The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Oh, Grow Up, You Bickering Idiots!

Over the weekend, I posted an entry about some of my fellow atheists taking stances that I thought were A) stupid, and B) counter-productive. Well, here comes a story (also here) of both the non-religious and the religious being extraordinarily inept in their handling of a dispute.

So, this guy is called to appear in the local courthouse. The courthouse has church pews, complete with crosses, as their seats. Not the most appropriate thing, admittedly, but the reason why they are there is because the city had bought an old church building to turn it into a community center, and rather than have to buy new benches for the courthouse, they decided to recycle the pews from the church and use them. So, ya' know, that makes sense, and while I might be a mite bit grumbly, it doesn't seem like too big a deal to me*.

Not so the defendant (a self-described agnostic), who is now suing. Which is really pretty counter-productive, especially considering that the benches are in place because of a move that was intended to save the county money and not to proselytize. Inappropriate...yeah, basically, but intentional conversion tool? Probably not.

So, I'm more-or-less on the side of the local government up to this point. Should they do something to remove the crosses? Yeah, but it's not an emergency and they can do it as budget allows.

And then the mayor gets involved. Rather than pass the defendant-turned-plaintiff off for the over-reacting yutz that he is, the mayor declares this to be part of some sort of non-existent persecution of Christians:

Maybe it’s time the religious right stands up to the liberal left and says enough is enough. Where do you stop? Where’s the common sense? I’m not taking them out.

So, one idiot decides to sue over something that probably isn't too big a deal. And the response of the city government? To declare legal jihad against the evil Satanic "Liberal Left"! So, apparently the mayor believes that the correct response to someone else's childish behavior is to be even more childish.

Ahhh, false dichotomies, straw men, and delusion from all sides, with a dash of identity politics added for flavor. The logical fallacy parade continues!

Did I mention lately that we're doomed? Yep, we are, indeed.

*However, I suspect that many of the folks who blow this particular incident off as not a big deal aren't quite on the same boat as I am here. Basically, if the symbol had been Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, Zoroastrian, Jain, Richard Dawkin's "atheist A", etc. etc. I would be having more or less the same reaction - the symbol is not appropriate in a court room, but there are bigger things to worry about. My experience has been that many people think that it's not a big deal when their religion's symbols are displayed, but if it were another religion's symbols, well, then it would be unacceptable!

So, here's the test, ask yourself honestly if you would brush this off if it were a symbol from another group, including groups who think that you are wrong and sinful. If you'd still think it wasn't such a problem, then we are on the same page. If you would think that it was a problem, then you really need to get the beam out of your own eye before you go looking into other people's motes, and you shouldn't assume that I am going to agree with you on any other issues...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Good Article...Bad Illustration

I just read an article on NBC Los Angeles' web site about attempting to persuade more women to enter science and engineering fields. It deals primarily with the observation that women routinely prove the same aptitudes as men in these fields, but choose not to go into them for social reasons. More specifically, the way that science and math are taught in schools gives a distorted view of what they are really about, and teenage girls are often exposed to a variety of social and personal pressures that cause them to reject science and engineering as fields for "weird boys."

The article is a good one, and might give the parents of girls something to think about. However, there is one point in the article where one of the people advocating for more women to become involved in engineering makes a curious statement. She is speaking about the lack of role models for women int he sciences, and says of her niece:

While Lamoreaux’s niece acknowledged the designers who did things like design apps for her iPhone were creative, she didn’t see any female role models. Her niece was able to name five favorite female authors but couldn’t name five female CIOs (Chief Information Officer).

I can't name five female CIOs either. Of course, I also can't name five male CIOs. I can, however, name five male authors, as well as five female authors. The simple fact of the matter is that, unless you are a business insider, you are unlikely to bother learning the names of CIOs of different companies. If you are a reader, however, you are very likely to learn the names of authors who produce work that you like. Comparing the knowledge of author's names to CIO's names is comparing apples and oranges.

The basic thrust of her argument is a good one - that there are more male than female role-models publicly visible in science, and that changing that might change the face of the science workforce. However, this particular way of illustrating that point just seems odd and counter-productive. To be fair, she was being interviewed and had to think on her feet, but it is a useful example to use when honing one's own debate skills. Never use an example that, upon reflection, doesn't actually support your point.

At any rate, read the article, it's a good'un.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

We're Doomed

I believe that we're doomed.

Because we are a bunch of idiots.

Actually, no, not idiots, we are capable of making good decisions, we just decide not to.

Because we'd rather be misinformed than to know what's really going on in the world.

The terms for the condition are variable. Some call if mass delusion, some call it widespread scientific (and hence reality) illiteracy, others call it any number of less pleasant names.

But, the end result is that we are probably doomed.

So, what am I talking about?

In the last week, I have been bombarded on all sides by people making delusional claims about a wide variety of things, all of which have one linking element: if the person holding the claims was more concerned with the truth than with simply reinforcing their own assumptions, they wouldn't believe that the claim had any validity.

A few examples are, perhaps, in order.

For starters, there is the fact that Andrew Wakefield, who published a flimsy study while having not one but two financial incentives for claiming that the MMR vaccine was dangerous is now being lionized as a martyr by the anti-vax community because he has finally begun to be held responsible for starting a needless scare by lying in a published paper for his own financial benefit.

Then there's the people for whom everything is best explained by a vast conspiracy. The World Trade Center? Government conspiracy. The person that you like lost the election? Clearly an election conspiracy. No weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq? Media conspiracy. People in positions of power routinely come from particular places? Couldn't possibly be a pattern of power distribution common throughout human history, it must be a vast, world-wide conspiracy. Science shows homeopathy (which is not synonymous with naturopathy, despite what many homeopaths like to claim and many people believe) to be nothing but an ill-founded notion that violates the laws of physics and is perpetuated to earn money for homeopaths? Big pharma conspiracy.

There really have been conspiracies. 9-11 was a conspiracy amongst religious extremists in the middle east. Watergate was a conspiracy in Washington. And numerous smaller conspiracies happen all of the time. But none of them ever manage to reach the level fantasized about by anyone with internet access.

There's the constant stream of people who keep claiming that the climate is in fact in perfectly normal condition, and as evidence they cite non-facts and make statements clearly indicating that they haven't actually bothered to find out what the sources of data are (for the record, as an archaeologist, I am familiar with a lot of sources of climate data that stretch back thousands of years, so if part of your defense is that we only have recent data, then you don't know what the fuck you are talking about!).

How about the journalists at the Atlantic mis-reporting an article from a medical journal that has stirred up anti-vaccine hysteria (especially odd as the medication in question is an anti-viral and not a vaccine)? The fact that this has now been taken up by many right-wing anti-WHO folks as "evidence" of a global conspiracy makes this even more absurd and dangerous.

The regular stream of people who claim that Obama is either a socialist or possessed of demonic powers or both. Okay, if you claim that he is socialist, then you really need to look up what that word actually means, and what his actual policies are. A reality-based assessment will conclude that he's no more socialist than Bush was. If you think he's demonic, then you need to be put on medication.

Then there's the people who, when I point out that their claims about Obama are delusional, claim that I am clearly one of his ideological adherents, because apparently, according to most folks, the world is black-and-white and if you disagree with them then you must disagree with teir opponents. Well, I was annoyed with him before the primaries (as most of the people who actually know my political views are aware). I also am in touch with reality, though, and know that many of the claims made about him (see the above socialist/demonic claims) are completely delusional. If you're going to take issue, there's plenty that he is really doing that you can take issue with, but making idiotic and false claims helps nobody.

On that topic, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, a Green or a Libertarian, a Tea-Party-goer, or a supporter of the Great Green Arkleseizure, your politicians are corrupt, too. Your politicans are lying to you just as much (if not more) than the opposition. Everything that you point to the competition doing? All of it is being done by your side as well. You're not going to clean up politics by getting rid of one guy or one party, you need to radically change the system. And if you are a member of a group who is already claiming that and believes themselves to be squeaky clean...well, pride comes before the fall, my friend.

And then there's the fact that, rather than listen to people who might actually know what they're talking about, many people get their (mis)information about the world from people like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Sean Hannity, Al Franken, Rachel Maddow, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter etc. etc. etc. Hey, news flash folks, these people all have both agendas to forward and pockets to fill. They may be right sometimes, but the truth is not their primary concern, and if it's profitable to mislead you, then they'll mislead you.

Maybe I'm just grumpy, but I am fucking sick of hearing from people who are more concerned with having their own prejudices and false beliefs reinforced than with solving real problems in the here and now.

Monday, February 22, 2010

That Eerie Feeling That Keeps Me Going

One of the things that keeps me going in archaeology is that occasional shiver down the spine, the feeling that "hey, there's something weird, and a bit creepy here."

I get this feeling whenever I know that I am seeing a piece of the truth of the past, but not being allowed to view the whole thing. It's as if there is something that is being kept from me, that I'm not meant to know, and that makes me want to know it all the more.

The first time I can remember getting this feeling, it was discovering the rising sea levels throughout the Holocene (so, basically, since the end of the last Ice Age). During the early and middle Holocene, sea level rise radically changed the outline of the coasts that we know by submerging large portions of the coastal plains. Many of our bays and lagoons were either river valley or depressions until the encroaching sea covered them in water. The idea that land that was once quite hospitable to our ancestors is now a drowned place visible to humans only with great effort (not to mention equipment)...I can't explain what, precisely, but there is something very eerie to me about this, and something very compelling. Driving on the bridges over the San Francisco Bay, one of these drowned river valleys, still kinda' wigs me out.

I have had these "chill down the spine" moments routinely throughout my career. I have had them numerous times while digging a deep excavation unit within a site and realizing that I am the first person in centuries to see the things that I am seeing.

I have also had the feeling when looking at data and trying to figure out what it means. Recently, I wrote a report on a site where the raw materials were all wrong. Good, local materials were not really used, but imported ones were abundant. There was no practical reason for this that I could determine, so I began to wonder what the social reasons were. Was it just a random occurrence, for whatever reason, the people who occupied this site had a large amount of imported stone and just decided to use it? Were the residents of this site elites, using more valuable materials as a show of conspicuous consumption? Were they outsiders, ostracized by the community and reliant on imported materials (and if so, why didn't they just leave)? What was going on here?

Chill down the spine.

Don't get me wrong. I don't do my analysis by emotion. I can gather data and work out statistics perfectly well, and I rely on solid methodology when I work.

But, still, it's that occasional eerie feeling that I'm finding out something that otherwise would remain hidden from the rest of humanity that keeps me going.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Relax Guys, it's Not Going to Kill You...

There's a post over at Hemant Mehta's blog about a franchise deli where the owner has decided to play Christian music pretty much continuously. A customer complained, and was given a response that indicates that the owner didn't care about the complaint. Mr. Mehta holds that it is not appropriate for the owner to continue to play religious music in a business that caters to the public, and takes the side of the guy who made the complaint.

I normally like Hement Mehta's blog, and usually agree with him, but this is one of two complaints he has made recently where I really think that he's way off base. The other complaint concerns Tim Tebow's religious-themed facepaint, which Mehta also feels is inappropriate.

In the case of the deli, it's a private business. Unless the owner is violating the terms of his franchise contract by playing Christian music (and he apparently is not), there is no real problem with him doing so. By the same token, if I owned a business and I wanted to prominently display atheist books throughout the place, I would be free to do so. The deli owner may lose the business of non-Christians, just as I would likely lose the business of theists, but that's the decision that the business owner is free to make. I get annoyed when I hear religious people complain that a business is "too secular" for them, and this seems no different to me.

In the case of Tebow's makeup, I fail to see why anyone should care. If other members of the team are prohibited from putting non-Christian messages on their faces during games, well, then that is a problem, but I have found no reason to believe that this is the case (if someone can provide solid information indicating otherwise, by all means let me know). Again, when Christians complain about someone having non-Christian messages displayed on themselves, I want to tell them where to stick it, and this is no different.

Here's the deal - I fully agree with Hemant Mehta that the government should not be forwarding a religious agenda, that people acting in their capacity as government employees should not do so, and that religious people need to come to terms with the fact that the non-religious have all of the same rights as them. But this goes both ways, and I fail to see how complaining about the music selection at a sandwich shop or the face of some college kid is going to have any productive results. If Tebow annoys you, that's fine and you're free to say so. If you don't want to go to a sandwich shop because of the musical selections of the owner, that's fine, too (it's even fine to let them know the reason why you won't be their patron anymore). But that's a very different thing from declaring that their actions are inappropriate or unethical.

Edit to Add: This is a case where there is a legitmate problem - the student with a non-religious viewpoint is censored while the religious students are not. However, the face paint and deli music? Not a problem.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Perceptions of the Archaeological Mainstream

There is one fact that keeps coming up in my conversations with people about archaeology, and that is the perception that people who do cultural resource management (CRM) - that is, the sort of consulting work that I do - are perceived as being a small, specialized, and marginalized faction within archaeology. That is, we're not the mainstream, we're the off-shoots.

This perception is understandable when I speak with non-archaeologists. After all, most of the archaeologists who have the time to address the general public via the media are associated with a university or museum, and so it makes sense that most people would simply assume that most or even all archaeologists work in these places.

It is less excusable when I speak with university faculty members, however.

According to a 2001 book by Thomas Neumann and Robert Sanford, the vast majority of member of the Society for American Archaeology are CRM archaeologists. When one considers that most CRM archaeologists never join the SAA (to the best of my knowledge, I am one of six people who works for my company that is a member), it becomes rather clear that, in terms of sheer numbers, university and museum archaeologists are just a tiny sliver of the archaeological community in North America.

However, if you speak with the faculties of many universities, CRM is brushed off as something of a side-bar, a deviation from real archaeology. I once had a conversation with the former editor of American Antiquity, the largest and most respected archaeology journal in the Americas, in which it became clear that he was under the impression that CRM archaeologists were relatively few in number and eclipsed by our university brethren. He was visibly shocked to hear the actual statistics on CRM vs. university employment.

I don't want to paint with too broad a brush. Some university programs have geared themselves towards CRM. For example, Sonoma State University has a Masters Degree program that is geared towards producing CRM professionals, and they are not the only university doing this. Likewise, my advisor at UC Santa Barbara was very familiar with CRM and actively encouraged his students to get experience with it. Nonetheless, university faculties being ignorant of CRM is common in my experience, especially at the large research universities.

The reasons for these perceptions are varied. A small but annoying number of professors turn their noses up at CRM because it is perceived as "too utilitarian" and therefore not worthy of those with lofty goals - a snobbery that is not limited to anthropology professors and is not uncommon at research universities. More often, faculty have heard about the methodological and ethical shortcomings common in early CRM projects - primarily those of the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, but including the CRM scene of the late 1960s through early 1980s, when professional qualifications and standards were still being worked out and best practices still being determines. However, CRM has changed radically since then, as evidenced by the vastly different quality of reports produced and fieldwork done now as opposed to those done as recently as the early 90s. Sometimes this is due to the fact that most of the methodological and theoretical advances within the field come from research institutions, and are then applied in CRM, as as such the folks at the research institutions are disproportionately represented in the journals (which is fine, as that is part of their job). More often, the faculties simply were trained in an environment where their own instructors were unaware of what was going on in the broader field of archaeology outside of the research institutions, and as a result the current faculty is equally unaware.

The end result is that there is one line of work, CRM, in which there are ample jobs and many opportunities, and many students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels are either not being made aware of it, or worse, being discouraged from getting involved.

Things are, of course, changing. Most of the graduate students that I have known, even those intending to go into academics, have done at least some CRM work, sometimes for the experience, sometimes because it is the only work available. As a result, a larger number of the incoming generation of faculty have a solid and realistic knowledge of CRM. However, it is still annoying to run across my colleagues who assume that I am a member of a marginal faction within archaeology when, in fact, they are.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Surface Collection at the Defacatorium

"So, my favorite story involving a defacatorium...well, we were doing fieldwork in Ethiopia..."

...and so began one of the most memorable lectures that I have ever experienced. The instructor, Mark Aldenderfer, is an archaeologist with a deservedly strong reputation. The purpose of this lecture was to describe surface collection strategies for archaeological survey, and the story that best illustrated one such method involved a defacatorium - that is, a place where people go to relieve their bowels. So, the sites surface was covered in human feces (that's shit, for those who dislike the technical terms).

See, this defactorium was on top of an archaeological site. Prior to excavation, Aldenderfer and his crew wanted to get an idea of what types of materials they were likely to find while excavating, and also where some of the artifact concentrations were likely to be located - generally, they wanted to know what the site's internal structure was likely to be. This required doing surface reconnaissance, and it was determined that collecting a sample of material from the surface of the site was the way to go.

The collection method that they decided to employ involved taking a hoop, laying it on the ground, and collecting all of the artifacts on the surface within the hoop. Doing this they would hopefully get a solid sample of the site's constituents while also being able to get an idea of what the sub-surface portion of the site looked like.

The instructions given to the field technicians was that they should place the hoops down at pre-determined spots, pick everything off of the ground, and place it into a bag for sorting at the field laboratory.

...and this was when Dr. Aldenderfer learned that you should always be specific with field technicians - when you say "everything" you should clarify by saying "everything archaeological, leave the rest." When the bags were opened back at the lab and poured out onto the sorting tables, it was discovered that not only had the field technicians collected all of the artifacts, they had also collected chunks of feces that were on the surface.

Luckily, when my field techs screw up in a similar fashion, I only end up with pieces of recent trash. There are perks to working in locations where indoor plumbing is the norm.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Unitarian Jihad

I have read, this very day, of a new, frightening face to religious terrorism. Forget Al Qaeda, forget Timothy McVeigh, this new threat is far more serious. It's called Unitarian Jihad, and these people mean business. Follow this link to read more.

The most telling quotes:

Beware! Unless you people shut up and begin acting like grown-ups with brains enough to understand the difference between political belief and personal faith, the Unitarian Jihad will begin a series of terrorist-like actions. We will take over television studios, kidnap so-called commentators and broadcast calm, well-reasoned discussions of the issues of the day. We will not try for "balance" by hiring fruitcakes; we will try for balance by hiring non-ideologues who have carefully thought through the issues.


We are Unitarian Jihad, and our motto is: "Sincerity is not enough." We have heard from enough sincere people to last a lifetime already. Just because you believe it's true doesn't make it true. Just because your motives are pure doesn't mean you are not doing harm. Get a dog, or comfort someone in a nursing home, or just feed the birds in the park. Play basketball. Lighten up. The world is not out to get you, except in the sense that the world is out to get everyone.

Why are the media not talking about this? Why have they allowed themselves to be so cowed by the corrosive forces of political correctness to be unwilling to stand up and show Unitarianism for the threat it is?

If this group is not stopped, then we may all soon be over-run by reasonable, calm, intelligent people. We can not have that! The Unitarians must be stopped!

Friday, February 12, 2010

Charles Darwin's Birthday

For those who are unaware, today is Charles Darwin's 201st birthday. Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire in England (really, what is it with English place-names sounding as if they had been developed by Smurfs), and trained early on to become a doctor...which didn't go over so well. In the end, he took an interest in taxidermy, and then natural history, which led (along with an ocean voyage) to him eventually coming upon the information that formed the basis for the theory* of descent with modification (or, as we call it today, evolution).

The irony of this is that in the United states today, Darwin is demonized by a good many people. I have heard people say in all seriousness that Darwin made a pact with Satan, that he was a fool manipulated by an evil atheist conspiracy, that he was a part of an evil atheist conspiracy, that he was a fool who simply came to the wrong conclusion and that "evil atheistic scientists" were happy to accept his conclusion as dogma because it let them get rid of God, etc. etc.

The simple facts of the case are as follows: Darwin gathered information carefully over decades, and thought through his results carefully. The basic concept of evolution was not a new one in Darwin's day, but nobody had yet worked out a realistic mechanism by which it could happen, and as such it remained an interesting but untested hypothesis. Darwin's theory did what every good scientific theory should - it suggested a variety of test criteria and predicted future discoveries which have since come to pass. Although the idea was rightfully controversial in its early days, it has so consistently been supported by new discoveries for the past century and a half (the discovery of DNA itself was one of the major supporting pieces of information that filled in the theoretical gaps) that there is no real scientific controversy today**.

The controversy is entirely a media and social one, not a scientific one. And the controversy is, not surprisingly, due almost entirely to misinformation. When people tell me that they don't accept evolution, I try to ask them to describe evolution to me. On those occasions when they are willing to, they invariably say something such as "humans came from monkeys" or "everything came out of slime" or they'll bring in something from cosmology (which is not biology) such as the Big Bang, and so on. Of course, all of these sorts of claims show a gross misunderstanding of what evolution is. I have yet to have a single denier of it give me a description of evolution that even vaguely resembles the real thing.

The reality is that the theory of evolution forms the base of modern biology. If you live in the western world and benefit from things like medical care, which is steeped in biology, then you owe your healthy and long life at least in part to Charles Darwin's work. To demonize him while at the same time hoping to make use of modern medicine is the height of hypocrisy.

So, reflect on the fact that today is the birthday of a scientist who literally changed the world through his work. If you enjoy your lifestyle, you owe him a debt of gratitude.

*For those who claim that evolution is "just a theory", go here so that you'll stop sounding like an idiot when you dismiss scientific theories.

**Leaving aside the very small number of scientists (I think there's a total of about five) who cling to the failed hypothesis of "intelligent design" (and yes, contrary to what Ben Stein would have you believe, it's a hypothesis that has been tested, and has failed right out the starting gate because it is based entirely upon shaky assumptions), there are legitimate, responsible scientists who don't necessarily doubt the theory of evolution by descent with modification, but find it insufficient in certain areas. Whether their work will simply require the modification and tweaking of the theory, as has been routinely happening, or will introduce new and more interesting underlying principles to the development of life has yet to be seen. However, it's interesting stuff, but it seems to no more represent a threat to the theory of evolution than the discovery of quantum physics is a threat to classical gravity theory in physics. In other words, evolution is well-accepted int he scientific community, where it forms the bedrock of biology.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

This Site Makes No Sense...Damn, That's Cool!

I am having fun writing an excavation report.

That's right, it's fun.

The reason why it is fun is that the site makes very little sense. The raw materials for the tools at this site are off - good local stone is barely present, while stone imported from quite a distance is abundant. There is ample evidence of the manufacture and use of flaked stone tools, but the tools themselves are simply not present. The materials present on the site's surface indicate a small site where someone was doing little more than sharpening tools, but three feet below the surface are buried the remains of a residential base with evidence of a wide variety of activities - which is odd as the site is in an area which typically would be deflating (the soil eroding out away from the site) rather than accruing more there is something interesting happening in the site formation as well.

So, basically, the site is an oddball. The materials don't quite make sense using conventional models of raw material exchange and also of toolstone use. The site's geomorphology is wacky. And what is present on the surface of the site in no way reflects what is present below the surface. The site is an anomaly, it shows me a point of ignorance for myself (and, judging by my coworker's reactions, for them as well), and that is exciting.

Pretty much by definition, it's when we butt up against our own ignorance that we start learning something new. That's where archaeologists want to be, it's where our models and previous knowledge breaks down, and we're off on the trail of something new and more interesting.

Will this site be a ground-breaking discovery? Probably not, archaeological knowledge usually comes incrementally and this is simply one anomalous site, not yet evidence of a pattern. If more sites like this one are found, then they will probably require modifications of existing models of human behavior in the region rather then the whole-sale rejection of those models. Nonetheless, this site doesn't fit in with well-established patterns, which tells us that something was happening that we hadn't previously accounted for - probably something small and subtle, but something new nonetheless.

One of the most common things that pseudo-scientists say about real scientists is that we refuse to accept new information because it would conflict with our previously held beliefs. The opposite is, in fact, true. We love information that contradicts our previous beliefs, because it is only when we find such information that we know we are onto something. While this site is not going to cause anyone to rewrite the books on Californian archaeology, it does show us that even our best reconstructions of the past leave out subtle but important information, that we have been wrong in some way, and that is exciting. It's fun. This is what I got into archaeology for in the first place, and I am happy to have received this reminder when I need it most.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ahhhh, Youth......

I found this picture at this website. It just kinda' says it all.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Snow in the Mojave Desert

I spent the last two weeks working in the western Mojave Desert, surveying transmission line routes for Southern California Edison (you know, I gripe about clients, but SCE really has been a fantastic client - they pay on time, they have us supervised by other archaeologists who speak our language, and they work with the agencies rather than against them - and I am very happy that we have won a contract that pretty much promises our job security for the next couple of years).

So, we were in the Mojave Desert in the winter, and it snowed. In the desert. It was pretty damn cool.

So, here's some photos of the fieldwork. I hope you enjoy them.

The Joshua Tree against the snow:

And now some snow-covered mountains:

And now, perhaps, some odd but pleasant clouds, plus a shot of John actually working while I take pretty pictures:

And, of course, artifact photos, check out the Prince Albert in a Can:

The black stuff in the top photo - that's slag, melted brick. This is from a site with a boiler - a brick structure that housed a furnace for powering a steam engine - and the temperatures would get hot enough to melt the bricks over time.

And it's interesting to note that sodas have now been around long enough to qualify as artifacts in archaeological sites - and because of the changing corporate logos over time, they are great for determining the age of the sites:

Friday, February 5, 2010

Not a REAL Christian

There is a very odd, but unnerving, phenomenon that I have seen my entire life, but which has only started to really bother me recently (because, well, I can be kinda' dense), and I was prompted to write this by a conversation I overheard while in a Coffee shop in Lancaster earlier this week. This phenomenon of which I speak is the tendency for members of a religion to point to other members of the same religion who simply aren't in lock-step with them, and shout "they are not a real member of the faith!" In the U.S., it's most common to hear that someone is a fake Christian so that's what I'll speak of directly here, but you'll also hear it used to refer to members of other religions as well.

Now, I'm an outsider to all religions, so it may strike you as odd that this would bother me. However, this bothers me for a few reasons. The first reason is that it is simply arrogant - yeah, that doesn't affect me, but it annoys me. Really, the only way to know that someone is not a true Christian is to know that they don't believe in Jesus, and are therefore, by definition, not a Christian. Otherwise, you may take issue with their view of Christianity, but it's astoundingly arrogant to claim that they are not Christian simply because they disagree with you on issues of charity, gay rights, war, gun ownership (yes, I've actually heard this one, I didn't know that Jesus was overly concerned with firearms, it must be in the Apocrypha), acceptance of scientific discoveries, etc. etc.

Most of the time, the arguments are either over issues that the Bible doesn't directly mention or is vague about, or issues where, based on the Bible, you could argue many different points of view. However, most people have a set of beliefs based on their experience and/or the teachings of their particular clergy, and they are unwilling to accept that someone who believes in the same scripture that they do might interpret it another way. It really frustrates me to see people fight over the "true meaning" where there are, based on the criteria they themselves outline, multiple legitimate stances. I always have this urge to scream "if you kid's don't stop fighting in the back seat, I'm turning this theology round, and we're going right back home!"

Another reason why it bothers me is that the logician in me gets ruffled. I have yet to see someone accuse another of not being a "true Christian" who is not cherry-picking the Bible just as much as the person at whom they are throwing accusations. The Bible is a large, complicated book, and people have been pulling out what they like and ignoring the rest for as long as there has been organized Christianity (and I have to imagine that the same happened with the Jewish peoples before there was a Christianity). So, it really annoys me when I see people hypocritically attack other people for doing the same thing that the attacker is doing.

Quite simply, if a modern Christian wasn't cherry-picking the Bible, they would not be living anything like a modern westerner does. The restrictions and requirements of the religion as laid out in the New Testament simply don't allow for many of the excesses that are a normal part of life in the U.S. and western Europe - and I am talking about things that we all take for granted, such as having enough personal wealth to own a television, a car, a large house, etc. etc. So, when someone accuses another of not being Christian for cherry-picking the Bible, I always want to ask them how that beam in their own eye is doing.

Another aspect of this that sticks in my craw is that it is, quite simply, cheating. If two people are arguing for different positions using the same source material, then it is fair for them to do two things: 1) they can agree to disagree and go on about life, or 2) they can debate and hash it out until they either reach consensus or go back to the first option. So, when someone simply says "well, they're not a real Christian", this is essentially just a cheat, a way of saying "don't confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up!" Essentially, it is the person making the accusation abandoning responsibility for having to defend their position, and then is blaming the other person for the poor behavior of the accuser. It's basically just a form of bullying.

A more practical reason for this to bother me, however, is simply this: it removes social predictability, which is necessary for trust. When someone turns on their own with rage and vitriol over points of religious dispute, I have no way of knowing that they won't turn on anyone else over other matters, especially when the matters over which they are fighting look completely arbitrary to an outsider. Simply put, it makes it difficult to trust someone on other issues when they would rather cast out and attack their brethren who have legitimate disagreements over issues that seem strange or convoluted to an outsider. If someone who generally agrees with them is considered a hated "other", then how will they view someone who has less in common?

In truth, of course, over the years I have found that I can trust some of these folks and that their ire is, for a variety of reasons, directed primarily at their religious fellows. But I have found that my relations with them have always been a bit stressed, as I don't know what will set them off, and as I agree with them on less than those at home they are angry...well, it's a difficult situation to navigate.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

William Shatner, Possibly the Coolest Guy 'Round

When the hell did William Shatner become cool? I mean, really, what the hell? When did he become so damn cool?

I mean, I have long wanted to ask John Edwards this:

...and then, there's the fact that I have always wanted to say this:

...and, really, you just can't beat this song:

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Past as the Present

One of the fastest ways to really piss people off is to inform that that their favored view of history is wrong. We use history as a mythology to explain (or proclaim) who we are, and to make claims as to what our proper course of action should be.

If you don't believe me, try telling a fundamentalist Christian that many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were not Christian, or try telling a politically-motivated secularist that a number of them were, in fact, Christian. Sit back and watch the orgy of invective ensue. One side will scream that the founders were all Christians (usually implying that the Christianity was of a decidedly 20th/21st century form) and that they created the U.S.A. as a "Christian Nation" (thus proving that these people have little knowledge of the history of the nation, and even less knowledge of the Constitution that is the basis of its law), while the other side will insist that the founders were deists, not Christians, and that they intentionally created a secular nation (the simple fact of the matter is that the founders were a religiously diverse group, though the secular nation part is actually backed by the Constitution - which only mentions religion only twice, both times forbidding government interference or endorsement - read it here and here if you don't believe me, look for the part that makes the U.S. a Christian nation - it isn't there).

Why so much grief over what these people believed over two centuries ago?

Because the argument isn't about the past, it's about the present. People who want to be able to force their religion on others cling to the fiction of a group of founders who were entirely Christian and who wished for a Christian nation because this lets them feel that history is on their side, and that they are simply fulfilling our forefather's will. By contrast, those who oppose them are also clinging to a fiction in an attempt to discredit their opponents and claim that their opponents are "dangerously un-American."

The truth of the matter is rather more complicated. The "Founding Fathers" itself is a vague term, and may refer to all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence as well as the delegates to the Constitutional Convention (a list of whom can be found here), or it may be used to refer to a sub-set, depending on the intentions of the person identifying the Founding Fathers. The entire group is large and composed of people of a wide variety of political, religious, and social views. It includes both Christians and deists, as well as atheists and people who defy religious description. Members of the group wrote a good deal about their views on the role of religion in government, and someone who wants to cherry-pick can easily find something that supports their views, provided that they ignore everything else that is relevant to the discussion. From a legal/government standpoint, all of that pales in comparison to the fact that these people all eventually agreed to a Constitution, intended as the law of the land, that separated the government and religion.

From a social mythology standpoint, however, the actual fact of what is written in the Constitution matters little, what is more important is the question of the beliefs of the Founding Fathers. And so, here we are, with two competing mythologies, one which portrays the Founding Fathers as entirely Deist, the other of which portrays them as entirely Christian. Both are false, but that doesn't remove the power of these stories amongst those ready to accept them. Those who cling to the Deist myth are afraid that acknowledgement of Christian founders will result in a theocratic takeover, and a loss of legitimacy to secularist positions. Meanwhile, those who buy the myth of a Christian founding are afraid that acknowledgement of the rather more complex founding, and the decidedly secular nature of the Constitution will erode their own religious rights. And so these two sides continue to fight, never having any hope of conclusion or victory because both are too blinded by the politics of the present to honestly evaluate the past.

While this sort of thing is most visible in church/state separation fights, it is common in many other public historical narratives. I have written before about the White and Black legends of Spanish colonization of the Americas. Both the white Legend of Spanish benevolence and the Black Legend of Spanish malfeasance are rooted in modern politics and mores, rather than in a fair accounting of the historical record. The same can be said for the competing narratives regarding the spread of Christianity/quashing of Paganism in the Roman Empire, the heroism or villainy of figures such as Christopher Columbus, the glory or evil of Manifest Destiny, even questions as to whether or not Keynesian economics helped lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression, etc. etc.

History is a vast and very complicated mosaic. There are many reasons to study it - it's interesting for one thing, but it can also provide clues as to what our problems are and how to solve or avoid them. History is also a source for ideological mythology. This is a fact that was well understood by the early historians - the Roman historian Livy, for example, made no bones about the fact that he was more interested in telling a story that glorified Rome than in telling one that was accurate. Livy understood the power of a mythological past, and we should probably be grateful that, unlike most modern spinners of myths, he was at least open about the fact that he was doing this, allowing us to more easily take what he said with a grain of salt.

Likewise, governments have long understood the value of history as myth. It's a rare nation that hasn't endorsed an official account of the past, which is never an accurate account. Totalitarian governments even go so far as to outlaw non-official versions (there are numerous accounts of historian and archaeologists running afoul of Stalin's government, and Hitler was just as certain to go after academics as to go after active dissidents, just to give two examples), indeed, the fact that academics are able to publish unpopular accounts of the past is not only evidence that they are probably giving accurate accounts (the truth is rarely as favorable or condemning as most people want it to be), but also that our society truly is a free one.

Most responsible researchers can not get away from their own perspectives, but responsible researchers are aware of that and fill their books and articles with qualifiers and references to aid the reader in evaluating the arguments. When you are fed a historical narrative by members of your social group, or leaders of your political party, or political activists (whether you're a fan of the Green Party or of the Tea Party), or clergy, or industry leaders...well, you get the very skeptical of what they are telling you. Odds are that their account of the past is more about what they want in the present than what truly occurred.