The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, October 30, 2009

My Superstitions - Dice

I like to think that I am a very rational person, that I base my actions on good reasoning and hard data.

But the simple fact of the matter is that I engage in a few superstitious behaviors. These are behaviors that even I think are silly, and that I know to be pointless, and yet I engage in them and feel as if they are good and sensible, even while intellectually knowing how foolish they are.

Case in point: dice. I am superstitious about dice.

Okay, a little background is in order to make this all make some sort of sense. My name is Matthew and I...I...[deep breath]...I am a gamer. And not someone who sits in front of an X-Box or Wii and presses buttons. No, I am a role-playing game enthusiast. I enjoy sitting around with my friends, pretending that we are adventurers out to slay dragons

Okay, I've said it, I feel better now, like a great weight has been lifted from my chest.

Now, contrary to popular belief, we don't dress up in costumes, we don't run around with plastic swords, and we don't address each other as "my lord" and "my lady" - people who do that are called LARPers (LARP for Live Action Role Playing) and even the geekier tabletop gamers tend to think that the LARP scene is a little strange.

No, we're tabletop gamers, we gather 'round the eponymous table, papers with our character's descriptions and statistics in front of of, and we play out the game using dice to resolve situations with uncertain outcomes.

There is a lot of dice rolling in the average game. Enough that many players jokingly refer to these games as "roll playing" rather than "role playing" games.

And that is where my superstition comes in.

See, in most truly random distribution of numbers, there will be streaks where the numbers are high, and streaks where the numbers are low. It has nothing to do with the way that the numbers are generated (provided that the number generation is truly random), it's just the way that random distributions work. The NPR show Radiolab even has a segment on this in which a mathematician is able to determine which list of numbers was truly randomly generated and which was created to look randomly generated by noting that the truly random list had more streaks of the same number in it.

And so it is around the gaming table. Every gamer knows that there will be a point in every evening in which they seem to be on fire - making every roll that they need to and failing few, if any, rolls - and others when they seem to have a losing streak, consistently failing rolls and making successful rolls just enough to get their hopes up to have them dashed again.

This is exactly what one would expect from a random distribution of numbers, you know, like the kind of distribution that one gets from rolling dice. I have even tested this, thinking that maybe there are characteristics of the dice that might make them more likely to roll one way or another, but when I chart my dice-rolling experiments (good lord, I am a geek, it's a wonder anyone listens to me), I find that they consistently act in the way predicted by random chance.

But, as the saying (which I have been unable to find the source of) goes, luck is probability taken personally, and as much as I am aware that my streaks of good or bad rolls are simply random, it feels like the universe is screwing around with me. I know that it's random chance and there's nothing for it, but I feel like I should be able to influence it in some way.

And so I try to influence it. I have a large number of dice (though not a huge number, like many of the other players that I know), and when I hit a streak in which I am rolling poorly, I switch to another die or set of dice. Of course, I usually continue to roll poorly, which makes this attempt to influence fate into an exercise in frustration, but at least for the moment I feel like I have done something useful. When I am playing a game (such as the older versions of Dungeons and Dragons* or GURPS) in which for some types of rolls a high number is good, and a low number is good for others, I'll even keep track of which dice seem to be consistently rolling high or low and designate those dice for those types of rolls.

And do I roll any differently than anyone else at the table? No, of course not. I don't even roll any differently than on those occasions when I only have one set of dice to roll and therefore can't switch them around. The evidence proves that I am not doing anything that could change the outcome of my games, and I know that. But I still feel like I am doing something to change the outcome.

I have witnessed other superstitions as well. I used to play with two guys who would roll their dice for a good 15-30 minutes straight before gameplay started in order to "get rid of the bad rolls." I know other people who will only buy dice in certain colors. And I know people who will only use dice that have had a ritual done over them.

Does any of this actually help? Most people will acknowledge that it doesn't actually do anything other than make them feel better, and they treat the thing with a rather tongue-in-cheek attitude. However, some folks claim that it does help them, but actually watching their gameplay demonstrates otherwise.

And, perhaps that is why so many people cling to superstitious behaviors, because many folks won't except that something that feels like its working really isn't doing any good.

Well, at least it's good to know that I am not alone. The blogger noisms has also posted about dice superstitions.

*Incidentally, a common scenario or "adventure" used in Dungeons and Dragons is the dungeon crawl - in which the player characters move around in some sort of interior maze, usually caverns, a castle, or the eponymous dungeon, killing monsters and stealing their loot. This has led to one of the host of the podcast Fear the Boot to describe it as "Home Invasion: The Role-Playing Game."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Oh, The Place You'll Go

Just a quick post, I took this photo while in the field yesterday and I think that it illustrates two things:

1) The odd beauty of some of the places that I go (yeah, sometimes I have a pretty cool job).

2) The fact that, when you get away from maintained roads, it gets pretty isolated.

This is in northwest Kern County, about 10 miles north of the town of McKittrick.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Frustration and Acceptance With Irrationality

Do you ever have the urge to point someone towards reality, but realize that it is pointless?

I was in the grocery store yesterday. In the dairy aisle I noticed a fellow, probably in his late teens or early twenties, wearing a red shirt with the words “Arrest Me” in large print, and then something written below in small print. I couldn’t make out what it said, and I couldn’t get close enough to read it without appearing to be the rather nosy person that I am.

A few minutes later, I was at the front, buying my groceries, and the fellow got into line behind me. I turned around, and saw that the complete text of his shirt was “Arrest Me – I prayed in school today.” Ahhh, yes. I hadn’t seen one of these shirts for a little while, but I had seen them before.

There is a small, but very vocal, minority of Christians who believe that the rest of the world is quite literally out to get them. They believe that everything that doesn’t go exactly their way is a form of persecution rather than just a sign that our society is owned by everyone, that everyone has equal rights and privileges, and not just their particular sect. In this particular case, these folks have taken the fact that public schools, as government institutions, are not allowed to force students to pray, and have extrapolated from this that students praying on their own is illegal.

Of course, this is nonsense. While there have been a few isolated incidents of over-zealous administrators wrongly punishing students for religious expression, these events have been newsworthy because of their rarity. If they were as common as some would have you believe then there would be no point in putting them on the news.

And perhaps this guy in the grocery store would have accepted that had it been pointed out to him. However, I have learned through long experience that when someone takes a position that is so at odds with reality, it’s typically completely pointless to try to talk them out of it. As the saying goes – you can’t reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into. This annoys me, the truth of the matter is so fucking obvious to anyone who bothers to actually look rather than just play the “I’m so persecuted” card that I find it difficult to accept that people don’t see it.

The same is true for young-Earth creationists, the anti-medicine brigade, hardened political partisans, and anyone else who holds hard and fast to a particular questionable set of propositions. And yet, people don’t see that reality doesn't line up with their particular presuppositions, most of these people can’t be made to see it, and I have to get used to that fact regardless of how much it may irk me.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More Neil DeGrasse Tyson Fun

Groovy, now I have a video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson explaining the problem behind the philosophy that underlies Intelligent Design creationism, and he also (probably unintentionally) points out the problem with our culture's tendency to buy into the "our natural state is perfect" mentality.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's All in the Presentation

Do you remember The Wicker Man, and I don't mean the 70's-era film starring Christopher Lee, ya'know the one that was actually good, I mean the recent remake starring Nicholas Cage. This one:

Now, remember that the same film served as the same basis for this one as well:

I just thought that this was a great example of how the presentation and editing of information can lead to two wildly different conclusions.

One of the things that dogs people who are concerned about how information is communicated to the public is the amount of misrepresentation that occurs when those who have an agenda are the ones most likely to present information. This may mean someone who is moved by a political or social cause to exaggerate or downplay particular information. It may mean someone who is representing a particular religious or anti-religious group is distorting information to make their point.

Regardless of motivation, when confronting a complex issue, someone who is savvy can easily present a very distorted (or even a completely false) view of reality by cherry picking what they tell you, and choosing the context in which information is presented, all without ever making a truly false statement. Remember, if The Wicker Man can be made to look like a slapstick comedy (as opposed to unintentionally funny), then anything is possible.

Or, if you'd like another example:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Client Confusion

I occupy a weird position within the general construction/engineering/consulting industry. I am hired be my clients because they are required to have me perform studies in order to get their permits, government money, what-have-you for their project. So, we become an added expense to a project (though, usually, the smallest expense - rarely even taking up 1% of the total project budget*). We, along with the biologists with whom we frequently work, are generally afterthoughts on any given project. It's a weird situation, and one with a lot of tensions and potential (though rarely materializing) problems.

Contrary to what one might expect from this situation, I do in fact have clients who do respect me, who do value my opinion, and who do view me as a valued member of the team. I have a larger number of clients who are likely indifferent to me, but who recognize that they are required to have me there in order to get their permits or government funding, and who are gracious to me regardless of what there personal opinions might be. In truth, the actually painful clients are a definite minority.

But what a minority they are!

One project held several of the recurring issues that have haunted me as I have become a supervisor: the first time I was in charge of an excavation, it was for a site the was soon-to-be underneath a housing development (for a variety of reasons, I can't really say when or where this was). the project manager, a friend of mine, had discovered the site during monitoring**. The client, the owner of the development company, tried to bribe my friend in order to persuade him to not report the site. My friend, being smart enough to both recognize the bribe attempt and smart enough to see the legal minefield if he acknowledged it, played dumb and answered the attempt with a description of what would have to be done to evaluate the site***.

I arrived a week later, and the day before work began I met with the client in order to describe what we were going to do and how long it would take us to do it. When we met, the first thing he wanted to know was what the "worst case scenario" for this project would be. I explained that the worst case for him would be if the site was found eligible for the appropriate historic register, and he would then have to negotiate with the agency that issued his permits as to what was to be done - project re-design, data recovery excavation. etc. He then asked me how much that would cost, and I explained to him that it was not possible to know until we had completed evaluation and had a clear idea of what was in the ground. He then said "okay, I get that you are saying that to be cautious, but what is the real cost going to be?"

I have encountered this frequently. It is understandable, the client wants to plan and be prepared, and as a result, they want to know what may happen. The problem is that it sometimes happens that a site has a sufficient buried component that what one sees on the surface is only a pale reflection of what lies under the surface, and this means that a "worst case scenario" can never be adequately judged. I can give a "most likely scenario", though at the time that I was working on the project described here I was too green to even give that, but the worst case is literally as bad as your imagination can muster.

So, while I understand where the client was coming from, the fact remains that they were asking me to do something that was really not possible. However, this tendency to not understand what I am doing often proceeds into the next frequent problem - unreasonable expectations.

With this same client, after we had established that I am not a psychic and could not accurately give them the worst case scenario, we began to discuss what I was going to to. There were two steps to the evaluation of the site. We had to excavate shovel probes (small holes, usually 50 centimeters wide and about a meter deep, though this is variable depending on what ), and based on the results of the shovel probes, we would open up excavation units (larger holes, usually 1 meter by 1 meter, and as deep as they need to be to see what's below the surface). We were to excavate 20 shovel probes, if I recall correctly, followed by up-to four excavation units (we did three in the end).

"How long will this take?" the fellow asked me.

"Well, in these soils, with the depths that we're expecting, I figure two to three shovel probes per person per day, with a crew our size, I'd say four days."

"Huh? Look, if I hired some guys and they told me that it would take them four days to dig twenty holes, I'd fire them."

I proceeded to try to explain that we don't just dig holes, but we have to do so in 10 or 20 centimeter levels and sift the soil through screens looking for any artifacts, including some very small flakes of stone and beads. His response?

"I don't care, if I hired some guys and they told me that it would take them four days to dig twenty holes, I'd fire them."

This has been a common them in my work since then. Very often clients try to compare what I am doing to things that look superficially similar, but are in fact very different. Someone who is digging a hole for construction will use different tools, techniques, and be able to dig faster than an archaeologists who is having to move methodically and examine everything that comes out of the hole.

Similarly, I have had to start working with seismic surveyors. These folks move across the landscape either walking or driving ATVs, placing markers for the placement of source points****. s these guys are just walking a line across the landscape and placing a marker, they are able to move quickly. Us archaeologists, by contrast, have to walk more slowly, with our eyes on the ground, looking for signs of archaeological sites. When we find sites, we have to stop, determine their boundaries, and take points with a GPS unit. So, again, it looks superficially similar, but is in fact rather different, and the archaeologists are slower.

Luckily, both construction proponents and seismic surveyors are usually receptive to our descriptions of our work and figure out what we are doing rather quickly, and before too long we are usually able to work with them quite successfully. But every time I start working with someone new, we go back through the same routine of having to explain why what we do is not the same as the other people with whom they work. But every now and again, I am stuck working with a client who is resistant to learning that archaeologists are different from whatever they want to compare us to, and they accuse me of trying to milk money out of them (if these folks knew the number of unbilled hours I put in - that is hours of work that I don't track or get paid for because I am trying to keep costs down - they'd realize that this is ridiculous) and this is always frustrating. It's always less than fun when someone insists that I am trying to rip them off because I am digging a hole more slowly than the guy who is placing fence posts.

So it goes, part of the cost of doing business.

* The primary exception to this being small project proponents - the guy who has to get permits to build a new room on his house, the woman who wants to put down foundations for a shed, etc. These folks often get hit with the requirement to have us present at the last minute, and I have a lot of sympathy for them, even if I can't do much to reduce their costs.

** Monitoring is pretty much what it sounds like - when construction is being performed on or near a site or in an area where a site is likely, an archaeologist will often monitor the work to ensure that the site is not damaged.

*** Yeah for footnotes! As I have described before, for a site to be eligible for any sort of protection, it must be eligible for listing on a federal, state, or local historic register. When we evaluate a site, we are attempting to determine whether or not it meets the requirements for listing on such a register.

****Even more footnote fun! Seismic survey is done for mineral exploration, usually oil. A grid is laid out, and spots, called source points, are identified along a pre-defined grid. At these source points either an explosive charge will be buried or the ground will be shaken with a piece of heavy equipment called a vibroseis truck. The vibrations will be picked up by devices called geophones at other points on the grid. The readings on the geophones are then processed to create what is essentially a sonar image of the minerals below the ground surface.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Arguments from Ignorance

One of the things that always either amuses or frustrates me when I speak with people about all manner of paranormal claims - from religious claims ot UFO claims, to medical claims about "life force" etc. - is the tendency for people to fall into arguments from ignorance. The basic form that the argument usually follows is "Well, science can't explain X, therefore it must be caused by Y."

Sometimes there is little background to this. It's simply an assertion that "I don't know what caused such-and-such, so the cause must be this-or-that." You know "I ruled out electrical problems at the fuse box, therefore the flickering light must be caused by a ghost!"

Other times, people making these claims pass on responsibility to a third party, like so = "nobody has evidence of the origins of the universe, and so our priests assure us that it was created when Lord Kuchamaruga, diety of pipe cleaners, slew his brother Briiselbarush and the universe spilled forth from his perforated gut."

Ummm, why is listening to the priest of the pipe cleaner god a better answer than "I don't know" as regards the origins of the universe?

Ahhh, well.

Anyway, this matter is taken up by one Dr. Neil "Coolest Scientist Ever to Have Lived" Tyson in the following video:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Project Nears Completion

Just ten minutes ago, the last of my original field crew left. She's headed to a reunion for her field school*, and the field portion of the project will be complete before she is again available to work. I still have two crew members out here, and I will be here until Thursday, but the last of the original crew has gone. This has left me feeling weirdly melancholic.

As anyone who has asked me knows, I have learned to loathe western Kern County in general, and Taft in particular (and this blog will feature many stories from my time here once I have the chance to actually sit down and write them). And this project has had more than its share of headaches, and I will not miss either. Add to that the fact that, while out here, my average work day has been something on the order of 12 hours, and 14, 16, and even 18 hours have not been unheard of, and...well, it's not difficult to see why I will be happy to put the project behind me.

At the same time, I have been living and working with these people for more than six months now. While I will no doubt work with some of them again, and I will see some of them at conferences, there are others who are pretty much gone for good. None of these people became close, personal friends of mine, but I have enjoyed working with all of them, even when the project itself was at its least pleasant.

In addition, come Thursday, I will be leaving Taft. Yes, I will have to return to tie up some loose ends some time in the next couple of months, and depending on whether or not I am notified in time, I may have to return sooner to perform the last of the survey. Regardless, the fieldwork portion of this project is effectively over, and I will be going home...and hopefully not getting assigned to the next major project in this area.

And so, as happy as I am to be headed home without the need to return for another work rotation, and as happy as I am to be able to finally take a few days off to relax, I am still having this weird, melancholic "end of the school year" kinda' feeling.

Still, I'm sure that it will vanish as soon as I see the Monterey Bay on my drive home on Thursday.

* Essentially boot camp for the archaeologist. Field school is where we pay someone for the privilege of doing hard labor working on their project. It is where most of us learn our basic field skills.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sierra Nevada Fieldwork Photos

Yeah, I know, bad blog keeper, I've not been updating. I've been working an insane schedule, and I haven't had time to write updates. For the moment, then, pictures of field work!

These are solution cups, they are not bedrock mortars, though they are often mistaken for bedrock mortars. They are formed by natural processes, and I get annoyed when I get site records referring to these as bedrock mortars.

Pat and I discovered a strange sort of memorial in the middle of the forest, away from roads.

Surprisingly, there were a number of meadows at high elevation near the peaks, places that could only be reached by helicotper.

And, really, you can never look so dorky as you do when you map a site using a high-powered GPS unit.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Vaccines, Science, Anti-Science, and Critical Thinking

As often happens, today I came across an internet discussion on the evils of a particular piece of technology. In this case, the evil technology is the vaccine for the H1N1 virus. I have started looking for information on this, and have found very little that isn't big on hysteria or propaganda, so I can not at this time take a stand on this one particular vaccine. However, in the internet thread that I saw quickly turned into a series of posts in which it was clear that the participants had no real knowledge of the subject, but had simply heard scare stories that confirmed their existing worldview:

Corporations are bad.
Vaccines are made by corporations.
Therefore, vaccines are bad.

Nature is good.
Herbs, juices, vitamins, etc. come from nature.
Therefore these things are good.

Even if one were to concede that corporations are bad (and, believe me, I am well aware of the many problems associated with the fact that so much of the world's money is tied up in large multi-national corporations), it still doesn't follow that all things produced by them are inherently bad. Indeed, for the harm that they can do, no major corporation would have been able to rise unless they also offered some advantages.

Moreover, nature is not inherently good. Certainly, there is something to be said for eating simpler, less processed foods. Likewise, many medications, such as anti-biotics, are overused. However, there are plenty of things in nature that can kill you, ranging from naturally occurring hydrogen sulfide to all manner of uninhabitable environments. The truth is that humans are suited for a fairly narrow range of places within the vastness of nature, and the rest is hostile towards us.

Moreover, the various herbs, vitamins, supplements, etc. that are championed by most people inclined towards such things are themselves produced by for-profit companies with a definite financial stake in keeping and gaining customers. So, the profit motive that drives the major pharmaceutical companies also drives the major companies selling naturopathic goods (in some cases, they're even the same company).

In other words, it's not a case of good naturopaths vs. evil corporations. the naturopaths are just as capable of doing harm as the corporations are, and corporations can do some good despite their reputation. It's not black-and-white. The world is a much more complicated place than that.

I have written about vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement before and in general my views remain the same now. Of course, each new vaccine is essentially a new variation on an old procedure, and as such should be examined carefully for the potential side-effects that the new variation may bring. I do not currently know whether the H1N1 vaccine has unnecessary risks associated with it. The problem is that, as far as I can tell, the people who are going on about its dangers don't know either, they are simply repeating stories that they have heard which seem to jive with their pre-existing beliefs about the evils of pharmaceutical companies. That sensationalistic right-wing media outlets are blasting some of the same thing doesn't make these claims true, it simply demonstrates that they are good for ratings (as the fact that I keep seeing a FOx News clip about it in my email and on social networking sites demonstrates).

As a Time magazine article that I recently linked to summarizes 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.

It's worth noting that the anti-vaccine movement has gone from particular worries over one particular (and no longer used) vaccine preservative, and has now adopted the entire vague and empty naturopathic lingo of fear of never-specified toxins, appeals to the "superiority" of "natural cures" (nevermind that there is nothing natural about an herb that has been processed for consumption), and has increasingly hijacked the publics well-warranted skepticism of the powerful (major corporations, governments, etc.) to create fears over what is generally one of the safest medical procedures around (there is, of course, some variation among specific vaccines). In other words, as the claims have been increasingly proven to be false, they have become increasingly nebulous and hard to nail down, much less test - the truest signs of psuedo science.

The fact is that the anti-vaccine movement (which itself was jump-started by Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who produced a long-since debunked paper in which he used an overly-small data set to falsely conclude that vaccines cause autism while never disclosing that he had two financial stakes in reaching that finding) is based on hysteria, not reason. However, these folks have managed to capitalize on the confirmation bias and the creation of the confirmation bias's cousin the echo chamber in order to create a spreading worldview in which vaccines are to be viewed with suspicion at bets and hostility at worst. Even those who are not necessarily opposed to the childhood vaccines are being caught up on the wave of hysteria as an increasingly sensationalistic media takes advantage of the wealth of anti-science lunacy supplied by the anti-vaccination crowd to whip fear into the masses who are only too ready to buy the magazine or tune in to hear what they should be afraid of.

And there is the problem. Contrary to what many of these people claim, many of the diseases that we vaccinate against are painful at best and in many cases deadly. They can be prevented by stimulating our bodies immune systems via a vaccine*. Some newer vaccines may require further testing, and some may have risks that outweigh the benefitsm but you won't know that if you simply accept what those who are pushing psuedo-science and lunacy in the name of a false notion of nature or out of a sense of anger towards corporations. You will only know that if you push past that, push past anecdotes, and look at actual data, actual statistical analysis something that none of these people ever seem to be willing to do. The question of whether or not a vaccine is safe is an empirical question that can be answered with empirical data.

Which brings us back to the H1N1 vaccine. Is it safe? Well, to find out, you'll need to look for real and responsible research. Nutjobs on television or the internet screaming about the evils of vaccines will do nothing but scare you and/or confirm your existing biases - they are no more likely to be unbiased and honest than an advertisement**. Try asking a scientist, instead.

* It's worth noting that many of the nuttier of these people advocate not having children vaccinated, but instead exposing them to the diseases to stimulate their immune system. You know, stimulate it kind of like a vaccine does without putting your child, or the children with whom your child comes into contact, at risk. It's the same fucking immune system working in the same fucking way, folks!

** Some people will say "well, if there's so much pro-vaccination talk out there, then some anti-vaccination talk will balance it out!" this is only true when the anti-vaccination talk is based on reality, something that is excedingly rare. If there is a real case against vaccines, then yes, that is important. So far, though, we just keep seeing the same nonsense put forth without any reason or fact behind it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The "Satan is a Dick" Theory

So, the extremely long work days are taking their toll on my writing. So it goes. So, rather than write a proper blog post, I'll link to this video: