The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, October 31, 2011


Today is Halloween, one of the few holidays that is, at this point in time, simply about fun.  Yes, there is an old tradition of harvest/coming winter festivals celebrated by cultures throughout the world (the Celtic festival that most people cite as being the origin of Halloween is, in reality, only one of many similar festivals celebrated by peoples the world over throughout history), but only a small number of people within the modern U.S. or western Europe observe or even acknowledge the historical and social roots of Halloween anymore.  It is now simply a day in which people get to play dress-up, children get to seek candy, and adults get to make fools of themselves.

It's a toned-down carnivale.

I have always liked Halloween.  The symbols and imagery that would be considered morbid or dour at any other time of the year are rendered goofy by their over-abundance.  There is something joyful about watching children try to figure out how to get the biggest candy haul, while watching adults try to re-capture some element of their childhood (even I did so this year, dressing as the 4th Doctor and attending a party). 

Hell, even the usual over-bearing and obnoxious tendency for some of the more loopy churches to claim that everything outside of their absurdist walls is somehow evil is rendered almost charming as their yearly declarations that they would not allow their children to observe "Satan's holiday" becomes just so much noise in the otherwise celebratory background.  Indeed, their insistence on this nonsense probably does much to push away the saner people who see this nuttiness for the hysteria that it is.

About the only de-facto tradition of this time of the year that really annoys me is the yearly moral panic.  The reality is that there has never been a case of an adult poisoning candy handed out to trick-or-treaters, but this lack of it ever happening hasn't stopped parents and even law enforcement officials (who should know better than to A) believe this nonsense, or B) waste resources and money encouraging this false belief in the "name of safety") from doing the usual thing and ignoring reality in the face of scary-sounding but absurd rumor.  Really, the fact that this story continues to be told year-after-year despite the evidence shows more than anything that we as a population are really, horribly, tragically bad at calculating risk.  And while this inability to calculate risk can have more serious consequences (war in Iraq and a return of nearly-eradicated contagious disease, anyone?) it is brought in a small but direct way into everyone's homes every year on October 31st.

Okay, rant done.  If you have kids, take them trick-or-treating, it's perfectly safe, no matter what anyone tells you.  If you're an adult, have some candy by the door, and put on a scary movie (or, if you can't stomach horror movies, watch Ghostbusters).  And, everyone, have a good time tonight.  It's going to get darker before it gets lighter again, so take the coming winter with some joy rather than dread.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Dodgin' Codgers

Several years back, when I was an intern in an Air Force base's environmental office, one of my tasks was to travel around the base to check up on various sites that were threatened by erosion and document their condition.  These sites were usually in spots that were far from buildings and structures, but in areas that the folks who would come onto the base to go fishing would frequent*.  So, it was no surprise when, one spring day, I encountered an elderly fisherman standing next to one of the sites.

He saw me coming, and decided that he wanted to see who I was and what I was doing there - amusing in that I was there performing a base-required work task and he was there because the base allowed him to be there - and I explained that I was one of the archaeologists on base, checking up on various locations.  He looked at me with what I assume was supposed to be contempt, but instead came across as cartoonish grumpiness, and said "well, you people shouldn't be bothering over here!  I've seen stuff that came out of Honda Canyon** and you have plenty to study from there and you don't need to be looking anywhere else!"

I went on to try to explain that we don't just study large quantities of artifacts, but that the locations of sites was also of importance, and under federal law we were required to at least make a good-faith effort to know what was going on with sites on base, regardless of whether or not we did anything to or with said sites.

He simply nodded his head and said "I don't know who you think you're talking to, but I'm a veteran, and I was an electrical engineer!  Don't think that you can pull one over on me!"

This seemed astoundingly strange.  That he was in the military and an electrical engineer had, of course, no bearing whatsoever on archaeology.  I responded, int he calmest voice I could muster, "I don't doubt that, but I'm an archaeologist, and I understand my field, and what I have told you is accurate."

"No it isn't!  If you believe that then you don't know what you're talking about."

The hell?  Now, I am accustomed to people with no experience thinking that they know more about archaeology than I do, it's a common enough delusion, but they didn't usually throw out irrelevancies about their past career as would-be evidence of their allegedly superior knowledge.  This guy, though, just seemed to want to be right, and int he face of someone who was clearly more knowledgeable on a particular subject, he decided simply to push his weird-ass notions anyway.

"You're as bad as the wildlife biologist" he then said to me.

"Heh?"  I wittily responded.

"Yeah, that wildlife bioldogist, Nancy whatshername, the one who says that the snowy plovers are endangered even though they aren't!"

Ahh, the snowy plovers.  These are a type of beach bird the status of which is a bit controversial.  The Fish and Wildlife service holds that they are endangered and that the base's beaches were among the few pristine habitats left.  The local public, and a few biologists not involved with the base, claimed that they were not endangered.  The base biologists were caught in the middle, required to enforce the Fish and Wildlife Service's ruling, even though they were not sure if they agreed with it.

So, I explained to the fellow that the biologist didn't make that ruling, and that it had come from the outside.

"No, it didn't!"  He insisted, "she's the one who claims that they're endangered!"

I explained again that the biologist didn't make that ruling, I didn't even know if she agreed with that ruling, and that I had a bit more knowledge of the matter than he did because I worked with her and he, by his own admission, had never met her nor read anything that she had put out on the subject.

"Well, I know the Colonel," the Colonel being the man in charge of the base, "and he says that she made the decision, so I know that you are lying to me!"

One of the issues that we encounter in environmental work is that very often the people with whom we work think that we are the ones who are dictating what they can or can not do, when, in fact, we are usually just the messengers for messages from outside authorities.  So, it is possible that this Colonel, no long since retired, honestly believed that the biologist was the one making these decisions, and not the FWS.  However, as the facility head, he had the responsibility for knowing, at least at a basic level, how the various laws impacting the base functioned.  I had been present when this particular issue had been explained to him, and I was told that it had been explained to him on a regular basis, and he simply chose not to listen.  So, it wasn't me that was lying to the fisherman, but his buddy the Colonel who was little enough concerned with reality that he was willing to badmouth his subordinates to score points with his buddies***.  I am, however, pleased to say that, from what I have seen and heard, this was unusual among commanding officers, and when this colonel left, his replacement was much more on-the-ball.

Anyway, I looked at the man and said, sternly but calmly, "I am not lying to you.  DO NOT accuse me of lying to you.  I know this subject, I know what's going on, I work with it every day, and I am telling you the truth."

"No you're not.  Damn liberal."  And with that he walked away.

In retrospect, I realize what sort of personality I was dealing with.  I have a very disagreeable elderly relative who was similar to this man in that he "knows what's going on" when his alleged knowledge is nothing more than delusion based on a need not only to be right, but for everyone else to be wrong.  This relative is okay with those who generally agree with him being right, but as soon as someone disagrees, no matter how much more demonstrably knowledgeable they may be on the subject on which they disagree, they are not only wrong, but somehow immoral and corrupt.

And that seemed to be what I was seeing here.  What I told the man disagreed with his "me vs. the evil liberal environmentalists" notions, and so I was clearly not only wrong, but somehow corrupt.  I don't have a problem necessarily with people disliking what I do on philisophical or even pragmatic grounds, but if you're going to dislike it, at least dislike it for reasons based in reality, not delusional supposition.  No doubt he left there thinking he'd given me what for, when he had, in fact, only exposed his tremendous ignorance of the subjects discussed.  So it goes.

*One of the reasons why prehistoric peoples had lived in these locations is because they relied on the fish, so it's no surprise that we would frequently find fishermen still frequenting these locations.

**One of the many canyons on the base, has nothing to do with cars.

***What an asshole.

Monday, October 24, 2011

So Long, Maricopa...Good to See You in my Rear-View Mirror

One of the members of my current crew often likes to talk about "archaeology as adventure".  I usually roll my eyes when he begins going off on the subject, but as he's probably the happiest person on the crew, maybe I should take his attitude more seriously.  However, Maricopa is making that difficult.

Maricopa is the town in which we are currently staying.  It is south of Taft, and is, in fact, Taft's evil, twisted little brother.  The one who was locked in the attic, who subsists on whatever vermin it can catch with it's teeth and mis-shapen bare hands, and of whom the family doesn't like to speak.  Taft was filled with meth-heads.  Maricopa, on the other hand, is a town full of people who would only become meth-heads if they suddenly developed a sense of decency.

Think I'm exaggerating, do you?  Okay, quick, go to Maricopa's Wikipedia page.  Seriously, go there, here's a link.  Go down to the bottom of the page, to the portion mistakenly labelled "Public Safety."  Down there, you will see a description of the police department's problems with racism and good ol' corruption, which includes the following delightful quote:

In mid-2011, American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Jennie Pasquarella is quoted as saying, "Maricopa has been a shining example of impoundments gone wrong," and "They're essentially creating a racket to steal people's cars."
Yeah, that's Maricopa for ya'.

To protest the police corruption, a trailer with signs painted on it is frequently placed at the town's gas station parking lot.  The trailer has signs on both the right and left signs requesting that the people of Maricopa start taking their police department to task for its misbehavior. On the front and back, the signs plead for all reading them to "pray for our troops" as they "defend the right to freedom of speech" which means that the sign is simultaneously co-opting the language of both right and left wing politics,  which is kind of interesting.

The people are even more colorful.  On a daily basis I see men around town wearing t-shirts that should, in a sane world, prevent them from ever having the opportunity to talk to a woman.  There's the fellow who walks about town with his shirt featuring the phrase "don't stop till the panties drop" alongside an image of an anorexic-looking nude woman, and the Hustler logo below it.  He walked into the local sandwich place with someone who was either his wife or girlfriend, and who appeared to be so worn down by life that she didn't find it embarrassing to be seen holding this man's hand.  Or the fellow who walked into the hotel, wearing a "I love dirty whores" t-shirt, who then succeeded in chatting up one of the women who works here.  That these imbeciles would have any success with women would seem odd, until you see the local women. I have noticed a large number of local women have tattoos on their upper chests/lower necks which are occasionally abstract designs, but usually are words to the effect of "Property of Steve" or "Woman Belongs to Glenn" or some other such up-lifting message.  Then there's the woman who apparently declared her independence by getting a message that did not brand her as the property of a man, but rather as a "White Trash Bitch" - yes, this woman wanders about with these words tattooed to her lower neck.  And she's probably not on her meds.

The people of this town could make Cormac McCarthy decide that his opinion of humanity is too sunny and optimistic.

The sandwich shop that I saw Mr. Hustler in?  It's in the local gas station.  I have gone in there a couple of times for sandwiches, as it is one of only two places in town where food can be procured at hours known to the public, and the staff always seems annoyed that you are trying to give them money.  Now, I should note that the staff of the Sandwich shop, a Subways franchise, is separate from the staff of the gas station, who are always bizarrely chirpy and happy.  I am guessing that the two crews have different qualude/barbituate preferences.

Anyway, I'll be leaving tomorrow.  But this is just yet another one of those places that I have ended up thanks to archaeology.  On the off-chance that you ever find yourself thinking that my job is full of adventure, think of Maricopa.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tedium, Sweat, Research, Pseudo-Science, and Frustration

As I write this, it is 10:00 PM.  I have to go to sleep soon so that I can get up early tomorrow morning and return to t he survey that I have been performing here in Kern County.  I have been walking back-and-forth, at 15-to-20 meter intervals over fields of loose, silty sand, sustaining foot injuries and horribly sore legs, all of it looking for evidence of prehistoric human occupation of the area.  I do not think that we will find anything, but this can not be confirmed if we don't bother to check.  The work is physically tough, tedious, and often frustrating.  This is my job, I do get paid for it, but compared to the level of physical and mental labor involved, and the level of training and education required, people in my line of work do not get paid very much*.

When I return from the field, I will go to my hotel room, where I will set up my mobile lab once again and begin working at sorting through slivers of bone, most less than an inch long and less than 1/16 of an inch wide, classifying them as well as possible, and (where feasible) identifying the species from which the bone comes.  The work is mentally taxing, hard on the eyes, tedious, and often frustrating.  I am doing this as a volunteer to help out an under-funded researcher, so I do not get paid, nor can I claim that it is a labor of love, but it is simply a task that needs to be done.

As I work, the television plays in the background.  It's the History Channel, which would probably be better called "the Hysteria Channel" these days, given it's reliance of crackpot conspiracy beliefs and pseudo-scholarship concerning Mayan calendars and Nostradamus.  And, as always, they have an "archaeology" show on that's got nothing to do with real archaeology and everything to do with imbecilic fantasy.  Claims of space alien influence on human prehistory** are given preference over actual research, and real archaeologists are nowhere to be seen.  Instead we get a bunch of people who's "research" consists of deluded and confused numerology, bizarre (and often made-up) claims about the material record, and bridging arguments that sound good so long as you don't actually bother to check the facts.

And this is the perfect contrast.  Here I am, doing the very real, very tough work, as necessary to produce actual archaeological evidence.  It is time consuming, difficult, often boring, but necessary if one is to find relevant evidence of the human past.  It is not an easy job, and it is not a well-paying job.  Meanwhile, the television channel that is supposedly dedicated to educating people about the human past is helping to further line the pockets of authors who do little other than sit in arm chairs and ponder what sort of crap they can make up after taking their most recent expensive exotic vacation. 

This is, I think, what gets under my skin about pseudo-archaeology.  It's not the wacky claims, it's not even the racism inherent in much of it (see ** below), hell, it's not even the fact that so many of these people try to claim that they are "independent researchers***" rather than the more honest "people who pull claims out of their asses."  It's that there are real people doing real research, and that it is extremely difficult, time consuming, and often tedious work, and yet it's these dickweeds who make sexy-sounding-yet-stupid claims that are being promoted on what is allegedly an educational network. 

It's enough to make you want to take a tazer to the soles of a cable network executive's feet.  Unfortunately, I don't know any cable network executives, so instead I write grumbly and poorly written blog entries.

*Sometimes I think that my grandfather was right and I should have gotten an MBA.  Other times I remember just how mind-numbingly bored I was when I was in business and decide that I made the right choice.

**usually, it is worth noting, the history and prehistory of non-white people, the implication being that the "savages" weren't capable of feats that Europeans were.  That most of these people don't see the racism often inherent in their claims is truly amazing.

***This is pretty common.  Pseudo-scholars of all sorts will tell you that they are "independent researchers" who are somehow revealing the "truth that the establishment doesn't want you to know!"  I have dealt with the claims about "the establishment" before.  I want really briefly to deal with the term "independent researcher."  there are real independent researchers - both avocational archaeologists who may lack ties to universities or museums but who have a passion and willingness to learn about the field an behave responsibly, and people who have formal training but are not tied to research institutions and who perform original research as time and money allows.  Many of these folks do really excellent work.  They are not the same as the self-proclaimed "independent researchers" who use bizarre methods to "prove" their pet hypotheses, disconfirming evidence be damned.  So, when someone calls themself an "independent researcher", take the time to figure out if they are actually doing research, or if they are simply playing stupid games and making shit up.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Meth Shacks and Other Aspects of Fieldwork

So, as noted, I have been working on archaeological surveys in Kern County, southwest of Bakersfield*.  The land parcels we are surveying range between 200 and 600 acres in size, and are in relatively isolated locations in this rural area.  This area is notorious for, amongst other things, a large degree of methamphetamine manufacture and use.  So, it is no surprise that, hidden adjacent to one of our parcels, there is a set of shacks and old trailers that appear to still be used as shelters, have a worn chain-link fence surrounding them, and numerous large dogs - mostly dobermens and German shepperds - as well as what appeared to be a well beaten and chewed dummy on a rope.

We don't know what it is, but very likely it is a meth manufacturing facility.  Which, frankly, means that it is also likely to be a place populated by paranoid people with firearms.


This is not the first time that I have encountered a meth lab in the field.  And I will deal with this the same way that I have dealt with other meth labs: never go to the location alone, be near the vehicle at all times, make sure that everyone has cell phone, and make sure that our employer knows exactly where we are and what our concerns are.

Still, it's a bit unnerving.

Nor are meth labs the only trouble spots that we sometimes encounter.  My colleagues who work in and around Humboldt County, as well as a few other choice locations around the state, often encounter marijuana farms - which doesn't sound too bad until you realize that they are often run by embittered ex-hippies and/or paranoid "bussinessmen" who like to booby-trap their crops in order to inure any who might come upon them - with the booby traps including everything from explosives to fish-hooks hung at eye-level.

Next time you toke on a doobie, consider that the plant you are about to take in might have been watered with the blood of an unaware environmentalist.

Likewise, there are many landowners who dislike environmental workers, who will allow you on their land with the intention of spraying you with a crop duster, or firing a shotgun at you

Then, there's always the more subtle threats of the white supremacist who will let you on their land to work while simultaneously trying to figure out if you are fit for membership in their "gun club"; the people who are watching for a chance to get you to join their religious cult; or the ever-present evil of zombie macrobiotic dieters.

Most of the time, my job is much less exciting and adventurous than most people seem to want to make it out to be.  Most of the time it's a bit of a grind.  However, on occasion, it can get exciting.  And by "exciting", I mean "unnerving and frightening."

Still, I have no doubt that we'll be fine.  But just in case, would anybody mind calling my cell phone every 15 minutes or so.

*Hence the fact that I am, once again, not posting much right now.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Back in Taft

So, those three of you who have read my blog for more than a week may recall that a couple of years ago I spent seven months working through the summer in Taft.  I had thought I would never have to return once I finally escaped.  Well, not "thought" so much as "hoped"...and yet here I am.

The up side is that I am only here for three weeks, and not seven months as before.  I am also working with a very good client and not with someone who is actively trying to sabotage the environmental team.  I also have a small crew of good workers instead of a large crew that is a mixed bag.  So, on the whole, things are greatly improved.  Also, the temperatures will be in the 80s all week, and not 110+ as was the case the last time I was out here.

One of the more interesting aspects of this particular project is that we are working in the bed of a now-empty oscillating lake - that is, the lake would grow or shrink depending largely on rainfall in a given year.  As a result, the majority of the area is unlikely to hold archaeological sites, which is a bit disappointing, as it somewhat negates the reason for us being here.  However, int he unlikely event that we encounter a site, there is a fair chance of the site being something particularly important as this would have been a semi-stable body of water in a generally arid area - meaning that both water and animals and plants that use the water were present, providing resources for the people of the region to use.

At any rate, we have no real expectations of finding anything in particular, but if the weather continues like this, at least it will be an easy project.  And if it ceases to be easy, it is likely to become interesting, so that's all ot the good.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Getting Crew

I am currently in the process of trying to assemble a crew.  This is not always an easy task.  Good field technicians are a precious commodity, and tend to be snatched up by companies as soon as they are available, which means that you have to either have eerily good timing to have a crew of entirely good technicians, or else you have to keep tabs on the good technicians that you know so that you know as soon as they are available and can get them in your snares. 

One of the problems with getting good field technicians is that many really good field technicians are older, more experienced, and preparing to go over the edge.  Most of these folks don't have steady jobs, but travel from project-to-project.  They may have a permanent address, but they rarely see their homes, have tenuous family connections and friendships, and, while in the field, drugs and especially alcohol take up a large part of their non-work hours.  As a result, while they are often very good at their jobs, they are also prone to sliding into severe alcoholism* and depression, and this can lead to obvious problems in the field.  I have watched many a middle-aged field technician go, in the space of a year, from being a fantastic worker with an excellent skill set to becoming a depressed, permanently drunk or hung-over, unreliable liability.  It is extremely sad to watch, and it is rare that they get themselves back upright after slipping over.  It should be said that there are some older technicians who manage to remain solid professional workers, and they are usually a pleasure to work with (I learn a good deal just from listening to them talk), but as time goes on, I know fewer and fewer of these folks.

Younger technicians tend to be less likely to slip into depression, and they are better able to physically take the late-nights drinking and still be able to work in the morning.  Moreover, they haven't grown frustrated or disillusioned and tend to view the work as an adventure, improving morale.  However, they also lack the experience and knowledge of their older counterparts, and often have not had to do some of the more onerous tasks of field archaeology (digging in a poison oak thicket, walking through tick-infested grasses, wading through stagnant water and hoping that you don't get leaches on you), and are often less ready to do the work that needs to be done. 

So, the trick is to find someone who is young, but smart enough to learn and willing to do what it takes to get the job done, or else an older technician who has managed to keep their sanity and is not so far in the bottle that they have become unreliable.  It's a tough trick, though my current employer has many people fitting both descriptions in its orbit.  The problem (and I suppose that this falls into the category of "the types of problems you'd like to have") is that we are really damn busy, and as such having the field technicians available is a bit of a problem - the good ones have largely been assigned, and now I am trying to find other good ones who, by some miracle, haven't been picked up by another company yet. 

Still, I have some good leads, and things look promising.

*Drinking is a very large part of the culture of field archaeology.  For most field archaeologists, opening a six-pack or heading to the bar as soon as you get back from the day's work is a huge part of the field experience.  Supervisors, such as myself, may drink, but we usually have more work to do when returning from the field, and as such either forgo drinking or get a later start and stop earlier than the field technicians.  We also tend to have stable jobs and (relatively) stable home lives, which require both our money and our energy, and as a result tend to have less impetus to drink heavily.  Not to say that it doesn't happen, but seeing a hung-over supervisor int he morning is unusual, while seeing hung-over field technicians is not uncommon.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Fun with Fossils

A few months back, I wrote a post regarding my training as a paleontological monitor at the Fairmead Fossil Museum.  Well, a couple of weeks back, Kaylia and I arranged a trip for Fresno SWAC*, though only a few of the members ultimately ended up attending.  Still, it was fun, and I am once again monitoring (now for 10 hours a day, in a landfill, surrounded by loud heavy equipment, and in a landfill!  Hooray!**) so I don't have a whole lot of time to write (though I will be trying to get a regular wordy post out later this week), here's what amount to weekend trip photos to bore you all!

 The museum houses both actual fossils and a large number of replicas of fossils that have been unearthed at the Fairmead Landfill site (located, surprisingly enough, at the Fairmead Landfill in Madera County).  Hey, I've got photos!  You want to see a picture of a landfill taken from the street?  Of course you do!

The Fairmead Landfill, in all of it's glory.

The majority of the fossils recovered from the landfill are in storage until such time as the paleontologists at the museum are able to finish unpacking the plaster jackets in which they sit.  Some of the others are kept at UC Berkeley despite attempts by Madera County to get them back (I think that UC Berkeley is full of bastards, but then I would***).  However, a few samples are present at the museum for public viewing, the coolest of which was a mammoth skull and tusks suspended from the ceiling at the height that this animal's head would actually have been in life:

The hovering mammoth skull, coming soon
to a theater near you, in horrifying 3-D!

Articulated replicas of many of the skeletons found at the museum were also an display (though most of these replicas were of the other samples from the species, and not necessarily the precise fossils found at the Fairmead site):

The cast, in order of appearance: Short-faced bear, bear and friends, 
smilodon and giant ground sloth, dire wolf, Kaylia (not a fossil) and the 
ground sloth, camel (yep, camels once lived in California, during 
the Pleistocene)

What was fascinating about the fossils found at the museum is what the reveal about what California's San Joaquin Valley was like during the middle Pleistocene.  The valley is now known primarily for 1) being one of the world's agricultural powerhouses; 2) being the place that most Californians either want to leave or are happy that they don't call home; 2) being the place where heat is manufactured for export to other places.  Where it's not covered in farms, it's covered in invasive grasses and oak woodland with a few creeks and numerous seasonal waterways running through it.  During the middle Pleistocene, however, the mix of plant and animal remains found in the region indicate that it was closer to the African savanna, and teemed with wildlife that most of us would consider rather exotic now, such as camels and large cats (saber toothed tigers, but also other types of large feline predators), species of elephant (the Colombian Mammoth - a larger, and non-woolly version of the mammoth), and giant ground sloths (huge versions of the sloth that you can now find living in Central and South America). 

The landfill also has yielded several fossils of ancient horses - an animal native to the Americas but that migrated to Asia during the Pleistocene and eventually died off in the Americas.

Yipee!  Horse skulls!

While small, the museum is a good place to kill a couple of hours.  The displays explain the science clearly, and the laboratory where the paleontologists work, while enclosed, is visible to the public (and some of the paleontologists like talking with the public).

Thrill to the office space of the paleontologist!

In the end, it was a groovy trip, and if you are in Madera County or the surrounding area, it's worth checking out.

Kaylia runs in terror from the re-animated
skeleton of a short-faced bear!

The members of SWAC who attended the trip - Jerred, Eric, Robin, and Kaylia,
photo by me.

*SWAC = Skeptics Without a Cause, a group that originally formed in Santa Cruz after my better half witnessed an atheist group imploding.  Some of the members of that group, my dear partner included, formed the original Santa Cruz SWAC as a place for those who value science, critical thinking, and just generally not accepting made-up-crap at face value to meet and socialize without having any particular political or activist agenda.  When Kay and I moved to Fresno, we started a local branch.

**Curious note, one of the workers at the landfill where I am working had previously worked at the Fairmead Landfill and decided to make it clear to me what he thought of paleontologists, which wasn't anything good.  I pointed out that I am an archaeologist and not a paleontologist, but he didn't seem to want to believe me. 

***I attended UC Santa Cruz, which I like to say has a long un-acknowledged rivalry with UC Berkeley.  We at and from Santa Cruz feel that we, as the other University of California campus in the Bay Area, that we could hold our own academically with UC Berkeley.  The students at UC Berkeley, however, were surprised to hear that there was a UC campus other than Berkeley.

Seriously, they call their own campus "Cal" to shorten it for "University of California" because they are blissfully unaware that there are, in fact, nine other UC campuses.  Oh, and all of them are considered quite good.  In your face, UCB!