The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Monday, March 31, 2008

No Sexy Hot Smut Here!

In the responses to a post last week, it was brought up that I would likely get more hits from search engines such as Google if I were to include references to kinky sex in my posts – you know, words related to easy sex, leather queens, bondage, BDSM, and free full length porn movie downloads. While this may be true, it bothers me – I feel like I have a lot to say, and that it is worth hearing, and I shouldn’t have to make reference to naughty nympho schoolgirl dwarfs searching for hot man meat in order to get people to read this blog.

Really, it seems disgusting to me that the culture’s focus on sex means that it seems reasonable to suggest that someone keeping a blog about archaeology should make references to hot MILF ponygirl action in order to drive up their web traffic. It’s just undignified. Even if a single mention in a single post about cabana boy subs looking for their latex bondage masters would increase my web traffic tenfold, I don’t think I should write such a post. The notion that I should bow to our societies perverse tendencies and include mention of albino cheerleader orgies caught on tape just for the sake of pulling in a few perverts really irks me.

So, here’s my pledge to you, my readers, on this blog, you will never see reference to any of the following: college girl bikini jello wrestling, leather daddy motor pool hot skillinens, funky fresh French maid babes prowling for hot cougar action, naughty schoolgirl geophysicists looking for man meat, goggle-wearing vinyl midget love, petite nude wrestler ballerinas, and Ed Asner.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Dave Makes Arguments Fun!

Every time that the issue of evolution comes up in public, it seems that we hear the same false claims, tortured logic, misdirection, and outright fallacies from the folks who are opposed to it being taught as the fact that it is. With very few exceptions, most of the extremely vocal folks have shut off their critical faculties and are unwilling to actually hear what anyone else has to say, as that might cause them to actually think about the matter.

As you might expect, this leads to alot of frustration on the parts of people who actually know something about evolution. But my friend Dave (see the link at the left side of the page) has a solution. A new game that makes this debate much more enjoyable for those of us who are in favor of actually teaching science in science classes - Creationist Bingo!

For the original, go to:

A similar deal, specific to "Intelligent Design" can be found at:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A True American Hero

Who amongst us can forget the stunning, if brief, career of one Horace J. Pillpopper, truly an inspiration to us all.

Mr. Pillpopper, as we all know, began life in Weed, California. What most people don't know is that he was originally named Michael Phillips, but that his mother changed her son's name after consultation with an astrologer convinced her that the name Michael Phillips was inauspicious and would result in her son either dying during auto-erotic asphyxiation, or else becoming an accountant. Wanting to prevent her son from a future of accountancy, Mrs. Phillips changed her son's name to Horace J. Pillpopper; a name that the astrologer convinced her would lead the boy to a glorious future of success both on and off of the horse-racing gambling circuit. The wisdom of this astrologer is clear in her call for Mr. Pillpopper to have a middle initial but no middle name. After all, the middle initial allows him to state his name (or have others state it) with great gravitas, but not require his mother to go to the effort of fabricating a full name. In all, the astrologer showed great wisdom and an efficiency that would have made Henry Ford proud.

In Weed, Mr. Pillpopper learned the value of mastering the blank stare and the ability to drool on command. These abilities served him well every time he was brought to court on jury manipulation charges, as he could immediately make himself appear to be a stumbling idiot, and would quickly be released to his comfortable cell in the sanitarium where he would hatch his further schemes.

Leaving Weed, and his comfortable cell, behind, Mr. Pillpopper joined Barnum Luca's Great and Traveling Circus, where Mr. Pillpopper briefly performed in the Freak Show as "The World's Tallest Man" – a stint made brief by the fact that Mr. Pillpopper was only 5'7". However, the circus did bring Horace J. Pillpopper to the next stop in his illustrious career – the thriving metropolis of Riverbank, California.

In Riverbank, Mr. Pillpopper opened his now world-famous dance studio and meth lab. Though quite successful, or perhaps because of its success, the City Council of Riverbank shut the dance studio and meth lab down for providing illegal dancing in the town of Riverbank, and for not having the mandatory two-way mirror installed in the women's restroom in order that members of the city council might ensure the morality of all activities within that room.

Though Mr. Pillpopper was subsequently arrested, charged, and convicted of "Subverting the Will of the Town Masters" and sentences to execution by hanging, an activist judge legislated from the bench and freed him, claiming that the punishment was excessive for the crime, and the crimes for which Mr. Pillpopper had been convicted were really rather silly, anyway. The City Council announced their intent to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, but was distracted when a toaster with shiny buttons was placed on a table in the council chambers.

Not one to be kept down, Mr. Pillpopper wrote about his experience in his auto-biography, "Raindrops Keep Falling on my Huffalump." It was later charged that the book was largely fictional, even leading to Bill O'Reilly apologizing for endorsing it, the first apology that Mr. O'Reilly had ever issued in his life. However, this did not prevent the book from making the best seller's list, and Mr. Pillpopper refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing.

As more evidence came out proving that many of the claims in Mr. Pillpopper's book were false (including his claim that he was the first man to walk on the moon, that Jesse Owens was actually French, that he had found irrefutable proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that Mr. Pillpopper had, in fact, discovered America), Mr. Pillpopper became increasingly adamant in claiming that all information in the book was true and accurate. Such a stance in the face of seemingly overwhelming reality increased public respect for Mr. Pillpopper, who became viewed as a decisive straight-shooter who stands his ground. Indeed, many began to believe that the claims that Mr. Pillpopper's book was largely fiction was simply a ploy by the "reality-obsessed Factanistas" to discredit a true American Hero. Needless to say, his book sales soared, and he became very popular on the public speaking circuit.

Ironically, given the astrologer's advice about his name, Mr. Pillpopper did die of auto-erotic asphyxiation – just not his own. Mr. Pillpopper was walking in Downtown Ceres when the rubber tubing that an auto-erotic asphixiator was using to cut off oxygen broke and flew through the window. Mr. Pillpopper stepped on it and slipped, causing him to fall down a manhole cover into the sewers, where an alligator made quick work of him.

So, let us remember Mr. Horace J Pillpopper, entrepreneur, author, public speaker, and American Hero.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Talk

Since the dawn of time, humans have been working to avoid public speaking (see Libby, I do listen to what you say). And then there are those freaks, mutants, monsters, and ne’er-do-wells such as myself that keep putting ourselves into the position where we have to speak publicly. Even worse, we have to speak in front of audiences that know what we are talking about and can immediately spot any bullshit that we try to sell.

For the last several years, I have been presenting papers at the annual conference of the Society for Californian Archaeology (SCA - not to be confused with the Student Conservation Association, which I am also a member of, Steven Carl Armstrong, who is my father, or the Society for Creative Anachronism, with which I had some rather bad experiences). Although the experience has generally turned out to be positive (my first year, I even received some good, constructive criticism from the fellow who, three years later, would be my boss), it has never been fun in the lead-up.

Two years ago, I was asked to present a paper in a symposium dedicated to my MA advisor, one Dr. Michael Glassow. The idea behind the symposium was pretty simple, really. Mike’s students – past and present – would present papers on those aspects of their own research that was influenced by Mike’s work. I was asked to present, and I agreed, thinking that it would be a friendly gathering mostly comprised of Mike’s current and recent students, most of whom were friends of mine.

What I hadn’t taken into account was that a very large number of the pre-eminent archaeologists in California were trained by Mike. I also had taken into account that the loyalty that Mike’s students felt towards him was not limited to his current and recent crop, but that his past students still held a good deal of affection for him as well. If you were one of Mike’s students, you knew that you would be worked hard, but come out ahead as a result, and we all appreciated that, and apparently nobody ever forgot it.

So, when the program came out, I was shocked to see that two of Mike’s current students (including myself) were on the bill – and so was nearly every major archaeologist who works in California. I was more than a bit daunted. Still, I had agreed to present a paper, so I continued to work on my presentation, not sure what kind of a reception I would get.

Well, the day finally came, and I sat through the morning session, hearing about some very good research, but also hearing some pointless bickering amongst the other archaeologists.

And then my turn came.

My hands were sweating, my mouth was dry, my throat was sore. I walked up to the podium, stepped behind it, and plopped my notes down in front of me. Making certain that my PowerPoint presentation was functioning, I began to speak.

Luckily, I was so well rehearsed in the presentation that I was able to turn on auto-pilot and just speak. I cannot recall what I said, how I said it, or much else about the talk. I can remember that I was very nervous, that I had lost feeling in my hands and feet, that my throat was dry and every word felt as if it were being yanked out accompanied by a Brillo pad, and that I was sure that I could see complete disapproval on every face in the audience. I recall that I could feel my undershirt soaking in sweat. And I can remember thinking “I’m babbling. Nothing I’m saying makes any sense. These people all know that I am an idiot.”

After my talk concluded, I hastily took my seat, and was grateful that I was followed by a rather well-known archaeologist that everyone was eager to see. I had hoped that my talk would fade from everybody’s memories. But, just in case, I spent the rest of the day avoiding the people who I had seen in that room.

The next day, I was in the book room, when I was cornered by somebody who was both a very well-known archaeologist, and who had heard me speak.

“Hey,” he said “are you Matthew Armstrong?”

“Yes.” I felt my stomach trying to find a new home by crawling into my lungs.

“I saw your talk yesterday.” He had a neutral expression, and I was sure that I was about to get it (what, precisely, is "it" anyway?).


“Yeah. You raised some good points about my work. Glassow’s students tend to be pretty sharp.” And with that, he shook my hand. “Also, that was a pretty tough room, and you held your own pretty well. I wish I had your confidence when I was your age.” And with that, he left.

As I would later learn, the rigidity of posture, tone of voice, and furtive glancing about that I had been engaged in out of nervousness had been mistaken for confident poise, a strong and certain voice, and confident engagement with the audience. In other words, everyone had gotten exactly the wrong impression, and I was better off for it. And nobody thought I was an idiot.

There is often a wide chasm between what is and what is perceived.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Getting a Head

About two years ago, I was performing an archaeological survey in Ventura county. An energy production company was installing facilities to transport natural gas from submarine mineral deposits in the channel off of the Ventura County coast to a processing facility in the Los Angeles Basin. In order to transport the gas, a series of subterranean pipelines were being constructed, which, under both federal and state laws, required archaeological studies to ensure that no significant sites would be damaged, and so off I went with my merry crew of the ex-marine and the wanna-be martial artist (no, I'm not making that up).

The survey lasted about a month and a half, which was fairly nice, as we spent our days hiking, sometimes in crappy places but often in beautiful scenery, and as we were working close to home, we still got to sleep in our own beds every night. All in all, a pretty good field assignment and one that I was happy to have.

During the final week of survey, we had to walk a pipeline route that crossed over a small mountain northwards into the Santa Clarita Valley. The land belonged to a ranch, and we had to meet with the ranch foreman in order to have access to the route.

So, at 8 AM on a Thursday morning, my crew and I stood at the gates to the ranch, waiting for the foreman to arrive - he was a half hour late, and he insisted on waiting for our land access manager (a useless and rather creepy man who bore a more than passing resemblance in both appearance and mannerisms to Floyd the Barber from the Andy Griffith Show), who took another forty-five minutes to show up. In the meantime, the ranch foreman walked up to me and said "So, you're the archaeologist, right?"

"Well, yes."

"I have something to show you..."

He walked around to the back of his truck, opened up the rear window on his camper, and pulled out a sandstone mortar.

"Nice mortar. Where did you find it?" I expected him to tell us about a site on the land that we were about to walk out on, or to hear that he had been looting sites on state park lands.

"I found this on some land I own down near Malibu."


"Yeah, there's loads of this stuff down there. Check this out!" He pulled out the pestle that seemed to match the mortar perfectly.

"Well," I said "that looks about right. Where is your land?"

"Near Malibu. Oh, and I saved the best for last!" He reached back into the camper and pulled out a human skull.

" know, that's a human skull"

"Yep. This is also from Malibu!"

"Yeah, buddy, you need to call the coroner."

"Why would I want to call the coroner?" He gave me a shocked look.

"Well, if you find human remains, by law, you have to call the coroner. You could get into some serious trouble if you don't."

"Hey, this is an old Indian skull. This wasn't a murder, the coroner isn't going to care."

I then proceeded to explain that, yes, I realized that this skull probably was a few centuries old, and that there would be no murder investigation, or anything of the sort (the skull actually had "cradle board" flattening, which is rare in modern populations but was common in Native Californian populations). However, it was still a human skull, and therefore still something that the coroner needed to be notified of.

"But, if I report it, they'll take it away from me!" He was nearly pleading, as if I had any power to change the law on this point.

"Well, it is a human head! Look, if someone found your grandmother's head and kept it in their truck wouldn't you be pissed?"

"Well, yeah..."

"So, shouldn't the coroner be called and the descendants of this person be notified that this skull has been found?"

He gave me a 'punk kid' sort of look, and said in a rather petulant tone "Look, this ain't my grandma! And the skull is mine! I found it, so it's mine, and I ain't going to let the coroner have it!"

Soon, the land access manager showed up, and we proceeded on our way. I wonder if the fellow ever called the coroner. Probably not. He's probably still carting the head around with him like some sort of grizzly Cracker Jacks prize.

Still, this reminds me of a story involving Clarence "pop" Ruth, an "archaeologist (really, more like a grave-robber who called himself and archaeologist) in the early 20th century. Folks who knew him report that on his death bed he began to scream that the ghosts of the dead Chumash (the ethnic group that had occupied the part of California where he had been working) were coming to drag him down to Hell. Maybe I should have told the foreman that story.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Why the Constitution is Pretty Damn Cool

This weekend happens to be "Blog Against Theocracy Weekend 2008."
( Wacky!

Unlike many folks who share my general views on religion, I do not believe that the US is on the precipice, about to be plunged into a full-blown (or even semi-formed) theocracy. Certainly religion is currently playing a dangerously large part in the national political ethos (as demonstrated by the fact that someone such as John Hagee, a nutjob who advocates for nuclear war with Iran in order to bring about Armageddon, is apparently taken seriously by the White House []), but this is part of the ongoing pendulum-swing that has been occurring since before the founding of the nation. The alleged viciousness of the "new atheists" is really just symptomatic of the fact that many people, religious and non-religious alike, are plenty pissed and have begun working to re-take ground that had been ceded to religious-political groups such as the Christian Coalition. In other words, things are beginning to right themselves, and the pendulum will likely soon swing the other way (though we shouldn't be too sanguine about this - sitting back and expecting the pendulum swing to happen naturally is part of what let yahoos like Hagee gain as much clout as they currently have to begin with).

Nonetheless, I do find the focus on religion in contemporary politics and policy to be deeply troubling - and I believe that a large number of religious people agree with me on this.

Discussions of the separation of church and state often focus around the fact that the Founders wished to prevent the sorts of violations of people's rights, civil war, and strife caused by the establishment of state religions in the nations of Europe. The only way to do this was to have the government play the part of a non-partisan in religious life - and religion is only mentioned twice in the constitution, both times to prohibit it from being a significant factor in government*.

In protecting religions and religious people from government interference, the Constitution succeeded brilliantly. Indeed, without such laws, it is unlikely that religion would have its current vigor within the US. But this separation of religious belief from law has had a likely unintended, but nonetheless wonderful, side-effect. By largely separating religion from lawmaking, the Constitution creates a situation where the default for policy is evidence and reason, and not faith. This is not to say that there are not currently (and have not been in the past) laws that had more to do with religious beliefs than careful consideration of the nature and impact of the laws, but these laws have routinely met with Constitutional challenges, and routinely lost in recent years. Indeed, when these laws are passed today, they typically have more to do with political grandstanding and demagoguery than any expectation by their advocates that the laws will stand. As a result, people in most locations within the US are free to follow or not follow religious dictates as their conscious deems necessary, while they are assured of a reliable social order due to a secular legal system.

And this is as it should be. Whether one believes that religious faith is a good thing or not, the problem with basing policy on it is the fact that faith is a essentially a non-argument. If a person makes a claim based on faith, another person can just as easily make a contrary claim also based on faith. As both are based on what is, by definition, an arbitrary belief lacking evidential backing (or even opposed to available evidence), there is no way to differentiate whether one is superior to the other. And the fact that faith is often held contrary to available evidence means that not only do faith-based decisions contradict each other, they often contradict reality (for an example, just take a look at young-Earth creationism).

And this is why it disturbs me to see the focus on faith in contemporary politics. The notion that faith is inherently a good thing that should not be scrutinized is both wrong and dangerous - arbitrary beliefs based on no evidence make a poor basis for public policy and tend to lead to a rigidity of thought that prevents both policymakers and the public from accepting that policies are not working or are counter-productive. For example, look at the way that many people cling to abstinence-only sex education programs because they agree with their religious beliefs, despite the fact that it is ineffective or even counterproductive to reducing teen pregnancies, STD rates, and abortions. Likewise, approximately 25% of the US population believes that the Book of Revelation is prophetic and predicts events that will happen in the very near future - a fact that appears to have had some influence of international relations and may have had impacts on environmental policy during the Reagan administration.

But, again, I don't think this will last for much longer. Call me a Pollyanna, but it looks as if the far-sighted religious folks see the menace posed by those who wish to use the law to impose their religion. The non-religious are beginning to speak up in a way that they have not before. And it looks like these two groups together are becoming a more potent political force. However, for this to happen, we need to continue being vocal, we need to continue to call politicians on their bullshit when they pander to groups that wish to control the way that the rest of us live, and we need to demand more from our politicians than the lowest-common denominator politics that they have been practicing.

By the way, if you've not done so recently, read the constitution itself at:

* In Article 6, which prohibits religious tests as a bar to public office, and in the First Amendment, which prohibits congress from making laws that promote religion or prohibit its practice.

Many people will refer to the Declaration of Independence and note that it mentions "the Creator" - but:

1) this is rather a generic term that can easily be applied to the Christian god, Deist god, Lord Shiva, Helldiver of Paiute mythology, or even the Big Bang...

2) what the Founders understood, but many folks seem to not get today, is that the Declaration of Independence was a Declaratory statement, but the Constitution was the law. The Declaration served to tell England that she and the Colonies should start seeing other people - an international break-up letter, while the Constitution tells us how the government is to be structured and the laws formulated.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Comments Open!

As requested, the comments settings have been changed so that you do not have to have a Google account to post.

Great Place to Work

I recently came across the short piece pasted below while clearing out my email. A company I used to work for hands out these "Great Place to Work" awards every fiscal quarter. Because of some surreal experiences I had when I worked int he tech industry, these sorts of "morale boosting" programs always make me a bit leery. Nonetheless, the other archaeologist and I though it would be funny to nominate me because I was in the process of leaving for another job at the time, so I wrote the following essay for the nomination letter...

To: The Great Place to Work Committee
From: Cultural Resources
RE: Nomination for the Great Place to Work Award

In order to explain how Matthew Armstrong is making this office a better place to work, it is necessary to describe a bit about Matthew himself. Matthew has earned both a Bachelor's degree and a Masters degree from the University of California, as well as certifications in archaeological technology and business administration from other institutions.

If you needed any, this is proof that standards are slipping throughout California.

Indeed, despite how impressive such laurels appear, Matthew's success demonstrates that even a poorly-trained monkey with a pervasive developmental disorder can now earn credentials that were once reserved for those who had more than simply a brain stem with which to think. In case you need any further evidence of this, we have trained a monkey to earn these same credentials, his name is Bobo and he is a Rhesus monkey. UCSB managed to place him in a management-track position with IBM's accounting division.

In Matthew's favor, however, unlike the monkey, he doesn't have to wear a diaper at work.

However, Matthew has other attributes that should be discussed here. On the subject of Matthew's breath, the kindest thing that can be said is that so long as he is spewing fumes from his mouth and nose, we needn't worry about having to fumigate for insects. As such, his lack of acquaintance with the toothbrush or Listerine is probably saving us money on pest control bills. Likewise, his general odor might be greatly improved had he ever heard of that most marvelous invention known as soap.

Though Matthew's tendency to drool may disgust many of his coworkers, it is likely that it has saved this company from being sued when documents were late due to Matthew's failings – after all, what client can fault a man who is clearly incapable of keeping his jaw shut for not producing a complex document on time.

Matthew's tendency to be resolved in his views and his ability to take action based on such resolve would be a great attribute if it wasn't for the fact that he is so wildly misinformed about the world in general that his actions are often incomprehensible, ridiculous, and just plain stupid. Who amongst us can forget the time that he took it upon himself to demonstrate that a tribe of 12" tall neandertals once lived in he Santa Barbara Airport, or the time that he laced an EIR section with comments such as "if appropriate mitigation measures are not taken, then resources will be irreparably damaged – those same resources that the reptilian overlords who really rule the Santa Barbara County Office of Planning and Development want to siphon off – so you'd better be paying attention to this document!"

Given this, it might be fair to ask why I am nominating Matthew for the "Great Place to Work Award." The reason is simple: he is leaving. While his leaving may not necessarily make this office a great place to work, it will make it significantly better

Friday, March 21, 2008

And to think, Ben Stein was once kinda' cool...

(Note: this post is a response to the essay linked below - I do not claim to have knowledge of the precise contents of the film itself, as I have not seen it. However, the essay is featured on the film's official website, so it seems likely that the statements made in it are likely consistent with the opinions expressed in the film. After I have seen the film - probably after is is released to DVD - I may re-post portions of this with modifications as appropriate. Regardless, the claim made in the essay is a common one in the anti-science circles, so it seems appropriate to address it)

I would like to point you to two quotes both from the website for the new Ben Stein movie "Expelled" (both can be found at

The first is towards the bottom of the page, the second is at the bottom of the page, but is "whited out" to prevent spoilers.

paragraph 1:

"Ben Stein’s “Expelled” is one of the more evenhanded, clever, and well-produced documentaries currently on the market. While the Evolution/Intelligent Design debate can spark much emotion, anyone walking away from this film will be convinced that the merits of Intelligent Design should be on the same level playing field as Evolutionary Theory. This film is about the freedom of speech, the freedom of ideas and ability to express those ideas…not about whether God created the heavens and the earth."

paragraph 2:

"Many scenes are centered around the Berlin Wall, and Ben Stein being Jewish actually visits many death camps and death showers. In fact, Nazi Germany is the thread that ties everything in the movie together. Evolution leads to atheism leads to eugenics leads to Holocaust and Nazi Germany."

So, it's an even-handed movie about free speech and showing the merits of intelligent design as a scientific theory by showing that people who believe in evolution are on a path straight towards something like Hitler's Germany. Umm...

Okay, before you try to reach a conclusion about what I am saying below, read all of it. Having re-read it, it's clear that you may get the wrong conclusion pretty easily if you don't follow it to the end.

Even if the claim that the film relies on this is exaggerated, the author of the essay is still trying to make ties between acceptance of evolution and the Nazis. This is an old lie that we are all familiar with. Hitler's eugenics programs were the culmination of a long tradition of anti-semitism and xenophobia in Europe that has direct roots in the history of European Christianity. Remember, before Hitler got people to revile the Jews as racially inferior, there was a long history of them being reviled as "Christ-killers." While the Nazis tried to dress the old bigotries up in scientific-sounding terminology, they were, nonetheless, still the same old bigotries.

Now, I am not claiming that Christianity caused the Holocaust either - however the bigotries started, they had taken on a life of their own by the 20th century. However, the notion that an acceptance of the fact of evolution (and, contrary to what people like the lying demagogues at the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis like to claim, there is no doubt in science that evolution occurred) leads to atrocities like those of the Nazis is nothing but an outright lie.

Consider, the Ku Klux Klan long considered itself a Christian organization (I do not claim to know if they currently do), and much of its membership thought Hitler had the right idea. Although it is popular to claim that Hitler himself was an atheist, this is far from clear (in fact, he appears to have believed in some form of a higher power, whether it's a Judeo-Christian God is largely the matter of debate). And it is worth noting that the Apartheid government of South Africa frowned on the teaching of evolution because it would teach the blacks that they were part of the same humanity as the whites, and were no less entitled to the rights that the whites received.

Again, I am not claiming the Christianity is itself the cause of these problems - but to ignore the fact that the doctrines of special creation and original sin played into them is dishonest (and the folks behind the "Intelligent Design" movement have a history of dishonesty - consider Behe's comeuppance at the Dover trials). The doctrine of special creation has long been used to justify bigotries based on the notion that different ethnic groups were "created to be inferior", and original sin has been used by advocates of the notion that some ethnic groups had "fallen deeper into sin than others."

Now, I know that someone is going to try to correct me and say that this is misinterpretation of the Bible - so it may be worth noting that I actually agree with you. I am not saying that these claims are true or correct views, but whether true or not, they have been used for nearly two thousand years to justify atrocities - and they were often used by people in 1930's and 40's Germany to justify the Nazi regime.

While the Nazis may have used scientific-sounding language to justify their actions, they also used religious explanations. Using the same tortured reasoning that people used to claim that an acceptance of reality leads to Nazism, I can just as easily "prove" that Christianity leads to Nazism. And my claim will have the same accuracy as that of the "Intelligent Design" crowd.

Also, whether Hitler and his posse really believed in evolution or not, it is indisputable that the majority of the German population was Christian, primarily Lutheran and Catholic, and their religious beliefs were routinely manipulated by the Nazi leadership. This was, as my friend Dave puts it, not a nation of evolutionary biologists inclined towards some form of genetic cleansing, but rather a nation of the devout whose bent towards authority and revealed "truth" was easily manipulated to build the gas chambers and push the buttons. To claim that a belief in a "higher power" would have stopped the Holocaust is to deny the reality of history.

The reality is that evolution - the real science, not the psuedo-science supported by bigots and "Intelligent Design" pundits alike - demonstrates that there is no significant biological difference between ethnic groups. It demonstrates that we need a wide range of genetic diversity in order to ensure survival and that traits that are disadvantageous in one setting may be advantageous in another. In short, evolution is, ultimately, the strongest argument against things such as the Holocaust. The roots of these bigotries go deep, and by encouraging people to shy back from reality and re-embrace mysticism, the "Intelligent Design" liars are pushing an agenda that is far more likely to be manipulated by bigots - in the end, it relies on faith (though Behe and Dembski use false information to claim otherwise) - and the problem with faith is that it can be used to justify anything, bad or good. Evidence and reason can only be used to help point towards reality - and the reality is that genocide is bad for the gene pool.

I would add one last thing. Everyone I know who has studied evolutionary science, whether through biology or anthropology, has learned in their science classes about the ways in which groups such as the Nazis used scientific-sounding arguments to support their claims. We have learned about the ways in which our work can be mischaracterized and abused, and to urge us to be honest in our reporting of our work in order to help prevent this sort of abuse.

However, while I suspect that there are some out there, the very fact that people honestly believe that the Nazis only used a false caricature of evolution and did not make religious arguments suggests rather strongly that most churches do not provide the same level of self-examination and criticism. So, the notion that the "intelligent design" crowd feels that it has the right to attack us for alleged dishonesty in keeping out "intelligent design" (which is really a "god-of-the-gaps" argument, one of he purest forms of logical fallacy) makes them nothing but hypocrites. The fact that they do so through this kind of fear mongering and dishonesty just makes them pitiful and disgusting.

I (almost) Was a Mail-Order Husband

The first and, to this day, only time that I have received a marriage proposal, was during the summer of 1997, when I was 21. The problem is that I didn't receive the proposal from the woman who wanted me to marry her. In fact, to this day, I've never met her.

I put myself through college, so in addition to working during the academic year, I also worked multiple jobs during the summer, and one of these jobs was at the office of my mother, a family law attorney.

Incidentally, if you want to lose all faith in humanity, I highly recommend working in a family law office. There is little that allows you to see the true character of an individual better than seeing how they treat those who they claim to love or formerly claim to have loved. People make false accusations of child molestation, attempt to drag out the various issues – and therefore drag out the divorce – merely to have some control over (and cause misery for) their former spouse, and do all manner of other less than kind things. In short, outside of a war crimes trial, you are unlikely to see as many people behaving as inhumanly as in a family law office.

But back to the point of this essay…

This office had a paralegal who was from Fiji, as was her husband. One day, I was sitting at my desk when the paralegal, who I will refer to as Linda for no reason other than that Linda was the first name to come to me when looking for an alias for this woman, approached me and said "hey, how would you like a trip to Fiji?"

I looked up at here and asked "why do you want to send me to Fiji?"

Linda looked at me with an attempted, and failing, expression of innocence on her face. "I just thought that you might like to see Fiji."

"Now, Linda," if that was indeed her real name, which it wasn't, because I just made it up as a cover for her real name, "I know you aren't going to send me to Fiji just to send me to Fiji. So, what is the story?"

"Well, Jehosephat," the name I have assigned her husband for the purposes of this essay, "has a sister that wants to come to the U.S., and it will be easier to get a green card if she is married to a citizen."

"I think the INS would frown on this proposition. Besides, I'm not going to marry someone that I have never met!"

"Oh, don't be a wimp. We'll send you out to meet her one time before you agree to marry her."

"I doubt that I am going to feel inclined to marry someone that I have only met once."

She gave me a frustrated look. "Oh, come on, do you really think that you can choose a better mate on your own? I've seen the women you are attracted to!"

"Hey, what is that supposed to mean?"

"Do the words 'scary cult' mean anything to you? "

"Hey, that was a bad choice on my part. But, hey, how could I have known what was coming?"

"The fact that she was insistent on you kneeling before an altar to Dagon should have been a clue. Not to mention the sack-cloth robe that she insisted on wearing every time you two went out."

She ticked off a finger, and headed for another "Or how about the one who broke up with you because you wouldn't tell her what classes she was required to take?"

"Well, she had some problems…"

"And she wanted you to pick out her outfits for her. Every day. Including when you were out of town. And she wanted you to create a daily schedule for her ot follow in case nobody was around to give her instructions." Linda pointed a finger from her non-ticked hand at me.

"Okay, a lot of problems, but how should I have seen that coming?"

"Maybe the fact that when you first asked her out she asked you what color would best match your clothes should have been a clue."

"Okay," I said, my frustration rising. "I made two bad choices. That hardly constitutes a pattern."

"It does when you have only dated two women. You're no Lothario, you know. Now, we can settle the whole matter and make your life easier by marrying you off to my sister in law." With her hands on her hips, Linda looked like she meant business.

"Hey, I am not marrying your sister-in-law, and that is final! I don't see how marrying her will do anyone any good, especially me!"

And that was the last I heard of it. However, for some time later, whenever I related this story to a male friend thinking that he would get a good laugh out of it, he instead got a thoughtful look on his face and asked "Do you think they're still looking for someone?"

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Fagan on the Daily Show

So, first, take a look at this - one of my former instructors from graduate school is speaking with John Stewart:

(I tried to embed it, but it wouldn't take, so just go to the website)

Okay, so I have to say that it is very odd to see Brian talking and being relatively calm. He was always very excitable in class and when we'd talk to him in the halls or his office. That being said, look at the expression on his face when he talks about "water mountains" - he's clearly fascinated and enjoying himself. When people say, as the Graham Hancocks and other nutjobs on the planet tend to, that archaeologists "want to make everything boring", they are clearly talking out of their asses. Brian is clearly fascinated, as are his colleagues (myself among them). This isn't boring, it's amazing.

Now, funny Brian Fagan story...

When I was in graduate school, I attended the Society for American Archaeology conferences every year. One year we were in Milwaukee, and I attended one of the evening "meet n' greet" type functions. I walked into the room and saw a crowd of young women gathered around...something. Thinking little of it, I went to grab a snack from the snack table, and heard a British voice call out "Armstrong, haul your sorry carcass over here!" Lo and behold, the young women were all gathered around Brian.

Well, I walked over, and before I could say "Hi, Brian, what's shakin' the bacon, Homeskilet?" he had grabbed me, pulled me to the center of the crowd, and was stating loudly -

"Ladies, you are very fortunate. Let me introduce Matthew Armstrong! He is a brilliant archaeologist, and is clearly one of our rising stars!"

Not sure what else to say, I sheepishly said "well, It remains to be seen..."

"Nonsense, man." Brian then waved his hand to take in the crowd around us, "ladies, expect big things from this man. You are fortunate to be meeting him now, for he is brilliant!"

"Uhh, well, let's see if I can get a job before we start talking about my magnificence..."

"Fair enough. Well, I bid you all a good night."

And with that, he headed out the door and made good his escape.

So, there are two things I learned this night:

1. Brian Fagan has groupies

2. Brian Fagan is rather shy and likes to distract attention away from himself

And so, I am one of the few people I know of who can honestly say that Brian Fagan, perhaps the best known archaeologist currently living, tried to impress women on his behalf.

I rock!

One more bit o' info: Brian's nickname for me is "software salesman." Probably because I used to work in marketing for the tech industry.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Kickin it with Dawkins

My friend John recently moved back to California (state motto: "once you get over the sticker shock, the pain of the mortgage really sets in"), which by the accounts of anyone who A) knows John, and B) lives in California, is a pretty groovy thing. He contacted me to let me know that he had returned to our state from Indiana (state motto: "why do we need a state motto?"). This resulted in me inviting John to come spend some time in the Bay Area, which he graciously accepted.

It was at this point that another rather excellent fellow that I know, Dave (who, like me, has always lived in California, but has spent time in Southern California - regional motto: "there's something north of San Luis Obispo?"), contacted me to let me know that Richard "fuckin'" Dawkins was going to be speaking in Berkely (legend holds that he was granted the epithet "fuckin'" after a steel cage match in which he went nine rounds pounding on Duane Gish - the fight was over after 30 seconds, but he wouldn't let anyone into the cage to pull Gish out.

For an encore, he took on the entire Watchtower Society single handedly in an incident that the Jehovah's Witnesses now refer to in hushed tones as "the thrashing by the limey"). So, I called John and let him know. John was excited, and this is where the third and fourth people enter the story - another very good guy I know by the name of Aaron (who has lived in California for the second half of his life, but did live in Maine [state motto: "at least we're not Florida"] for a good chunk of his life), and Aaron's fiance Nicole (who is from Iowa - motto: "Not as flat as Kansas!"). John was with Aaron when I told him the news, which caused us to think that Aaron should be invited, which, in turn, led us to think that Aaron should also invite Nicole.

And with the pack complete, we made plans to meet in San Francisco that Saturday (which, for those of you paying attention, was the 8th). Aaron, Nicole, John, and I met in San Francisco in the early afternoon, and proceeded to wander aimlessly without aim (yeah, that's right, I said it). After a short time, we came to Golden Gate Park, and found our way to the remains of the Sutro Baths. Initially, John and I thought that what we saw was the remains of an old fortress (there is more than one dating to the 19th century in the area), but we were wrong - it was in fact the remains of what had previously been the world's largest swimming pool.

Well, that killed a few hours, and we eventually heard from Dave. He and his girlfriend Eva were preparing for dinner, and wanted to join us afterwards. We found out where they were, and realized that we had way too many people in the group and not enough vehicles (in truth, bad planning on my part, since I was organizing everyone except for Dave's participation). So, while the others prepared for the evening ahead, what with the Berkeley and the Dawkins an the lecture and all, I found a place to park my car. Afterwards, we all headed to the local BART station.

BART is an odd thing. Now, I know that Nancy, if she is reading this, will find my awe of BART a bit funny and probably rather quaint. After all, regional trains have been an important part of New York City's culture since the early 20th century, but mass transit of any sort has been a woefully missing part of Californian culture. So, this was my first time in a subway of any kind and, not counting the short one in the Denver International Airport, my first time on a train. It really was amazing to me that this is not more widely favored. It was far more convenient than driving, not to mention a bit faster (and not much more expensive as far as fuel costs go). When we were in the tunnel under the bay, a loud screach was constant, but when we were above ground, it was quiet enough for us to have conversations from across the train's car. Very cool.

And now I sound like a dork.

At any rate, during the course of the train ride, we got to know Eva a bit better, which was very groovy, as I now see what a really great individual she is - Dave has chosen well. Also, this lead to discussions about welding, tattoos, and the different quality of East Coast vs. West Coast subway urine (Nancy, if you're reading, Eva assures me that San Francisco BART urine is fresher and more healthful than New york subway urine).

Well, we got to Berkeley about an hour before the talk. When we entered the building that houses the auditorium, we discovered that a line stretched throughout the entire length of the hallway that formed the building's outer perimiter. Apparently people had begun lining up hours earlier. We were a bit concerned about getting in (Dave especially so), but we took our place at the end of the line (and within minutes the line behind us was outside of the building and winding around the courtyard).

It is often said that the non-religious can not or will not form social groups or provide each other with support and a sense of belonging that religions do. What a load of crap. As evidence I provide things such as James Randi's "The Amazing Meeting", the increasing number of atheist/agnostic social and charitable organizations springing up around the country, and the line we were in on Saturday night.

Everyone with whom I spoke was extremely friendly, and everyone was clearly enjoying the shared experience of waiting for the talk (and we would all later enjoy the talk). Suffice to say that the feeling of community that I remember from those times that I have attended a church was present that evening as well.

After we were in line for about an hour (by the way, if you are going to be in line with a group in Berkeley, send one of the group out to get pizza slices from Blondie's Pizza - trust me on this one), representatives of the student group who were sponsoring the talk came around and handed out tickets. With tickets firmly in hand, the line began to filter into the auditorium.

We quickly found out seats, and saw that Dr. Dawkins, was standing on the stage fiddling with a computer as various student organizers and what appeared to be faculty members from the university milled about to their own mysterious ends on the same stage. Dave looked over at me and said "You know, I'm dissappointed that he's up there already. I had hoped that the theatre would go dark, and the spotlights would focus on the roof of the auditorium, where we'd see him descened form a complex pulley system while wearing a liberace-style cape."

And then Dawkins walked off stage, the lights went low, and Dave got his wish.

Okay, that's not what happened. But what if it had happened that way...

...anyways, back to the story...

After a short bit, Dawkins did walk off stage, the lights did go low, and a spotlight appeared on the stage, where one of the student organizers was standing next to a microphone. Presently, she began to describe her organization (SANE - Students for a Nonreligious Ethos), and then to introduce Richard Dawkins (mysteriously, she omitted any mention of the steel cage match with Duane Gish), who took the stage and began his talk.

His talk was centered on his book "The God Delusion", which has just come out in paperback, and on addressing criticisms he had received for having written the book. I'll not go into the details of the talk - you can easily find and read the book, and similar talks by Dawkins as well as media appearances in which he discusses the same matters are easily accessible on Youtube, as well as other internet sites. What was fascinating to me was the way in which having an author actually speaking about (and reading from) a work will change the way that it is read. I had experienced this in the past, when I would meet or hear talks by researchers, and then find that I was reading their works in a different way than before. In this case, parts of the God Delusion that I found to be offensively shrill (and note that I actually agree with much of what was said in the book, but I found the perceived tone frustrating), when read by the author, came off as being funny, thoughtful, or simply direct, but not shrill. Frankly, I did not much care for the book I read it, but now I think I may re-read it. It's amazing how much information is conveyed by the tone of voice and the cadance of speech, two things that don't come out in print.

At any rate, the talk was really very entertaining, and if you get a chance, I highly recommend taking the opportunity to hear Dawkins speak. The talk ended with a Q&A session that was interesting, though brief.

After the talk, I walked out to a table set up by the Center for Inquiry (a pro-critical thinking think-tank type organization), and discovered that they have just opened a San Francisco office (groovy), and I bought a Richard Dawkins book tour T-shirt (how many biology professors have rockband-style tour t-shirts? Only one that I know of, my friend). I then proceeded outside to see that Dave and Eva were standing, books in hand, to have them signed. Yep, not only did ol' Tricky Dicky Dawkins have a rocktour t-shirt, he also had a line of fans (and there were literally hundreds of people in line) waiting for his autograph.

Again, how many biology professors can claim that?

Well, in honor of Dr. Dawkin's native land, we did our best impression of Brittons and cued in line waiting our turn. Again, the folks around us seemed pretty cool, and everyone was happy to be there. When we finally got up to the front of the line, Dave, Eva, and John got their books signed, and we all got a group photo taken with Doc Dawkins.

Afterwards, we headed out to a bar in Berkeley for some drinks, food, and some conversation. I don't recall the name of the bar, though I do remember that someone had scrawled "Unholy" on the towel dispenser in the men's room. I don't know why. We got to hear what John had been up to, heard more from Eva, and Dave discussed his philosophy on approaching reality (which, considering that we formed them seperately during times where we had limited contact with each other, are bizarrely like my own).

In all, a good night, and I think a good time was had by all.

Part of me feels bad about posting a "what I did with my weekend" blog - I'm sure that many folsk want to hear more about inane government officials and nutty professors and less about my personal life. But, you know, it was a great way to spend a day.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

From the Government and Here to Help

I have a livelihood because archaeological work is required by a set of federal, state, and local laws when construction is going to be performed in areas considered archaeologically sensitive. It is the responsibility of the agency issuing the permits to determine the parameters of archaeological work to be done, and to tell applicants what those parameters are so that the applicant can produce an application that meets the agency’s standards and regulations.
That seems pretty straightforward, right? The agency knows the rules, they tell the applicant the rules, and the applicant complies.

But what happens when the agency doesn’t tell the applicants the rules?

Case in point - I have a project that requires permits from a particular government agency. We were asked to perform a survey of a right-of-way (ROW) for transmission lines, and we needed to know how large an area the agency required be surveyed (the Calfiornia Energy Commission, for example, requires that a corridor made up of the ROW plus 50 feet on either side of the ROW be surveyed). I went to look up the agency’s regulations, and could not find them anywhere. So, I called the agency to ask, and found myself speaking with the head of their environmental office.

Me: "Hi. I’m an archaeologist who is working on project such-and-such, and I am trying to work out the survey plan. How wide a corridor do you require?"

Her: "Well, it depends on the project’s ROW size. A larger ROW requires a larger survey."

Me: "Yes, I’m aware of that. But how do you determine that? The CEC requires 50 feet on either side of the right-of-way, do you have a similar method of determination?"

Her: "No."

Me: "So, how do you work it out?"

Her: "Well, we know the width of the ROW for different projects, and we base it on that."

Me: "Okay. Well, for project such-and-such, do you know how large a corridor you want to see surveyed?"

Her: "I can’t answer that."

Me: "Why not?"

Her: "Well, if I tell you that I want a survey corridor of X-width, then you’ll survey X-width."

Me: "Well, yes, that’s the point."

Her: "Well, if we decide afterwards that we would rather have a wider corridor, then you can hold us to our original determination."

Me: "Why not specify a wide corridor to begin with?"

Her: "That’s not our role."

Me: "But you’re the lead agency. Defining terms for licensing is both your role and your responsibility."

Her: "We decided that we no longer want that role."

Me: "So, is someone else the lead agency now?"

Her: "No, we’re legally required to be the lead agency."

Me: "Then it’s still your role and responsibility to define the terms of the license."

Her: "We choose to wait until the applicant has completed the studies before we define those terms."

Me: "But those terms define the parameters of the studies."

Her: "That’s not our problem."

At this point, I decided to change tactics.

Me: "Okay, it’s a 100-foot wide ROW. What if we survey a 200-foot wide corridor. That would be in keeping with the CEC regulations, would that also satisfy your agency?"

Her: "Unofficially, I think that that sounds reasonable."

Me: "And officially?"

Her: "Officially, I have no comment, we do not determine the parameters of the studies until after we have received the application."

Me: "But the law requires that the study results be included as part of the application."

Her: "Yes."

Me: "How are we supposed to conduct studies to include the results as part of the application if you will not define the parameters of the study until after the application?"

Here: "That’s not our problem."

And Lather, rinse, repeat. Lather, Rinse, Repeat....

And then there’s the joy of dealing with the folks at county planning offices. I just had a frustrating conversation with a fellow at one of the local counties. They have been referring land developers to us, and they have been telling the developers "you need an archaeological report."

The problem is that everything we do involves an archaeological report. Do they need monitoring? Do they need survey? Do they need significance testing? Do they need data recovery?

I told the fellow at the county that we needed for them to tell the applicants what kind of report they needed (I should add that I have been trying to contact this fellow for a few weeks, and the fellow only got around to returning a phone call today, so calling the county for clarification appears to not be an option). His response: "we do tell them. We tell them that they need a report!"

Me: "Well, that’s pretty vague. Everything we do results in a report."

Him: "Well, I don’t know much about archaeology, so I don’t think that I can answer the question."

Me: "I’m not asking you a question about archaeology, I’m asking you to explain the county regulations, which you are supposed to be an expert on, to the applicants so that they will know what kind of work the county needs."

Him: "Well, the county regulations are online."

Me: "Yes, and they require that I know which county planning zone a project falls into, but you folks don’t make that information public, so I can’t determine what the client needs based on that."

Him: "Well, it’s going to vary based on the area that they are in."

Me: "Yes, but you have requirements for each area, and you issue permits, and that indicates that you know what you are looking for for each area."

Him: "Well, we have to look through the databases, and all of that, to figure out what they need."

Me: "Yeah, but you know what they need so that you can issue the permits. Can you just tell the applicants specifically what they need?"

Him: "It’s not that simple."

Me: "Why not?"

Him: "Well, we have to go through the databases..."

Me: "Yes, yes, I know, but you have requirements, which indicates that you know what those requirements are, which indicates that you can tell them what those requirements are so that they can tell us."

Him: "Well, it’s not that simple, you see, the database..."

Me: "You have requirements for permits?"

Him: "Yes."

Me: "You know what those requirements are when the permits are requested?"

Him: "Yes."

Me: "You know whether that includes survey or monitoring for a specific project?"

Him: "Yes."

Me: "Then you can tell the applicant what you need them to submit."

Him: "Well, I don’t know anything about archaeology."

Me: "I’m not asking you about archaeology, I’m asking you what the county requires for permits."

Who’s on first? What’s on second? And so on, ad nauseum...

Hotel Research

(note, this post was written a while back, I am not currently at this hotel)

As I write this, I am sitting in my room at a crappy motel. Last night I looked at the wall and noticed that, aside from the mold in the shower, there is also evidence of the previous tennant's spitting habit on the wall next to my bed. And, of course, the motel owner says he'll have the folks clean it - but they don't.

Yep, archaeology is a glamorous occupation.

But, you know, I have my tape measure, my compass, and my graph paper...I could map out the spit pattern on the wall in full detail, draw up a schematic, and pioneer the field of spit-on-the-wall studies. Indeed, what might the patterns of wall spit reveal about the person who had previously occupied this room, and the society from which he came? Why, even now, a myriad of research questions come to mind - was the spitter using chewing tobacco? Was he stoned? Had he had a bad day? Was he having a good night and simply had some odd sexual habits involving saliva and walls? No doubt more questions could be answered, and these are but the tip of the iceberg!

I could then provide a copy of the schematic chart to the motel owner for his approval - in my mind's eye I can see the happiness on his face, as a single, solitary tear of joy rolls down his cheek as he receives this happy gift.

But why stop with the spit patterns? I could also map out the small, brownish stains in the bathroom (I don't want to ponder their origin). Indeed, the entire motel room could conceivably be mapped and examined - who knows what treasure-trove of data exists untapped in the motel room wall stains?

I think I have found my new calling.


I really dislike the word "spiritual." It is one of those squishy, fuzzy words that everyone means something different by, and yet everyone continues to use it as if they mean the same thing. The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that it is a good thing to be spiritual. This leads to bizarre arguments where people argue over who is spiritual, and yet it is clear to anyone who is not enamored with the word that what they are actually arguing about is the definition of the word itself.

Off the top of my head, I can think of the word being used to mean all of the following at different times:

1. Adherence to a particular religion (I recall, as a child, seeing some televangelist or another talk about how all non-Christians live "in spiritual poverty", for example).

2. Adherence to no particular religion, but a belief in some sort of divine force (which can range from a fuzzy feel-good sort of notion to a fairly clear and definite belief in a particular divine force, entity, or entities).

3. Abandonment of religions, but embracing of the idea of a largely undefined and mysterious divine force.

4. A sense of wonder about the universe (this definition is often used by atheists who wish to be considered spiritual).

5. Embracing of mysticism, which, depending on the individual, can range anywhere from a deep commitment to a mystical ideal to a superficial adoption of the trappings of mysticism.

...and, really, the list could go on for some time. While I wrote those, I came up with another ten possible definitions I have heard, plus each of those definitions can be further divided into more (deep commitment vs. superficial adoptions, formalized ritual vs. "free-form" exercise, etc.).

The point is, there are many different ways that the word is used, and many of these usages directly conflict with other usages. As a result, when someone is using it, unless you have them explain what they mean in detail, you'll really have little clue as to what they are saying. So, I consider the word to be useless. Actually, I consider it to be typically misleading, which is worse than useless.

This is different from a word such as "theory" which may be mis-used in many different ways, but comes from a particular place (in this case, science) where it has a specific meaning, and therefore can be guided back to the word's actual meaning. "Spiritual" has been a part of the general vocabulary for centuries, is not a specialized technical term, and as such can not be guided back to its "true" meaning, if it ever really had one to begin with.

To make matters more annoying, everyone insists on applying their definition of the term to everyone else. So, for example, I have always thought of the term as implying some sort of connection to the divine (as this is a common feature of all definitions that I have come across, save #4 above). So, when someone asks me if I am spiritual, I say "no." I don't believe that there is a divine force, and therefore I don't feel any connection to it.

However, this usually results in someone turning around and saying "yes you are! you're curious and always asking questions, that means that you're spiritual because you are seeking knowledge!"

Well, if the person has defined "spiritual" to mean "curious", then why not just use "curious" and do away with the ambiguity? Likewise, it is bizarre to watch those who hold to beliefs in the divine, spirits, etc. accuse members of more orthodox religions of being non-spiritual because they hold to traditions and old rituals, and to watch the members of orthodox religions accuse those who hold to the unorthodox beliefs of being non-spiritual because they don't hold to traditions and old rituals.

It seems to me that if we are going to insist on having a public dialogue about the "spiritual", we need to develop a vocabulary that is something other than a verbal Rorschach test. I suspect that the first step towards this is simply acknowledging that we all mean something different by this.

But I doubt that this will ever happen. The reality is that most folks don't even realize that they are arguing over definitions, and those who do seem to be more concerned with continuing the use of the term for their own purposes (because it has acquired positive social baggage despite the fact that it is a worse than useless term), than with actually communicating what they mean.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Working With a Few of My Favorite Things

I was assigned to a boundary-testing project in Carmel. The client was building a house in the middle of a nature preserve (no, I don't know how what legal wrangling he had to go through, either). The wastewater pipeline from the house to the septic tank was drafted in such a way that it would require digging next to an archaeological site. So, it was necessary to know how large the site is in order to figure out whether the site would be damaged by the construction of the septic line.

So, that's how I ended up doing boundary testing in Carmel. The site was on land that had been gated off from the rest of Carmel (no doubt to keep out the rough, urban, street element that plagues the neighboring golf courses and country clubs), and the land on which the site sat was a good twenty minute drive through the hills away from the main gate. I arrived at the site, located the center of the surface extent of the site, laid out transects (straight lines going away from the central point), figured out where to put my units (the small holes I was going to dig to look for archaeological material), and set to work digging.

Now, the way that I had worked this out, I would dig holes at 10-meter intervals along the transects (yeah, that's right, I use meters, not feet - and it doesn't mean I'm a commie, it means I'm using a superior system of measurement that is both more precise and compatible with the system used by my colleagues the world over - START USING METRIC, PEOPLE, FREE YOURSELVES FROM THE USELESS "ENGLISH STANDARD" METHOD THAT THE ENGLISH DON'T EVEN USE ANYMORE!). I would dig, place the dirt into a wire-mesh screen, sift out the dirt, chuck out the rocks, and if there was any archaeological materials in the screen (stone tools, shell, fire-cracked rock from a hearth, etc.), then I knew that I was still in the site. If not, I knew that I was out of the site.

Well, I was on my second hole when I felt a pain in my ankle. At first I thought that I had gotten stinging nettle or some such thing into my sock. I bent over to pick it out, and I felt another sharp pain on my belly, then another on my other ankle, then one on my wrist. I then noticed a buzzing - bees were flying up out of the hole that I had been digging - I had hit a nest, and I was now surrounded and being attacked by a swarm of yellow-colored malice. I dropped my backpack, screen, shovel, and ran for my car, more hornets landing on me and stinging me the entire way.

Sitting in the car, I took off my gloves, and noticed that my skin had turned yellow (I later found out that this was due to a yellow dye in my new gloves, but at the time I thought it might be a reaction to the stings). Not knowing whether or not I was allergic to bee stings (it had been over twenty years since the last time I was stung), I started the car and headed for the hospital.

Once I arrived at the hospital, finding a parking space became difficult. I sought a parking lot, constantly being slowed by idiots in huge SUV's that had clearly never been off of a paved surface who kept stopping to look around in the parking lot or bringing traffic to a screeching halt as the attempted to fit their over-sized penis extension vehicles into spaces built for cars and not tanks. Needless to say, this did not improve my mood.

Once I got into the emergency room, I realized that my workers comp insurance paperwork was in my backpack, which I had dropped in the field. So, I walked up to the main desk, checked in, and got the fax number. I then proceeded to call my office and have my co-worker fax the worker's comp information to the hospital.

This being done, I went to have a seat, and two bees flew out of my shirt and began wandering the emergency room. At this moment, a nurse walked out, saw the bees (she was probably cued off by the small and subtle way in which people were screaming and running about the emergency room), and proceeded to catch them and kill them by hand, leaving them sufficiently in tact to place in a plastic bag and hand to the doctor when he finally saw me.

After a few hours, I finally saw the doctor (by this point I was pretty sure I was, in fact, not allergic to bees, but for workers comp reason, I had to go through with the rest of the visit. I had also washed the dye off of my hands and realized that I was not experiencing skin discoloration). He looked me over, checked my lungs, checked by throat, and checked my eyes, and then sent me on my way.

I walked back to my car, got in, and noticed a red folder on the passenger seat. The red folder is what my company keeps all emergency information in. In other words, I had the workers comp info. with me the entire time.

I went back to the site, and worked until sunset. The next morning, I returned to the site again to finish the job.

At around 10:30 AM, I was digging a unit in what looked like a really nice spot. I was in the shade of an oak tree, on the toe of a slope where a breeze whipped by. All in all, a nice spot to work. I was screening dirt when I noticed movement in the screen. Looking down, I saw several large ants int he screen, and right about then, I began to feel stings on my arms. Yep, biting ants, and they had climbed right up my sleeves and into my gloves. As obnoxious as these little beasties are, I had been bitten by them enough times to know that, pain aside, they posed no danger. So, I continued working, the ants climbing into my sleeves, onto my torso, and eventually up my pant legs (I had welts from bites in places that you probably don't want to know about).

I finished that unit, and then moved on to the next one - which was in the middle of poison oak. Now, I don't get the whole "open sores leaking puss" reaction to poison oak, which is a good thing. However, I do get a bad, extremely itchy, extremely red rash - and I get systemic contamination, where I will have a rash for several weeks (sometimes over a month), an then get rid of it only to have it re-appear in exactly the same place a few weeks later. I hate poison oak.
But, I had to dig the unit. So, I buttoned my sleeve cuffs around my gloves, tucked my pants into the tops of my boots, and went to work. I found myself digging through poison oak roots, where the dark, tar-like, toxin-laden sap is at it's runny nastiest. Surprisingly, a week later, I still don't have a rash. My precautions apparently paid off, and I did manage to avoid contact with the evil weed.

So, there's a story of life in the field. If nothing else, I hope that this story has taught you to love your office job. And if it has failed at that, perhaps it will at least give you the chance to laugh at a yutz who earned a masters degree so that he could be a target to insects.

...and so here I am...

My name is Matthew, and I am an archaeologist. There, I've admitted my problem, now there's just eleven steps to go...

As I say, I am an archaeologist. Yep, like Indiana Jones. In fact, just like Indiana Jones, but with more sorting of gravel and less fighting of Nazis.

Okay, I'm nothing like Indiana Jones, but at least I'm younger than Harrison Ford. But I digress...

I work in what is known as "Cultural Resource Management" - basically, if you are trying to get building permits, you may be required to have a suite of environmental studies done, which may include archaeology, in order to ensure that the addition of bay windows to your home doesn't do incalculable environmental damage, or some such thing. If archaeological studies happen to be part of the conditions for your permit, I'm the guy you call to check out the land and make sure that you aren't going to be destroying anything (or if you are going to be destroying something, I'm the guy who digs it up and writes about it in an obscure report that nobody but me and a city planner will ever read).

The basic reasons why I have decided to start keeping this blog are threefold: 1) enough oddball things happen to me on the job that I thought it might entertain someone else to read the stories, and if nothing else it would at least let folks know what my job is like, as there are some odd misconceptions floating about out there; 2) I am trying to improve my writing, and knowing that other people wil be reading it makes me a bit more likely to put some effort into it, and besides, I might get constructive criticism, which is always welcome; 3) I have an ego the size of the Pacific and I want it fed by attention from strangers.

So, there you go. Some of my posts will be about archaeology, some will be about whatever the hell I feel like writing about. And my first few posts will be things that I had originally posted elsewhere, but there ya' go.