The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Gasping for Air

Sorry for the lack of posts to those two or three of you who read the blog. I have been slammed for the last week with actual paid work, with trying to finish two papers for publication, and with trying to fulfill my obligations to friends and family.

Also, there's the matter of the ancient curse.

See, I was working in San Benito County earlier this year, and while I was working, I made fun of Kuksu, a Native Californian culture hero. Apparently, Kuksu didn't take kindly to this, and decided to place a curse on me. So, getting slammed with work, booking a hotel room in a nightclub, having my primary client lose 40 IQ points and become a blithering idiot, getting bit by a weird-ass flying insect that turned my arm into a water balloon, all of the chocolate in my neighborhood turning into carob - all part of the curse.

On top of that, my front teeth have begun to grow, and I now look like a WWII-era propoganda poster, except I'm blonde and tall. Okay, I look like a weird conglomeration of two different WWII-era propoganda posters. And my teeth continue to grow, soon I'll have to eat my soup through a straw.

And starting next week, I'll be off camping in the forest for two weeks. I know you LOVE camping and wish you had my job. The problem is that I don't like camping, and wouldn't be if the client had bothered to consider that they would have workers needing the dormitory facilities.

Yep, curse.

So, hopefully, before my teeth get any longer and my speech impediment gets any worse (you have no idea how much amusement I am providing to coworkers), I'll be rid of this curse, and will write more. But until then, my updates will continue to be sporadic.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Shanghai Tunnels of Portland

I spent a good chunk of last week and the weekend in Portland, Oregon with Kay (and got to visit Kirin and Laura while I was there, which was pretty groovy). I arrived home on Sunday night, and then had to go to San Francisco for Tuesday and Wednesday for a seminar on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). So, I ain’t been home much lately. On top of that, I will be gone for two weeks at the beginning of October to do fieldwork in the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests. So, I am going to be MIA for a chunk of the near future as well.

Hopefully, I’ll be home more often come November – especially as I spent last November and December freezing my ass off while being pursued by bulls and chased by ranchers out in Tulare County – I don’t want a repeat of last year.

Well, regardless, Portland was fun. We stayed at a trendy hotel that had clearly formerly been a run-down “pay-by-the-hour” sort of hotel (there was even faded but still visible graffiti on the lid of the toilet in our room. Kay thought the place was great, I was rather less enthusiastic, partially because I am not too keen on the “let’s ape the tackiest elements of ’50-s through ‘70’s interior decoration” aesthetic that seems to have become inexplicably popular with the hipsters lately, and partially because there was a rather loud nightclub directly underneath the hotel, making rest difficult to obtain prior to midnight (yeah, I’m turning into an old fogey, get over it). Still, it’s the sort of place that it’s worth saying “Yep, I’ve stayed there!” Who knows, I might even go back if they resolve the noise issues with the night club – the price was good and the rooms were clean and comfortable, if odd-looking. However, having your entire room vibrate with crappy, repetitive “music” is not conducive to sleep.

What was cool, though, were some of the things we did while in Portland (get your mind out of the gutter, Scott). We ended up on two oddball walking tours (one of the crime spots in Portland and one of allegedly “haunted” locations), went to a science museum, toured a submarine, and visited the friends described below. Oh, and with the exception of seeing Kirin and Laura, Kay planned all of these activities – either she was really trying to cater to my tastes or we are abnormally good travelling companions.

Other than seeing my friends, the walking tours were highlights of the trip. Both took us into the remnants of the tunnels below the city, so as you can imagine, my archaeologist heart was beating happily to the smell of sub-surface soil. We descended into the tunnels for two reasons – one was that they are supposedly haunted (for someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts, I have an awfully weird fascination with ghost stories) and the other was that these tunnels had been important both to the official history of shipping in the City of Portland (they were the primary means by which goods were brought from the waterfront to businesses, and served as drainage tunnels when the city flooded) and in the not-so-official history of Portland (underground tunnels would be used to smuggle goods ranging from legal goods on which one didn’t want to pay taxes all the way out to the strictly illegal).

The tunnels are a rather unique and fascinating archaeological treasure chest, as they contain the remains of both the legitimate and the shady-to-outright-criminal in one place, and they are often discussed among west coast archaeologist for this very reason, though few of us get a chance to ever work in them (in all of these sense, these are also rather like the ships buried underneath the city streets of San Francisco – a topic that I will write about at a later time).

The tunnels are often referred to as “Shanghai tunnels” because they are reputed to have been used to “Shanghai” sailors. For those unfamiliar, the term “Shanghai” comes from a practice common during the 19th century and earlier, when unscrupulous sea captains would hire the owners of land-based businesses (primarily hotels, flophouses, and brothels) to obtain strong, able-bodied men for forced labor at sea. This was sometimes done through trickery (someone might be fooled into thinking that they were signing a contract for a hotel room, when they were really signing a contract for service on a ship), through violence (people were sometime kidnapped at gun or knife-point and forced onto a ship), and sometimes by means of drugging a victim or waiting until they passed out through over-consumption of alcohol. The interesting thing is that, while it is often claimed that the tunnels were used to move the victims out to the ships, there is little evidence that this was actually a typical use of the tunnels – the city was so corrupt during the 19th century that these people could be moved out to the ships on the city streets. Nonetheless, other cities have similar tunnels, and in a few of them, the tunnels were clearly used for this purpose – and as the tunnels were the most direct route from the city buildings out to the waterfront, it seems likely that they were used for transporting human cargo as well as other contraband.

Regardless, the tunnels were used to house merchandise for the various shops, bars, and saloons in Portland, and also housed opium dens and the lower-class brothels. As a result, the dirt in these tunnels contain a good deal of archaeological materials relating to 19th century mercantile activity and vice activity (from what I could tell, they were unpaved, and as flooding frequently filled them with water, they contains sediments deposited during the 19th and early 20th centuries).

I’ll post some photos later, as well as share some of the ghost stories, but the story of the tunnels was pretty cool, and I thought I should share.

Another archaeologist blogger

Hey, I just came across another archaeologist blogger that I kinda' dig (no pun intended), check it out if you get a chance, he meanders onto life/politics/religion less often than me, and is more likely to talk about research than the day-today work than I am, so if that sounds good to you, look up A Hot Cup of Joe.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Drowning in Data

I am preparing a chapter in an upcoming book on Californian archaeology. The purpose of the book is to provide a cross section of the northern portion of southern California (which the locals erroneously refer to as "central California" despite the fact that it's not central), from west to East, starting with the Channel Islands and ending at the Sierra Nevada. I am writing one of the two chapters on the inland valleys.

I had thought that the chapter was due in November, and so I have been concentrating on writing another chapter for anotgher book by the same editor that I had thought was due in October. Turn out I had the due dates turned around - the larger paper (the one on the inland valleys) is due in October, and the second paper is due in November. Meanwhile, I have had a project in which we normally get lodging at a dormitory (the Hell Hole project) turn into one where we are camping (because the facility is being rented out by a third party during the time that we will be there). So, I have lost two weeks of writing time.

In other words, updates here will likely be sporadic for a little while, while I get the papers finished and do the field work for this project.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What's Wrong With the Natural World?

I'm off to Portland for a few days, but in the meantime, I thought I'd leave you with this - an essay by my friend Dave - see the link on the left-hand side of the page for his amazing puppet shows. As so often happens, Dave has written an essay that corresponds with my own ideas, but is far more eloquent than I could have written. Enjoy:

What’s so Bad About the Natural World?

There are lots of various reasons that people give for believing in gods or the supernatural. It's neither my purpose nor desire to coerce anybody out of their beliefs provided they are not using these beliefs to cause harm. However, I do think that there is a spectrum of quality for these arguments for belief, and that while I personally subscribe to none of these arguments, I can concede that there are some arguments which are better than others.

There is one particular reason that people give for believing in the supernatural that I have always found spectacularly bad. Unfortunately, it is one of the more common reasons that people give for their faith. The reason is this:

"I believe in ______ because I just can't imagine that this is all there is."

If people mean by this that there has to be more to life than just waking up, going to work, paying your bills, growing old and dying… well, yes. There's a great deal more to life than that, I wholeheartedly agree. But if you're saying that there has to be more out there than just the natural world… well, frankly, I'm a little bit stumped. Are people even looking at the natural world?

On this planet right now there are an estimated 5-10 million species of animal life on the planet – that's animal life, not counting flora. We live on a planet with naked mole rats and anglerfish and venus flytraps and kangaroos - and yet the current state of Earth's species is the briefest snapshot of the planet's four billion year history of life. Four billion years! Can you imagine it? We've had a history of life so incredibly diverse that the human imagination, when trying to invent mythological animals, can do little more than rearrange the wonderful designs that nature already gave us.

And that's just Earth! The Hubble telescope once took a deep field image which showed approximately ten thousand galaxies. The average galaxy can have anywhere from a few million to one trillion stars. That photo represented only one thirteen millionth of the night sky – and that's only the observable universe!

So when I hear people say things like, "Well, the natural world can't be all there is," it positively boggles my mind! The horizon of the natural world is so vast, that the word 'infinite' seems so shamefully inadequate as to seem insulting. How can people look at that, roll their eyes and say, 'is that all there is?' (Unless, of course, you happen to be Peggy Lee, in which case, you can do it because you're awesome)

I suspect that for some people, the vastness of everything is part of the problem. I fear that for a certain type of person the belief that 'there has to be more than just this' really means 'there has to be more than just this for me.' The universe has to have a plan for me. There must be an underlying meaning that involves me. My spirit and my soul and my ego have to survive death. I can't imagine the universe could work any other way.'

I like to think that particular outlook is the minority position. Not to be unkind, but the perception that we have to have a cosmic plan involving us really is rather childish. The universe does not owe us some grand importance, no more than it owed importance to dinosaurs, trilobites or amoebas. Our lives can certainly have meaning or importance, of course, but they are the meaning and importance that we ourselves choose to strive for; a freedom that sounds far more appealing than being pawns in a cosmic chess game. We cannot expect to be handed our significance.

I'd like to think that childish entitlement towards the universe is rare. I hope that most people are simply unaware of the wondrous complexity of the universe around them, or that in their day-to-day activities they tend to overlook it. It's easy to do. When you've got a splitting headache at work, you're not thinking about how amazing your circulatory system is. When your boss is yelling at you, you don't marvel at the gradual development of human language. But it is all still amazing. Even when we take it all for granted, or get distracted by trivial minutiae's, the natural world is still more brilliant than anything that any mind could ever imagine.

I can almost understand people who say that they have to believe in the supernatural because the universe is so beautiful and amazing that it must certainly have a loving intent behind it. I don't necessarily agree with the sentiment, but it can still resonate with me – a belief in the supernatural based upon awe for the natural.

The point of this essay is not to try to discourage people away from their faith. But if I can be so bold, I would like to make a humble suggestion. This is a suggestion for non-theists and theists alike. Every once in a while, just stop and really pay attention to the natural world. Take a moment to put aside both your day-to-day life and the afterlife. Try to take the time to look at the world, not as something to transcend, not as something to shuffle off when you go to your perceived heaven, but as an amazingly beautiful thing in and of itself. Don't blow off the universe.

After all, that's one of the things the Wiccans get right.

"Life is but a momentary glimpse of the wonder of this astonishing universe, and it is sad to see so many dreaming it away on spiritual fantasy"
- Carl Sagan

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ominous Road Signs - the Beginning

So, I think I'm going to start posting pictures of some of the ominous road signs that I come across. If you happen to have pictures of ominous road signs, please note it in the comments section.

The first two here come from eastern California. First up, we have a photo of "Reamer" street in Auburn. Do you really want to know what happens on Reamer Street? Neither do I.

Here's a sign pointing towards my usual destination. In case folks didn't believe me when I told them that I work in a Hell Hole.

Oh, and while not technically a road sign, this one, also from Auburn, is pretty entertaining:

Given that "endurance" usually means putting up with pain or discomfort for an extended period, one has to wonder why any place would wish to be known as the "Endurance Capitol." Then again, I have been there in the's hot enough really, really hot?

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Scotts Valley Site

The Scotts Valley Site, which is luckily located down the street from my apartment and no so luckily nearly destroyed, is one of the oldest archaeological sites known in California. Radiocarbon and obsidian hydration dates place the earliest occupation of the site at between 10,500 and 12,000 years old. As an early site that had been continuously used over several millennia, the Scotts Valley Site has the potential to yield information on major changes to the cultural patterns of California, information on environmental changes (and how humans dealt with environmental changes) throughout the Holocene (approximately the last 10,000 years of time), and also answer some puzzling questions about why there are so many more early sites in arid southern California than in the relatively resource-rich Bay Area.

Or, at least, it had that potential until some guy took a bulldozer to it.

The story of the destruction of the Scotts Valley Sites is an odd mix of history, civic pride, institutional arrogance, and religious fundamentalism. It’s also both tragic and funny. I have been unable to track down written sources detailing all that went on – official documents so often downplay the basic wackiness of so much of the human behavior that creates events – so I am having to rely on what I have heard from the people involved. I keep digging for more information however, and if I find anything that contradicts what is written here, I’ll post an update.

The site is in Scotts Valley, and covers a large area in the northern part of town. When it was first settled during the late Pleistocene, the early site sat on a lakeshore (Scotts Valley, like many other parts of California, is filled with cyclical lakes – they’ve been dry for 8,000 years, but will eventually fill up again). As the lake expanded and contracted in time with rain cycles, eventually settling into a creek as precipitation and snow-pack melt slowed at the end of the last ice age, the people who occupied the site moved with the water, resulting in a huge site that covers a large part of the Carbonero Creek drainage’s floodplain.

The site became the center of a controversy in the late 1970’s. The City of Scotts Valley needed to build new public administration buildings, and the early stages of the Silicon Valley computer boom had entrepreneurs scrambling for any land that was driving distance from San Jose. The Scotts Valley Site was on some prime real estate.

As with any project, the construction of new buildings in Scotts Valley was subject to an environmental review process. In the course of this process, it came to the attention of the City of Scotts Valley that this ancient and huge archaeological site was present right where they and the private investors were wanting to build. Historic preservationists, “small town” folks opposed to growth, archaeologists, Native American groups and individuals, and people who realized there was legal trouble on the horizon were either urging caution in dealing with the site or outright opposed to the construction.

On the other side, business interests, residents who saw (admittedly real) economic opportunity in the construction, and the city government all wanted the construction to start.

These two sites squared off for some time, arguments in favor of preserving one of the oldest archaeological sites in North America vying with arguments for economic development, getting nowhere.

Finally, the stalemate was broken. The mayor of Scotts Valley at the time was a young-Earth creationist, someone who believes that the entire Universe was created 6,000 years ago, with all animals in their present form. He decided that he was sick of scientists trying to tell him that there was anyone on the planet, much less Scotts Valley, 10,000 years ago. And so, one fateful day, with great personal aplomb, the mayor climbed on top of a bulldozer and plowed into the site. Those who were around at the time report that the mayor made it clear that he thought of himself as a hero, standing up for his city and his faith.

The State of California had a different attitude, however. When the City was faced with repercussions for the mayor’s actions, they agreed to allow and pay for archaeological excavation (though I am told that even in the face of an impending lawsuit and review agency actions, the city was still reluctant). Nonetheless, excavation was performed, and a very nice volume was produced (check it out:, and the City of Scoots Valley is A LOT more cautious about how they treat archaeological sites nowadays.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Meat Bees

I have written before about the menace posed to archaeologists by cattle, hornets, ants, and poison oak. Let me now add meat bees to the list.

A few days ago, I was performing survey in the Sierra National Forest. I had climbed down a steep slope to a canyon bottom, and was preparing to survey the narrow ledges of land on either side of the creek bed when I felt a sharp pain on my hand. Looking down, I saw a yellow insect fly away. I lifted my hand up to look at it, and saw a small divet where the insect had taken a chunk of skin out. I have been stung several times, and bit by numerous insects, but this was more painful than any of those. The person I was working with heard me swearing and came over to see what was wrong. When I explained that I had been bit by something, she pulled out the first aid kit and we cleaned the bite and put a band-aid on it. We then proceeded to continue working.

A few hours later, we returned to the vehicle to head back to town. By this time, the finger that had been bit had swelled a bit and hurt, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary for an insect bite, and I was not experiencing any shortness of breath, constricting throat, or other symptoms of anaphylactic shock, so I figured all was well. I dropped the other surveyor off, and then I went to the Forest Service office in the thriving metropolis of Praether to perform a records search.

While I was at the forest service office, I noticed that the swelling around the bite location continued to grow. Thinking that this might be an allergic reaction, but still not experiencing any symptoms that indicated any real danger, I took a couple of Bennadryl and went back to work. By the end of the day, much of my hand was swollen, and only two fingers were able to achieve their full normal range of motion. I spoke with a couple of Forest Service Personnel about this, and they said that they thought it was likely that I had been bit by a “meat bee.”

The next morning, I woke up with my hand experiencing throbs of pain every time my pulse beat, and all but my thumb and index finger immobile due to swelling. I turned on my computer and found the nearest Urgent Care center, and headed out. On the way, I left a message at another Forest Service office, where I had been scheduled to perform survey this morning, explaining that I was going to see a doctor because of problems with an insect bite.

Getting to the Urgent Care Center was a bit of a challenge. It is located in Fresno, and the directions I had told me to take Auberry Road out towards Fresno. The problem is that there are two Auberry Roads within 0.5 miles of each other, and both are right turns off of the main highway. So, I started my morning by going absolutely the wrong direction. Once I had figured out what had happened, I turned around and got on the right road. It was smooth sailing until Fresno, where the fire department was holding a fundraiser that involved firefighters in full gear standing at intersections, holding out their helmet for people to throw money into. This caused traffic to slow down considerably due both to cars stopping in traffic to give money, and to fire department personnel ignoring traffic signals and walking in front of traffic. In a way, it was rather like a PBS pledge drive gone horribly wrong, where they interrupt your schedule to inform you that if you routinely gave them more money they wouldn’t be interrupting your schedule.

I finally arrived at the urgent care center, filled out my paperwork, and called the Forest Service Office that I had scheduled to visit that day to let them know that I would be late. When the Forest Service archaeologist answered her phone, I explained what had happened, where I was, and why I was going ot be late.

“You were supposed to be here FIRST THING this morning!” Her voice sounded rather what I think an angry rotweiller would sound like if it were capable of speech.

“Yes, I know. I am, however, at a doctor’s office. I’m not blowing you off, I’m just making sure that I am not having a serious medical problem here.”

“You were supposed to have come in YESTERDAY! But, no, that had to get rescheduled, and then you were supposed to be here NOW! But YOU’RE NOT HERE!”

“As I said, I’m at a doctor’s office. My left hand is completely useless, I don’t know what is going on, and I’m trying to get medical help.” I tried to remain calm in the rising tide of craziness that was threatening to engulf me.

“Yeah, I know. But still, you were supposed to be here now, and I DO have other things I should be doing!”

I thought for a moment. Having this person angry at us would be a problem – she reviews the documents that go through her office, and she could easily turn a personal grudge into a bureaucratic nightmare for my company. And, hey, while I had a swollen, useless left hand, I hadn’t shown any sign of being in immediate danger.

“Okay, fine. I’m leaving the doctor’s office now. I’ll be at your office in an hour.” I managed to maintain a calm voice despite being royally pissed off.

“Oh…well…I didn’t mean for you to ignore your medical conditions…” she was suddenly sheepish, and sounded vaguely ashamed of herself.

“Well, regardless, I might as well just come up and do the job.” With that I hung up, and I headed out to the next Forest Service office. An hour later, I was doing the records search, with a very apologetic forest archaeologist in the office with me. She explained that she was under a lot of pressure due to nasty deadlines, and that she had not intended to guilt me into leaving the doctor’s office, especially after she saw the condition that my hand was in. I can understand that, I have been a royal asshole myself due to work stress.

I finished the record search quickly, and headed to the Forest Service office where I had been the previous day to tie up a few loose ends there. I then headed back to Fresno, and the doctor’s office.

I approached the receptionist, explained what I was there for, and that I had been in earlier in the day. She asked to see my hand so that she could describe my symptoms on the forms, and I lifted my hand up to the counter. She looked down, wide-eyed, and said simply:

“Oh my god…”

After a few moments of gawking, she then proceeded to finish up the paperwork and get me in the roster, calling me up to the desk every once in a while to ask me questions about workers comp. I then sat in the waiting room for an hour, alternating between proof-reading a paper that I am preparing for publication, and watching Mythbusters on the waiting room’s television. At the end of the hour, a nurse walked into the waiting room and called my name. I dutifully stood up and walked along with her. After the usual steps (blood pressure, weight, etc.), she asked me to described the problem. I explained, once again, that I had been bitten by an unknown flying insect that the Forest Service folks had suggested was likely a meat bee, and that my hand was swollen and in pain. I then lifted my hand to demonstrate my point. She looked at it, her eyes went wide, and she said…

“Oh my god…”

When the receptionist said this, I thought little of it. However, hearing a nurse say it brought me the kind of warm re-assurance that only trained and caring medical professionals can provide. She quickly shuffled out of the room, absent-mindedly assuring me that the doctor would be there shortly.

I sat down, pulled my laptop computer out of my backpack, and began working on a spreadsheet that had faunal collection data for one of my projects. About half an hour later, the doctor arrived. He was a short man, with graying hair and long beard, wearing a yarmulke and tzitzi’s peaking out from under his white coat. The traditional clothing paired with the fellow’s remarkable features gave him a rather striking appearance, and he looked like he should be the subject of a painting of a great and learned scholar and not a mere physician at an urgent care center. Though I know it is irrational, even uncharacteristic for me given my attitude towards traditional authority figures, the fact that the doctor looked like an aged and wise rabbi actually made me more at ease. Go figure.

“So,” he said, alternating between looking at the chart in his hand and looking at me, “you were bit by an insect, you don’t know what kind. Let me see your hand.”

I lifted my hand, do you want to guess what he said? Well, I’ll tell you anyway.

“Oh my god…”

As you might imagine, my sense of re-assurance at hearing this was beyond measure.

“So, is this normal for an insect bite? I mean, I wouldn’t think so, but I’ve never been bit by anything in the forest here before.” I asked, trying to keep my voice level and calm.

“Ahhh…no. This is…very unusual. Are you sure it wasn’t a highly venomous spider that bit you?”

“Pretty sure – it was a flying insect. A bright yellow one.”

“Maybe the venomous spider was being carried by the flying insect?” He looked like a man trying to grasp something that was impossible.

“Wouldn’t that screw with the flying insect’s aerodynamic profile?”

“I suppose you’re right. Okay…I’ll be back…”

The doctor shuffled out of the room, and was gone for a good twenty minutes. I returned to my spreadsheet. When he returned, he had a notebook and a number of different instruments, none of which ended up being used, oddly enough. He then proceeded to have me get up on the examination table, and he checked my breathing, my heart rate, shined the light in my eyes and ears, and finally sat down on the stool in the room. He sat thinking for a moment, and then finally spoke.

“Alright. It looks like we’ll have to get that swelling down first. For that, you’ll need injections of two different steroids. Then, well, it’s very red and this swelling is very strange. It could be venom from the insect, but it may also be an indication of an infection, so I am going to prescribe enough antibiotics to kill a horse, and that will protect you from the infection.”

Truly, this clinic employed the most sensitive medical professionals one could hope for. Indeed, bedside manner was their truest forte.

The doctor walked out of the room, and I could hear him discussing what to do with the staff. I then sat back and waited, eventually going back to the spreadsheet. After another hour, another nurse entered the room. She explained that she was there to give me the steroid injections.

“So, can I see your hand?” she asked, obviously, and strangely, curious. I lifted my hand.

And, guess what she said. “Oh my god…”

“So I’ve heard.” I responded.

“Well, I need to give you these injections.”

“Where will they be injected?” I asked.

“In the posterior. So, drop your pants.”

Having years ago gotten past feeling any sort of body shame in front of medical professionals (regular screenings for skin cancer kill any sense of modesty real fast), I complied. A few minutes later, I had a sore ass, just perfect for the long drive back to Santa Cruz.

The doctor came back in to see me one more time, gave me some final directions, and sent me on my way. I gave Kay a call and we spoke for a time about some feedback she's getting from folks (long story short, a lot of people are beginning to catch on to how talented a writer she is, see for yourself).

And then, with a sore but, I was ready for the four-hour drive home.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

I Love the Onion

Check this one out -
Darwin-shape stain on a wall.

A few favorite quotes:

Available for sale are everything from small wooden shards alleged to be fragments of the "One True Beagle"—the research vessel on which Darwin made his legendary voyage to the Galapagos Islands—to lecture notes purportedly touched by English evolutionist Alfred Russel Wallace.


"Over millions of successive generations, a specific subvariant of one species of slime mold adapted to this particular concrete wall, in order to one day form this stain, and thus make manifest this vision of Darwin's glorious countenance," Cosgrove said, overcome with emotion.

"It's a miracle," she added.

Friday, September 5, 2008

In the Bone Room With Screaming Eddie

I am involved in a project that is intended to analyze the archaeological remains of a shaman’s cave in Kern County. My part of the project is the faunal remains – the bone, shell, and other animal parts that provide evidence of ancient people’s somewhat-less-than-vegan activities.

Bone in archaeological sites tends to come from a lot of different animals, and tends to be fragmented. For these two reasons, identifying the source of the bone is rarely a straightforward process, and none but the most experienced faunal analysts can pick up a bone and announce what it is, where it came from, and how old the animal was – and even these most experienced analysts can be stumped from time to time.

Enter the comparative collection.

A comparative collection can best be thought of as a road kill library. It’s a collection of bones, teeth, hooves, shell, and sometimes hair and scales, from whatever animal was unfortunate enough to buy the farm in the general vicinity of an archaeologist. Often the collection also contains human bones – increasingly from willing donors, but many collections contain the now decades-old remains of unfortunates who died in third-world countries and were sold to medical schools and science labs in the U.S. and Western Europe.

So, this morning I entered the faunal laboratory at UC Santa Cruz, and began trying to figure out where the bone in the collection I was examining came from. Entering the room, I was delighted to see that in addition to the bones in cabinets that I had come to make use of and the obligatory articulated skeletons on the walls, the lab also housed a desiccated monkey’s head and an articulated skeleton that had either had the soft tissue surrounding it plasticized, or else had very realistic soft-tissue attached to it. This skeleton was posed in a way intended to allow anatomy students to see how the muscle, nerve, and skeletal systems work together, but also made it look as if the poor fellow were still ambulatory AND had realized that some dick of a medical student had stolen his skin. I decided to nickname the guy “Screaming Eddie.”*

Having taken in the local color, I decided to get to work on my appointed task. I got off to a good start; I chose my first bone – the humerus of a large herbivore of some sort – and opened my first cabinet, thinking that I’d start by comparing it to a mule deer. Amazingly, I pulled the bone out of the collection drawer, and it matched the one from the archaeological site exactly. Nice.

So, feeling cocky, I pulled out my next bone – the articular end (part that connects to another bone) of a scapula (shoulder bone). I compared it to the mule deer’s. No dice. I then compared it to an elk, antelope, several sea mammals, and even a human. No match. I never did find out what animal it belonged to. It was the right size for a deer, but there was a small channel on the bone that is not found on deer Scapulae, so I was at a loss.

Well, sometimes you don’t get a match, so I decided to move on to the next bone. This was a tarsal – a bone from the back foot, again from a mule deer. Okay. Next bone, a radius, again from a mule deer. And so on.

In the end, I identified bones from rabbit, gopher, deer, and mice. I was left with a large number of bones that I could find no match for – unfortunately the UCSC collection is rather small, and so there are numerous animals for which a match is not possible. Still, I think I made a respectable showing.

So, there ya’ go, next time you go thinking that archaeology is all Indiana Jones adventure or amazing discoveries in tombs, think of me in the lab surrounding by road kill, mummified monkey heads, and Screaming Eddie.

*I wanted to get pictures of the mummified monkey (mumkey?) and Screaming Eddie, but it seemed likely that the grad student working in the room would probably find that disturbing and disrespectful. So it goes.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Political Games

Because I'm a ground-breaking and of-the-moment kinda guy, I'll talk about something that everyone else has been talking about since last week, the nomination of Sarah Palin in particular and presidential politics in general.

This evening, my housemate, Scott, wandered in, and was really excited that McCain had chosen a woman as a running mate, he recognized this, correctly, as a historic moment. He is not a McCain supporter, and won't vote for him, but he still thought this was kind of cool. Scott was very clear-eyed about this, though, and recognized it as a political move that was designed to attract more women to the Republican ticket in general, and some of Clinton's supporters in particular.

Surprisingly, he and I were both in agreement that there was nothing particularly shocking or unbalanced about this. Yes, Palin was a political choice, an attempt to make the Republican ticket more unconventional and to pull voters who might otherwise be apathetic or even turned off. But, you know what, Obama's selection of Joe Biden was also a political move aimed at balancing the Democratic ticket and gaining or retaining people who might otherwise have cast their votes elsewhere. McCain is trying to show that he's the maverick that he never really was by putting someone unusual on the ticket, and Obama is trying to retain people concerned about his lack of experience by retaining a long-serving member of congress. In both cases, the candidates are playing the political game, and playing it relatively well. If you are going to damn or praise one party, the same accusations can be pushed in the other direction as well.

I will say this for the selection of Palin - it shows that McCain's got more guts than I had thought. I am impressed.

Unfortunately, I can not be impressed by the particular candidate. I don't care about how she is as a mother, and I wish people would stop talking about that. I am voted for a president and vice-president, not a mom and dad. I don't care about her family woes any more than I cared about Bill Clinton's infidelity - it's not relevant to the job that they are trying to get.

What leaves me concerned about Palin is not her family, not her gender, and not her age - the things that everyone keeps hammering on. What concerns me are her professed positions on issues that should concern us all, but that nobody is talking about.

She is an anti-science politician, being open to the teaching of creationism in public schools (if you are open to teaching religion in a science class as if it had the same factual basis as science, then you're anti-science), and taking politically safe but at-odds-with-scientific-consensus positions as regards human impacts to the environment.

She is opposed to comprehensive sex education. Although it is tempting to point to her own family here, her daughter's situation may well be nothing more than an ironic and unfortunate coincidence, and I wish that people would drop it. Her stance on the issue is what matters, and her stance is ideologically motivated and opposed to good practice.

In line with the last point, she has openly favored positions that owe little to a desire to make good policy and everything to do with either being a member of or at least appealing to a particular brand of religion.

So, I don't like her. I may think McCain is a bit more of a fighter than I had previously thought, I just wish he would make better choices.

Still, that being said, why do I have to go hunting for information on Palin's take on actual positions, while everyone is talking about what amounts to gossip? Why can't we look at how suited she is to the job that she is running for and not look at her family?

Oh, and one last thing. I keep hearing about how nobody would ask a man how he could run for office when he has family strife. This indicates that people clearly don't remember people asking exactly that about John Edwards. The fact of the matter is that people will use anything they can to go at a candidate that they don't like, sexism isn't prompting these questions, politics is.

Oh, and ot be fair, I don't like Biden either, but the reasons are less precise and would take longer to describe.

Shifting Emphasis

I recently had a conversation with someone about one of my favorite subjects: ghosts. I do not believe in ghosts, but I find the stories fascinating.

On the other hand, the person that I spoke with does believe in ghosts , and she thought that she could easily show me the cases that would convert me. Each case that she described could easily be explained by a basic knowledge of either sleep physiology (basically, when we are resting, our brains do some rather interesting things that, if you are not familiar with them it is easy to mistake for ghosts), or else basic psychology (a few common traits in human perception and behavior can easily be mistaken for the paranormal if you aren’t aware of them).

And it was here that a huge difference between us became apparent. She conceded that I had a point in my explanations of her cases, and she was disappointed. I, on the other hand, was excited – not because I had won the argument, but because the subject of how we perceive things and how this can backfire is really fascinating. Basically, by pushing away the ghosts and getting at what really happened, something much more interesting, complex, and wondrous – the functioning of the human brain – was revealed. She was solely interested in the fact that her pet hypothesis was gone, and seemed immune to the amazing facts about us that the perception of ghosts revealed.

And I have to wonder if this may be one of the primary things that separates “believers” and “skeptics” – she was disappointed at having these ghosts “taken away”, while I was elated at the fact that the “ghosts” gave us an understanding of something bigger than a few spook stories. She felt that something was lost when the stories were explained, while I felt that the world gained more wonder – after all, if our minds can produce these specters and spooks with such real-feeling intensity, what else can they do? It opens up a world of possibilities!

And this makes me wonder if perhaps I should look carefully at my tactics when I discuss these sorts of things. Perhaps I can give something to people when I disagree, rather than simply threatening to take their cherished belief or idea away. If, perhaps, the next time someone comes to me with a story about how ancient Israelites/Celts/Egyptians/etc. built the pyramids of Central America, I emphasize the engineering prowess and complex culture of the native people of that region rather than simply go at the absurdity of the claim of old worlders coming over to engage in a bit of monument building, I’ll make more headway and make the same point. Perhaps the same holds if, the next time someone tries to convince me of the “falseness” of evolution, I talk about the amazing things that we know about it rather than emphasize the poor reasoning behind the anti-evolution claim.

That’s not to say that the absurdities of some of these views shouldn’t be shown, but perhaps the emphasis of the discussion should be shifted by the skeptic. Contrary to being bitter and boring people with no regard for the world, people skeptical of the paranormal tend to be filled with an awe of reality. If we can emphasize that, if we emphasize the amazing beauty of reality rather than simply attacking the absurdity of the nonsensical claims, we might have more luck in winning people over.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


An Italian group is seeking to set up a legal way in which people who were baptized as children may formally renounce their baptisms as adults. Pretty straightforward - essentially they're asking, again as adults, to be taken off of the Catholic Church's rolls. I suspect that most Catholics would agree that this is fine - no point in officially being a member of an organization that you don't want to be a member of, especially when you were inducted by your parents when you were a child.

But, as usualy, the winning jounralists at the World Net Daily, and the folks at the Christian Alliance Defense Fund are claiming that these folks are doing something that they are not. These people are claiming that there is a campaign to ban baptisms in Italy.

Go here for more info. and some links to even further information.

So, if you hear the story, just keep in mind - nobody is trying to ban baptisms, we all agree that parents have a right to have their children baptized. This is simply a group trying to get the Catholic church to recognize people who do not want to be members anymore (corret me if I'm wrong, but isn't there already ways to do this?). The people claiming that there is an effort to ban baptisms are breaking the 9th commandment and bearing false witness - probably in order to whip up fury amongst those who won't bother to look into the matter.

Wacky Chick

A link to another Jack Chick tract - while the "logic" behind it is just as absurd and disjointed as usual, at least that writer/artist seemed ot be trying to be funny, rather than just having it happen completely unintentionally, so the quality is arguably much better. However, I have to wonder, does Chick honestly believe that Satan-powered vampires are wandering neighborhoods, or is this just a goofy plot device? The answer to that questions should be obvious, but with the warped mind of Chick, you never know.

Check it out.

Check out the panel at the end in which Satan finally appears. I was amazed - a chick panel that is funny AND intended to be funny.