The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, July 25, 2008


Last week I linked to "Teach the Controversy" - well, these same folks have a series of T-shirts dedicated to just how groovy science is. Check it out:


If only Bill Nye had thought of this.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Street Corner Politics

I was out on my usual lunch-time walk when a kid (well, he was in his early 20’s, anyway) with bad teeth approached me, and said “…….”

“Huh?” I inquired.


I stood, puzzled for a moment, wondering what he was trying to say. And then I had an idea, “Wait, let me remove my earphones.”

“Hi. CanIhaveamomentofyourtimetotalkwithyouabouttheDemocraticNationalCommitteeandtheirplantogetthiscountrybackontherighttrack?”

I stared at him blankly for a moment, and then suavely responded “The whatwiththewhowiththehow?”

“The Democratic National Committee – you can help them put the country back on the right track!”

Now, I am not a Republican. In fact, I will likely vote against the Republicans in the upcoming election (not specifically against McCain, though I suppose that that will be what the ballot looks like, but against the Republican party). But the fact that I am lucid enough to see the Republican party for the pack of imbeciles that they are doesn’t mean that I think that the Democrats are much better. Ironically, the only thing that makes the Democrats even marginally better is that they don’t have a strong enough leadership to make a large portion of them capable of the partisan denial of reality in unison the way that the Republican party does – instead, you get a cacophony of smaller semi-partisan denials of reality, meaning a less cohesive set of delusions that does a little bit less harm than a more coherent set of delusions. In other words, their one saving grace is their inept leadership, not exactly where you want to pin your hopes for the future.

So, while I don’t dislike the Democratic party as much as the Republican party, it seems to me that the notion that they are somehow going to get us on the “right track” is wholly laughable. In fact, anyone who thinks that any political party will get the country on the right track really oughta’ up their medications. The very nature of political parties seems to draw people who are more interested in reinforcing their own pre-existing notions (or in buying wholesale into someone else’s) and getting “one of our own” into a position of power by whatever means necessary than in actually, you know, solving problems by actually looking dispassionately at potential solutions. Yeah, I know, this isn’t always how it works out, or even always how it has been, but it sure seems to be the way they function in the contemporary U.S.

So, I looked at the fellow, and I asked “what makes you think that the Democratic National Committee is going to help matters?”

“Well, they can’t do any worse than the current administration.”

“Agreed. However, aren’t both parties screwing matters up, aren’t they both part of the problem? I mean, think about it, don’t they both tend to serve as little more than echo chambers that result in the same partisan rants ricocheting about and never really seeing solutions? Hell, isn’t that also what happens in the smaller parties – I mean, have you ever tried having a discussion with a Green or Libertarian about economics and the environment?” Or at least, I remember that being what I said. In reality it was probably less articulate, and may have involved me drooling on myself.

“Well, all that we have now is two parties, so that’s where we need to solve out problems.”

Okay, this attitude irritates me no end. The reason why we only have two parties is because large numbers of people, including large numbers of people who like neither of them, will only vote for these two because they don’t want to “waste a vote” – and as a result, two parties that are far more interested in partisan bickering and pushing agendas that have more to do with beating the other party than serving the nation are locked into place as the ruling parties in a country that is supposed to have no ruling party. In other words, these parties will not solve our problems – they ARE our problems. Actually, no, we the voters are the problem, because we put these people into power.

It’s really the prisoner’s dilemma writ large. Do you vote for the lesser evil (or, as I tend to think of it, AGAINST the greater evil) hoping to keep the worst possible scenario from happening? Or do you vote for someone else, knowing full well that they won’t get elected because everyone else is either voting for the lesser evil or delusional enough to think that their party is not a mess? Regardless, the solution is not to be found in the two parties, it is to be found by breaking free from the two party system. However, the fact that many people, including this young yutz, have resigned themselves to the two party system means that we probably won’t break free. We are, in all likelihood, thoroughly screwed in the long-term because our reliance on partisanship rather than critical thinking is spiraling us farther and farther away from reality*.

I just looked at him and said, “kid, the fact that we have only the two parties IS the problem, and that being the case, I fail to see how either party is going to solve the problem.”

He gave me his best you’re part of the problem, apathetic voter look, and said “well, have a good day” with as much venom as could be put into those words.

But I am not an apathetic voter. I am a very concerned citizen, I try to be aware of what is going on around me and around the world, and I try to vote as best I can based on this information. In fact, it seems to me to be the height of apathy to simply trust in a party and assume that they will solve everything. Passion riding on apathy’s back, who’d have thought?

*yes, yes, I tend to over-use the word “reality”, but whatcha’gonna’do?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Photos Galore

Because I have an ego the size of the Monterey Bay and I like tooting my own horn (really, why else would I be keeping this blog), I thought I'd show the fruits of one of my hobbies (no, not the tooting of my horn - I keep those fruits private). I usually have a camera in my car, and while I am in no way a professional quality photographer (hell, I don't even have a particularly good camera), I have managed to get some shots that I am proud of. I don't take too many pictures of people, because I'm not very good at it, but I like the ones in this post. Such as:

This one of Scott, Kirin, and Salome listening to music at a coffee shop. I like the rather screwed-up symmetry of the image, three people, and the photo is centered on one of them, which should create good symmetry, but because Salome is leaning forward, it doesn't quite work.

Or how about this one - Scott's explaining something, and Stacy is looking thoroughly unimpressed...

Again, a slightly screwed-up symmetry, this one due to the fact that Scott is partially out of the frame and I'm taking the picture from an odd angle relative to them, and I kind of like that.

I have no idea who this person is, but when I saw her leaning against the wall of the coffee shop, I figured it would make a good photo:
In this case, I like the fact that she is clearly unaware that her picture is being taken (actually, that's the case for all of these photos), and she clearly has other things on her mind. Add to that the fact that the photos is taken through a window, and I am looking over someone's shoulder (note the newspaper in the corner of the screen), and I think it makes for an interesting image.

Then there's vanishing points, which I make alot of use of when I am not photographing people, but are difficult to capture with people. However, this photo of Jeff and Scott watching miniature car races at the Santa Cruz County Fair came off nicely.

And finally, an image of Scott at a supposedly haunted hotel in Brookdale, off of Highway 9.

And that's all for now...though I am trying to figure out why Scott is in so many of my pictures. Probably because he seems oblivious to his surroundings, and therefore doesn't notice or pose when I pull the camera out.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Crashing Into Reality

I feel like I should be trying to write more funny entries, but I keep writing stuff like this. It’s nothing new, the sort of thing I’ve griped about before, but it bugs me, and it’s my blog, so there.

A few years back, I was at a beach with some friends. A fellow who was a friend of one of my friends tagged along. I will call this fellow Brian, because I can’t remember his actual name. It was a nice evening, warm but not uncomfortably so, and relatively dry air despite the proximity of the ocean. We were enjoying ourselves immensely, and at one point Brian and I ended up at the back of the group talking about science fiction books.

After a few minutes, Brian asked what I did for a living. I told him that I was an archaeologist. Brian became silent, and just glared at me. After a few minutes of this, I asked him what was wrong.

“You’re out to destroy our faith.”


“Yeah. You’re one of the anti-Christian people.”

“What the Hell are you talking about?”

“Archaeologists dedicate their lives to trying to prove the Bible wrong in order to destroy Christianity.”

I then proceeded to explain that A) I am a North American Archaeologist, meaning that the Bible is completely irrelevant to my own work, and B) archaeologists aren’t out to prove or disprove anything in particular, we go where the evidence leads – and if the evidence agrees with someone else’s beliefs, that’s okay, but if it disproves those beliefs, well, that’s okay, too.

I thought of this conversation recently when I heard someone going on a diatribe about how medical science is solely about trying to “destroy people’s health in the name of profit!” This person was, not surprisingly, trying to convince people to buy into that great-grandmother of snake oil fraud, homeopathics*.

Now, there are plenty of shady dealings in the medical industry, make no mistake. But one has to be intentionally ignorant to not notice that medical research has resulted in at least a few small advances in furthering public health, like, oh I don’t know, curing polio, finding the vectors for transmission of HIV (thus allowing its prevention), dietary research and effective guidelines, and creating vaccinations for rabies, just to name a few. Or, hey, how about revealing that microbes spread disease, and hey, that soap stuff is pretty handy for preventing this. However, medical research (along with chemistry and physics) has also demonstrated that homeopathics are nothing but a sham, and was thus undercutting this person’s worldview.

And this has all got me thinking about why research is viewed as threatening by so many people. The basic goal of good research is not to prove or disprove a point, it is simply to follow evidence and get as close to reality as possible. Now, there are researchers with agendas, yes, and there are things outside of pure evidence that do influence research, true. However, over the course of time, these things tend to wash out – agendas change and/or fade, outside influences shift, but the data remains existant and methods sharpen and improve, meaning that, even though a blind alley or wrong direction may be chosen temporarily, it tends to be corrected over time. The end result is that research in general, and science in particular, tends in the long run to move along without any particular direction towards proving or disproving one idea or another.

The problem for many people is this – if you hold a belief that is based on assumptions (a belief without or despite evidence such as: the Bible is inerrant, homeopathy is something other than nonsense, cooked food is bad for you, or that L. Ron Hubbard is a god and his teachings will allow you to alter your blood’s salinity), then you are going to be threatened by any person, people, or institution who are honestly attempting to find truth without an agenda. And the problem is two-fold: A) someone who holds such a belief has based their worldview on a shaky claim that is likely to be toppled by scrutiny, and B) the clinging to beliefs derived by fiat rather than evidence and reason puts such an individual immediately at odds with reality and any exposure to a systematic method of examining reality is going to seem alien – so alien, in fact, that many folks I meet don’t know the difference between an assumption-based worldview and one based on evidence, hence the fact that many folks incorrectly perceive science as being simply a religion (despite the fact that the methods of the two could not be more different), or just another “way of knowing the world” no different from any other – despite the fact that methodologically it is unique and wildly different.

Add this to the basic human desire to not be proven wrong, and you have a potent stew to serve up at a denial of reality dinner. And this is a problem, not only because it means that there are a whole lot of people who are, put simply, basing their worldview on what are really superstitious assumptions and failing to recognize that their worldview may not be based in reality. These folks then become hostile to anyone who introduces a bit of reality, and (based on my experience, anyway) withdraw farther away from any sort of reasonable discourse or engagement with the real world that they live in.

* Now, I know that someone is going to write to me claiming that homeopathy works because they got some herbs that cured some condition, etc., etc., etc.. Homeopathy often gets confused with naturopathy (which includes the use of herbs), but is something completely different. Homeopathy is the practice of taking a substance that causes an illness in a well person, diluting it to miniscule amounts (often to the point that any given dose of a homeopathic treatment contains none of the allegedly active ingredient), and then using that to “cure” a sick person. If this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Which is probably why homeopaths don’t seem to object to people confusing them for naturopaths – while naturopathy is not nearly as effective as many people seem to think it is - and some of the more popular remedies are actually completely useless - there are some naturopathic remedies that actually work – but there are no homeopathic ones that do, so being confused for naturopathy works in the homeopath’s favor.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Beware Falling Activists

So, UC Santa Cruz has been exapnding its campus over the last several years, and this has raised the hackles of a number of students (and, it should be said, with good reason - some of the expansion plans come off as, well, not in keeping with the campus ethos, shall we say). So, now, there are a number of tree-sitters who have built a community that bears no small resemblance to a cross between the Ewok Village, a Mad Max movie and a rennaisance fair in the trees.

Ever since my time as a student there, the good slug-folk have been given to activism without thought as to what the most effective means to the end is - usually resulting is bizarre rallies or stunts that grab attention but ultimately don't achieve their intended goal. Which is a shame really, as with that much energy and passion, these folks could really mobilize to do some good if they put a bit more thought into results and a bit less into spectacle. Hell, I'd love to see them go into either politics or the environmental compliance line of work, as these would be great outlets for their idealism once it is tempered with experience with reality (and thus geared towards workable solutions to serious problems).

But, most likely, they'll graduate with their computer science degrees and go to work for IBM. Shame, really.

In the meantime, their actions have resulted in the UC Regents putting up what is possibly the greatest sign ever put in a parking lot:

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Race Relations and the Anthropology Department

I was listening last night to a radio call-in show, and the topic of discussion was why social and economic disparity exists between different ethnic groups, and who was responsible for fixing it. The callers, host, and guests were all over the board, and their comments ranged from insightful to ludicrous. However, none of them could reach any consensus at all, and all of them seemed to want to simplify matters beyond reality, while simultaneously creating straw-man arguments out of the positions of their opponents. This got me thinking about the value of the social sciences in addressing these issues, but then I recalled earlier events in my life and wondered whether this was truly the case.

When I was in graduate school, a few students noticed something that seemed both odd and disturbing – most of the non-white graduate students were leaving the program without finishing their degrees. This led to a number of us looking at what was happening. One particular group of students came to the conclusion that the non-white students were being pushed out of the program, while the white students weren’t. This seemed pretty simple and direct – another case of white privilege in a society where race is so often the elephant in the room – the overwhelming presence that nobody wants to talk about or acknowledge.

However, the problem wasn’t that simple.

Those of us who decided to look closer noticed something important – the non-white students who could be said to have been pushed out were all in the socio-cultural anthropology wing of the department. Looking closer still, MOST of the socio-cultural students were being pushed out of the department. The faculty tended to play politics with each other and use the students as pawns, resulting in students unable to form PhD committees, unable to get funding or workspace, and experiencing a remarkably hostile environment. Of course the students were being pushed out, but it was all of them, not just the non-white students.

So, why did it look like the non-white students were being pushed out? Well, the bio-social, physical, and archaeology wings of the departments had, between the three of them, only two non-white students. As these wings of the department tended to be more supportive of the students (including the non-white students, both of whom had secured generous funding and workspace arrangements), the students tended to complete their degrees. So, if you didn’t factor in the differences between the different wings of the departments, it looked like non-white students were being specifically mis-treated or alienated, when it was an entire wing and not just students of certain ethnicities.

If one wished to increase the ethnic mix of the department, which in an anthropology department is a very good idea, then the appropriate route to take was to tackle the issue at recruitment, trying to get a wider range of students into the other wings, while also improving retention of socio-cultural students. Specifically trying to keep non-white students in while ignoring the problems at both recruitment and retention of all socio-cultural students would be to tilt at windmills rather than to seriously address the issue of increasing ethnic diversity of the department.

The problem was that a few students had decided, without bothering to look more deeply into matters, that the problem was one purely of retention of non-white students, and anyone who tried to point to that pesky little thing called reality were immediately shot down and accused of, and no I am not making this up, “Racist colonialism”.

Hand me a pith helmet and a native phrase-book, Jeeves.

From this point on, everything that happened in the department was viewed through the lens of race and racism, leading to an increasingly weird and paranoid experience for all of us. For example, a position came open in the socio-cultural wing, and a number of candidates – both white and non-white - were interviewed. One applicant was a Hispanic man whose work had direct real-world applications in helping to figure out immigration-related matters, and, to top it off, was really fascinating. However, it wasn’t “cutting edge theory” (which, in our socio-cultural wing, often meant “mental masturbation”)*, and so the job was offered to a British guy whose work was “on the cutting edge of theory” and was also amazingly boring and irrelevant to the world around him.

Now, taken in context with other decisions that the faculty had made, it was clear that this was a matter of academic snobbery – the “pure research” fellow was favored over someone whose work was actually interesting and had real-world applications. However, as the interesting guy was Hispanic and the other was a pasty white guy from England, this immediately came to be seen as a case of racial preference rather than what it actually was - theoretical snobbery and shunning of the potential for research to actually impact the outside world.

Of course, the faculty also didn’t do themselves in favors in dealing with these issues. Whether it be some comments about Japanese internment that made a certain amount of sense from a historical perspective but sounded callous to people not overly-familiar with the events, or faculty members actively using the issue of race to further play politics with other faculty members, once everything began to be viewed as a “race issue” matters continued to spiral out.

And all the while, the real underlying issues, poor retention of socio-cultural students coupled with a lack of recruitment of non-white students into the other wings, went unaddressed. What’s more, other issues of diversity were completely ignored. A frequent feature of discussions involving this was the assumption that white people were a homogenous group, all affluent and all of the same background. I had the surreal experience of watching a white graduate student who had grown up in a run-down trailer park being told by a woman from a rather wealthy family that he didn’t understand what it was like to be economically disadvantaged. Likewise, I was regularly informed that I had always lived in all-white communities, thus proving that the people who made these claims had never seen the ethnic mix of the neighborhood where I grew up.

Last I heard, none of the attempts to “increase diversity” of the anthro. department had worked. This is no surprise, as the problems identified by the people with the passion to do something were not the problems that were actually present. Retention of specifically non-white students may yet be a problem that needs to be addressed, but until the other two problems (recruitment and overall retention in one wing) are addressed, there is no way to know.

The point that I am getting at is that anthropologists, the groups that, along with sociologists, one would expect to be the best at examining and addressing complex issues such as race relations, can be just as blinded by both early assumptions and easy answers. This can, in turn, lead to the “source of the problem” being mis-identified, and false solutions that do no good being implemented.

*I am not saying that all research, or even most research, is like this. However, in the department where I was a student, there was a tendency to favor things that sounded complex and were filled with buzz words over things that actually made sense. Other departments don’t necessarily have this problem.

Teach the Controversy

I'm sure that many of you have heard the pro-indoctrination-into-religion-in-public-schools folks use the slogan "teach the controversy" in trying to get creationism (including the mis-named "intelligent design") taught in public schools - the implication being that there is a controversy over the truth of evolution, which, well, there really isn't.

I could write a lengthy diatribe about how this is really just people making up a non-existent controversy in order to further their own agenda without regard to the truth, and how if you're going to claim that there's controversy about evolution you also have to accept that there is controversy about whether or not UFOs built the pyramids - seeing as how the reasoning behind claiming there is a controversy in the science world over evolution is no different than the reason in claiming that there is controversy as to the pedigree of the pyramids.

But I'm not going to - someone else has done something that is much funnier, sums the matter up, and I really can't top:


I think I know what I'm gonna' be spending some money on...


Friday, July 11, 2008

Gabriel's Vision and it's Implications

Hey, hey, I’m actually writing about archaeology. Mind you, it’s not the Californian archaeology that I’m actually, you know, qualified to talk about, but it’s archaeology nonetheless.

You may have heard about the “Vision of Gabriel” stone tablet that has been causing a bit of a stir in Bible scholar circles for a few months now. If not, here’s the skinny: A stone tablet covered in ink writing, oddly like a scroll other than the being-written-on-stone-and-not-leather-or-papyrus thing, contains Jewish writings dating to around the 1st century BC. Portions of the text are missing, and it is not clear what, exactly, the tablet says. However, there is some evidence that it may be a description of a messiah who suffers, dies, and is ressurected after three days – written before Jesus, indicating that the stories that are told about Jesus may simply be a continuation of an already existing Jewish mythic tradition. If, in fact, this is even what the tablet is talking about, and if, in fact, the tablet is genuine, and if, in fact, the tablet dates to the 1st century BC – all matters are open to debate.

A more thorough description can be found here,here, and here.

And you can read a translation of the tablet here.

Based on what I have read – and I should stress that because Middle Eastern historic archaeology is outside of my purview (and, honestly, usually puts me to sleep), most of my information so far has come from the popular media and not from the professional journals (a fact that I could change, but I have only recently heard of this particular issue) – it sounds as if the tablet is likely from the alleged date and not a forgery, but this is based on preliminary study, and while the bets can be placed, the verdict is still out.

So, what about the messianic resurrection described on the tablet? Well, as you can see from reading the translation, it’s not really clear that that is what is being described. It could be, the parts are certainly there, but so much information is missing that it might be descriptive of another type of event as well.

But what if this tablet does prove that there was a Jewish tradition of a suffering messiah that is resurrected after three days? Will it have earth-shaking consequences for Christianity? Will it change the way that people view the church, and shake their beliefs?

Probably not.

There’s nothing really new about this. It has long been known that the elements of the story of Jesus had all been floating around the Middle East and Roman Empire for quite a while before Christianity appeared. The best known are probably Mithras and Apollonius, both of whom have arcs very similar to that of Jesus, but there were many, many others. The fact that this particular stone, if it says what some scholars are claiming, ties these ideas in to an established Jewish tradition is interesting, but represents nothing more remarkable than cultural diffusion.

As for how Christians will react if this does end up proving that the story of Jesus was simply a continuation of an ongoing Jewish mythic tradition, well, they’ll probably react the same ways that they have reacted to all of the other revelations of mythic belief in the ancient world – some will see it as evidence that Jesus had been prophesized to come just as he did; some will see it as a sign that Satan is trying to destroy Christianity; some will see it as an interesting glimpse into religious life at the time of Jesus, yet insist that this has nothing to do with Jesus; some will insist that it was a hoax by “secular liberal academics out to destroy God’s work”; and some will see this as relevant to the formation of the story of Jesus, but, in that curious way that humans have of bifurcating our minds to both accept and ignore information that is incongruent with our beliefs, will continue to believe as if they didn’t possess this information. Hell, some will probably even accept that this does have bearing on the origins of Christianity, but remain vague as to how, exactly, so as not to have to integrate the information.

In other words, this is likely to be treated just as the reality of evolution is treated – except fewer people are likely to know about this because it lacks the emotional baggage and accompanying explosiveness that a century and a half has given evolution. Sure, there will be some people who leave Christianity if this particular interpretation ends up being legit, but they are likely to be few in number.

In other words, the notion that some particular discovery or piece of information will “shake the faith” of the masses and lead to cracks in the foundation of one of the world’s major religions is completely at odds with historical reality. Anyone who wants to can easily trace the formation of the messianic story of Jesus from earlier sources, it’s neither a mystery nor a secret. Whether there was a historical Jesus or not, the mythic elements of the story (messiah, rise from the dead, miraculous healings, loaves and fishes, etc. etc.) had long been part of the mythology of the Middle East and Roman Empire, and these facts are fairly widely known – we’re just beginning to get a clearer picture of how, exactly, the influenced pre-mellenial Judaism.

So, for those who believe or fear that this particular discovery is the death knell of Christianity, all I can say is get a grip. For good or for ill, this is likely to have little appreciable effect on contemporary or future Christianity.

For the rest of us, this research provides some fascinating insights into how religions evolve both through re-telling of myth and through the social, political, and environmental forces that surround it. It’s well worth checking this story out for that reason alone.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Mind-Bullets Against the Dream Catcher

When I was in high school, my class read a short story (I don’t recall the name of said story) in which a young British boy is sent to live with his aunt in England. He detests her, and takes solace in spending time with his pet mongoose (that he eventually comes to revere as a god). At the end of the story, the aunt goes to remove the mongoose from her house, only to have the cage open and the mongoose kill her as the nephew listens on while calmly eating breakfast.

My senior-year literature teacher, Nancy Barr, suggested that the boy had willed his aunt’s death. She then proceeded to ask various members of the class if we believed it was possible to actually do this – to imagine a situation and believe in it so strongly that it becomes physical reality.

Ten years later, I got the chance to put this hypothesis to the test.

I spent a year and a half as an intern in the environmental conservation office at Vandenberg Air Force Base. During this time, a group that was dedicated to establishing a walking trail that covered the entirety of the Californian coastline decided to walk the proposed path, from the Oregon border all the way down to the border of Mexico. However, this meant walking through Vandenberg Air Force Base – and it probably goes without saying that the officers running the base were uneasy about allowing these “long-haired-hippie-type pedestrians” wander about the base, and so my boss and I were dispatched to act as guides and chaperones.

For the most part, it was enjoyable – we shepherded the trail-advocates across the base, and found most of them to be pleasant, if sometimes comically idealistic, folks (for example, the leader of the group spent a good deal of time talking about his rank in the Peace Corps, why he loved Birkenstocks, the number of Nalgene bottles he owned, and the joys he found in a tofu burger – I managed to not ask him how it felt to be a walking stereotype). The weather was nice, the scenery beautiful, and the work easy. All in all, a damn fine day.

Except for one conversation.

During the lunch break, one of the hikers, a woman of about 45 or so, approached me and asked what my function on the base was.

“I’m an archaeologist,” I responded, thinking nothing of the question at the time.

“Oh, that’s what I thought! Are you interested in Native American Culture?”

I knew where this was going, but could think of no gracious way to not answer. “Well, I kinda’ hafta’ be in order to do my job.”

“Do you have any of THAT blood in you?” She asked eagerly, clearly hoping that she had met some mystical creature of the sort that doesn’t exist outside of the mind of a modern white suburbanite.

“Pardon?” I asked, feigning ignorance.

“Do you have any of THEIR blood in you?”

“Well,” I looked up, thoughtfully, “I’ve managed to avoid needing a transfusion, so I don’t have anyone’s blood in me except for my own.”

She blinked, looked momentarily confused, and decided to phrase her question in a more plain and straight-forward way. “Do you have any Native American Ancestry?”

“Yeah. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, was half Cherokee and half Choctaw.”

“Oh!” She believed that she had found her prey – the elusive Injun Nature Mystic, so popular in the imaginings of wanna-be Sierra Club members who don’t get out much, “what was her name?”

“Buna” (pronounced “B-YOO-NA” for those of you who aren’t familiar with English butchering of words adopted from other languages) I stated.

She looked frustrated. “What was her REAL name?”

I looked at her blankly and said, again, “Buna.”

“Right, but what was her REAL name? You know, her REAL name?”

It was at this point that I decided to try testing Ms. Barr’s hypothesis, and I imagined, with as much force as I could muster, this woman getting a clue. It didn’t work.

“I told you her REAL name.”

She looked confused. Then she looked frustrated, as if I was somehow hiding a secret from her, and if only she knew how to ask correctly, or could complete some task, I would open the door and let her into the world of true Native American ecological enlightenment.

I decided to again test Ms. Barr’s hypothesis, this time imagining, with all of the will I had in my mind and body, that this woman’s tongue would shrivel and fall out. It didn’t work.

“Well,” she looked both confused and determined, “how do you know that THAT was her real name?”

“You mean aside from the fact that it was on her birth certificate, on her driver’s license, was what she called herself, and is what everyone else called her?”

“Oh.” She slunk away, and I tried to test Ms. Barr’s Hypothesis a third time, this time imagining that the woman’s head would explode. It still didn’t work.

The sad thing is that this woman probably doesn’t realize that her assumption that all Native Americans have names like “Deer Who Frolics in the Rain” or “Bear Who Hunts Walks in the Night” is based on a bigoted belief that all Native Americans are wilderness-dwelling mystics who are out of place in the modern world –with people making life frustrating for many Native Amaericans because so many folks believe that the “Indians aren’t capable of running businesses/being a lawyer/becoming a doctor/serving as a police officer/etc.”, because they are, apparently, only capable of being icons for a lost idyllic past in which humans had mystical connections to the trees and streams. This sort of cultural pornography, the titillating display of another culture to show only those aspects that appeal to the viewer without an acknowledgement of the reality of the individual or group of people being put on display, really gets under my skin - it's essentially a vestige of the racist 19th century notion that white Europeans were rational and responsible, and the rest of the world nothing but brown-skinned superstitious mystics and witch doctors. The fact that the white people are now revering the superstitious and the witch doctors doesn't change the fact that this is still a racist portrayal of the rest of the world.

I’d like to think that my responses helped slap this woman back to reality, and led her to ponder the fact that Native Americans are humans, just like the rest of us, and deserving of some basic respect, not pseudo-reverence where they are put up as bizarre inhuman idols of magic.

But the truth is that she probably walked away thinking of me as the ignorant one, and is still clinging to her racist stereotypes of my grandmother’s ethnicity.

And unfortunately, Ms. Barr’s hypothesis failed, but my high school physics teacher would be happy to know that his dismissal of such things as psychic powers was further confirmed.

So it goes.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Think Different

My youngest biological sister* got married a few weeks ago. After the wedding, I was talking with my mother and my sister’s husband’s grandmother about an event that had occurred in my brother-in-law’s family a few months earlier.

One of my brother-in-law’s cousins owns a farm, and he was driving his tractor from one field to another when he hit his daughter. She suffered significant brain damage, and the doctors who treated her warned that she may never fully regain her cognitive and motor functions. However, here we are, a few months later, and she has regained her ability to recognize people, her memory of people from before the accident seems to be unimpaired, and while she is paralyzed on one side of her body, she seems to be beginning to recover motor functions there as well.

Her recovery is pretty remarkable, but not unheard of. The reality is that we are only beginning to crack the inner workings of the human brain, and it’s alternating fragility and resilience is only beginning to be understood in any meaningful way. Stories such as this girl’s are amazing, but not miraculous.

Or so I think.

As the grandmother was winding down her description of the child’s injuries and recovery, I prepared to make a comment about how complex and amazing the human brain is, and how astounding it is that people can recover from even serious brain injuries – and, hey, the doctors probably had a bit of a hand in it to, so let’s give them some credit. Before I could do more than open my mouth, though, the grandmother began describing this sequence not as the amazing yet natural processes of a complex brain coupled with modern medicine, but as proof that God was watching over the girl and working miracles. My mother immediately jumped in and began affirming everything that the grandmother said.

Although the question formed in my mind, I did have the good sense to not ask “if God is watching over her, why did he let her get hit by the tractor in the first place?” Under the circumstances, such a question would have done no good, and would probably just have upset people whose nerves were already frayed by recent events. Still, even if it had been a time or place where such a question would not have come off as just plain callous, I’d likely have been given the usual non-answers such as “God working in mysterious ways” or “God has to allow bad to happen so that good can also happen.”

So, I sat there silently.

But, ever since then, as I have not been able to get this conversation out of my mind. People who don’t believe in particular things, be they gods, ghosts, leprechauns, or unicorns, are often accused of lacking a sense of wonder. This is bullshit, though. I have nothing but awe and a sense of wonder at the fact that we have evolved a brain that, under the correct conditions, is capable of healing from even catastrophic injuries. Likewise, I am struck by a sense of awe and wonder every time I think about the working of a cell or the presence of quasars, black holes, and novas. To crack that up to some paranormal entity, regardless of the nature of that entity, is not to revel in wonder and awe, it is to deny it by putting it into a black box and labeling it “unexplainable.”

I may reject the notion of miracles, but I do so accepting the reality of very real and very amazing things, such as a brain that can heal itself or a star that can explode, creating the raw materials for future stars and planets. Reality is truly amazing.

Some would say that awe and wonder are beside the point in this case, and that the notion that a god was looking out for the child gives the grandmother comfort. This certainly seems to be true, and it is for that reason that I kept my mouth shut. But, in order to maintain this belief, she must either not think too deeply about the belief or else accept a God that is ambivalent at best and capricious at worst – healing the child only after allowing her to be hit by the tractor (or if we are going with an omniscient and omnipotent deity that set everything into motion, making her be hit by the tractor). Regardless, it seems more comforting to accept the fact that we are amazing creatures lucky enough to live in an amazing universe, and capable of healing when circumstances are right (and with a little help of other members of our species) than to spend time contemplating a cosmic entity that is just as likely to aid us as to allow us to come to tremendous harm.

However, this is yet another circumstance in which it becomes clear that, really, I just don’t think the way that most other people I know think. And with this sort of introspection, you can bet that I am a blast at parties.

*I have three biological sisters and three adopted sisters, and since everyone always asks this, no I don’t have any brothers.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Oh, THAT Paradox

I have not posted for a bit, so I think it’s time for an update. Since I don’t have anything worthwhile to post, I’ll just give a grumpy but pointless spiel about a particular email forward that keeps being sent my way.

I have learned to hate email forwards. Partially because I tend to see the same ones over and over again (and yet, the people sending them think that they are somehow the first one to do so), but mostly because if they are almost always either A) either rather obvious statements listed and presented as if they are profound observations when they are little more than saccharine or overly-nostalgic trash when not statements of the mind-blowingly obvious, or B) they are half-wit claims and observations made by someone who is a complete fucking idiot, but presented in a way that implies that the complete fucking idiot is delusional enough to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is somehow foolish.

A good example of this is the “Paradox of our Time” forward, which various members of my family keep sending my way. It is astounding in that it is both obvious statements listed and presented as if they are profound observations when they are little more than saccharine and overly-nostalgic trash and simultaneously half-wit claims and observations made by someone who is a complete fucking idiot, but presented in a way that implies that the complete fucking idiot is delusional enough to believe that anyone who disagrees with them is somehow foolish. And, to top it off, it keeps being mis-attributed to George Carlin (if you see this particular forward, it lately has been making the rounds with a picture of ol’ George attached – the fact that Carlin hasn’t been striking out with fury from the grave at this is about as much proof that there is no afterlife as any reasonable person could need).

For those of you who have been lucky enough to avoid this particular piece of glurge (as the folks at call it), I’m about to shatter your innocence by exposing you to a small portion of the insipid thing.

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but
shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more,
but have less; we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and
smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees
but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more
problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

Okay, so, to start off:

Taller buildings but shorter tempers: Other than the common “oh, things were so different before everything changed” moaning about how much better the past was, where the hell does this claim come from?

Wider Freeways but narrower viewpoints: Yep, narrower viewpoints in the past. Mind you, lynching is frowned upon these days, we accept that, hey, maybe gay people aren’t inherently evil, and your Italian neighbors probably are not members of an organized crime family. But, it’s the present, and nto the golden past, so, hey, we must have narrower viewpoints.

Spend more but have less, buy more but enjoy less: Actually, we have more, that’s the problem. If we enjoy it less, and here I think that the author may actually have stumbled onto an observation that isn’t idiotic, it’s because we have become so bloated on consumption that we are failing to appreciate what we have in favor of gaining more.

We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little,
drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too
little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our
possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and
hate too often.

Drink too much? Rates of alcohol consumption are quite low currently compared to much of history. Smoke too much? Same story.

Spend to recklessly – yep, that one is true, but also rather obvious.

Laugh too little? By whose count? If anything, we as a population appear to turn to entertainment even when we should be taking in some rather important and serious matters. Consider, how many people can name the entire cast of “Friends?” Right, now, how many of those people can name three Supreme Court Justices?

Laughing too little? No. Thinking to little? Yes, but I’m not convinced that that’s anything new.

Drive too fast? Probably, but, again, rather obvious.

Get too angry? Well it depends on what we’re getting angry about. There are things out there that should have us in a fury, but about which we are apathetic.

Stay up to late and get up too tired? By whose account, exactly?

Read too little? Yep, but giving the inanity of this list, I suspect that the author is among the guilty on this claim. Same for watching T.V. too much.

Pray to seldom? Let me get this straight, someone is upset because not enough of us are offering supplication to imaginary beings? We don’t pray too seldom, in fact, quite the contrary. Reflect too seldom, yes. Pray too seldom? Definitely not.

Multiplied our possessions but reduced our values: Ummm, weren’t we just told that we spend more and get less? A little proof reading of the list for consistency might be useful. As for reducing our values – yeah, we have problems, but, again, I’d point out that lynchings are not longer commonplace, and I think that counts for something. More of the rose-colored nostalgia filling in for a grasp of history.

And it just sort of continues on like that, painting the present as a wasteland and the past as a golden field of wisdom and love. The reality, of course, is that, things have been thoroughly screwed up throughout history. Some things have gotten worse, certainly, but some have gotten better. And, thanks to people who actually study the world around us and don’t waste time harkening back to a non-existent golden past, there is a chance of things actually improving. Of course, if there are enough half-wits like the email writer, then these improvements will not come to pass.

Oh, one last paragraph in the forward always strikes me as hilariously stupid:

It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the
stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time
when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just hit delete.

Pardon me, but isn’t it more than just a mite bit arrogant for some half-wit with a propensity towards grand pronouncements based on sappy sayings and common prejudices towards the present to label their own deal “insight” and try to guilt you into passing it on, as if it will somehow improve the world when all it will really do is annoy your friends and relatives?

The real paradox of our time is that someone can be educated enough to use a computer, and yet still think that emails that range from sappy to stupid to offensive are somehow insightful.

Still, at least it’s better than the “I’m a Bad American” forward – which is nothing but a loud announcement of how proud the author is to be a bigoted, racist, superstitious, empty-headed asshole. For some reason, that one also gets attributed to George Carlin, even though it’s obvious to anyone who knows anything about Carlin that it ain’t him.

Okay, next time I’ll try to write something interesting and/or useful instead of just ranting about email forwards.