The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Incompetence, thy name be Best Buy

As you can tell from some of my previous entries, I like photography. I am not trained, and I don’t claim to be a particularly brilliant photographer, but I enjoy taking pictures and trying to create good images. If I were truly serious (and had a less hectic work/travel schedule), I would take some classes and actually become good. Nonetheless, I have been enjoying myself.

I have been using a cheap HP camera, not a great one, but it has worked and helped me to learn a lot of the basics of photo composition. However, I have reached the limits of what I can do with that camera, and besides, I have discovered that I’d like to display my photos, requiring a higher resolution image. Therefore, the time for a new, higher quality camera has arrived.

I began shopping around, and talking to my older sister, about cameras, and finally decided on the Canon Rebel both because it consistently rates high in terms of both photo quality and ease of use, and because it is within my price range and provides a 10 megapixel image, sufficient for my purposes. On the day after Christmas, Kay and I headed out, intending to find the best deal available for the camera. Little did we know that we were about to enter Retail Hell.

We quickly located what looked like a great deal – the camera that I wanted bundled with a telephoto lens (which I also wanted) for $650 when tax was included. Kay and I separately spent about half an hour trying to locate a sales associate (for a combined total of one, count ‘em, one man hour), before finally locating the store manager. I explained what I wanted to purchase, and she set about trying to help us, only to discover that the camera was out of stock. She did, however, located the camera and lens in several different stores within an hour drive, and suggested that I make the purchase on-line but set it up as a store pick-up, so that I didn’t need to pay for shipping. This seemed a good idea, and so I returned home to do just that.

I went online and quickly discovered that the SKU number that the store manager had given me was not correct, and so I had to spend a while wading through the site to locate the camera and lens in question. I did, however, finally locate them, but when I went to purchase them, purchasing an accompanying warranty plan was not given as an option.

I called the Best Buy 800 number in order to see if they could help me. After being given the run-around for a while, I was directed to the camera department, where the person on the phone wanted me to purchase the items over the phone. As I had already nearly completed the order online, I was not inclined to go through the hassle of starting the order over again, but the folks I spoke with in the camera department made it clear that they didn’t care, and that the way in which I wanted to make the purchase was irrelevant – but it seems that the phone gods agreed with me, as the call ended up being dropped either by Best Buy or by my cell phone service – I don’t know which.

Regardless, I called back, and this time had the following conversation:

Me: Hi, I’m trying to purchase a camera via your website, and, for some reason, the warranty plan is not coming up as an option. I’d like to know if anyone at your office can help me out.

Operator: What kind of an item are you trying to purchase?

Me: A camera – but before you forward me, I have already been sent to talk with the camera people. They seem to be insistent that I make the purchase over the phone, but as I have already gone through quite a bit of hassle to set the purchase up on-line, I’d like to just complete it there. Do you maybe just have website help?

Operator: Yes, we do. But you can’t talk to them, you have to talk with the camera department.

Me: Well, they don’t seem to listen to me, perhaps…

Operator: You need to talk to the camera department.

Me: I don’t think they’re going to help, you see, when I spoke with them before…

Operator: I’m going to forward you to the camera department.

Me: Look, would you just listen…

Operator: OH NO YOU DON’T!

Me: (beginning to raise my voice, finally) OH YES I DO!

Operator: (Begins laughing)

Me: Look, the camera department is trying to get me to change the order, I have not interest in doing that, I just want to find out what’s going on with your website and what I can do to deal with it.

Operator: Well, I don’t care what your problem is, I’m going to forward you to the camera department.

And at this point, I just hung up the phone. I then called the Mountain View store, where I had made arrangements to pick up the merchandise, and confirmed that I could simply purchase the warranty plan at the store when I picked up the camera. With that, I completed the purchase, and waited for an email confirming that the merchandise was in the store, and ready to be picked up. Once the email arrived, Kay and I headed north to Mountain View, a little over an hour’s drive.

Arriving at Mountain view, I spent a bit of time trying to locate the order pick-up counter. Finally, Kay asked at the Customer Service counter, and was directed to a counter next to the Customer Service counter that had the “Pick Up” sign cleverly displayed near the ground, and it may even have been behind a box. It was not in plain site, at any rate.

I approached the counter, explained that I was there to pick up some merchandise, and presented her with a print out of the email that I had received telling me that the merchandise was ready for pick-up. She proceeded to go into the warehouse area, and returned with a small box. As she began to ring up the order, I picked up the box and saw that it contained only the lens.

“Where is the camera?” I asked.

“What camera?”

“The camera to which that lens belongs. A lens isn’t going to do me much good without a camera to which it can be attached.” I was becoming rather annoyed with Best Buy. The woman looked at me, clearly surprised, and then stated that she would have to go and check on the camera. She then vanished and remained vanished for half an hour (I was keeping track). When she returned, she brought with her another young woman who, I would come to discover, was one of the store managers.

The sales associate proceeded to explain that the camera was out of stock, which led to me asking why it was that I had been notified that it would be here for pick-up. At this point the manager took over and explained that while it was true that the camera was not there, they could order it and have it delivered to the store. I then pointed out that, as I had explained a couple of times already to the two of them, I live near Santa Cruz, had driven quite a distance for the pick-up, and would not be driving back to pick up merchandise that they had previously stated that they would have in stock when they, in fact, did not have it. In addition, Best Buy had already placed a hold for the amount of the camera on my credit card, in order to ensure that I would pick up the camera when it arrived. While I don’t remember her exact words, the manager began to make it clear that, to her mind, while it may well have been Best Buy’s screw-up that led to the camera not being present the fact that it wasn’t was my problem and she wasn’t going to help, and the fact that Best Buy placed a hold on my credit card simply ensured that I would pick up the camera without obligating Best Buy to, oh I don’t know, actually have the camera that I was supposed to pick up.

After some frustrated conversation, Kay intervened and got a rain check for the camera on my behalf, and got it arranged so that we could go to the Soquel store (close to my home) with the raincheck paperwork and have the camera delivered there. The manager assured us that the hold would be released from my card (though it took some doing to pry that out of her), but that it would not be ordered unless I turned the raincheck paperwork in at the Soquel store. I then went out to the parking lot, called the Soquel store, told them what had transpired, and asked if they would allow me to make the purchase the next day, despite the fact that the bundle offer would have ended, because Best Buy’s screw-up was what had caused the mess to begin with and prevented me from taking hold of the camera (and therefore, it seemed reasonable to expect Best-Buy to fix the problem). The manager with whom I spoke made it clear that, much like the Mountain View manager, he felt that even though Best Buy had screwed up, it was my problem and he had no interest in doing anything to fix it, but that I was welcome to pay extra for a home delivery even though I had already gone to pains to do a store pick-up. He did, however, say that the folks at the Mountain View store could order the camera for delivery to Soquel, though they had denied that they could.

By this point I was so frustrated with the deal (it took over an hour to arrive at this point, and most of that was spent with some very bad attitude on the part of the manager and with growing frustration from me) that I left without the lens, intending to cool down and then decide how I wanted to proceed. Kay and I went to dinner at a nearby place and received eerily wonderful customer service there, as if to make up for the bad service at the Best Buy.

After dinner, and after I had calmed down, I decided to return and pick up the lens, and then see if I could stomach giving money to Best Buy enough to order the camera at the Soquel store. If I couldn’t, I’d return the lens – but as it was I would receive $200 savings on the lens alone. So Kay and I returned to the store, picked up the lens, got the manager’s assurance that the camera would not be ordered for the Mountain View Store and that I would be able to have it delivered to the Soquel store. With that I left, annoyed, but thinking that I would either place the order in Soquel the next day, or else find another place to buy the camera so as to not provide Best Buy with any more money. Regardless, the hold on my card had been released, and I had the ability to order or not order the camera as I saw fit.

Or so I thought.

The next day Kay and I went to the local coffee shop to do a bit of writing. I turned on my computer and checked my email, and much to my surprise, I found an email from Best Buy informing me that, contrary to what the manager at Mountain View had stated, the camera had been ordered without me turning in the paperwork, and it had been scheduled for delivery to the Mountain View store and not to Soquel. Calling my bank, I discovered that, also contrary to what the store manager had stated, not only had the hold on my credit card not been released, but it was for the amount of both the camera and the lens, despite the fact that I had already purchased the lens separately.

At this point, I was thoroughly fed up, and had decided that I was going to cancel the order. I called the Mountain View store to cancel the order and was informed that I would have to call the company’s 800-number to do so. I also asked why it had been ordered for the Mountain view store and not the Soquel store, and why the hold was not only placed on my card, but placed on my card for the wrong amount - the person with whom I spoke could provide no answer.

I called the 800 number and navigated the phone tree. After being on hold for fifteen minutes, I explained to an operator what was going on, and was then told that I would be forwarded to customer service. Another operator picked up and asked what I wanted, I again explained, and was told that
I had, in fact, not been forwarded to customer service, but rather to another main operator. She then said that she would forward me to customer service, but instead forwarded me to an automated switchboard that required a 3-digit code to forward me anywhere else. I hung up and dialed again. This time I was forwarded to four different main operators before finally being put through to the correct department.

I explained the problem, explained that I wanted to cancel the order, and explained that I wanted the hold on my credit card released. The person with whom I was speaking called the Mountain view store and placed me on hold for a full 30 minutes while he spoke with them. When he returned to me he explained that if I wanted to return the lens, I would have to take it to a store.

That’s right bat-fans, I called him about cancelling a camera order, and he and the Mountain View manager had decided that I wanted to return the lens instead.

I explained that, as I had already told him a couple of times, I was calling about the camera and not the lens, that I was calling to cancel the damn order, and that I expected Best Buy to release the hold on my credit card. He then proceeded to explain that he would not cancel the order or release the hold on my card, and that I would have to wait for eight days after the camera had arrived in the store before the hold on the card would be released. I told him that I had no intention of ever picking up the camera, and that if they would not release the hold, I would have my bank do so. He smugly said something to the effect of “well, then go to your bank” in a tone of voice that seemed to add “because they won’t release the hold.” Fed up with these people, I hung up.

Note: it is with some satisfaction that I report that my bank took my side on this matter, and that the bank personnel had some words for the Best Buy folks that made mine look quite tame.

I then went back inside the coffee shop and returned to my computer. With a bit of urging from Kay and some suggestions from my older sister via the internet, I decided to check a few on-line merchants for the same camera. Through, I found a company called Cameta Camera (who I looked up – they have reasonably good customer service ratings) who had the same camera plus a memory card plus an extra battery plus a camera back for $150 LESS than Best Buy’s price for the camera alone. I quickly made the purchase.

Within half an hour, I had a confirmation of the purchase from, and not one but two separate emails from Best Buy, one informing me that the camera was unavailable, and one informing me that it would soon be at the Mountain View store and that I should make sure to pick it up.

When all was said and done, Best Buy also sent me not one, but two different customer satisfaction surveys. As part of the survey, they ask for a detailed explanation of what they may have done right or wrong. I wrote the following:

At every step along the way, from my attempt to initially purchase the merchandise, to the behavior of store personnel when I attempted to pick up the merchandise, to the attitude and policies of Best Buy when I attempted to cancel the order AFTER it became clear that I would not be receiving the merchandise, Best Buy did absolutely EVERYTHING wrong. There is not a single thing that any of the Best Buy personnel with whom I interacted did that did not fall well short of even mediocre customer service. The employees refused to help resolve problems created by Best Buy, lied to me on multiple occasions, were consistently rude, and made it clear that, even when Best Buy had screwed up, it was their attitude that this was my problem alone and that they had no intention of doing anything to help out.

It is difficult to imagine what Best Buy personnel could have done to make the experience worse short of donning Nazi costumes and coming to my home to club my pets to death. You have provided what is easily the poorest customer service experiences I have ever had - quite an accomplishment considering that I have had to deal with the California Department of Motor Vehicles on numerous occasions. When the DMV outdoes you in terms of customer service, it's time to hang up the towel.

As Best Buy's current business model is clearly to drive paying customers away, I will be happy to help you by not only never spending any more money at a Best Buy, but also trying to persuade others to avoid your company as well.

Is it hyperbolic and overdramatic? Yes. Am I likely to offend someone by a light use of the Nazis? Yep. But it was fun to write. Also, if nothing else, I gave myself a chuckle.

Now, to be realistic, the camera itself is incidental to this. If I didn’t get a new camera, that’ really not a big deal – indeed, considering much of what is going on in the world, this is small potatoes stuff. Also, I did make out with a $240 lens for $50, and I ultimately saved $150 on the camera itself (more, if you consider the accessory package that came with the camera). Still, the bad attitude and poor service I received from Best Buy irks me, and has assured that I will not be buying anything else from them. In case you need any further reason to avoid them as well, look here, here, and here.

Edited to add: I just received the camera from Cameta - not only did the package come early with everything that it was supposed to come with, it also had number of additional items that were send free-of charge that will make using and maintaining the camera much easier. Now, THAT is good customer service.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Plane Crash - Part 3

This is part 3 of this series. If you have not already, you may want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.


As compared to the first day, the rest of the time out there was a bit of a blur. However, a few specific instances do stand out in my mind.

On the third day of work, I was standing in the trench in which the wreckage had been encountered when I became aware of the shadows of two men standing over me. Looking up, I saw that they were both in their 60’s or 70’s, dressed casually but well, and looking down at me with some intensity. I climbed out of the pit, exited the fencing, and introduced myself.

It turned out that these two had both been children at the time of the plane crash, and had lived in the neighborhood. They told me of the local gossip that had followed in the wake of the plane crash – including predictably gruesome (but probably false) details of the condition of the bodies, passed around on the school’s playground, of course. One of them also told me that he had heard that two fighter planes had had a mid-air collision, and that this was the cause of the crash, while the other had heard it was a single plane. As I listened to their story, it became clear that I was seeing the last vestiges of the formation of an urban legend. For the kids on the playground, it wasn’t enough that a plane had crashed, it had to be two fighter planes hitting each other mid-air. And it wasn’t enough that bodies were removed, they had to invent grisly details involving how they were removed.

They gave me a lot of information about the local reaction to the crash, though, and they were rather fascinating individuals in their own rights, once they got onto subjects other than the plane crash. All in all, I was happy that they had come to visit.

We closed out the day, and I sent the crew home. I once again had to spend time waiting for deputies to show up and take un-fired bullets off of my hands. With that, I went home.

The next morning, I noticed that my crew members seemed to be a bit frazzled and tired. At first I made nothing of it, but as the day wore on, we got to talking. It turned out that they had been having trouble sleeping due to nightmares. The nightmares varied, but all of them included visions of or interactions with the pilot and gunner of the plane. This is, perhaps, not surprising – while we are all accustomed to dealing with human remains, we usually are working with the remains of people who have been dead for hundreds if not thousands of years, and who had a culture different enough from our own that we don’t feel a greater kinship with them than we do with people that we hear about on the nightly news. These two, however, were from a recent enough period in our own culture’s past that we know many people of their generation, and as a result, we felt closer to them than to other people that we have studied. While this didn’t cause me nightmares (I had one nightmare and it was entirely based around trying to get the project’s report in on time, therefore pretty obviously a standard stress dream), it is understandable that it did have this effect on the other people working on the project.

Later that day, the client rep came back by, and brought with her an aircraft historian and an aircraft crash historian – if the crash historian sounds a little overly-specific to you…well, it does to me too. However, the guy knew his stuff, and was very helpful in aiding us to more narrowly focus our work (helping us to determine which aircraft parts would lack identifying elements, and therefore which parts we need not be too worried about).

The days continued to pass. The client brought a few guests, mostly representatives and important people from local government agencies, to come out and see the project. For the most part, these folks were very respectful and pleasant. On one occasion, I did have to shoo someone away from the screens after they had repeatedly shoved their hands in while my crew and I were attempting to search the screens for material to be recovered. However, they were generally a good group of folks.

Unfortunately, something changed. I don’t know if it was plants coming in to bloom, or simply a change in wind direction, but starting on the third day, I began to have severe problems with hay fever. Every time the wind would blow over the nearby river corridor, my vision would become blurred by eyes that had filled with tears, and my nose began running rather like the nearby river. Medication helped a little, but I spent between 25-50% of any given day in this state, which did not improve my mood. As a result, I was far gruffer and less pleasant than, in truth, I had any right to be. I hope that I didn’t offend anyone too horribly, but I suspect that I did. Unfortunate, but not much I can do about that now.

The last day of field work finally arrived, and the day was chaotic. Numerous people from the client organization were present, members of the general public came by to have a look-see, and the forensic dogs had returned (and did an eerily good job of locating even small pieces of human remains this time). Most of these people did not present any problems, but a few of the over-eager ones kept trying to get inside of the fenced enclosure in which we were working to take photos of the materials that we were recovering. This created a few potential hazards, and I spent a lot of time trying to manage this, and allow my crew to continue working.

One of the stranger moments of this event came when a crew member noticed something unusually shiny on the ground. She bent over to look, and saw that it was a ring. She reached down to pick up the ring, and as it came up, a piece of bone came with it. The ring had never left the finger, and the bone from the finger was still inside. She quickly bagged it, and waved me over to have a look. It was also during this day that we discovered the remains of what appear to be the plane’s logbook, a set of topographic maps, and the wallet of one of the plane’s crew.

It was a busy and difficult enough day, and then the heavy equipment arrived.

A few large chunks of wreckage were still buried, including a part of the fuselage and one of the landing gear. As they were too heavy for the crew to lift, an excavator was called in from the construction site to bring them up. The process was closely supervised by both myself and my boss (who had arrived specifically for this purpose), and we ensured that no material fell away during the process. Needless to say, the sight of the large equipment moving in to place also attracted a number of other spectators – luckily, it also kept them back at a safe distance. This also resulted in the exposure of more of the plane’s rubber fuel bladder, which resulted in the lovely smell of petroleum permeating everything in the vicinity.

Once the last of the wreckage had been brought to the surface, the historians returned along with members of the local historical society, and we began to sort it into material to be subjected to further study (primarily materials that could be used to definitely confirm the plane’s identity).

Once we had finished with the recovery, we took the material back to the lab for further analysis and processing. After a few days of work to make sure that we had separated out all of the human remains, we turned these over to the coroner, and the plane parts were also turned over to the proper authorities. There was talk of re-burying materials where they had been found, but my boss carefully explained to the proponents of this idea that the families of the plane’s crew would probably like to be able to bury their remains elsewhere, and that it was illegal to dispose of human remains in this fashion.

Once we had turned all materials over to the proper authorities, we had to write the report, which meant that we had to determine whether the crash site was eligible for federal, state, or local historical registers. That’s the subject of Part 4.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Not-so Disturbing Photos

A while back, I wrote about getting bit by a "meat bee," and I said that I had taken photos of my hand but lost them.

Well, I found them - and keep in mind that the swollen hand is somewhat less swollen than it had been because I had been given some steroid shots.

In my ass.

It was a fun day.

The swollen hand:

Looks good for Kay's "Ruby tuesday," really.

And for comparison - the other, non-swollen hand for comparison:

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Charles Darwin - Slave Master

I’ll get back to the regularly scheduled plane crash coverage shortly, but I heard something today that just blew my mind due to its sheer inanity. I am not upset by what I heard – it’s so silly that it would be hard to get upset – just awed at the sheer weirdness of it, and interested in the psychological and social processes that are probably behind it.

If you spend time listening to what the various public creationism advocates have to say (and yes, I actually do listen to them – I don’t reject their claims out of hand, I reject them because I have yet to hear one that actually holds water), you get accustomed to hearing them claim that every form of social ill can be placed at the feet of what they label as “Darwinism” (what the rest of us call “acceptance of reality”). These often end up as an argument that has come to be known as the reductio ad hitlerium – claiming that acceptance of evolution led to Nazism*. However, sometimes they are more subtle – the Discovery Institute is very good at making false anti-evolution claims that are subtle and clever enough to appear plausible if you don't bother to look too closely.

Anyway, I heard one today that was so bizarre that I was left just staring and thinking “where the hell did this person come up with THAT?” That was before I burst into laughter.

I was listening to a podcast of a call-in radio show. The topic had to do with religion, politics, and morality, but did not directly involve evolution/creationism. One fellow called in from Sacramento and stated that the Bible held no teachings that would be repugnant to a reasonable person. When one of the guests asked the caller about the bible’s acceptance of slavery (after all, it was written in the ancient Middle East, where slavery was very common and important to the economy of many city-states), the caller stated:

“The Bible doesn’t teach slavery. Slavery came from Charles Darwin, who claimed that all Africans were negroids and only fit to be slaves.”

I have heard people try to attribute slavery to the acceptance of evolution before, but usually in a less direct way. This guy was really in a bizarre class all his own, and I rather suspect that he’d be booed off-stage even at a creationist convention.

Okay, first off, Charles Darwin was opposed to slavery.

Second, Charles Darwin was a naturalist, not a world leader. How would he have instituted Slavery, even if he had wanted to? His ideas were hotly debated for some time after he published, so it’s not as if politicians immediately began jumping on the bandwagon

Third, slavery has been around since before recorded history. Racial slavery dates to at least the 16th century, when slave ships brought Africans to the Americas. Darwin was born in AD 1809. Origin of Species was published in 1859, at the final bow of U.S. slavery and well after it had been outlawed in England. So, what is the caller proposing? Time travel?

Fourth, there is no fourth! Look upon my fourth, oh mortal, and despair....wait a minute, I think I was channeling Ozymandius there for a moment...sorry about that.

And, of course, slavery is discussed in the Bible, sometimes with approval (provided that owners followed certain rules) and sometimes only as a fact of life in the ancient Middle East, but it is discussed nonetheless - proving that this guy not only knows nothing about history, but hasn’t even read the book he’d called to defend. Racially-based slavery as we now think of it is somewhat different from slavery in the ancient Middle East and much more recent, but it still predates ol’ Charlie by a few centuries.

And, again, as I know someone will think I’m upset, I’m not. But sometimes you just get struck by how bizarre some people’s beliefs can get, especially when they are trying to justify a claim at odds with reality such as “evolution leads to evil”. It’s actually rather fascinating.

*It is true that the Nazis did rely on a misunderstanding (possibly intentional) of evolution in some of their pro-Aryan propaganda. However, it is also true that they appealed to the religious views of much of the German population (which was largely anti-semitic) as well as the general non-scientific and non-religious patriotic attitudes of many Germans. So, if you’re going to lay blame for the Holocaust on evolution, any well-informed person will also have to give at least equal blame to patriotism and religion.

Or you could just accept reality and see it as the very deadly culmination of several centuries of German history, beginning with pogroms in the Medieval period. Ultimately, the origins of the anti-semitic sentiments lay before the origins of modern science, and whatever their initial impetus (religious or provincialism/tribalism), had very much taken on a life of their own by the 1930’s (often adopting the veneer of piety or research in order to justify pre-existing beliefs), and were exacerbated by conditions at the end of WWI and the nature of German government and society in the 1920’s. If you want a good discussion of how the extreme conditions of the post-WWI era led to the rise of radical political movements, including but not limited to the Nazis, go here.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Plane Crash - Part 2

Welcome to a series of entries on one of the most bizarre projects that I have been involved with. This is Part 2, which involves corpse-sniffing dogs and my car becoming a human remains transport. Go here for Part 1, which describes how this all began. If you've already read Part 2, go here for Part 3.


One of the first steps in executing our plan for recovering the human remains from the wreckage was bringing in trained forensics dogs and their equally trained (and very professional) handlers. These folks were really quite patient and delightful to work with. Unfortunately, lack of sleep and an abundance of stress made me not so pleasant, and I hope that I did not leave a permanently bad impression, though I suspect I may have.

Regardless, these folks claimed that the dogs could not only find relatively recent bodies, but also could find older bone. I was skeptical of this claim, and the first day was certainly inauspicious. The dogs were having a good deal of difficulty finding anything, which we later learned was due to the large amount of petroleum vapor in the air (the smell was overpowering even for those of us who don’t have sensitive noses). When the dogs returned a few days later, they pin-pointed even small pieces of bone with an almost eerie accuracy and sped us up considerably. However, on that first day, we were left with little to go on. So, we began to work out which piles of excavated soil belonged with the layer that contained the wreckage, and which belonged to the pile that contained only the over-burden.

I was also short-staffed on that first day. Our original plan had been to sort through the soil containing the materials by hand, scraping soil out of the pile with our trowels and looking for bone. We had underestimated the amount of soil that we would have to deal with, or over-estimated our soil-scraping prowess. Regardless, we moved more slowly than we had previously assumed. Luckily, we were assisted by the forensic professor from the university and her 14 year-old daughter, who proved to be quite handy with the trowel and bone identification.

Please indulge me in a bit of an aside. I remember that, when I was 14, parental bonding usually took the form of catching a movie, going for a walk, or working on some sort of craft project together. I valued these experiences, certainly, and see their value more and more the older I get. However, I have to say, I would probably have much clearer memories of these events (not to mention better stories) if I had helped my parents recover corpses. I can just see the high-school hallway discussions now:

Teen 1: “So, my dad and I went out camping this weekend. It was okay. What did you do?”

Teen 2: “I helped my mom recover a corpse from a field, and then collected specimens from the maggot population to determine time of death. We then handed them over to the coronerwith field observation notes to further determine whether the death was due to a fall, or a screwdriver sticking out of the torso.”

Teen 1: “Uuuhhhhmmm…yeah…”

…ahh, those halcyon days of youth. But I digress…

At any rate, the professor and her daughter were extremely helpful and their participation was greatly appreciated. However, I decided by the end of the day that we would return to the field on the second day with the standard archaeological screens and an additional field technician (which would, with the help of the professor and two graduate students, speed us up and increase our accuracy immensely).

During the course of the day, we also encountered numerous unfired bullets from the plane’s machine guns – this was after a military unexploded ordnance “expert” surveyed the scene and announced that there were no bullets in the area. Several people, none of them experts themselves, assured me that old bullets were harmless – but after hearing the stories of a former military police officer who had some experience with UXO, I was not inclined to take their word for it. We took each bullet and put it in a bag that was a good distance away from us, and behind a thick berm.

Early in the day, a coroner’s detective came out to the field to talk with us about proper treatment of the human remains that we anticipated encountering. At the end of the day, I called the detective, sent the rest of the crew home, and waited in the field for the detective to arrive. It was kind of nice, it was quiet, I could hear the breeze blowing over the strawberry fields, and I got my first quiet rest for the day. A short while later, I saw the Sherriff’s cruiser coming up the dirt road towards where I was working. At the wheel of the car was the detective from earlier in the day.

After the car parked, the detective got out and walked towards the wreckage. I joined him, and we spoke for a few minutes about what had occurred that day and what my plans were for the rest of the week. He had no problem with my change in approach, and was pleased with the methods that we intended to implement. After we had finished that, I showed him the boxes that contained the material that we had recovered that day, and I asked if he wanted me to put the boxes int eh car that he had brought.


I was a bit dumbfounded. After all, human remains go to the coroner – why was the coroner telling me that he didn’t want them in the car? Was he expected some other vehicle to do the pick up? A coroner’s van? An unmarked vehicle? An airlift? A deer-drawn sleigh looking for some extra money during the off-season, perhaps? So, I asked “what would you like me to do with them?”

“Well,” the detective looked off and appeared to be somewhat annoyed, though it wasn’t clear what he was annoyed with, “you only have a small portion of what is in there” he indicated the partially-buried wreckage.


“So, you will have more in the next few days.”


“It makes more sense for us to take custody all at once than to take it in parts.”

While the detective was making sense, I wasn’t keen on transporting relatively recent body parts around. Still, I didn’t know what else to say, so I said “I see.”

“So, you should keep ahold of them until you’re finished out here. Also, that’ll give us time to work things out with the Navy. They haven’t wanted to get involved yet, and that’s pretty strange.”

And so my car – a strangely-colored Ford Escort hatchback – become a human remains transport. There are few people who have carried human remains around in their trunks, and fewer still, I’ll wager, who did so at the instructions of the coroner’s office.

The detective left, and I had to wait for another hour yet for a deputy to show up and take possession of the unfired bullets. When he arrived, he had a few other deputies with him. When they first showed up, they seemed to be going out of their way to appear macho and in charge – hips thrust forward, walking with exaggerated steps, hands on their hips, next to their guns and pepper spray (no coincidence there, I suspect). But after a few minutes out there, they all took on a demeanor more like excited schoolboys, asking questions about the plane crash, what we know the plane, of the pilot and gunner, and of the processes that resulted in the plane being buried. In all, they were pretty cool guys who just needed to remember that they don’t need to try to intimidate everyone that they encounter. Regardless, by the end of their visit, they had decided to work the crash site into the night-time patrols of the area, meaning that it would have better security.

And with that, the deputies left, and I followed. I headed back to the office to drop stuff off, then I headed home for a shower. After the shower, I headed over to a friend’s house for the evening. I sat down at the table next to another visitor – a friend named Thomas. Thomas had been on an internet chat site earlier in the day, and someone had brought up the plane crash – it was a fairly prominent local news story. In the ensuing discussion, someone had begun to comment that the plane crash “sure sounded like the work of a Japanese sleeper cell” (in fact, when one knows the facts, it sounds more like mechanical failure) and then proceeded to use this to try to produce a justification for the Japanese internment. It’s amazing how the paranoid delusions of the present can be used to justify the crimes of the past.

And so ended the first day. The rest of the week was a bit of a blur, and I should be able to cover it in one or two more entries, but the first day stands out in my memory. So, look out soon for Part 3.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Plane Crash - Part 1

A little over a year ago, I ended up assigned to one of the odder, and more interesting, projects I have so far had the good fortune to work on. The project was strangely amazing, but also a circus – complete with exaggerated urban legends, corpse-sniffing dogs, a would-be intrepid reporter who was more silly than intrepid, internet commentors attempting to justify the Japanese internment, renowned forensics experts, literal grave robbers, and a strangely-colored Ford Escort used to carry human remains. Unfortunately, for professional reasons, I can’t give out all of the details, but suffice to say that the story became more interesting than what I have written here.

I should say, from the outset though, that I was uniformly impressed by the actions and attitudes of our client, the interest of most members of the community, and the work of the Sherriff’s department. As strange as this experience was, these folks routinely did quite well under very unusual circumstances.

The story began on a clear and cold morning in January, 1944. On the way back to Crows Landing Air Field after night-time training excercises, a SBD-5 Dauntless dive-bomber crashed for unknown reasons into a river floodplain on the California coast. Because the floodplain was a large mudflat at the time, it took several days for Navy personnel to reach the plane and recover what they could of the plane and the bodies of the pilot and the gunner/radioman. Soon thereafter mud from the river’s flooding covered the plane wreckage that had remained, and the plane crash faded into a vague (or, as I would soon learn, sometimes greatly exaggerated) memory, and was finally forgotten by all but those who witnessed the crash…

…until July of 2007, when a construction crew hit the plane with a backhoe. Initially, the crew thought that they had hit a buried garbage pile – a not uncommon occurrence in the largely rural area – but the smell of petroleum and the nature of the material that they had hit soon convinced them otherwise. Shortly after this, my boss was called in to have a look, and it was quickly apparent that the crew had hit a mid-20th century plane wreck, complete with bullets indicating that it was a military plane. My boss consulted with the appropriate government agencies, and then returned to the office where he and I began working out a strategy for recovering plane wreckage and possible human remains.

For the usual red-tape reasons, it was a couple of weeks before we could begin work. In the interim, a person who remains unknown to this day managed to get their hands on a backhoe, and raided the crash site. The construction crew was abuzz with claims about the reason why the thief had stopped digging when they did. Whether these claims were supposition on their part or a whether a member of the construction crew knew who the thief was, I do not know. Regardless. This incident resulted in the construction of a temporary chain-link fence around the crash site, and the fence was successful in keeping further thieves away.

The following week, my boss and I met with Alison Galloway, the professor of forensic anthropology at UC Santa Cruz in order to discuss our plan for recovering remains with her. In all, she thought our plan was decent and workable – however, she cautioned us that we should have rubber gloves on hand. You see, when human fat is buried under the right circumstances, it can saponify, preserving it and some of the tissue in or around it ( rather gruseome site - you can look it up on the internet if you want to see some examples, but my advice is that you not do so). So, Dr. Galloway was warning us that we might run into this, and as a result, we should have appropriate protective equipment – i.e. rubber gloves. Thankfully, these ultimately proved unnecessary, and the remains we did were handled with appropriate care and respect - not an easy task considering much of what was going on around us.

Needless to say, the next time I spoke with my sister, who is studying to be a mortician, I told her of the professor's advice. She then posted a recap of our discussion on her blog. A few readers contacted her asking if I was single. The moral of the story – my sister’s blog attracts some freaky people.

The next day, my boss and I headed over to the job site in order to see what there was to see and adjust our plans accordingly. While there, we observed portions of the plane, old bullets, and pieces of silk from a parachute. We also observed the representative of our client, the construction proponent, in a bit of an odd mood.

As it happens, the representative had stopped at a nearby gas station to fill up her tank when she saw someone get out of a parked car and approach her – it was a reporter for the local newspaper. Turns out he’d been sitting in the gas station, waiting to see someone that he knew was connected with the plane wreckage, and now he had someone. He began asking questions that she was not prepared to answer, not because she was being tight-lipped, but because at this stage we didn’t really know anything yet. We had an idea of where the plane had come from (having found newspaper articles about the crash), but we had not yet found anything to clearly identify the plane as the one in the articles. I don’t know what exactly passed between the two of them, but our client’s rep was clearly somewhat non-plussed when we met up with her.

Around the time that she was telling us this story, two police cruisers pulled up, and out stepped four Sherriff’s deputies. And on their heels came the reporter. The representative spoke with the reporter, while my boss and I discussed with the deputies the process of dealing with what was after all an archaeological site, though admittedly a very strange one. After we had finished, the representative came back to speak with us, and the deputies went to speak with the reporters. The deputies explained the documentation and recovery process in which we were about to engage, and the reporter diligently wrote it down.

The next day, one of my coworkers came in and handed me a newspaper. The paper had a story on the plane, and the story implied that the plan for dealing with the wreckage was the Sherriff’s idea, and that my boss had little to do with it. So it goes.

After a few more days of prep, it was time for us to begin working. I’ll start that part of the story in Part 2.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

S.C.A. - Part III

This is Part 3. Part 1 is here, and Part 2 is here. This part deals with a political organization that works on church/state separation issues, so if discussion of these issues leaves you inclined to attack strawmen and insult blog writers, do us both a favor and skip the damn entry.

…so far we have my father, the Society for California Archaeology, the Student Conservation Association, and the Society for Creative Anachronism. Now onto the next S.C.A. with which I have become affiliated – the Secular Coalition of America.

Interestingly, my willingness to pitch in with this S.C.A. is partially linked to my experience with a previous S.C.A. – The Student Conservation Association. As I described, my time on the Air Force Base left me feeling rather disturbed at the degree to which that particular government agency was in the hands of a particular brand of hard-right wing Christianity. This coupled with my growing unease at the Bush administration’s willingness to cater to the same group, and the realization that both members of congress from both parties seemed to want to follow suit in order to gain votes.

Now, so that the easily-offended or presumptious don't assert that I hold a position that I do not hold, I'll discuss my concern a bit more thoroughly. Beginning with the 70’s, the group that has become known as the Religious Right – a minority group within Christianity, but one that has been very active in using political rhetoric and targeted voter drives to push their particular agenda - became active as a political force. Their effectiveness is well open to debate, and they have been used by politicians at least as often as they have used politicians (and arguably, the politicians have typically gotten the better of them). However, they are tenacious, and had managed to get some traction with the Bush administration - things such as the presidents regular discussions with a particular set of religious leaders, the Office of Faith Based Initiatives (which has proven to have a rather questionable track record), and the push to have laws passed that allow medical providers to refuse care for religious reasons* all come from this rather weird alliance.

Whatever their political gains or losses, the loosely-associated group of people, churches, and political groups known as the Religious Right have been very effective in promoting the notion among much of the population that they ARE Christianity. This is, of course, bunk. As with any huge number of people, there is so much variation amongst Christians that the notion that one particular sub-set or agenda can represent all or even most of them is absurd. However, the various entities comprising the Religious Right have nonetheless been so successful in branding themselves as the “defenders of Christianity” that even some Christians who disagree with them feel that they still have to vote in a particular way in order to remain “real” Christians (I have no idea how many Christians end up feeling this way, but I do know that it is not uncommon, based on conversations I have had with a large number of Christians who have made statements to that effect). This has also had the effect of convincing many non-Christians that Christians are generally judgmental, legalistic, hypocritical, and weirdly obsessed with the sex lives of others. Needless to say, such misconceptions run counter to the interest of the majority of Christians.

Concurrent with the appearance of the religious right as a political force, secular groups also began to appear. Contrary to the claims put forth by many of the more vocal Religious Right individuals and organizations, the secular groups have generally been both reactive and one step behind their opponents.

Like many people, I had stopped believing in any religion long ago, but paid religion itself little mind until the early 2000’s. Many folks would cite the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks as the catalysts that got them to be more critical of religion. This was not, however, the case for me. While I can not claim that they had no impact, what really hit me was the reaction from many of the vocal and politically active Religious Right groups and people AFTER the attacks.

To be certain, the majority of religious groups did not engage in divisive and needlessly inflammatory behavior in the aftermath**, but many did. We saw blame placed on everyone from Muslims at large to atheists to feminists to gays, with the accusers all conveniently ignoring the very real intersection of politics with history with economics with a particular brand of religion that actually caused the events. And what I began to notice was that I was seeing many examples of prominent would-be theocrats using these events, with varying degrees of success, to try to forward their own agenda. It is fortunate, perhaps, that they usually attached themselves to tried-and-true politicians who would use their support to get elected and then not follow through on their promises, either real or implied.

This caused me to become more concerned about church/state separation. One doesn’t need to be much of a student of history to know that government establishment of religious orthodoxy, whether through force or simply favoritism, tends to cause problems not only for the non-religious, but also for the religious that do not fall within that orthodoxy. And as most religious people don’t fall within the rigid orthodoxies that governments have often demanded, it is best for government to not endorse one for the benefit of everyone (the exception being the rather weak and milquetoast national churches of modern Europe, which were themselves often quite vicious before their de-fanging in the 19th and 20th centuries – look up the history of England if you doubt that). My experiences on the Air Force Base and the concurrent proseletyzing scandal at the Air Force Academy crystalized this concern, and led to me thinking more seriously about the nature of our politicl system.

Around this time, the next S.C.A. – the Secular Coalition for America – formed. It works as an umbrella organization for church/state separation organizations, and was able to put a lobbyist (now two) on Capitol Hill. Contrary to what many pundits like to claim, the S.C.A. is not anti-religious – in fact it spends a lot of time working with overtly religious groups that are in-touch enough with reality to see the necessity of enforcing the establishment clause – but it does actively lobby against government-enforced or government-espoused religion.

Like any political group, they take positions that I disagree with from time-to-time, or they choose to fight battles that I think are silly or inconsequential. However, the majority of the time, they do what I believe to be the right thing. Also, the S.C.A.’s model of working with religious groups to achieve common ends for the common interest is one that I think other secular organizations could learn a good deal from.

So, I support this organization with donations and, more importantly, by writing to my congressional representatives when issues that I feel are important come up. The ultimate value of this is simple – when the only people speaking out on issues are from the Religious Right, that’s who the elected officials tend to support. When people, religious and non-religious alike, who oppose those views speak up, we have a good chance of preventing poor policy.

So, check out the S.C.A., and while we’re at it, here’s the lobbyist, Lori Lippman-Brown, being interviewed by Stephen Colbert – trying to tempt him into illicit sex no-less!

...and in episodes 46, 53, 59, 68, 81, 89 of Skepticality she is interviewed.

While I can not claim to be completely satisfied with the S.C.A.'s work, I do think that they are doing a good job and that they tend to be realistic in their approach. I am, overall, supportive, and whether you are religious or not, you should check them out - odds are that if you have a good grasp on history and politics, and are reasonably intelligent, you'll also appreciate their work.

*No doubt somebody is going to start telling me that medical care providers should be allowed to refuse certain procedures and treatments based on their beliefs. In most professions, I would agree, but because medical care providers are often in shorts supply AND have very specialized knowledge that is not readily available elsewhere and difficult for the layman to clearly assess AND because we as a society invest them with a good amount of authority that most other people do not have AND because the structure of our health care system is such that second opinions can be difficult to come by, well, they are something of a special case, and should not be allowed to withhold, not discuss, or manipulate treatment by anything other than scientific medical standards. This is different than most other professions – including my own – where practitioners are relatively common, the work we do accessible enough for the layman to grasp, we are invested with relatively little authority, and we don’t alter the health or lives of others – and therefore we don’t need to be held to the same standards.

**Although even those who were generally doing good still went to some default assumptions that were, in light of what had just happened, very strange. I recall seeing an interview with a Catholic priest on September 12th. He was being interviewed as he was on his way to the site of the World Trade Center to help out – and admirable activity all the way around – and he was asked why he was going. He stated “I represent the opposite of what happened here. I represent faith.”

Now, he could have said that he represents peace, or that he represents love, or that he represents compassion, and I would have agreed and been right there with him, he was going in a hard time to try to do good and that was absolutely commendable. But faith is the opposite of what happened? Whatever else can be said about the guys who rammed the plane into the building, they absolutely had faith. That faith and conviction was in the service of a murderous and evil cause, but it was, nonetheless, faith and conviction. Faith was an element of what had happened, not the opposite of what had happened.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Morning in the Mountains

So, this is Monday filler, I suppose. I recently worked in the mountains testing archaeological sites for their eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places. While out there, I woke up early one morning and got these photos from the opening of my tent. I thought I'd share.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

S.C.A. - Part II

This is Part 2. For Part 1, go here, or you can go to Part 3

Once I had moved to Lompoc, I was introduced to the next S.C.A.: The Society for Creative Anachronism.

The Society for Creative Anachronism, for those who are unaware, is an organization dedicated to pseudo-historical recreation – as members often say, they celebrate “the Medieval Period as it should have been, not as it was.” Members dress in home-made armor, beat the crap out of each other with rattan sticks weighted to feel like swords, assume the titles of nobility, and don’t tend to invite plague rats to the festivities – historical accuracy be damned in the case of the bubonic sickness. I believe that the drudgery and duties of serfdom are contracted out to Halliburton.

Many of my friends have been members of this group, and one of my closest friends had been inviting me to events for years – despite the usual response of “umm, I’m really not interested, please stop bringing it up.” Living in a more isolated location, I felt lonely and a bit depressed, in all, the perfect conditions for cult recruitment. I will leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether or not I was lucky to be approached by the historical violence crowd instead.

Seeing the need to increase my social interaction, I finally agreed to attend an event. I had been part of the renaissance fair scene in my earlier, geekier life (yes, I was once even geekier than I am now – try not to pass out at that thought), and I had been assured that the Society for Creative Anachronism was rather different from the rather cliquish and often petty ren fair crowd, and thus might be more enjoyable for me.

At first, I did have fun. I had gotten involved with a group that fenced. That is, they fought with small swords (thus resulting in lighter armor and less concussions than the rattan stick folks), they didn’t sell stolen car radios…that I am aware of. It was fun for a while, a good way to get some exercise, social interaction, and a healthy place to blow of the stress and aggressions that came with a grad student’s life. And, at first, most of the people I associated with at the regular meetings were fun, easy-going folks. This began to change, however, as the months wore on.

The Society for Creative Anachronism holds regular events, some of them known as “wars” at which members meet, engage in mock-combat, and do various courtly things, all without any lepers present. I attended a few of these events. When they were close to home, this was fine, as I could return home at the end of the day and get some rest. When they were away from home, they required camping – an activity that I loathe under normal conditions, and dislike even further when I am surrounded by loud party-goers who prevent me from getting any rest. As a result, after my first event away from my home area, I only attended those within driving distance of my apartment. This resulted in getting harassed by many of the other folks in the group, including having a long-time friend repeatedly inform me that I was “lazy” for not attending such events, and “proselytizing” when I responded to questions as to why I was not attending them (more on why this was rather ironic below).

In addition, the cliquishness and often pettiness of SCA folks was different from the Renaissance Fair people in one basic way – it was even more pronounced and much, much worse. I later asked my friend what they had meant when they told me that the SCA was different from the Ren Fair people (and they always said this in response to my complaints about the social behavior), and she said that she had meant simply that the SCA people never left costume – how this in any way addressed the concerns that it was always stated in response to is beyond me.

Then three things happened in quick succession that pretty much killed any and all interest that I ever had in this group. The first was that I didn’t attend an event because I was attending a professional conference that was scheduled for the same weekend of the event. I was harassed by several members for my decision to attend the conference instead of the SCA event. The second was that I had a party at my apartment to which I invited a few members of the group, two of whom were extremely adamant about getting other guests to come and attend some SCA events despite the guest’s stated disinterest (creating problems that I had to spend a lot of time defusing after the fact, and that I still get teased about to this day). The third was that many members (a minority, to be certain, but a rather large minority) began to routinely pester me about the fact that I had not invested as much time and effort into the organization as they saw fit – I was treating it as a hobby and not a lifestyle and they found this distressing.

As this continued on, I found that while everyone agreed that there were obnoxious zealots in their midst, the most zealous routinely failed to see their own obnoxious behavior, though they were aware of that of others (when I called one proselytizing SCAer on their rather rude behavior, they stated that they were respectful of others and didn’t try to push people who weren’t interested, unlike “some other” SCA people – a claim contradicted by the regular behavior of this individual).

So, put simply, by not making this hobby into a lifestyle, I had managed to upset a sizeable minority who made interaction with the group rather distasteful. In addition, if these folks saw me around and about while I was with my professional colleagues, they tried to turn the situation into a recruitment opportunity, thus embarrassing me and annoying my colleagues.

And then there is the most common form of advancing in the organization: fighting. For all of the talk about the importance of studying the arts, crafts, and history of the Middle Ages, the group was really organized around the mock combat. In and of itself, this is fine – but if you are going to run a sports organization, just admit that this is what you are doing. Certainly, one could gain rank by other means, and some people did, but what I saw was that most people who came to any level of reputation did so through the fighting. It was rather like being back in high school, and seeing the academically-oriented clubs take a backseat to the football team.

So, I walked away. To be fair, those people who were friends of mine before I got involved are still friends (and are, thankfully, less likely to try to recruit me now), and a few of the folks I met while involved with this SCA are still friends. Nonetheless, the behavior of something in the neighborhood of 35%-40% of the members I came into contact with turned me off for life. And I have spoken with folks who have encountered the SCA in other cities and states, and found that my experience is fairly common.

Coming soon - Part III, in which I become aligned with the people who invite Stephen Colbert to orgies.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

S.C.A. - Part 1

Three letters should not rule your world. Nonetheless, I should have seen this coming, after all, the initials of my father, the man from whom I received half of my DNA, are S.C.A. For most of my life, these three letters had no significance to me other than that they were my father’s initials.

And then came graduate school.

Like most archaeologists working in California, I joined the Society for California Archaeology as a graduate student. It was a simple affair – I filled out the application, sent in my membership dues, selected my interest categories, participated in the ritual blood-letting and candle-lit orgy in honor of A. L. Kroeber, and I was part of the tribe. It was another S.C.A. with which I had become associated, but that was fine – the pattern had not yet revealed itself.

The Society for California Archaeology provided me with all manner of opportunities for self-abuse and over-burdening. It was here that I began my current habit of public speaking as a professional archaeologist. I began with a paper delivered at the annual meeting, held in Sacramento in 2005. In 2006, the meeting was in Ventura, and I presented two papers. In 2007, in San Jose, I not only presented a paper, but was also co-chair of a symposium that has now turned into an upcoming book for which I have written a chapter. All in all, this S.C.A. was good for my career and bad for my blood-pressure.

My next S.C.A. experience came a year later, when I was recruited for an internship at Vandenberg Air Force Base through the Student Conservation Association. On the whole, it was a positive experience – I learned a good deal about how federal facilities and agencies handle their obligations under the National Historic Preservation Act, I had numerous opportunities to interact with elders and monitors from the Santa Ynez Chumash Reservation, and I was placed in a group that worked for (no I am not making this up) the Air Force’s Space Command (I even met a Sgt. James T. Kirk who worked for Space Command – no I’m not making that up either – I could never figure out why he hadn’t been promoted to captain).

Vandenberg has amazing cultural resources. My job was part paper-pushing (dealing with the basic bureaucracy of managing a large number of cultural resources on a large piece of land) and partially field-based (I used to spend half a day each week visiting endangered sites to see what condition they were in and whether they would need further protection or excavation to prevent the loss of archaeological information to erosion). I also monitored construction work to ensure that archaeological sites were not damaged – one time I even had to monitor construction done by a convict work gang – an odd experience by anyone’s standard.

I went to do the internship on the Air Force Base at the same time that the Air Force Academy was being investigated for aggressive and hostile proselytization of non-Evangelical Christians. The Air Force concluded that the behavior at the academy was inappropriate, but not worthy of extensive action. I cannot speak for the Air Force Academy, but if my base was any indication, then I suspect that those investigating may have been foxes sent to watch the hen house. I never had anyone actively try to recruit me, but the displeasure with non-Protestants was often made known.

For example – every meeting with military officers began with a prayer. And not just any prayer, but one that was clearly Christian, and of a born-again variety. I sat through presentations given by high-ranking officers in which they explained that “we have to tolerate ‘non-Christians’” which included Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Pagans, atheists, and so on, naturally. But the definition of “non-Christian” used by these officers bizarrely included such clearly Christian groups as Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons (yes, they are Christian, most of what you heard is likely distorted or urban legend), and members of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The nature of the presentations made it clear that the officers always thought that they were speaking solely to a particular brand of right-wing Protestant and nobody else, even while the statistics they gave clearly indicated that many other types of folks were always in the audience.

Also, it was official policy that politics and religion were not to be discussed in the work place. It was also well known that this policy was ignored provided that the religion being advocated was Christianity and that the politics being embraced were those of the Republican Party.

So, on the whole, the experience was valuable, but in large part valuable by shaping my views of the disturbing nature of mixing religion with government. Remember, these folks loved Book of Revelation-themed literature such as “Left Behind” and often spoke about how they looked forward to the “End of Days” – and these people have access to nuclear weapons.

Also, I moved to Lompoc to facilitate the internship. And once I had moved to Lompoc, I was introduced to the next S.C.A.: The Society for Creative Anachronism. That is a story for Part 2.

Or you can be a slacker-ass and go to .Part 3.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Argument Primer

Sorry that I haven't posted more often. I have spent the last three weeks recording archaeological sites in central California, have been working on two papers for publication, and both to see friends and to celebrate my birthday, I spent the weekend in Santa Barbara with Kay. Needless to say, I have been rather busy.

But, I saw this and thought it was worth directing your attention. Skeptigirl has posted a primer for making arguments. I rather like it, and I think it's a good set of ground rules for discussion. I would add one thing, though.

Skeptigirl rightfully spends a fair amount of time pointing out that both arguers need to be able to state a clear position that they are trying to advance. However, it is equaly important that when someone argues against your position, that they actually argue against your position and not against a position that they are attributing to you. In truth, this would fall under the logical fallacies that Skeptigirl discusses, but it is common enough that I think it deserves specific mention.

For example - whenever I state that I think that supernatural claims (inclusing everything from astrology to ghosts to religion) should be just as subject to scrutiny and criticism as mundane non-supernatural claims, somebody starts claiming that I think that religious people should be stripped of their rights to speech, to raise their children, to worship, etc. etc. This is, of course, bullshit. I simply state that assertions made based on supernatural claims should not be privileged above other assertions, and that supernatural beliefs should not be exempted from the criticism that ALL beliefs are (or at least should be) subjected to.

To claim that I am in favor of stripping anyone of their rights is not only to claim that I am in favor of something that I am not in favor of, but to claim that I am in favor of something that I actually find to be abhorrent.

Likewise, when discussing the recent Proposition 8 with people, I routinely found that people were attributing all manner of beliefs to me that I do not hold and that were even antithetical to every belief that I do hold - including a commentor on this site claiming that I hold a position that I do not and that I believed that supporters of the proposition and religious organizations should be stripped of the right to free speech.

This strawman tactic is a comon one in debate, common enough that I think that it deserves special mention. The reason why it is used is obvious - sometimes the person useing it clearly believes that they are making a correct assertion despite the evidence to the contrary (such as, oh I don't know, the person with whom they are arguing never having made the claim in question). Other times, though, it is used to try to put someone on the defensive so that they are thrown off and are unable to make their arguments as effectively as they otherwise could.

Regardless, I like Skeptigirl's entry, and I recommend checking it out.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Theoretically Speaking

Garbage doesn’t usually speak for itself.

Archaeology is the study of garbage.

Yes, I know, everyone outside of archaeology knows archaeologists as the guys (and, for whatever reason, the general conception amongst the public is that archaeologists are male) who unearth temples, open tombs, find ancient religious relics, and discover lost cities. And there is some truth to this, as work at the pyramids of South America and the excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings will attest.

But most of the time we are digging through the trash piles, midden heaps, dumps, and privies. And this is as it should be – after all, all human activities leave behind waste. A big temple will tell you that something was going on at a location, but not what was going on. A look at the refuse can tell you whether this place was used for feasting, sacrifice, pilgrimage, or some other thing altogether. A tomb will tell you about how people died, but a garbage dump will tell you what they used, ate, and otherwise consumed while they lived. What’s more, garbage is left behind wherever humans act – flaked stone is left behind at even ephemeral hunting blinds, privy pits are sometimes all that remains of historic homesteads, and prehistoric village sites are littered with the remains of food, tools, and general living.

But, as I say, garbage doesn’t usually speak for itself. Once you have found the garbage, you have to figure out what it means. What do the stone flakes, animal bones, burials, and other assorted residues of human existence actually mean? This is where theory* comes into play.

So, for example, right now I am working on a project analyzing animal bone from two archaeological sites in Kern County. I have figured out that the majority of the bone comes from deer, a small amount from rodents, and an even smaller amount from birds, fish, and small animals other than rodents. So, what the hell does this mean?

Well, I can use models developed from theory that examines hunting behaviors from a standpoint of both risk assessment and calories gained per unit of energy spent and determine that deer must have been abundant in the local environment for the smaller, safer, and easier to get animals such as rabbit to have been ignored. So, I have learned something about how the people at this site interacted with their environment.

I can then use models developed from theory that is based on power relations within families and within communities to try to figure out what it means that hunting deer (a primarily male activity) is the primary source of meat, while acorn pounding (a primarily female activity, and one that usually determines settlement patterns) is still the primary source of daily food. From this, I may learn something about the social organization between genders.

And models from both of these different lines of inquiry can be used together to create a more complex model of human behavior – how do human interaction with the environment and social and gender organization influence each other? How does this influence food gathering? Settlement patterns? Short- and long-term sustainability of a particular mode of life?

Theory applicable to archaeology comes from a wide range of traditions and positions, and forms of theory tend to have names that either over-explain or obfuscate the nature of the models that they contain. For example, I have used optimal foraging theory, population theory, rational actor theory (which is tied to optimal foraging theory), identity theory, Marxist theory (which, no, is not about communism), feminist theory, etc. etc. etc. Each of these theories takes some aspect of human behavior (the need to get food, the need to procreate, the desire to earn or maintain prestige, the formation of cliques and classes within a culture) and seeks to explain what the material remains of past people are telling us about these aspects of humanity.

In all, this variety of theoretical stances and models provides us with a huge toolkit for interpreting the past and trying to figure out just what the hell our ancestors were up to. Strangely, though, it is common for many archaeologists to simply take a small sample of theory – sometimes limiting themselves to just one – and try to apply this to everything.

And as the old saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Case in point: I read an article once (I don’t have the book on me – I’m at a hotel in Fresno at the moment – otherwise I’d cite it) which was about the examination of pottery taken from an 18th century worker’s home in the eastern US. The article noted that at a given point in time, the pottery found in the locations of wealthy households changed, while the pottery found at the working-class home stayed the same. It was noted that the new pottery was more expensive than the old, and that the working-class households were quite poor, but the author went on to reject the idea that the higher cost of the newer pottery had anything to do with the worker’s refusal to change pottery.

You see, the author of this particular article was quite enamored with identity theory – a branch of social theory that examines how people, groups, and communities form and display their individual and shared identities (formation of neighborhood identities, social classes, nationalism, ethnicity, etc.). As a devotee of this particular branch of theory, the author rather foolishly forgot that there are other valid lines of theory, and rejected that economics likely did play a large role in the selection of pottery.

This is not to say that identity formation and display played no role – the wealthy people certainly were making purchases that made little sense financially but did make sense from a symbolic and social point of view (in other words, they appear to have been of the “if you got it, flaunt it” mindset, or were pushed into it by their culture), and this likely played a role in the formation of the identity of the working class people around their (they may have come to view the lower-cost pottery as one of the markers of their station in life), but economics definitely played a role – if the higher cost of the new pottery is what separated it from the old pottery, then it is rather absurd to discard that as an explanation for the lack of adoption of the new pottery in favor of a more ephemeral “identity” line of inquiry.

Now let’s be clear, most archaeologists don’t take such a narrow view of human behavior as to seek to explain it all through one aspect of human behavior. Most of us realize that the food quest is but one aspect of life, sex is another, seeking prestige is another, solidarity (or lack of solidarity) with other people is yet another, and so on and so forth, and that all of these aspects of life interact and influence each other. Humans are dense balls o’ motives and actions, and to focus on one element of our lives as the driving force behind everything creates a weird sort of myopia that will always eventually lead you down the wrong path.

But, nonetheless, there is a minority that not only does this sort of thing, but is even proud about it.

Okay, so you’re probably thinking “heh, foolish academics, what else do you expect from them?” So, I should say that while this is most obvious with academics, it’s something that I see everyone do.

For example, it’s very common for many of the people that I know to talk about the free market as the great panacea for all of our economic ills. A simplification of one aspect of the argument goes something like this: the individual is a consumer. The consumer will, all things being equal, make rational choices with their money (this can be generalized into other resources as well). Therefore, if the same item is sold for two different prices, then the consumer will choose the lower price. It is, therefore, in the best interest of the Producer A to produce at the lowest possible cost so that the buyer will choose the products of Producer A and not those of Producer B. This drives costs down, which also increases consumption as the consumer can afford more, thus maintaining demand, and keeping the producer producing, and allowing more consumption, so that money cycles through the system. Greed, a productive force that gets a bad rap, keeps the system in check – it ensures that the consumer will seek the lowest price, and also ensures that producers will try to provide the lowest price so as to appeal to the consumer. The desire to sell the most and make the most money will keep producers in check so that they do not cooperate and stiff the consumer.

That’s a definite over-simplification of Adam Smith’s ideas of capitalism. His ideas are actually much more intricate, and quite fascinating, and deal for example with issues of innovation rather than simply price as a way of getting money. But, that’s the nut-shell version.

It sounds good – it relies on greed, an emotion we all have, to keep a system running, and it assumes that we will go for the lower prices, and thus provides an impetus for the producer to sell for as low as they can. And there is a lot of truth to it – competition frequently leads to lower prices, people usually will pay the least they can for a given commodity, and so on. I like this model a lot. It explains a lot, and it frequently works.

But it doesn’t always work for a simple reason – it assumes that the driving motive behind human economic activity is the desire to spend as little for as much as possible. And, well, this isn’t quite accurate.

For example, if Producer A and Producer B both produce jeans, Producer A may start calling theirs “designer jeans” and put a little logo on it. They may even make them less practical as an item of clothing, but they may be able to sell them for more than Producer B (who makes sensible and well-made jeans) because people perceive the “designer jeans” as being more prestigious. Economic interests fall in the face of the desire for prestige. This also explains why odd vehicles, such as the consumer versions of the Hummer, have sold as well as they have, despite being wildly impractical from an economic standpoint. Also, it has been shown time and again that producers will cooperate to fix prices, contrary to the model.

And, to be fair, the same is true for the Marxist, who believes that class solidarity is the driving power behind human behavior, when it is really only one of many.

In fact, there are very few “movement” ideologies that do not make this mistake – which is not to say that the members of a given social or political movement make the mistake themselves, but this type of error is rife in most ideologies. Do you believe that people are motivated primarily by laziness? Greed? Loyalty? Sex? The desire to do good? The desire to show off? People are motivated by all of these things, often all at the same time. To assume that even something as narrow as economic behavior can be explained by one motive is to shut out all of the various different drives clamoring for the attention of each individual, and anyone seeking to understand (or make policy for) society needs to understand that.

Wow, this entry took a long and extended detour away from archaeology…so I suppose we should get back to the discipline that I actually know something about those of us who study garbage with the intention of knowing about the people who generated it. Any archaeologist worth their salt will understand that we have a large toolbox at our disposal for understanding our fellow simians. The good ones use try as many tools as they can before settling on the set for a given problem.

See, an education in archaeology isn’t just good for the archaeologist, it can make you grumpy towards everyone!

*Theory is one of the most abused and misused words in the English language. People think, due to misinformation fed to them in their elementary school classes, that a theory is merely a hypothesis that hasn’t been tested enough to be called a “law.” This isn’t the case at all. Theories are complex edifices of information, conclusions, and bridging arguments. Some theories are very hypothetical – such as many from theoretical physics – while others are well established as factual accounts of how the world works – such as gravity, evolution, and the germ theory of disease. So dismissing something as “only a theory” (a statement often used to dismiss evolution) is a bit like saying that a vehicle with four wheels and powered by an internal combustion engine isn’t a car because it’s “only a Chevy.” It makes no sense.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

...and sometimes they do their job...

Have you heard of Kevin Trudeau? No, he's not the guy who writes Doonesbury. Rather, he's the guy who was convicted of fraud some years back, and due to restrictions placed on his commercial activities by the FTC, he took ato writing books such as "Natural Cures THEY Don't Want you to Know About" in which he dispenses medical advice that ranges from the useless to the downright dangerous and is always fraudulent.

Well, after a few such books which did far more harm than good, the FTC has finally come down on him again.

Okay, I know that many folks will have a poor view of regulatory agencies in general, and others will have a poor view of the FTC in particular, and I'm not really interested in arguing about that. Right or wrong, there is simply something satisfying about seeing a con artist get comeuppance.

(tip o' the hat to skepchick)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I Swear!

Growing up, I often heard the adults around me say "someone who swears is someone with a small vocabulary and a smaller mind" (and as we became teenagers, one of my younger sisters would often say this in a snotty tone of voice when someone else swore – but that never stopped her from doing the same). Even as a kid I knew this was a stupid claim. If you swear, then you have demonstrated that you know the swear words appropriate to the situation. In other words, you know words – which is not the sign of a small vocabulary OR a small mind.

Now, if you are incapable of expressing yourself without these words, okay, that may indicate that you could stand to buy a thesaurus. But knowing and using these words does not, in and of itself, indicate a small vocabulary, mind, or any other such thing. In fact, not having these words in your arsenal shrinks your vocabulary by definition.

I have a very large vocabulary – some would even say an abnormally large one. Yet, I swear. I do it when I want to emphasize a point, express a strong reaction, or do some other thing that requires a word that is considered forceful. For example, if I am sick of someone bothering me, I may tell them "go away." If I want to make sure that they understand that I am angry with them and I REALLY want them to go away, I'll tell them to "fuck off!" Both phrases mean the same basic thing – go away, you're bothering me – but the emphasis is different, and as all communication is contextual, that makes all of the difference. There are many people who I can say "go away" to, even yelling it at them, and they will continue pestering me – I have never had anyone continue doing so after I tell them to "fuck off," no matter how mild the tone in which I say it. In other words – the words one chooses to convey a message carry meaning even if the content of the message is the same – and swearing is one of many tools that a person has to convey meaning – just as vulgarity is not always the best way to get a point across, so is eloquence not always the best way.

So, if this is the case, how come so many people feel so strongly about people using these words? Simple – habit.

Words such as "shit," "piss," "fuck," and so on were not always considered to be vulgar. Anyone who has read court documents from Renaissance knows that many of these words were routinely used in the most polite of polite company. Even that word that is considered by many to be the pinnacle of vulgarity – "cunt" – has a long and perfectly respectable heritage. These were considered no more offensive than their clinical counterparts (defecate, urinate, copulate, and vagina - respectively) are today. Actually, even the clinical counterparts still carry some social sting – which comes to the interesting thing about all of these words – they are almost all related to bodily functions, sex, or sexual anatomy. This is not a coincidence – the very social prohibitions and forces that prevent us as a society from actually having an adult conversation about sex (and thus prevent us from realistically addressing issues such as STD's, abortions, birth control, etc.) are the ones that make us go giggly or gasp when we hear someone refer to "shit."

Now, I am no expert on the subject, but if I had to place a bet, I would say that the transformation from perfectly respectable words to "unspeakable vulgarity" is probably an inheritance from those folks who managed to get themselves worked up about everything dealing with the human body – the Victorians. I can think of plenty of times when I saw words that are now considered vulgar in "respectable" contexts that date to before the 19th century – and none that date to after this period. Now, I may be wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Victorians bare the brunt of the blame for this obsession with "bad words."

Regardless, we now consider these words to be "bad" because we have been trained to think of them as "bad" – it is standard operant conditioning, the sort of thing that any first-year psychology student understands full well. And because of this, there is a simple way to deal with the issue – lose our sense of shock when we hear these words. If people weren't shocked when I told them to "fuck off," then it would be no more effective than if I had simply said "go away." If you really feel strongly that vulgarity should be reduced, then you have an obligation to start with yourself and stop reacting to it. Better yet, use it every once in a while – make it boring, rob it of its shock value. These words won't go away, but our reaction can be reasonable and not, well, superstitious, as it is today.

So, to get back to the original point – these words are just that, words. They have no mystical powers, they carry no negative energy, they are simply words. They are only offensive because we as a society decide they are offensive, and we really need to grow up.

Of course, if we do grow up, that will make it harder for me to express my extreme displeasure with coworkers.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Echo Chamber

Some years back, I knew a woman who had been part of the “Human Shield Project.” For those of you unfamiliar with this organization, it was comprised of people who, in the lead-up to the current Iraq war, believed that the administration wouldn’t dare to bomb locations where U.S. citizens were known to be. To this end, they organized to have U.S. citizens travel to Iraq and stay in places that were likely to be targets to avert the bombing.

This seemed, to me anyway, to be a rather poorly thought-out plan. The administration was unlikely to be deterred from bombing locations with the human shields unless it perceived a public outcry due to such casualties. As most people in the U.S. didn’t appear to know about the organization, and many of those who did know of them considered them traitors or fools or both, their presence appeared rather unlikely to deter any military action. Quite simply, the administration was unlikely to suffer any negative consequences for harming these folks.

I pointed this out to the woman who represented this group, and she stated that she fully believed that the Human Shield Project actually had widespread support among the U.S. populace – a position that was completely at-odds with reality. She was not a foolish person, in fact she was quite bright (and probably still is quite bright), nor was she someone who seemed inclined to accept preposterous notions uncritically. So, then, how could she have drawn a conclusion so contrary to the real world?

As I began to ask her more questions about her time with the Human Shield Project, more information came out. She had lived with other members of the project, her job centered around the project, and when she received communication critical of the project it was usually in the form of faceless emails and website comments.

In other words, most of her daily interactions were with people who supported her worldview, and she typically only heard dissent from sources that were probably correctly dismissed as being full of hyperbole and venom. She had gotten caught up in the echo chamber of support for the project, and all of her senses were painting an image that was rather different from the world outside of her social group.

Lest you think I am being overly critical of the leftys, I will be quick to point out that the American “conservative” movement has built one of the largest and most effective echo chambers around. Consider how many people get their political views and news analysis from Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly. Not to mention the number of smaller internet “news” sites such as World Net Daily which spew nonsense that would be laughable if a surprisingly large number of people didn’t believe it (yes, it’s dumb, but there are many people who believe it). All of these venues are aimed not at informing people, but at convincing them that they are informed while feeding them a steady diet of unquestioned ideology.

And the left-wing reaction? To ape them. To create networks such as Air America which are essentially the mirror image of Fox.

Regardless of whether you are a right-winger or a left-winger, a reactionary or a radical, a Christian or an atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, a Disco queen or a slam dancer, the echo chamber is not a healthy place to be. It is a place that not only prevents you from hearing dissenting opinion, but also begins to warp reality by pulling slowly in one direction without anything to correct your course.

Consider, if you will, the folks, and these folks really do exist, who honestly believe that the Bush family is actually composed of shape-shifting reptilian aliens who seek world domination. How could someone draw a conclusion that seems so absurd? They must be crazy, right?


It starts simply – maybe they are curious about UFO reports, so they attend a few lectures on the subject and find themselves further intrigued. If they don’t get exposed to countering points of view but are showered with the stories of witnesses without any attempt at non-alien explanations, then it may not be long before they start listening to stories of abductions and thinking that “hey, if these beings are travelling to Earth, then it’s reasonable that they may be examining humans while they’re here.”

Now, it may stop there, but it may not. If they continue to surround themselves with fellow believers, and they have accepted that people are being abducted, then it’s not too far a stretch to think that aliens have a reason for doing this that isn’t just curiosity. Again, the fellow delves deeper and finds himself surrounded by people who encourage this line of thinking and don’t provide any criticism, so, after a time, this seems like a reasonable position. From here, he can find groups that will support and hold as reasonable his conclusion that maybe the aliens have sinister plans for humanity, maybe those plans involve slavery, maybe they have already begun, and finally, after many steps, maybe the aliens are already among us as ruling families. Meanwhile, all criticism is likely to come from people who either dismiss him out of hand without listening to him, thus triggering the psychological defenses against criticism that all of us have, or else are simply nullified by the positive feedback that he is being given by other believers.

The ultimate conclusion is absurd, but it wasn’t reached all at once. It started with a more-or-less reasonable thought “hey, maybe there’s something to these UFO sightings”, and at every step along the way, our hypothetical traveler found himself surrounded by people who assented to his conclusions and showed little criticism, making them seem more reasonable than they really were, and the conclusions that he drew became more and more bizarre as time went on. Had he been routinely subjected to critical points of view delivered in a reasonable way, would he have gone to the final and very strange conclusion? Perhaps, there is always someone who adds 2 and 2 to get 49, but he would certainly have been less likely to.

In more mundane subjects, the echo chamber is even more pervasive. How many people do you know who think that Bush’s tactics in Iraq were brilliant? How many people do you know who think that Obama is somehow single-handedly going to change the U.S.? How many people do you know who believe that NBC has a socialist agenda? That evil homosexuals have a plan for converting our youth? That Ronald Reagan had ties to the Nazis? That the moon landing was a hoax?

All of these beliefs are rather silly, and yet there are many people who believe each one. And the reason why they believe them is because they are surrounded by people and media who echo their views to the point where another step down the loony path seems not like delusion, but like clarity or freedom. We like to think that we are able to see through nonsense, that we have common sense, but what we view as being obvious and “common sensical” is based not only on our own ability to reason, but also on what we are accustomed to seeing and hearing. To someone who has been fed a steady diet of young-Earth creationism, the very tenets of evolution, no matter how well supported by science, will seem bizarre and foolish. Likewise, to someone who was raised in a secular household, the notion that someone could believe in a deity that answers prayers and watches over you seems like lunacy.

And there’s the rub. We all have a propensity to fall into a “crowd” of like-minded people, and we all have the tendency to listen to those who speak to what we believe. We all visit the echo chamber from time-to-time, and some people never leave it. And how do we know when we’re in the echo chamber? Well, some folks have both the necessary levels of self-criticism and curiosity to find the information trail that they need to lead themselves out most of the time. Many of us, however, either cannot or will not escape. It’s comfortable in the echo chamber – being told how right we are, how we’re among the few who see what’s really going on in the world, and how we are somehow above the muck that everyone else is mired in – it doesn’t matter if it’s true, it simply has to feel good. I have found myself in the echo chamber a few times and had to really fight with myself to get out – it’s an appealing place to be.

But it is also a potentially dangerous place to be. Sure, if all that you echo chamber tells you is that your hobby is the greatest thing ever, or that your sports team is amazing, then that’s harmless enough. But when you are in a social group that reinforces your tendency to ignore real solutions to problems, when you have come to believe that your prejudices are wisdom and that you should act on them, when you have become so divorced from reality that you are unable to see the faults in your reasoning, then the echo chamber can become a dangerous place not only for you, but for those who are impacted by your actions.

And if you claim that you have never been in the echo chamber yourself, well, you’re either lying to yourself or your lying to whomever you are speaking with. We have all been there, you, me, and everyone else, and we will all be there in the future. But it’s not hopeless. Simply being aware of it, and being aware that we are all drawn to it, is the best way to reduce the amount of time that you spend there. But we need to all be aware that when we find ourselves surrounded by people who constantly seem to be talking sense, but we feel tempted not to actually critique what they are saying – well, we’re probably on the wrong path. We’re all guilty of this, but we can and need to do better.