all of these out and provide a correct sequence somewhere down the road. But, then again, I am a bit of a flake.

So, today, I will tell of a weird experience in which a coworker and I encountered a strange forest-dwelling cult.

My coworker (who I'll call Stacy for no reason other than I haven't asked the coworker if I can use her real name and Stacy is the first name to pop into my head) and I had been assigned to perform archaeological surveys in order to determine whether or not any sites might be impacted by the relicensing of hydroelectric facilities located in the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests. Because of the history of the project, some of the recreation areas, including campgrounds, were considered project facilities. As the project changed, new facilities were added to the project description, and so after my first trek into the wilderness, Stacy and I had to return for a second round. On our schedule was a survey of a large campground.

The campground in question is available by reservation only, and so we had originally intended to call the Forest Service and find out when it would be empty and we could easily do our survey. After talking to the boss and considering some of the personalities involved, we finally determined that it would be better to just go. After all, Summer Vacation was over, we would be out there on a weekday, there was little reason to think that any significant number of people would be at the campground, and so we should be able to go about our business in peace.

With our docket o' surveys full and a rented truck loaded with equipment, Stacy and I headed east towards the Sierra Nevadas. It was a three hour drive to the foothills of the mountains, and then a two hour drive up twisty and narrow mountain roads to get to our destination (entertaining ourselves along the way with talk of jive-talking sock puppets delivering papers at archaeology conferences). Although we had several locations to survey, we decided to head first to the campground to get it out of the way, and so, five hours later, we were pulling into the campground's rather expansive parking lot.

The first thing we noticed is that the parking lot was packed with cars. the second thing we noticed is that an large number of the cars had license plate holders indicating that they were from Santa Cruz, which was decidedly odd. We didn't look further, the campground was obviously crowded, and we had a few days in which to work, so we decided we'd come back a few days later and see if it was less crowded then.

Over the next two days, we managed to survey everything that we needed to. We stared down steep cliffs, wound our way through long-forgotten forest trails looking for facilities that had been mis-mapped, we crawled through poison oak in the deeper canyons, and we got rained on while trying to avoid trouble on steep mountainside-roads. On more than one occasion, I said the phrase "hey, take the car keys, I'm about to do something stupid."

...and on our last day we returned to the campground only to find the parking lot still full. After a short discussion, we realized that we could still work with the campers around, we'd just have to play "dodge-the-tourist" a bit more than we'd like and be a bit vague when asked why we were there (archaeological sites tend to get looted, so if we found any, we didn't want to broadcast it). And so we parked the truck, climbed out, grabbed the appropriate gear, and began walking to our starting point. As we started our oh-so-purposeful march, someone called out to us. We turned to see who it was, and found ourselves face-to-face with Jimmie Carter's reanimated corpse. Well, it looked like a zombie Jimmie Carter, anyway. He was gangly, buck-toothed (though his teeth seemed to be rotting), grey of palor, and generally looking like he should not be ambulatory. I was shocked that he was capable of lurching towards us as he was, and I was instantly grateful that Stacy had shorter legs than me and that this creature would feast on her brains before it could catch me.

As the creature continued to amble towards us, he shot out his hand and announced "Hi! Welcome to the macrobiotic camp-out."

Stacy and I each shook his hand in turn, as he attempted to explain macrobiotics* to us. Being from Santa Cruz**, we were both already familiar with this particular fad, but we humored him and continued to nod and smile as he explained it to us. He finished off by saying "well, I expect that you're both here to look for gold," I explained that we were not, and that we were in fact environmental consultants working ona hydroelectric project. "Well if you want to find out what's really important in life then spend the day with us. You'll give up the gold search and look to better things."

With that, he turned to walk back to a large tent that had been set up in the middle of the campground, and upon which hung a banner that read "MACROBIOTIC BOOKSTORE". But as he walked away, he briefly turned back and told us "we're not some weird cult, just a group of people who are looking for a better life."

The location where we were working was ground zero during the Gold Rush, and it remains a popular area for recreational gold panners, so his assumption, while a bit odd, wasn't too terribly crazy. However, his refusal to accept that we wren't looking for gold struck Stacy and I as sorta' loopy. Also, it seems to me that if you feel the need to inform others that your group is not a weird cult, that should be clue number 1 that perhaps you actually DO belong to a weird cult.

Stacy and I split up and approached the main campground. For people who felt themselves to be on the forefront of healthy living, the people at this campout/convention were rather amazingly unhealthy looking. Everyone there was either emaciated or morbidly obese, there was no middle ground. Many of them had the same greyish complexion as our greeter, and all of them appeared to be sullenly going through the motions. If an advocate of this diet wants to convert others to their cause, I suggest that they never let their target actually see other dieters.

As we worked, Stacy and I were both appraoched by several different campers. In each case, the conversation followed essentially the same script:

Them: "Hi. So, you're looking for gold."

Us: "No, we're environmental consultants working on the relicensing of a hydroelectric facility."

Them: "Oh. Well, Gold isn't all that important, you know.

Us: "Which would explain why were not looking for gold. We're environmental consultants."

Them: "We're macrobiotic dieters," sometimes they'd say 'lifestylers', "and if you'd stop looking for gold and spend the day with us, you'd find out what's really important in life."

Us: "As I've said, I'm not looking for gold, I'm an environmental consultant, and while I appreciate the invitation, I have a job to do."

Them: "Oh. Well, come back and join us when you're done."

And then they'd walk away, about half of the time stopping to say something along the lines of "we're not a weird cult, just people who've found what's important in life."

Finally we finished in the campground, and Stacy and I met back up. As I approached the truck, where Stacy was waiting, a disturbingly obese woman was lecturing my coworker about the macrobiotic diet lifestyle, Stacy looking as if her mind were off in Norway somewhere. I walked up just in time to hear the woman say "but we're not a weird cult, just people who've found meaning in our lives!" as she left. Less than a minute later, a fellow who was skinny to the point of being skeletal walked past and called out, in a chanting call, "Ten minutes to chanting."

Stacy and I looked at each other to confirm that we both heard what we thought we had heard, got into the vehicle, and headed home, laughing all the way.

* Macrobiotics, for those who don't know, is a psuedoscientific approach to creating a healthy diet. There may be some health benefits to some of the practices - although the assortment of humanity on display in the campground seemed to be a firm argument otherwise - but the same and more could easily be gained from other better thought out vegetarian diets (and no, I'm not a vegetarian, but I don't deny reality and I'm therefore not going to deny that a well put together vegetarian diet can be quite healthy). However, those benefits that do exist are likely the result of accident, trial-and-error, or lifting from more thoughtful diets without regards to macrobiotic rules, as the mystical basis of the diet is rather nonsensical.

** For those unaware, Santa Cruz is one of those places that tends to be on the forefront of whatever manner of New-Age idea is floating about. This can lead to us seeing some very cool stuff (or at least having some interesting conversations with people), but it also means that alot of really stupid nonsense tends to come our way as well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What if Satan and God Played Cards?

Every now and again, somebody comes up to me with this "amazing new idea" called Intelligent Design. Despite what its proponents claim, the idea is neither new nor amazing. However, trying to explain this to people often results in their eyes glazing over. So, from now on, I'm just going to show them this video:

Via Hemant Mehta

Friday, September 4, 2009

How to Piss Off an Archaeologist

As I was preparing to leave for Taft again on Wednesday, I heard the familiar strains of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King, the ringtone of my cell phone. I answered and was greeted by a man who quickly informed me that he was building an extension to his garage and that the City of Santa Cruz required that he have the land cleared by an archaeologist before he could receive the necessary permits.

"Unfortunately," I told him "all of our people are slammed with work at the moment. We don't have the manpower to help you out, but there are some other contractors in the area who will be able to do the work for you. But, if you want, I'd be happy to describe the process to you and answer any questions so that you'll be well-informed when you talk to other companies."

People living in the Santa Cruz area are often shocked at the number of hoops that they have to jump through to get building permits, and the regulations concerning archaeological sites can seem opaque and weird to outsiders (hell, they sometimes seem weird and opaque to me, and I'm a professional)*. Finding out what needs to be done to get building permits is often an unpleasant experience, so if I can help someone out by simply making the archaeology part a little easier, I will do so, even if I can't take the project and therefore stand to gain nothing by helping them - think of it as ethics in action.

"Well, I do have some questions" the man said.

"Great, I'll help you as best I can."

"Okay, first off, why is the city requiring this?"

This is probably the second most common question I get asked by small project proponents. "The city, like many municipal governments, is trying to comply with the standards set forth in the California Environmental Quality Act..."

"Oh," he cut me off with what I am guessing is the most condescending tone of voice he could muster, "now I need to find out what legislators were behind that and work to have them removed from office."

Ahh, one of these guys. Now, I don't have a problem with people disagreeing with current environmental policy, there's alot of it that I disagree with, and I'm usually open to discussing it, but the tone of voice and the words made it clear that this guy was interested in simply condemning it all and by extension those of us who make our living dealing with it.

I was happy to help this guy, but I wasn't going to let anyone walk on me, especially not when I was using my free time to help him out without payment. So, I spoke in as civil and diplomatic a tone as I could and said "well, there's alot of people who would agree with you. However, conservation is a value of mine, and I make a living doing this work, so I am unlikely to agree on this point."

"Well I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree."

"Fair enough," I tried to move the conversation along, "okay, so we would do two records searches - one with the Native American Heritage Commission, and one with the California Historic Resource Information System. After the results for this come back, we'll either take a look at the surface, or dig one or two small holes in the area to be disturbed to see the sub-surface depending on whether or not there is a site previously recorded in the area. After that, we'll write a letter report, and send you as many copies as you need for the permit application. If we find something, the city may or may not have additional requirements. If we find nothing, and in town we usually don't find anything intact, then you're good to go."

"Okay. so, how much will this cost."

There it was, the most common question I get asked. I told him our price.

He began shouting "that's outrageous!"

"No, look, consider that we have to do the records searches, survey..."

"It's outrageous! You should be ashamed of yourself! You want to charge THAT much for an hour's work?"

The fuck? Considering what we have to do in order to get one of these reports off - the work on our end, the fees we have to pay for records searches, and so on, our price is both reasonable and mainstream. I would have pointed this out, but this dickweed was a bit too busy screaming at me. This was especially annoying as we had already established that my company wouldn't do the work because we lacked the manpower, and I was answering questions free of charge knowing that it would not result in further work.

I remained calm and tried to explain "as I have already explained, it is much more than an hour's work..."

He cut me off again "I'm a Native American!"

When the hell did I buy a ticket for the non-sequitor express? He's a Native American? Even if that's true**, so what?

"So am I" I replied. While I don't generally identify myself as Native American, not having been raised as one, my ancestry is funky enough that I can make a plausible claim even if I tend to feel that this is somewhat dishonest. But, in this case, as this guy seemed to think that this would be a conversation stopper and he'd win the argument (which wasn't even an argument as it had already been established that I was just trying to answer his questions for free), I figured I'd feed it right back to him.


Ahh, I had him.

"As I said, it's more than an hour's work."

His silence was short lived, however. "No, it's less than an hours work! You want to charge me to just come and look at my goddamn vegetable gard..."

And at this, I hung up on the bastard. I am willing to help people out when they are confused by regulations. I am even willing to accept that they may be a bit testy and irate on having unexpected hurdles sprung on them. But when you become rude, abusive, and hostile towards me when I am trying to help you out, at that point you can go find new and exciting ways to copulate with yourself. I'm not putting up with this kind of bullshit.

* Add to this that the city and county governments in my neck of the woods tend to be a bit over-enthusiastic about requiring archaeological survey prior to construction. By over-enthusiastic, I mean that I have on more than one occassion been required to perform archaeological survey on land that had been graded down to bedrock decades earlier - thus removing any chance of a surviving archaeological site. Years back, I used to argue with city and county planners - on my free time without pay - on behalf of landowners over these sorts of things. It's a matter of ethics for me, as it is wasteful to require a study that can not have any meaningful result simply to follow procedures in a draconian manner. This enthusiasm probably comes at least in part from earlier episodes in which important sites were destroyed for stupid reasons, but it has nonetheless become excessive.

** It may be true, I don't know the guy and couldn't really say based on my interaction with him, but I am skeptical. For one thing, I know alot of Native Americans, you tend to in my line of work, and most of them don't pull their ethnicity out thinking that it will serve as a trump card in situations like this. Also, most of the Native Americans that I know describe themselves as Indians, and don't use the term Native American when talking about themselves. In fact, the only time I've seen anyone describe themselves as "Native American" thinkign that it would confer some privilege on them, it has been honkies like myself who have mixed ancestry and who want to feel special.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Truth About Stephen Hawking

We have all seen the internet lists of supposed "facts" about various celebrities and their alleged mightiness. Usually the subjects of such lists are Chuck Norris, Mr. T, or Vin Diesel. I find this odd, as there are people about whome such lists could be written and actually be true. These people aren't action stars like the three usual suspects, but their contributions are nonetheless real. Let's take, for example, someone who, while admittedly a celbrity, is an unlikely one - Stephen Hawking. Now, you may be asking, what is so remarkable about Stephen Hawking. Well, let me tell you:

Stephen Hawking is arguably one of the greatest physicists ever to have lived. When people list the greats in the field, his name appears along with Newton's Einstein's, and Feynman's.

Despite a crippling illness, Stephen Hawking has remained active as both a researcher and as a public spokesman for science.

Stephen Hawking knows when you are sleeping, and he knows when you're awake.

Stephen Hawking is rare amongst scientists in that he understands that allowing parody of him is a way of humanizing science and removing some of its ability to intimidate.

Contrary to popular belief, the only reason that Chuck Norris is still breathing is because Stephen Hawking, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, has not yet decided that he should die.

Stephen Hawking has demonstrated that many of the facts that we thought we know about the universe - such as the stability of black holes over vast spans of time, are in fact false, thus showing that rather than being a dull excercise in memorization, science is an on-going journey of discovery.

The "immutable" laws of physics are really Stephen Hawking's gutter-punk bitch.

Stephen Hawking can be credited with doing more for the public understanding of science than most other people, with his book A Brief History of Time being a welcome antidote to the nonsense spouted by various self-styled gurus such as Deepak Chopra.

The reason why Jesse Helms retired rather than dying in office, as he had always truly intended, is that he feared what Stephen Hawking might do to him.

Your mom likes to bake pies for Stephen Hawking.

The model of the universe most popular with scientists - that it may be of limited area but is nonetheless essentially without borders, was developed by Stephen Hawking and Jim Hartle.

James Bond was based on Stephen Hawking, but the stories were watered down because the people of the world would not be able to handle the true awesomeness of Hawking's exploits.

It is unwise to meddle in the affairs of Hawking, because you are puny and fun to toss around.

Now, I hope we've all learned something.

And I promise, I'll get back to writing about the oddities inherent in archaeology soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

We're Doomed...and I'm okay with that

Over the weekend, I drove to Oakland with Kay, and on the way we listened to one of my favorite podcasts, Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. The episode to which we listend was part of a series on the Punic Wars, best known for Hannibal's crossing the Alps with elephants, but more importantly, the wars that pushed Rome from being a regional power to walking the path to its eventual empire. As I was listening, I got to thinking about the fact that, as the roman Republic and later Empire grew in power, it's citizens likly never gave a thought that it would end. Certainly, they would have known about fallen empires and civilizations: Assyria (ironically, as I drove to Taft today, I listened to a podcast on the Assyrian Empire in which Carlin made the same point that I wish to here), Babylon, Alexander's Macedonian Empire, and the Median Empire. However, they likely gave little thought to the fall of their own civilization.

And yet, Roman civilization did fall. Certainly the Medeival Period was not quite the "dark ages" as later historians would label it. In fact, quite a bit happened during the Medeival Period. But, while it might not have been the "dark age", it certainly was a period during which human civilization throughout Europe and the Mediteranean world did take a few steps back in terms of social organization, technology, and civil order.

All of which gets me thinking about our civilization. During childhood, I recall a few rare occasions when someone would comment that the U.S. probably wouldn't be around forever, and would promptly be shouted down or told off by someone insisting that to claim that the U.S. would eventually go the way of the dodo was both delusional and treasonous. Even now, when people seem to be less alarmist upon hearing someone suggest that any nation's days are numbered (including the U.S.), the notion is still treated with distrust at worst and a vague semi-acceptance at best. The default position seems to be that technology will improve, but the world order as we know it today will likely remain more-or-less intact indefinitely. Sure, historians and anthropologists might think otherwise, but really, what do they know.

Of course, the U.S. will eventually fall, and, on a larger scale, western civilization as we know it will fall. This isn't the rantings of a terrorist, nor the doomsday prophecy of a religious nut. The simple fact of the matter is that every civilization rises and falls, and it is the height of arrogance to think that ours will be any different - and as much as people may wish to ignore or deny it, I think that we all know it.

And acknowledging that our civilization will fall leads me to wonder about the cause of its eventual fall. My own suspicion, though it is nothing but suspicion, is that we see the source of the eventual fall in the anti-intellectual tendencies of western societies. As technology becomes more advanced, and our problems become more complicated (global warming, food shortages, shrinking water tables, etc.) and reliant on science for solutions, we as a populace seem to be moving away from science and drifting increasingly towards mysticism: the rise in fundamentalist religious sects, the fact that political parties are increasingly appealing to people's irrational presupossitions rather than facts, the rise of a health care sub-system that appeals to logically falacious arguments and superstition rather than evidence, and so seems that we are alienating ourselves from the very important realities of the world that we have created, and brought about the circumstances under which we will undermine ourselves and put ourselves into a situation where our civilization burns itself out - and probably takes others with it.

But I may very well be wrong, and my reading of this may be more morose than is truly called for.

It could well be that our civilization falls in a conflict - either with another civilization from another part of the world, or from less organized "barbaric" forces (be it losse terrorist organizations or some other loosely affiliated force.). Perhaps our tendency towards factionalism will get the better of us, and the nations that comprise western civilization will have at each other and cause a mutual fall.

But this is all mental masturbation. I can't give a warning, nobody would listen (and I'm not narcisistic enough to think that anyone in a position to do anything reads this blog), and nobody could do anything anyway. No, what I have found about this is a simple fact: I'm okay with the downfall of western civilization. I'm not okay with it in the sense that I am some militant who thinks it should fall. Rather, I accept that the fall of my civilization, a civilization that I very much love despite its shortcomings, is an inevitiability. I don't think that its fall will necessarilly be a good thing (though, in the course of history, perhaps it will be), but it is bound to happen eventually, and I'm alright with that fact. Unless it occurs due to a particular catastrophe, odds are that people will only be peripherally aware that it's even happening, and will go about their business in relative comfort while it occurs around them - and I find that thought oddly comforting.

You know, this was an absolutely useless blog post. Oh well.

From India, for your viewing pleasure?

I don't know what to say...but I'm glad to see that I am not the only person who recognizes culture porn, but these people are certainly funnier than me.