The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Cinema of Pain

Okay, a detour from the usual talk.  This one is just for fun...

Every now and again, I meet someone who informs me that they have seen the worst film ever made.  They will then go on at great length about how some big-budget, low-concept film is well and truly terrible, and it wouldn't be possible to make a movie that's worse than it.  Or, perhaps it's one of those people who has heard that Plan 9 From Outer Space is the worst film ever made, and is actually gullible enough to believe this.

Whenever this happens, I chuckle, look at the person who announced that they have found the worst movie ever, and announce "my DVD collection can hurt you."

I have stated before that I enjoy B-movies, so it will probably come as no surprise to anyone who is a regular reader that I have racked up a fair number of bad movie notches on my television side over the years.  Whenever the person who announced that Wild Wild West was just too terrible for words insists on their point, I try to show them one of the films below.  If you enjoy crappy movies, then you probably already know about these.  If not, then proceed with caution.

I've included the trailers for all of these movies, but be warned - if you watch the trailer and think "that doesn't look so bad", it is because trailers are mareting tools, and one is can be designed to make a movie look significantly better than it really is.

Manos the Hands of Fate

Probably best known as an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, this is allegedly a horror movie.  It was made by a fertilizer salesman, Harold Warren, who thought that audiences were stupid enough that any crap he put on screen would satisfy them.  He was proven very, very wrong.

On the one hand, many of the people involved as actors and crew apparently were proud of their work and really tried, and so it's a bit of a backhand to laugh at them.  On the other hand, the overall artisitic vision was provided by someone who was apparently something of a dick who thought that he was the smartest man in the country and the only one who would know that this film was dreck, so laughing at the film feels kind of good in that way.

This movie centers on a family (father, mother, and daughter) who are trying to find their way to a hotel, and eventually end up at a place called the Valley Lodge.  The caretaker of the Valley Lodge, Torgo (a fawn, but limited makeup results in him simply looking like Arlo Guthrie with huge knees), tells the family that they can not stay there, but the man (who is played by the fertilizer salesman - so he cast himself as the star of his movie as well...tells you a bit, don't it) insists that they stay despite the caretaker's wishes and unloads their luggage. 

Over the course of the evening, Torgo falls for the wife, the Master (Torgo's boss, a demon or sorceror who looks like Frank Zappa) awakens and decides that the wife and daughter (who was around 5 years old) would make fine additions to his harem, and the man who got his family into this mess is pursued by allegedly demonic dobermens before being turned into the new caretaker.  Oh, and for no apparent reason the viewer is treated to routine check-ins on a couple who are making out in a sports car and have nothing to do with the plot.

The script is bad, the production values nonexistent, the implications of demon-induced sexual slavery and pedophilia icky and disturbing, and the film was done without audio, so all of the voices are dubbed in by two or three people after the fact.  This one is bad.  Bad, bad bad.  Not the worst movie I have ever seen, but still pretty terrible.

The trailer:

The Galaxy Invader

Contrary to the title, no galaxies were at any point invaded during this movie. 

This is a micro-budget movie produced by Don Dohler, a Maryland-based film maker who made many low-budget grindhouse-level movies (back when Grindhouse referred to low-budget quickie/cheap films and not hipster film makers trying to "get back to their roots").  One the one hand, make no mistake, this is a bad movie from almost every standpoint - the acting is amatuerish (probably because it is filled with amateur actors), the budget is nonexistent, and the dialogue is often laughable, and even the film stock is poor...but Dohler didn't seem to be under any illusions as to the type of film that he was making, and while the movie is bad, it's also fun, and fun in a way that I suspect Dohler would have approved of. 

The basic premise of the movie is that an alien spaceship has crash-landed on earth, and the alien has lost his gun and power source in the crash.  A college student and professor witness the crash, as do a set of good ol' boys (led by a guy who comes across as a drunken, over-sexed redneck Jimmy Stewart wearing a permanently torn white t-shirt) who find the gun and power source, all the while the alien (while searching for the lost items) goes on a killing spree.  Although the film seems to want to make this into a treasure hunt/game of cat-and-mouse between the science crew and team redneck, that never quite gels, and instead it seems like two completely different movies that are spliced together without rhyme or reason.  Meanwhile, we are supposed to feel some sympathy for the alien, but as it seems more interested in killing innocent people than in getting its stuff back, that's difficult.  Weirdly, the most satisfying part of the movie is the family drama amongst the would-be-Jimmy Stewart's relations, which resolves in a way that is both hilariously poorly done and nonetheless actually rather satisfying. 

The film is probably best known for providing the clips that were (for no apparent reason) used in the opening and closing credits of another low-budget movie, The Pod People (which featured no pods, and arguably no real people, despite its title), which ended up on Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Incidentally, the only person who has managed to site through the full film with me is my good friend Liberty.  Libby is also a professor of literature, meaning that she may be teaching your children the finer points of the greatest writing in the English language, but she's warped enough to enjoy something like this.  I have the coolest friends.

The trailer:

Highlander II - The Quickening

This is one of the few blockbuster, major-release, studio films that really is just as bad as it's made out to be.  Most of them are bad, but bad in a "come 10 years, people will forget that this movie was ever made" bad...Highlander II, however, is both hilarious (at least initially, see below) and legendary in its badness.  There are worse films, to be certain, but they weren't made by major studios working with an existing franchise with some well-known actors.  And so, as a friend of mine likes to say, Highlander II has probably the highest money-to-suck ratio of any film ever made. 

Now, some people will insist that, yes this movie doesn't really work with the story established in the original Highlander, but it's pretty good if taken as its own piece of work.  These people are wrong.

Some people will insist that the theatrical release or the television edit or the original video release were bad, but if you see the director's cut (AKA the Renegade Version because the director thought that using the term "renegade" made his movie sound badass rather than just plain bad) or the producer's cut.  These people are deeply deluded and in need of immediate psychiatric help.

It's worth noting that one of the later (and also terrible) Highlander films actually explained this one away as a fever dream had by the film's "hero" Connor MacLeod.  Yeah, a crappy movie in an increasingly crappy franchise even tries to disown this one.

At its core, Highlander II's problem is that its basic premise, that an alien (or time-displaced, depending on which version you're seeing) warlord comes to Earth (or the future, again depending on which version you are seeing) to prevent his arch-nemesis from returning to the Planet Zeist (or the distant past), makes no sense as the hero (such as he is) of the film has made it clear that he has no method of transportation or intention of going to Planet Zeist (or the distant past) to challenge the warlord (I like parentheticals).  Even the warlord's lackeys point this out!  Out of this nonsensical plot, add in an evil corporation that has no clear way of making profits off of it's only product, the fact that the "love interest" falls for a guy apparently because she saw him regain youth through decapitating someone (which you would think would be her cue to avoid him), and Sean Connery of all people using his "life force" energy to zap evil ceiling fans...and, well, there's just no way that this movie could be anything but bad. 

I love watching bad movies, but Highlander II begins to have a numbing effect after a while.  It is so bad that, at about the halfway mark, it ceases to be fun and starts to get boring.  If you watch it in bite-sized chunks, it remains fresh and entertaining in its own bizarre way, but trying to watch it straight through actually sucks the fun out of the bad movie experience. 

There are many big-budget major releases that get labelled as the "worst movie ever" (Ishtar, North, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Gigli, etc.), but Highlander II has all of these beat.  Anybody who is so sheltered as to think that Gigli is as bad as a movie-going experience can get is likely to be killed by exposure to Highlander II.

For the hardened lover of the cinema du crap, however, Highlander II can provide some great post-movie jokes to crack with your friends.  Indeed, 2-hours of crappy movie lead to a 10+ hour session of making jokes about the movie with one of my college room mates.

A detailed, and wonderfully funny, scene-by-scene review of Highlander II can be found at Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension.

The trailer:

Flowers in the Attic

Like Highlander II, Flowers in the Attic is one of the few major release films (and an adaptation of a popular novel) that is pretty much just as bad as it's reputation holds.  The premise: a woman who married her uncle has been widowed and is financially ruined, and is coming home to her parent's house in order to make ammends and get back in her sick father's will.  As he considered her marriage sinful (for obvious reasons), she must prevent him from knowing about the children she had with her uncle/husband.  So, the children are locked away, and slowly poisoned, until the oldest twins (who it is implied have begun their own incestuous relationship) break free and kill the mother.

If you think that sounds over the top, I have been told by those who have read them that the novels on which the movie is based have exactly the same plot, but that the incest is much more blatant and graphic, and includes elements of sibling-on-sibling rape (which is is later stated that the victim enjoyed).  Oh, and these books were popular in the 80s with teenagers who are now taking on leadership roles in our society.  Let that sink in a bit, and then shudder and weep for humanity's future.

What saves us from the ick factor in this movie is the sheer ineptitude.  The dialogue is both ham fisted and hilarious, and the delivery is truly awful.  Kristy Swanson, the star, speaks like a robot version of Keanu Reeve.  Oh, and the make-up effects for the "sick children make them look like Oompa-Loompa mimes.  It's really something to behold.

A personal note:  When I was a kid, my sisters loved this movie, which they were introduced to by a friend of our mothers (some friend).  They would rent it on a routine basis and would get upset to the point of physical violence if you pointed out that it was a bad movie.  They even were convinced that Kristy Swanson's performance was a thing of beauty.  Now none of them admit to having liked it, and all of them insist that it was one of the others who wanted to rent it all of the time...but the truth is, it was all three of them.

Once again, Jabootu provides a hilarious scene-by-scene review.

And, the trailer for this schlock:


This Swedish/North American/African co-production is so terrible that I wasn't allowed to view it until I had completed my hazmat training.

The basic premise, clearly inspired by E.T. (which was actually, you know, good): a pair of energy-based life forms are flying through the cosmos and come too close to Earth.  One of them, Nukie, decides to buzz the planet out of a sheer desire to joyride.  This results in the other alien crashing, and being captured by the U.S. military.  Nukie lands in Africa, and begins a trek to recover his brother before he dies at the hands of evil scientists.

Now, with this premise, you would have a difficult time making a great movie (though this could be done), but you could easily make a decent movie, one that was fun, enjoyable, and provided you with a passable way to spend 90 minutes.  Instead we end up with a movie that is truly awful.  The writing alternates between hackneyed and hysterically bad.  The special effects are "special" in the same way that the surface of the sun is cold and wet.  And the acting...oh, the acting.  In a turdball film like this, it is usually difficult to figure out what the worst aspect is, but in Nukie, it's the acting.  Now, mind you, this movie could have been cast entirely with the greatest actors ever to have lived, and it would still have been awful, but with these actors, it crosses over into a very strange type of bad that I had not previously thought possible.

To accurately describe the acting in this film, I have to provide you with the following:  Imagine that you have a set of sub-par animatronic puppets that are constructed for Disneyland's cheap Bakersfield knock-off Darbyland.  Now imagine that the local community theater group were to take acting lessons that consisted entirely of watching these knock-off animatronic puppets.  You now have a very rough idea of just how bad the acting in Nukie really is.

The trailer:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wedding Rocks

Over the weekend, a friend of Kaylia's got married (or, actually, had a wedding ceremony - she actually got married at a courthouse ceremony several months ago).  After I dropped Kaylia off at the Bride's hotel, I had a bit of time to myself before heading over to the beach at which the ceremony was to be held. 

When I finally headed over to the wedding spot, it was cool (many of the attendees do not share my affinity for cooler weather and would have termed it "cold"), overcast, and misty.  Not precisely brilliant weather for a wedding - though Kaylia had warned the couple that this was likely to be the case when, over a year earlier, they first stated that they wanted to have a wedding on the beach in Monterey County in September*.  I brought my folding chairs onto the beach and placed them where they were supposed to go (yep, everyone had to bring their own chairs ot the wedding).  And then I sat and played chess on my cell phone while I waited for the ceremony to start.  While I sat, a woman (who I later saw was offciating at the ceremony) walked up with a back of rocks, and asked me to take one, which I did.  I was a bit confused - during past ceremonies, I have been provided with bags of rice to throw at the couple after the ceremony, but this seemed a bit odd.  I looked up at the woman who handed it to me and asked "so, we're supposed to throw rocks at the couple after the ceremony?"

She chuckled nervously, and said ", no, we're not asking you to stone them."

"You sure?  Because, I have to tell you, I have lousy aim, so I'll need to get REEEEEAAAALLLLL close..."

"No.  You are not to throw rocks at the couple!"

Anyway, the wedding occurred, and the entire time I was sitting with this rock in my hand, wondering just what the Hell, exactly, I was supposed to do with it if not use it as an offensive weapon.  Towards the end of the ceremony, all of the guests and hostages were asked to rise, walk through the arch, and place the rocks into a container filled half-way with sand, as the rocks were now "infused with our love and good wishes."  So, basically, we made a rather heavy good luck charm (which, admittedly, it would be fun to watch one member of the couple attempt to carry around on their key chain). 

When I was in graduate school, one of the professors had a habit of describing a situation that he had witnessed or that he had read about in an ethnographic or historical text, and then asking us to describe what the materials remains of such an event would look like should we find them in an archaeological site.  And so, I found myself  considering this good-luck-charm-of-DOOM (GLCD) and wondering what I would make of it if I had found it in a site.

The GLCD was comprised of a round glass container about 6 inches wide and a foot tall, rather like a huge drinking glass, that had been filled up halfway with sand.  The guests then piled rocks on top of the sand, filling the container much of the rest of the way.  Now assuming that I found it in a context where it was clear what this had been (either the glass container survived intact or the pieces of glass were arranged around the sand and rocks in such a way that it was clear that a glass container had once held them), I'm not sure what I would make of it.  The sand was from a beach in the Monterey Bay area, and of a sort that is a bit unusual for sand in that region, so I'd probably be able to work out where the sand had come from.  The rocks, though, came out of a bag of rocks purchased from a store (who knew such things were sold..why they are sold is still a bit baffling to me, are there places that are throwing-size rock deficient?) and were not of local materials.

Now, if I were to find such an item without any knowledge of other similar items, I might think it was simply decorative (not really correct), religious (quasi-correct), or I might think that it represented something having to do with travel or settlement (focusing on the potential symbolism of local sand covered by imported rocks...very much not correct).  I probably wouldn't be able ot figure out that it was a charm created as part of a wedding ceremony because, hey, I would have no information even pointing in that direction.

If, by contrast, it were a common item, and I found it only in the homes of couples and families, I would likely think that it was an item either granted to a couple or made by the couple as part of a "life crisis"** ritual for their marriage (which would be true), but I would likely still get caught up on the symbolism of the sand and the rocks, trying to figure out why there were local sands and foreign rocks, and probably concluding that this was a show that people from different areas were marrying and that the item symbolized their union (incorrect).

In other words, I would be stumped, which was often the point that my old professor was trying to make - always show some humility, because the materials record is usually incomplete and there's always a strong likelihood that you got it wrong and are barking up the wrong tree.

*Really, when you know a local who is willing to tell you about the area, it is best to accept that their assessment of the local weather conditions is likely ot be more accurate than your fantasy.  Just syain'...

**The term "life crisis" is used by social scientists to refer to events that alter one's status within the community and/or one's personal/home life - this includes coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage, childbirth, and death (which, really, isn't a life crisis so much as, you know, death).  In most societies, many, if not all, of these events are marked with rituals.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cern, Neutrinos, and Good Science

So, you may have heard that scientists at CERN found Nuetrinos moving faster than the speed of light, something that should be impossible according to Einstein's Theory of Relativity.  The thing is, it's not certain that they actually observed that, and for all the time that the media spends talking up the discovery, the researchers have been much less certain.  They have stated that their work appears to show that the neutrinos can move faster than the speed of light, but they have released their data and have requested that other scientists confirm their results and try to replicate their experiments to make sure.  While they did annoucne this to the press, it was after careful internal review of their data, and the simultaneously provided their data to the research community at large rather than claiming to have made a massive discovery and hiding or falsifying the data.

This is how good science works.  Contrast this with the way that various other groups do it: creationists (both of the young-Earth and the Intelligent Design camps), global warming deniers, vaccine deniers, cold fusion enthusiasts, etc. etc.  They find a study that seems to vindicate their position, don't look too closely at the study itself or the reasons why it was put together (media attention?  money to be made?), declare that it is the "final word" on the subject (even when it clearly is not - Andrew Wakefield supporters anyone?), and then refuse to engage with critics in any meaningful way.  How many times has someone announced that their idea will replace dominant scientific thought and overthrow "the dominant paradigm"...only to fade into the background. 

By contrast, these scientists (whose work actually could overthrow - or at least greatly change - the dominant models) are requesting that others check their work and make sure that it is correct.  They are well aware that they may have made a mistake, and they want someone to find it as they have failed to do so.  They are, in short, well aware of their responsibilities, and are looking to make sure that they are not fooling themselves.

That is good science.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Racial Realism?

I was recently introduced to a new, and rather disturbing, term - "Race Realists" The concept of human race was once considered something of a fixed and real biological thing - with three major divisions (representing peoples from Europe, Asia, and Africa), and then many sub-divisions among these.

Now, most scientists hold that it is more of a cultural construction - that is, the way that people are grouped into races (based on skin color, hair type, facial morphology, etc.) is due to flukes of history rather than significant or meaningful biological differences, and the way in which we divide people up into racial groups is based more on cultural norms and ideals than on any actual biological information or model. The traits used to divide people into racial categories are often essentially arbitrary and based on what were the common traits in a given region as of a few centuries ago. Those who argue that there is a real biological phenomenon at work still tend to point out that the variation between races tends to be A) a result of historic geography (and therefore fluid and changing) and B) have as an end-result a tendency to create what could be called statistical "clumps" of traits - traits are more common in some groups than in others, but can be expressed in groups not generally associated with those traits.

The "Race Realists" (I refuse to use that term without scare quotes, as there is nothing realistic about these people), by contrast, believe that race is both a real biological phenomenon (that is, they tend to deny that there is social construction at work here) and that it is a reliable predictor of various traits (though they tend to focus on intelligence). The information that the "Race Realists" tend to cite is a handful of studies that show IQ differences between different ethnic groups, and a mish-mash of biological and anthropological studies on racial differences as well as polls showing the attitudes of anthropologists and biologists regarding the concept of race as a biological reality. Oh, and it's not uncommon for them to simply lie and claim that the studies and polls reach conclusions that they don't actually reach (for a good description of the problems with one particular "Race Realists" views, go here...and as the keeper of that blog, a fellow anthropologist, points out, the technical term for what the "Race Realists" are doing is biological reductionism).

There are a number of problems with the concept of race as a biological fact, and most of these are addressed at the blog linked to above, but I want to talk about a few specific problems here, as well as the apparent reason why people adopt the "racial realist" stance. The basic problem with the "Race Realist" stance is that ethnicity is, by its very nature, fluid. To explain why, though, requires a bit of basic biological background.

When a group of people splinters off from a larger population and leaves to occupy a new area, they carry with them a sub-set of the genes of the larger population, and (assuming that they are relatively isolated from the larger population) their descendants will resemble the members of the splinter population more than the larger population that spawned the splinter group. This is the Founder's Effect. So, if a group of colonists from the Red-Headed League leaves Ghoofiland, then the descendants of these colonists will have a larger number of redheads amongst them than the population of Ghoofiland did - the descendants of the original colonists will not be entirely redheads, as they will have carried the genes for other hair colors as well, but there sure will be a butt-load more redheads among the colonists' descendants than among the people of Ghoofiland.

Another matter that comes into play is genetic drift. This is the tendency for certain traits to become more or less common within a population due to random sampling. So, let's say that brown eyes start to become more common among the colonists, after a few generations there is a colony that has a larger number of brown-eyed redheads than one would expect in Ghoofiland.

Then, of course, there's selection. Perhaps the colonists have occupied a location that is rife with insects that carry a particular disease, let's call it Rubenitis, and say that it results in a chronic condition that involves lethargy and speech impairments. Some of the colonists carry a gene that gives them some resistance to Rubenitis, allowing them to go about their daily business while some of their fellows are having to routinely lay in bed while having a hard time conveying information to those around them. The ones who don't have the chronic condition will have more time and luck finding mates, and therefore their genes will be spread at a faster rate than those without the resistance. So, even elements that aren't directly linked to disease resistance (say, skin tone - many of those with the resistance have a slightly bluish tinge to their skin) will increase in frequency.

After several generations, the colonists begin to look a bit different from the people of Ghoofiland. Given a long enough amount of time, they will look and behave (remember, culture is also changing in both populations) differently enough that they will be considered (and likely come to consider themselves) a completely different ethnicity, or "race" to use the term in the way that the "Race Realists" tend to. Are there biological differences between the groups? Yes, there are cosmetic differences such as frequencies in hair color, eye color, and skin tone, as well as functional differences such as frequencies in resistance to disease...but these are differences in the frequency of genes and in phenotypes (the observable expressions of those genes - two organisms with the same set of genes may have different behaviors or traits if the environment forces different gene expression), each population still has most of the same genetic material (allowing that some new genes may have occurred due to mutations in either population), just in different frequencies, and each lives in different environments resulting in the shared genes potentially being expressed in different ways.

So, we now have two different races of people. What happens when they meet, say because technological change allows rapid transportation between their different homelands? Well, if history is any guide, they may or may not come into conflict, but they will definitely interbreed. In interbreeding, they will change the gene frequencies (and hence appearance) of both populations. The interbreeding may be slow, but over time it will change both populations significantly. If there are social taboos against interbreeding, this will slow it further, but if history is any guide, it will not stop it.

When we look at the modern world, we see several populations that sprang from the same stock population in Africa, and eventually went on to populate the rest of the continents (okay, Antarctica excepted). Some of these populations are more closely related to each other than others, but we ultimately have the same basic process as described above, just played out ona grand scale of both geography and time. However, all human populations are still so similar to each other that we can, and do, have viable children with each other, and we are, slowly but surely, changing the gene frequencies in every part of the world. Racial categories that once made perfect sense due to the relative isolation of populations are now thought of as nationalities, because the populations are no longer isolated and are intermixed. While there are still likely to be definite phenological differences between someone plucked out of the middle of Europe and someone plucked out of the middle of Africa, the populations are converging at a slow but definite rate. That's not to say that there will, someday, be only one ethnicity, likely something will occur that will restore isolation (wars, societal collapse, etc.), but the populations that are isolated this time will be different than those from the last time, with different biological and cultural traits. In other words, even if they call themselves the same things, there will be different races from the standpoint of genetic and phenotypic variation.

And this is nothing new, one need only read some of the old Roman or Greek histories to see that there were once distinct populations throughout the Mediterannean that have since merged with other populations, creating new ethnicities. Race/ethnicity have always been fluid. Okay, so, even if there are biological races (which is debatable, as there is no clear way that one would decide when a person was a member of one race and not another, as we are talking about gene frequencies not markers of certainty - the very concept of "biological race" is murky at best), that doesn't mean that these represent any sort of distribution of traits such as intelligence.

That being said, is it possible that variations in genetic and phenotypic frequencies may also result in variations in intelligence? Maybe, but there are problems with that assertion. The definition of intelligence is a slippery term. We typically use it to mean the ability to aggregate data and engage in abstract thought in order to plan, process, and interact with the world. Seems straightforward, right? Humans are clearly more intelligent than hamsters. Humans are clearly more intelligent than dogs. But when we start comparing humans to each other, it gets muddy. Is a master chess player - clearly someone possessing a skill set requiring great intelligence as applied to mastering a rule-set and thinking ahead - more intelligent than a well-connected socialite - someone who has had to master a skill set requiring planning and thinking ahead in interacting with other people? To answer that question, we would have to decide that one set of skills requires a greater degree or type of intelligence than the other, which may not be the case. The chess player is likely better at dealing with systems and rules, but the socialite has to be able to engage in situations which are much less predictable and prone to sudden change. Both are displaying a high degree of intelligence, but applied in different ways, and possibly even different types of intelligence. So, is one more intelligent than the other? Hard to say, and the question might actually be completely meaningless when applied in this way. What's more, there is evidence that intelligence, in this sense, is somewhat malleable, and that someone can actually improve it by their actions and education. Also, there is strong evidence that intelligence is tied to issues such as nutrition, conditions during pregnancy, and early childhood, all of which are highly dependent on things not tied in to genes but to physical and social environment. So, your ethnicity may have much less to do with your intellectual capacities than do your parents level of affluence or poverty.

Most of the "Race Realists" like to cite studies showing IQ differences amongst ethnic groups. On the surface, the use of IQ seems ideal, as it measures a few specific skills and provides an overall quotient for the person taking the test. There are a few very serious problems, however. The first is that the simple act of taking a test - while most of us who attended schools in the U.S. and Europe don't think of it as such, test taking itself is a skill, and people can be trained to perform better on tests without actually knowing more about the subject of the test. So, if you compare a group of people who have attended affluent suburban schools with regular testing to people who have attended poorer inner-city schools with less regular or rigorous testing, you should expect the people from the suburbs to perform better not because they are necessarily more intelligent, but because they are more accustomed to (and trained for) taking tests.

Another problem is that the tasks and the questions within an IQ test are not devoid of their own cultural context - they reflect, from the actual tasks or questions chosen to the way that they are worded, the background of the people making the test (despite the best efforts of these individuals to eliminate this), and that means that the closer you are in social class and culture to the makers of the test, the less time and energy you are likely to spend trying to decipher what a question means are how a task should be performed. And when you start looking into studies of IQ across ethnicities, these types of issues tend to show up time and again, meaning that the results of the studies, while interesting and potentially of value, should not necessarily be taken to reflect a biological rather than social reality.

So, the case for biological race is a shaky one, and the claims that there are distinct intelligence difference between races even more so. So, why are the "Race Realists" even making these claims?

Well, many (probably most) of them are, of course, just good old-fashioned racists. They have heard that there is a new set of arguments that they can use to try to justify their existing bigotries, so they are jumping on them. But it's just a post-hoc rationalization for their old prejudices.

Others, though, are a bit more complicated. For basic historical reasons, there are a disproportionate number of people of African and Native American descent within the U.S. and Europe who are impoverished. There are many, admittedly often expensive, social programs aimed at trying to change this. If an argument can be made that the poor can not be helped, then that undercuts the programs and provides a rationalization for removing them altogether. Now, it should be said that the majority of people who oppose social programs do not engage in this sort of racist thinking - their oppositions are on philosophical or political grounds, and the ethnic make-up of the people affected by these programs doesn't enter into the matter for them (or if it does, it does so in a much more complex way than is often portrayed). However, there is a sub-set of people who are opposed to social programs who see using a notion of biological racial differences as a way of arguing against the usefulness of social programs, and therefore for eliminating the program - whether or not the impulse for grasping the argument is racist, the outcome most certainly is.

Now, many "Race Realists" would respond to what is written here by saying that, because of historical rather than scientific reasons, legitimate research into racial differences tends to be stifled and little reported. They might have a point, but their response is to exaggerate, misrepresent, and often lie about both the outcomes and the quality of the research that is available. You don't fill a gap in knowledge with ignorance and expect it to be respected.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Monitoring is, easily, one of the least appealing tasks in standard field archaeology. A monitor watches construction or other ground disturbing activity in order to ensure that no archaeological materials are disturbed. At best, the job is mind-numbing boredom while you watch construction workers and equipment move about the project area, and find nothing. At worst, it's an exercise in frustration and resisting intimidation as you stop construction work because something has been found, and the foreman fails to understand that you are just the messenger and that if he wishes to negotiate with someone about continuing work it will be someone higher up the food chain than you. Depending on what kind of work you are doing, you may also have to dodge heavy equipment that moves at relatively high speeds while putting up with veiled (and sometimes not-at-all veiled) threats from construction workers who have got it in their heads that you want to stop them working.

Five years ago (it was five years ago this week that I complete my Masters degree!), I had thought that having an MA meant that I never had to do this particularly form of drudgery again. In fact, the first project I was on after finishing my degree involved me supervising (that is, sending out and receiving reports from) monitors without me ever having to do it myself.

However, I was soon disabused of the notion that I was free.

Most of the time, I am sent out because we have a people shortage - the field technicians are all away on other projects and we need someone to monitor right now. Other times, however, I am sent because an agency has decided that all monitors will be required to have an MA - which is unnecessary and tends to result in qualified people without degrees losing out on work.

The last two times I have monitored, it has been on ground that not only has no known archaeological sites, but (for various reasons) can be confidently said to not have any sites. In one of these cases, I had to monitor construction on fill soils imported from elsewhere - in other words, no intact archaeological deposits were even possible. In this latter case, most of the people with whom I came into contact A) knew that it was fill soil, and B) therefore assumed that I had somehow managed to force my client to hire me (how I would do this was never explained) and did not believe that my presence was an agency requirement that I would have been happy to not have fulfilled, and as such I had to put up with the daily asshattery as people made comments insinuating that I was just some gold digger along for the ride.

And all of this is a long winded way of saying that I am currently monitoring yet again, and that is why I am not writing as often as I would like. I will hopefully be writing on a regular basis again soon, but it looks as if the flood gates have been opened, and I will be quite busy, so please understand if I am not as prolific as normal.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Myth, Meaning, and Popular History

From time to time, I find myself discussing Californian history with folks, and when the topic gets to the Spanish missions, it invariably results in me having to explain that the currently popular narrative (known in the field as the Black Legend) is an over-simplification, and should be assessed critically rather than taken at face value.

This typically results with the person with whom I am speaking assuming that I am an apologist for Spanish colonial activities, and that I think that the Spanish practices were good for the native peoples of California, which is odd as I am not an apologist and am better aware than most people about the impacts that the Spanish colonies had on native populations.

I also am familiar enough with the history, archaeology, and ethnography of my state to know that our view of what happened during the late 18th century and early 19th century in California is based more on legend and politics than on actual events. I have provided and overview of the effects of Spanish colonization before, so I'm not going to get into it in detail here. Suffice to say that while it did, without question, result in the decimation of the native populations, there were many factions amongst the Spanish, all behaving in different ways, and malice, good intentions, and obliviousness were all present in various measures amongst the European colonists. In other words, trying to simply paint the Spanish as a monolithic evil empire misses the very real, complex, and messy nature of the actual history.

However, it is rare that I can persuade someone to see it this way. Even when someone will agree that I am far more familiar than they with the documentation of the time period, and far more familiar with the ways that colonies have typically impacted native peoples the world over, they still refuse to accept that perhaps the mission system was a far more grey and complex institution than they usually want to believe. And very often, I will find a complex, well-thought out explanation of what was going on greeted with a strong sounding, but ultimately meaningless, response such as "well, there's alot of Indian graves in the missions!" - a fact that I had never denied, and for which I was trying to provide historical context.

I think that the reason for people's refusal to accept the complex realities of Spanish colonial activity are twofold:

1) Most people use history more as a mythology than as a description of the past. This is the reason why Religious Right groups want to claim that the founders were all Evangelical Christians, or many people want to believe that the term "rule of thumb" refers to a law allowing wife beating (when it does not), or many anti-immigration folks claim that Rome fell simply because it let too many foreigners in (it actually fell for a wide range of reasons, no single one doing the job on its own). History, when turned into mythology, allows us to orient ourselves, to justify our own position either by showing ourselves as being in line with great historical figures or else by contrasting ourselves with a brutal and evil past, often doing both with reference to different points in history. Regardless, in this way, history is less about factual accuracy and more about setting up good guys vs. bad guys, which leads to some very sloppy and muddled thinking about what actually occurred in our collective past.

2) Related to point #1, history is also viewed more as a story than as what actually occurred by much of the general public. This is why we tend to focus on the big moments or the major figures, and not on the trends and small details that often make all of the difference. For this reason, we want to see the single factor that caused Rome to fall; we want to believe that WWI was the only thing that killed the great empires (WWI did many of them in for good, but the reality is that the emerging nationalist movements and economic issues in the colonies had an effect even before the war); we want to believe that Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great fought and won wars, when the truth is that they led many individual soldiers who were, ultimately, the ones who fought and won (a general with no army is not a general, after all).

In this case, we can see the extraordinarily bad effects that colonization had on Native Californians, and we want to be caught up in the drama and see the native peoples purely as victims of a cruel and uncaring colonial power.

But reality never was black and white, and when we engage in this sort of thinking, we lose track of reality. Cackling, mustache-twirling villains are rare, but everyday people doing evil without being aware of it are common. When we forget this, we lose track of the fact that we, as a species, haven't changed. We are as capable of cruelty as the worst of the Spanish colonials, but we need to be aware of the real complexities of history to be able to keep that in mind and not do harm.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Impotent Shakespeare Rage

Sorry I haven't written in a while...field work, as usual. Anyway, back to the usual nonsense...

When I was in college, I worked in a clothing store with a fellow named Steve. Steve was very much into the local community theater, and one day began talking about the plays attributed to William Shakespeare*. Knowing only a small amount about the plays, I tried to make conversation by bringing up the one thing that I actually was aware of. I asked him what he thought of the claims that the plays were not written by Shaksepare, but by someone else entirely.

His response: "Oh, I know that they were really written by him."

I asked how he knew, expecting that he would provide an argument in favor of the position. His response to this was simply to say "I'm a theater person. Ask any theater person, we just know that he wrote them."

I pressed him on the point, figuring that he was claiming that being involved in theater meant that he had developed a special technical knowledge and that some aspect of the plays from a technical standpoint was consistent with one writer. When I asked this, he simply repeated "I'm a theater person. Ask any theater person, we just know that he wrote them."

That was it. He was saying that because he was involved in community theater in California during the late 20th century, this somehow influenced whether or not some guy in 16th century England wrote a set of plays. The notion that one's current interests somehow influence historical happenings is, of course, absurd. Regardless of whether or not the claims of false authorship has any merit, one's current after-work activities are completely irrelevant to the question, unless you happen to be a time-traveling theater critic (in which case, why was he selling cut-rate suits at a mall in Modesto?).

Since then, I have often used the "I'm in theater, therefore I know" conversation as an example of how one can reach a perfectly reasonable conclusion ("Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him") via stupid and sloppy reasoning ("I know because I have magical theater powers!"). But it was not the last time I would have essentially the same conversation. It wasn't always about the authorship of the plays, often it has been about the merits of Shakespeare as a writer. Since I worked with Steve, I have both read many of Shakespeare's plays and seen many, many productions. And while I can kinda' get why many people enjoy them, they aren't precisely my cup of tea. It seems to shock some people to learn that I have no problem at all understanding the language**, and yet I have never been particularly impressed with most of the plays - I have enjoyed some of them, and many of them are intellectually interesting even if I don't particularly enjoy them, but I am not particularly taken with the plays in general and have always been a bit lost on what all of the fuss is about.

Kaylia agrees with me, though as someone who is far more interested in the process of writing than I am, her indifference towards Shakespeare seems to have turned to a bit of antipathy due to years of having people insist that she must bow before the altar of the man from Stratford-on-Avon. I think it's rather like my antipathy towards Heinrich Schliemann.

So, I was prepared for a bit of a blow-down fight when someone this weekend announced that Shakespeare was the greatest writer ever. I was proud to see, though, that Kaylia, while standing her ground and sticking to her guns, remained consistently reasonable, maintained a consistent set of critiques (which she backed up with evidence), and admitted that the reaction that one has to any piece of art being subjective, she was stating in part critiques based on evidence and, in part, a distaste based on her subjective experience.

The person favoring Shakespeare was not satisfied though, and kept pushing the notion that Shakespeare's plays weren't simply something important to her, but were objectively better plays than anything ever written by anyone else. She started by making a reasonable argument for Shakespeare as a craftsman, but when Kaylia and myself argued against that (successfully), she took the route of essentially just asserting that Shakespeare was the greatest without trying to support the claim. She even went so far as to claim that one's reaction to a piece of art was not subjective, but objective, and therefore her reaction to Shakespeare's plays was the same as everyone's reaction...which is just kind of absurd and easily disproven by the fact that I, for one, didn't have the same response as her (though she tried to claim that I did...which was, well, weird).

After everyone mellowed out, she admitted that she attaches a good deal of personal importance to Shakspeare's plays, and therefore hearing someone dismiss her idol got her hackles up. Fair enough, I think we've all done that at some time. It's what the folks on a podcast I like to listen to refer to as "impotent nerd rage" - the tendency to become upset when you feel that something that you care about, but which is ultimately inconsequential, is not being taken seriously (named "nerd rage" due to the fact that it is endemic in science fiction and fantasy fandom).

But it got me thinking, why Shakespeare? Not just in her case, not just in Steven's case, but why does Shakespeare get people so riled up?

Of course, the woman with whom I was arguing would claim that is is yet more proof of Shakespeare's brilliance...except that the people who are inflamed with passion are often just as likely to be Shakespeare detractors as fans.

I think that part of it may be the way that Shakespeare's plays and poems are introduced to us as children. We are told, time and again, that he was the greatest writer, and therefore those who find a connection and appreciation for his work tend to feel smarter, more sophisticated, and often are praised by teachers. Those of us who don't find ourselves appreciating them are informed time and again by smug people that we will grow to appreciate it when we become more sophisticated...with those smug bastards never actually bothering to make a measure of our actual level of sophistication, and simply assuming that we lack such qualities because we don't enjoy their favorite writer. So, right of the bat, there's a wedge driven in between those who appreciate his works, and are provided with the illusion that they are objectively right to enjoy it, and those of us who have a different reaction and find ourselves having to deal with the fans...of course, most people simply forget about it and go on oblivious (and I think that they might have the right idea in this case). Incidentally, the lisy of those who are detractors of Shakespeare is really quite distinguished.

I think, also, that there is another level at work here. There have been many, many great writers in the English language, some of them are even alive today, and these writers have left us with a vast and rich literature to enjoy. I, myself, find a good deal to admire and to think about and feel in the writings of Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald...but I react this way because I am me, and it would be absurd for me to expect others to react similarly. My friend Liberty - who is a professor of Renaissance Literature (and therefore about as sophisticated on the matter as one can be expected to be) enjoys Christopher Marlowe (who the woman with whom Kaylia and I were arguing dismissed as "objectively boring" - strangely rejecting the notion that boredom is a subjective reaction to a piece of art), though Libby also is also aware that this is in large part due to her own personal tastes and background. Kaylia, a published author and someone who holds a degree in literature (and therefore is, again, pretty damn sophisticated on the subject) finds much of value in contemporary fiction, and sometimes delves into 19th century fiction. But between the three of us, we just scratch the top of the iceburg of what is available to English-speaking readers.

Amongst these great authors, there are many different works which will convey meaning, enjoyment, and feeling to many different readers. Some are more influential than others (it's hard to imagine modern English literature without Charles Dickens, for example), and there are some who are under-rated (I think that there is a good deal of merit to Raymond Chandler's stories of corruption in early-mid 20th century Los Angeles, both for their literary value and for their importance as documents of how a period in history was viewed by those who lived through it). But the notion that there is any one, or even a group of, writers who will absolutely, without question, appeal to and be important to all readers is absurd. And yet, this is, to a large degree, what our modern education system pushes - the idea that Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald were objectively good and that if you do not appreciate them, you are somehow unworthy. This is further backed by the notion that a work somehow gains greater merit with age (and, arguably, with association with Europe), which is also rather a strange idea when you actually stop and really consider it. To call the notion silly would be to give it too much credit...and yet, it is an idea that pervades how literature is taught throughout both elementary and high school education.

I think there is one further part to the puzzle, though (though bear in mind that I am out of specialization here, and therefore my opinions should be taken just as that). It's what I (of course) call the archaeological problem. In archaeology, as you probably know, we deal with the material that survives depositional processes and is preserved...and most of what was used day-to-day didn't survive, so we are left fitting together bits and pieces to make sense of the past. Literature is in a similar state. The printing press wasn't invented until the 15th century, and so important works were copied by hand, resulting in few books being produced. Even after the printing press came into use, the costs of printing remained high for some time, further impacting what was printed. We tend to assume that what was printed was inherently important, and there is some truth to this, but the reasons why it was considered important often had alot to do with the quirks of society (and of individual printers...and those who would pay printers), and as such might not always make sense to a modern person. Add to this that even with the printing press, print runs were small by modern standards, and you have a condition in which is is pretty much guaranteed that a large chunk of what was printed is now lost to us.

So, we are left with an incomplete record of our literature. Were there writers whose work would have left modern readers astounded at their beauty and value? Maybe. We have no way of knowing. What little was written down by hand, or printed on early presses, suggests that there likely were such artists...but we really don't know. We also have a notion that certain authors (Shakespeare is a big one, though this is true of others as well) invented modern literature (including prose, poetry, and drama) out of whole cloth, when they were not writing in a vacuum and were, no doubt, influenced by others just as they would in turn influence others. It makes for a situation where it looks like there was a sudden creation of modern English literature, when what we are probably seeing is a snapshot in time where we simply don't have the advantage of the previous photos in the sequence***. Yes, we have bits and pieces from prior to the 15th century, but it is limited in such a way as to make the issue rather confused. It's as if someone were not allowed to read or see plays, but only watch films. Such a person would be convinced that Orson Welles created drama...which he, of course, did not do****.

Regardless, I have to admit that I have long since gotten rather tired of the cult of Shakespeare. I can appreciate his work intellectually, and I even enjoy some of the comedies, but the notion that he was the greatest writer (or, even more narrowly, playwright) ever to have lived is, frankly, a claim based more on wishful thinking and fandom than on any actual evidence.

*I say attributed for a few reasons. The first is that there is a long-running dispute about whether or not he actually wrote them, though I have no idea what the strength of the evidence regarding that claim actually is, and I care even less (despite what is written int he following sentence). The second is that there is also apparently some discussion in scholarly circles regarding the degree to which various plays were tampered with post-writing. the third is that there is fairly strong evidence that portions of at least one play, and possibly others for all I know, were plagiarized from other sources and therefore weren't the works of William Shakespeare to begin with. On all of these points, I remain agnostic because I don't know enough about them to know how much, if any, merit the various claims have, and frankly, I care too little to go researching.

**One of the most irritating things that people say to me when I state that I am not so wild about Shakespeare's plays is "well, once you get used to the language, you'll understand it and then you'll see the appeal!" I never had a problem with the language, as dialects of English go I've always found Elizabethan stage-talk pretty damn easy to comprehend. Likewise, I have seen many productions by different groups with different cast and crew of the plays that I haven't much cared for, so don't claim that it's that I haven't seen the right production...if the only thing in common between the productions that I have seen is the script, then it's a fair bet that it's the script with which I have a problem.

***Think of it another way - on the show Seinfeld, the character of George is quite a loser...but after meeting a new woman he discovered that if he claims to have done in a week what had actually taken him ten years (get a job, get an apartment, make friends, etc.), he looked impressive. I think there's a similar thing at work here, where we suddenly see more of what is going on and assume therefore that more is being invented when it is, more likely, simply being recorded for the first time.

****Though he might have claimed otherwise.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Monitoring and Pondering

I apologize for not posting so far this week. I have been monitoring construction in Fresno County, and working 10-12 hour days, so I have not had much time to write.

However, this monitoring project has got me thinking about the way that we mitigate impacts to cultural resources, including archaeological sites, and wondering about what is and what is not necessary. In this case, this is a location that had been surveyed for archaeological sites prior to the beginning of construction, and nothing was found. After the initial surveys, a few additional surveys were performed to spot check a few areas about which the regulatory agency issuing the permits for this project was concerned. Again, nothing was found. The area is located on the floor of the San Joaquin Valley, away from water sources and not in or near any known travel corridor that the people of the area would have used. In other words, the location was unlikely to hold any archaeological sites (in the professional jargon, we call this a low sensitivity area). Nonetheless, the permit-issuing agency either advocated or agreed to archaeological monitoring as condition of the construction permit. And I am left wondering why.

The project proponent has a good track record for protecting archaeological sites and environmental resources, so this is likely not a case of the agency not trusting them to do what they are supposed to do (report any sites that they encounter during construction). The area is, as noted, of low sensitivity, so it's probably not a case of the agency being concerned that archaeological sites are likely to be hit. So, I am left wondering, why is there a monitoring requirement?

This is one of those odd cases where I can think of many reasons why this requirement exists, both bad and good reasons, and yet there is nothing in the documentation that explains the decision. It makes it especially awkward as, being the monitor on-site, many of the construction personnel seem to think that I should explain and/or justify my presence, and yet I would not have put a monitoring requirement in place were it my decision - again, no known resources coupled with a low sensitivity, I have a hard time justifying monitoring - so I simply tell the people who ask that it is a permit requirement and refuse to elaborate further. But, again, if the justification were written into the documents, then I would be able to make a better explanation.