The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Instant Messenger Blues

I dislike Instant Messenger.

Actually, that's not quite accurate.

I hate Instant Messenger with the fury of an army of Hun overtaking a Roman fortress, and I firmly believe that the developers of Instant Messenger should be quartered and their remains placed on pikes as a warning to others who might foolishly walk the same path as they.

Yeah, that's more accurate.

My first exposure to Instant Messenger came when I was a senior in college. I had logged into my sister's AOL account (yeah, remember when AOL was actually generally considered to be a good service provider? You know, right before they saturated the market with poor service and everyone discovered that they were a crappy provider.), and I was online browsing for something or other (I'd like to think I was looking up all manner of sciency goodness or reading up on history, but being as how I was 22 and bored, I was probably looking for porn). Somebody, probably a teenager, sent me an Instant message:

"Hey doll"

Truly a latter-day Don Juan. And they say that romance is dead.

I wrote back:


To which they wittily responded:

"Hey doll. Are you sexy?"

Befuddled, I simply responded:

"Fuck off"

To which they wrote:

"Don't be like that, doll. What do you look like?"

Ahh, now my strategic playing-hard-to-get was working, and I delivered the coup-de-grace:

"Being as how I'm a 6'2" germanic looking guy with alot of body hair, you might not want to be calling me 'doll'."

They stopped bothering me.

So, my experience with Instant Messenger began with a half-witted adolescent trying to pick up on me while under the illusion that I was a young woman, and my experience with the program has somehow actually managed to go downhill from there. You see, worse than horny adolescents discovering Instant Messenger, my friends discovered it.

After a time, I had an AOL account (shudder), and AOL had Instant Messenger built in to the software. The AOL version had the annoying habit of popping up over whatever you happened to be doing, a feature that I was assured could be disabled but somehow always managed to be mysteriously and automatically turned back on within 20 minutes of me disabling it. So, there I would be, checking email, browsing the internet, or doing any of dozens of other activities, and I would be brought to a sudden halt as my window minimized and an instant message popped up. If I ignored it and went back to what I was doing, I would be interrupted again and again until I responded, and then they wouldn't let me go or respect my request to not be bothered with Instant Messenger. They would insist that my dislike of being interrupted in this way didn't apply to them seeing as how they were my ever-so-bestest friend (regardless of which of the myriad of people I happened to be dealing with online), and besides they had oh-so-important news to tell me about - the "news" almost always being some useless bit of gossip or thing that I didn't much care about.

And let me be clear, the people who would use Instant Messenger were not the sorts to want to notify me of actually important breaking news, or to want to contact me about an important personal matter. The people who would do that knew that I preferred telephones over text for instant communication, and therefore made use of that tool instead.

To make this more annoying, it is not as if I have ever made a secret of my loathing of this program. In fact, I make a point of displaying my hatred of it (as this blog post attests). When someone insists on communicating with me via Instant Messenger, I make a special point of letting them know that I dislike the program. It does no good, everyone still seems to think that I really want to talk with them via Instant Messenger, as if I am somehow trying to use reverse psychology to encourage them to contact me.

In addition to the problem of unwanted interruption, Instant Messenger has another problem. In a telephone conversation, you have both the words you say and how you say them (tone of voice, accent, cadence, etc.) as tools for communicating information. These are missing from Instant Messenger, and not even the most annoying of emoticons or "smileys" (easily the most irritating things to come from the internet...yes, even more irritating than lolcats) can replace the voice.

In other forms of written communication, such as email or (gasp) normal mail, you may lack the advantages of spoken communication, but you gain all of the time you need to craft your message and make your meaning clear.

Instant Messenger lacks both of these, it is as if it's designers decided to take the worst aspects of other forms of communication and combine them into one annoying whole. So, we have short messages which are expected to be responded to quickly in which you have only written text to convey information. Clearly, an inferior tool.

When I voice these objections, people invariably tell me that "you can take as long as you want to respond to an instant message, there's no rush!" Clearly these people have never tried using Instant Messenger to communicate with other humans. Outside of a work context, I have yet to have anyone try to speak with me over Instant Messenger who did not become astoundingly annoying with their constant attempts to get assurance from me that I was still online and paying attention to them whenever I was silent for more than one or two minutes.

Eventually, I escaped from AOL, and then proceeded to spend several years blissfully free of the accursed program. Occasionally, someone would encourage me to set up an Instant Messenger account with some service or another, and I would tell them in no uncertain terms what they could go do with themselves. I had to have the program on my work computer, certainly, but my coworkers have generally used it strictly for work purposes and managed to not do anything annoying. It was a wonderful time in my life.

But then, in the last few years, many of the online services that I have used for other purposes entirely have begun to add Instant Messenger as a feature, and I have again discovered that people insist on trying to talk to me via it, even when I have made my dislike for the alleged utility well known.

For example, I may be putting photos up on Facebook only to be hit with a deluge of messages from people, most of which are simply empty exchanges that could be more casually and appropriately done with email. Since Yahoo has made Instant Messenger part of its package I find it difficult to check my email without one of a myriad of people trying to talk with me - and again, turning off my online visibility seems to not work particularly well. While both Facebook and Yahoo's messenger interfaces are less intrusive than AOL's were, they still block parts of the screen that I am often attempting to look at, and must be turned off in order to actually do those things that I am trying to do.

I have found myself increasingly logging onto websites for no more than a few minutes at a time, hoping to be in and out before anyone notices that I am online. My irritation in this regard is probably furthered by the fact that I am usually on a site with this software for a specific purpose - to check email, upload photos, post a blog, etc. - and exchanging pleasantries is not included on my list of reasons to be on that site.

However, as much as I dislike Instant Messenger, everyone else seems to love it. Today while checking my email alone I have had three different people try to pull me into "conversations" using the infernal device. And as more and more websites and software packages seem to be including it, and as the people around me become less and less sensitive to the fact that I do not have any desire to carry out conversations through this program, it looks like I have a long slog ahead as I try to hide while online.

P.S. On the upside, while these folks are a bit too lenient on Satan's Own Communications Network, I am happy to see that I am not the only person who hates instant messaging.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Death Bed Terrors

This post is cross-posted at my ghost stories site, but as it deals with the history of archaeology, and specifically the archaeology of the area where I did my MA research, I thought I would also post it here.

Note: This story is about a real person, but it should be noted that the entire story is based on second hand accounts and rumor, and I do not claim that the story is true, though the information contained in the commentary is accurate.

Clarence "Pop" Ruth was a significant figure in Santa Barbara County archaeology in the early-through-mid 20th century. Professionally a teacher and later principal of Lompoc's school, Ruth collected artifacts in his free time and displayed them in his home in Lompoc (in northern Santa Barbara County) and in a small museum next door to his home. His collections formed the basis of those at the Lompoc Museum, and by providing a tangible link to the past, did promote local archaeology. However, his means of collection, falling short of archaeological standards (especially as they developed in the later half of the 20th century) was considered by many member of the local Chumash Indian community (as well as many archaeologists) to be grave robbing. As a result, Ruth is a controversial figure, to say the least, in the history of Californian archaeology.

Some years back, I worked with someone who had known Clarence Ruth. He told me the following story concerning Ruth's death:

As Ruth was dying, he was uneasy, and seemed to be seeing things that no one else could. in his final moments, he became terrified, and began to scream that the spirits of long-dead Chumash Indians were coming to drag him away to Hell for disturbing their graves. And with that, he died.

Commentary: As noted above, this story is based on rumor and hearsay, I don't claim to know if it is true. It is, perhaps, worth noting that I have only heard this story from my colleagues in archaeology, and those of them who know it tell the story with a certain strange and unnerving relish. Part of this may come from the fact that most archaeologists are abhorred at the destructive way in which many non-archaeologists and self-styled "avocational archaeologists" remove artifacts from sites. The fact that one such person allegedly died while suffering for these methods gives some of my more bellicose, and perhaps less empathetic, colleagues a sense of justice.

It's important to remember that during Ruth's time, the non-systematic removal of artifacts from sites was a common activity and generally frowned upon only by the Native American community who held that this activity was nothing more than theft and grave robbing. Archaeologists, Native Americans, and law enforcement now refer to this sort of activity as looting, and when it is done on public lands (or on private lands by anyone other than the land owner) it is considered theft and carries legal penalties including prison time.

It is however important to note that, during most of Ruth's life, this sort of activity was acceptable, and the fact that Ruth made his collection public and used it to help establish a museum does indicate that he was something more than just a simple treasure hunter or artifact seller. Whether or not this was an acceptable excuse for Ruth is open to debate. As an intelligent and educated man, Ruth certainly would have had access to information on modern archaeological techniques, should he have chosen to make use of them. Also, as a resident of Santa Barbara County, Ruth may have had the opportunity to learn more about proper archaeological methods from the leading anthropologists of the day, many of whom frequented Ruth's home turf. In the early 20th century, this would have included Alfred Kroeber, J. P. Harrington, and David Banks Rogers. In the mid and late 20th centuries, this would have included James Deetz, Michael Glassow, Brian Fagan, and Albert Spaulding. And this is just a small sampling of the notable anthropologists and anthropological archaeologists who have lived and/or worked in the area.

While Ruth's activities were not out of the ordinary for people of his generation and his willingness to share was rather unusual, Ruth did have ways to gain the resources to do better. And so, when the Lompoc Museum's web page explains simply that Ruth was a "man of his time", the statement is both accurate and disingenuous. And so, right or wrong, some of my colleagues may enjoy this story simply because it is a way of expressing disapproval.

Another reason for the telling of the story amongst archaeologists may have something to do with our own profession's rather checkered past. In the late 19th and early 20th century, much archaeology was little more than grave robbing. Even those archaeologists who practiced the most advanced methods and used the latest techniques did so without regard to the Native American communities that were often affected by the archaeologist's work. While times have changed and archaeologists are better about this now, even many of my current colleagues view the modern descendants of the people being studied as irrelevant, though this view is increasingly a minority opinion.

So, this story may also serve to confirm to us that we are different from the "grave robbers" of the past. We use better methods, are less destructive, and are more likely to consider the descendants of our study subjects. And, so we tell ourselves, we don't have to worry about being dragged to Hell by angry spirits.

Of course, when all is said and done, it should be remembered that one definite reason why this story continues to be told is simply that it is a creepy story, and those stories, whether true or false, always carry on.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Obligatory Sex Blog Entry

One of the things that most fascinates and frustrates me when people talk about morality (or, I suppose I should say "morality" with quotes) is how much of what they are focused on is what could, for lack of a better term, be called "victimless crimes."

Not coincidentally, most of these "moral" rules reveal a bizarre obsession with sex. Now, a few points up front. What I am talking about here is responsible sex between those who are capable of making responsible decisions. So, it is sex that avoids unnecessary risks amongst those who have the maturity and frame of mind necessary to make an intelligent choices regarding responsible behavior (so those who are too young/inexperienced in life to make such decisions, those who suffer from conditions that impair their judgment, and so on are not being considered here - they are, by definition, a special case that the general rules don't apply to). I am talking strictly about sex between reasonable and responsible adults - don't try to put words in my mouth and claim I am saying otherwise. Also, don't try the bullshit "slippery slope" argument that what I am saying automatically leads to sex with children, animals, etc. etc. The fact that I specifically state that I am talking about individuals capable of making responsible decisions automatically shows such responses for the bullshit that they usually are anyway.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have had someone lecture me about the "immorality" of pre-marital sex. Now, don't get me wrong, considering the possibility of both pregnancy and infection with disease, not to mention the emotional issues that it causes for many people, sex is something that demands responsibility. However, responsibility can be taken by the unmarried as easily as the married (in fact, because they are more likely to be forced to see sex as something other than a matter of course, it's possible that the unmarried might be more likely to think about sex and therefore be responsible). Contraception can be used, couples can discuss the possibilities of emotional entanglements both before they begin a sexual relationship and throughout the duration of that relationship, individuals and couples can avoid risky behavior, and individuals can be routinely tested for STD's. Just as importantly, each individual should know what they think and feel about sex and its consequences (both certain and potential), and make sure that they find a partner who is compatible - what sex is and means is different for everyone.

These things being done, the responsibilities associated with sex can be dealt with just as effectively as they would be for a married couple - indeed, comparing the married vs. unmarried couples I know side-by-side, the unmarried couples routinely show a greater responsibility regarding their sex lives (you don't want to know the number of married couple I have crossed paths with where one member routinely lies to the other regarding sex, sometimes having severe consequences for both of them, while the unmarried couples I know tend to be rather open and honest with each other). Hardly a scientific survey, I know, and perhaps not completely representative, but it does give the lie to the notion that unmarried people are not likely to be responsible.

Yet, this being the case, many (usually, though not always, religious) folks rant about the evils of pre-marital sex. Why? While many claim that there are many bad consequences inherent in pre-marital sex, the scenarios provided consistently either caricature pre-marital sex into something that it is not (for example, it is very likely that someone reading this will claim that I am advocating wild promiscuity, which is the very opposite of the responsible behavior that I am advocating) or else ignore that the same problems associated with pre-marital sex are frequently also associated with sex between married couples (for example, I bet that someone right now is thinking that I haven't taken infidelity into account, but I have, and it is unfortuantely common amongst married couples). It is an unfortunate fact that married couples often experience abuse, infidelity, STD's, and other such problems. Don't believe me? Talk to a marriage counselor some time, they can tell you tales to curl your skin back from your bones. The fact that such problems are common for unmarried couples does not in any way change the fact that they are also common for married couples.

Now, some folks will claim that the non-married couples have shown less commitment. Not necessarilly true. I have met many non-married couples who have been together for decades, and many people who have been married multiple times within the space of a few years. Legal recognition of the relationship does not confer commitment on the part of the members of the couple - unfortunate, but true. All of that aside, though, so long as the couple is responsible, if no physical or emotional results from the sex (again, also quite possible for married couples), what is the harm done? If you guessed "well, none, really," give yourself a cookie.

Others will claim that pre-marital sex does psychological harm to those engaged in it. However, all of the studies that I am familiar with indicate that people with an active sex life, whether they are married or not, tend to be happier and healthier than those who lack one (who may be married or non-married). Moreover, many of the married couples that I know have found their sex lives unsatisfying when they married someone with whom they were incompatible, often doing psychological harm to both members of the couple. So, the psychological harm argument doesn't hold water.

Some folks will, at this point, claim that pre-marital sex results in "spiritual harm," by its very nature not a qualifiable or quantifiable thing. The "spiritual harm" argument is one of the most arrogant bullshit arguments that humanity has ever conceived - designed to be untestable, it exists merely so that someone who has reached an ill-informed a-priori conclusion can continue to hold that view despite overwhelming evidence. It essentially says "I, personally, dislike this thing, and so I will claim that it is wrong and evil despite all evidence or arguments against my conclusion!" Anyone who uses the "spiritual harm" argument should be ashamed of themselves for their basic dishonesty, but they probably won't be.

So, if there is not necessarilly a qualitative difference in pre-marital and marital sex, and there is no real evidence that responsible people will somehow be less responsible if they are not married, where does the claim of immorality come from?

Well, mostly it comes from tradition. Traditionally, most people claimed to wait until marriage for sex. Whether or not this is true is unclear at best - the first systematic sex surveys were not conducted until the 1950's, so hard data is lacking. However, it is known that prostitution was rampant through to the early 20th century (up through the early 20th century, every sizable town, and many small settlements, in California, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada had brothels - and that's just the region that I personally know about, I suspect that it is equally true for regions that I haven't studied), "deflowered girls" were often hidden by family, "illegitimate" pregnancies were a well-known phenomenon, churches routinely preached about the "evils of premarital sex" (why they would be preaching about it if it wasn't a relatively common "sin" is a question worth asking), and STDs were endemic in most populated areas (consider the estimated syphilis rates prior to the discovery of antibiotics) - so while people may have been claiming to "wait for marriage", a large number of them clearly weren't.

As a result of the expectation, however, most people simply didn't talk about sex. As a result, people assumed that almost everyone was following the "traditional" practices, despite the fact that this clearly was not happening. So, a tradition of a "tradition" grew up, and people began to think of this as the norm, and it is an unfortunate tendency for human cultures to mistake a perceived (though often not real) norm for "morality". In addition to all of this, the lack of discussion regarding sex has led to a substantial misunderstanding of it.

For example, in my hometown, I often heard people scream that sex is "for procreation, not recreation!" This attitude reveals a truly diseased misunderstanding of the physiological, social, and psychological dimensions of sex. Across human cultures, sex serves for procreation, yes, but also as a bonding tool between individuals, as a form of recreation, and as a release for tensions and anxieties. Physiologically, the benefits of sex are becoming clearer through medical research, but so far they are known to include: relieving physiological stress, boosting the immune system, maintaining healthy hormone balances, and helping to maintain overall health. So, sex does much, much more than simple procreation, and to claim otherwise is to show a vast ignorance of what it is (incidentally, most of these benefits come from any form of sex, not strictly heterosexual missionary position vaginal intercourse).

So, then, what is the harm of responsible premarital sex between adults? Well, nothing, really. We claim that it is immoral because it goes against a dubious tradition that tends to be uncritically accepted.

Now, that's not to say that pre-marital sex is a good idea for everyone. There is a wide range of human variation, and for some individuals, premarital sex may be a bad idea - and that is up to the individual to decide. But it is not for that individual to push their own feelings on the rest of society and arrogantly call it "morality."

But the point is that pre-marital sex is not inherently a bad thing by any verifiable measure, and may even be a good thing in providing health benefits for the unmarried and allowing the unmarried to find a partner with whom they are compatible before they enter into a legal contract (which is what marriage is in our society). Pre-marital sex is not inherently bad, so how can it (as opposed to risky sex, abusive sex, etc., which can be engaged in by married people as well as unmarried people) be considered immoral when nobody is harmed? This is the problem of most conventional measures of "morality" - they are arbitrary and focused on preventing things for no real reason, while often distracting society from very real problems and threats.

More broadly speaking, why is sex the focus of so much of our society's arguments about "morality?" Matters such as violence, poverty, and disease are usually just paid lip service, and are only rarely directly addressed as moral concerns (as opposed to legal or financial concerns). Debate about sex has been a constant feature of our social arguments about morality - be it the right of pharmacists to not sell contraceptives (while still selling Viagra - go figure), arguments against such complete non-issues as gay marriage, or constant tries to push "abstinence-only" education on the public despite the fact that it has been consistently shown to not actually work. Why is it that issues that impact all of us are pushed into the background while the personal lives of independent adults are opened up for public scrutiny? Also worth asking - why is it that most of the people doing this pushing are the self-proclaimed "conservatives" who want "less government" except for when and where the government interferes with people's personal lives?

Worse, our obsession with sex as a focus of "morality" has led to a clouding of issues and an ignorance of very real problems. For example, the HPV vaccine has the potential to eliminate most cases of genital warts and many cases of cervical cancer, yet many religious groups oppose it because they insanely believe that anyone who engages in sex outside of marriage deserves to get a deadly disease (and they are open about this, go to Google and look up "HPV Vaccine religious and moral opposition" to see these folks say it themselves)*. Likewise, most anti-prostitution crusaders focus on the sex, not on the medical and violence risks faced by the prostitutes (or even by our culture's attitudes towards sex that creates an underground prostitution market). Also, many religious lobbyists actively put pressure on the government to cut funding for HIV/AIDS research despite the fact that this research can save lives the world over not only by stopping HIV, but also because the odd biological problems that must be tackled for this research will contribute greatly to the treatment of a wide variety of other diseases.

To add to the problem, many folks realize the inherent silliness of classifying pre-marital sex as evil or "sinful", but because of the immature attitudes that this "morality" fosters, they often swing to the opposite end and assume that extremely risky behavior is somehow more "natural", "moral", "sophisticated", etc. Of course, this is just as ridiculous, but it is the sort of soft-headed response that one should expect from a pervasive soft-headed immoral "morality" that demonizes sex.

In short, the "moral" focus on sex has led to an ignorance of real problems (such as violence), the demonization of segments of the public who are doing no harm (such as unmarried couples and homosexuals), and the creation of a society in which promising medical research is attacked or ignored because by dealing with sex it makes many people uncomfortable. This is sick. Moreover, it has led to a society in which "moral" crusaders consistently waste the time and money of the government pushing for the government interference in our personal lives (making various forms of sex illegal, interfering in medical treatments, interfering in the right of responsible adults to marry whom they choose) and attempting to silence criticism of this absurd behavior. This is really, really sick.

* This should not be confused with actual debate in the medical community regarding the use of the vaccine, which is usually based around, ya' know, evidence and not presumptuous notions about morality.

Note: I previously posted this elsewhere. It has been mildly edited to make it more readable.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fun with Lead Agencies

Note: The previous version of this post ended up getting deleted accidentally, so I thought I would re-post it. As there are many new readers (at least according to the comments that I receive), I thought that it might be worthwhile to put it up.

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

That seems pretty straightforward, right? The agency knows the rules, they tell the applicant the rules, and the applicant complies.

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

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

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

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

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

Her: "No."

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

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

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

Her: "I can’t answer that."

Me: "Why not?"

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

Me: "Well, yes, that’s the point."

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

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

Her: "That’s not our role."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her: "That’s not our problem."

At this point, I decided to change tactics.

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

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

Me: "And officially?"

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

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

Her: "Yes."

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

Here: "That’s not our problem."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him: "It’s not that simple."

Me: "Why not?"

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

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

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

Me: "You have requirements for permits?"

Him: "Yes."

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

Him: "Yes."

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

Him: "Yes."

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Abraham and Isaac

I have always found the Abraham and Isaac story very disturbing. The story is held up as an example of different things by different people - some hold that it demonstrates that obedience to god is the most important attribute that one can possess, others that it is a sign of god's mercy (since he doesn't make Abraham kill Isaac in the end), and others that it is a sign that god can invert the natural order any way that he wants and that us limited humans ought not to question it.

For a variety of reasons, all of which can be grouped together under the heading of "being a normal and well-adjusted moral individual" I find all of these explanations, all of which seek to justify the proposed human sacrifice as moral, to be complete and utter bullshit. Or, as Julia sweeney puts it:

This Old Testament God makes the grizzliest test to peoples' loyalty, like when he asks Abraham to murder his son Isaac. As a kid we were taught to admire it. I caught my breath reading it. We were taught to admire it! What kind of sadistic test of loyalty is that, to ask someone to kill his or her own child? And isn't the proper answer no?

I have however come across two bits o' media that cover the story in a way that at least shows some sort of attempt to understand it. The first is from Radiolab, and is sympathetic to Abraham. Listen here.

The other is satirical and very unsympathetic not only to Abraham but to the world view that holds that this sort of sadistic test of loyalty (to quote Sweeney) is justifiable:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

More Ominous Road Signs

So, I have previously shown you one set of ominous road signs. The time has come for another set.

These first ones are from Santa Barbara...

Like many of the roads in Santa Barbara, this one has a Spanish name. Canon Perdido translates into "Dangerous Canyon" - yeah, just the sort of place you want to raise your kids. It's certainly a step up from Deadly Plateau Drive.

And, who can forget this classic street name:

Yay for cognates - "Quarantine Street"...just down from Smallpox Lane, no doubt.

And, of course, there's this gem:

Which translates into "Leave if you can." A few blocks over is Get the Fuck Out of Here Road.

The photo I took didn't turn out, but there is also a Indio Muerto Street in Santa Barbara...yeah, "Dead Indian Street." But, don't take my word for it, here's a link to a map!.

And then there's this one, from Sacramento County.

Now, I know that this doesn't look too ominous, but consider that we were unable to get a photo of the preceding sign, which simply says "West Texas, next exit". So, there you are, on your way to the state capitol, and suddenly you think you've taken a wrong turn and are on your way to Lubbock.

Here's one that I recently took a photo of in Kern County, it really kinda' speaks for itself.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Let's all be Rational, Here

I have long been fascinated by the way in which certain words become loaded with positive or negative meanings and, as a result, become used in some truly bizarre ways. This has been the fate of the word rational which has grown beyond being simply descriptive of an analytical process and taken on a rather strange life of its own.

Rationality is essentially the process of careful, logical, and honest assesement based on available information. Rationality is wonderful for determining the validity of empirical claims. However, not even the most die-hard self-proclaimed rationalist would claim that rationality and logic are all that there is to life. We are human, after all, and emotion - the very opposite of rationality - is vital to our well-being, and sometimes we have to chuck rationality out the window to find happiness. Listening to beautiful music, finding a poem moving, becoming involved in a well-made film, becoming invested in characters from a novel, and falling in love are all emotional, non-rational things, and our lives would be poorer without them.

However, that is not to say that rationality should play no rule in even emotional decision making. After all, we can look at our own histories and our desires and use logic to reach some conclusions as to which courses of action are likely to be beneficial to our long-term emotional state, helping us to see what makes us happy and what makes us miserable. And no matter what your heart may tell you right now, your long-term happiness is likely to be compromised if you marry that meth-addicted convict whose favorite hobby is spreading herpes to Chihuahuas - that's a rational assessment, and you can trust me on this one.

Rationality is one of many types of mental processes, a vital and important one to be certain, but not the only one. It is absolutely necessary in assessing the truth of empirical claims (and as such is vital in evaluating things ranging from a salesman's pitch to public policy proposals), and can of great help in our decision making, but it is simply a descriptive term for one type of mental process.

However, the term has come to take a broader meaning. Rationality has become a term generally associated with positive mental health and clear thinking. When we say that someone is irrational, it usually doesn't mean that they are being emotional or asking non-empirical questions - it usually is used as a pejorative meaning that the target is not quite sane, or not to be trusted.

Let's be clear, I don't necessarilly see this elevation of rationalism as a problem. While it is only one mental process and others are necessary, it is one in which we as a species tend to be rather unfortunately deficient. If we were encouraged to actually be more rational then that would be wonderful.

Unfortunately, that isn't usually what happens. Instead, most of us find ways to justify our irrational positions and try to claim them as rational. So, we find people coming up with rather tortured explanations of why racial group X is "clearly" biologically inferior, why assuming without evidence that something is true (AKA faith) is "actually quite rational", or why some bizarre and unreasonable conclusion is really the truth. This isn't rationality, but rather it is the spinning of rationalizations - rationality's bastard mutant cousin who lives in the attic and enjoys humping spiders.

Often such rationalizations are inconsequential - rationalizing why Humphrey Bogart was the greatest actor ever to have lived, or coming up with an excuse for believing that unicorns kick ass isn't going to hurt anybody. However, when one becomes accustomed to rationaliztion their pre-existing assumptions about race, politics, sexual orientation, religion, etc., then this provides a place for people to dig in and advance positions that are in fact harmful.

In a way, I wonder if we wouldn't be better off if rationality weren't as highly prized, then we could point out assumptions without those holding the assumptions trying to rationalize them. Of course, then, there would also be no reason for the person to change their position when proven wrong, so perhaps we'd simply be in the same boat.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Who's My Client Anyway? Or, More Weird Tensions in My Job.

One of the weird things about my industry that often strikes me as weird, if not possibly hazardous, is the role that our clients play in any given project.

Sometimes we are contracted by a regulatory agency, but the majority of the time we are contracted by the proponents of a project. So, for example, say that Amalgamated Paverific wants to build a new parking lot. They will apply to the appropriate agencies for the permits to build the lot. The agencies will apply their regulations as appropriate, and determine the permit conditions, which may include that the project proponent perform environmental studies to determine the impact of construction. For this illustration, let's assume that Amalgamated Paverific has to apply to a federal agency, let's say the Federal Office of Grooviness (FOG), and the FOG determines that the proposed parking lot is to be built in an area that is known for alot of archaeological sites, perhaps the homeland of the Whatchagonnadotonites. So, FOG determines that an archaeological study will be necessary to evaluate the possibility that archaeological sites will be disturbed by construction.

So, does the FOG, being groovy and all, contract with my archaeology company, Armstrong Archaeological Resources iDentification Verification Assessment Recovery and Knowledge generation (AARDVARK)? No, they don't. They direct Amalgamated Paverific to find a consultant, and they, in turn, find us. So, I am now contracted to the entity that actually stands to gain something if there is nothing found during the archaeological study.

This creates an obvious tension.

Now, to be fair and honest, all of AARDVARK's archaeologists are Registered Professional Archaeologists, meaning that they meet certain minimum qualifications and have signed on to a statement of ethics that precludes taking bribes or denying results to favor a client. I can tell you from experience that the vast majority of archaeologists take these codes of ethics very seriously, and most of us became archaeologists because of a love for archaeology and not to make money (if we wanted to make money, we would have stayed FAR away from archaeology). So, violations of the code of ethics are rare.

But, nonetheless, there is a definite reason why people would see a conflict of interests even if it doesn't play out.

Also, FOG doesn't bow out completely. They have agency archaeologists who review our work, approve our research designs, review our reports, and maintain the right to visit us int he field to check up on us. So, we are not entirely unsupervised. Nonetheless, they can't be there all of the time, and it is therefore difficult for them to ensure honesty at all times, and they rely on their relationships with us (as well as the threat of future refusals of work) to keep us in line.

So, again, there is reason to be concerned about this arrangement.

I want to emphasize, again, that violations of ethics in order to curry favor with or benefit a client are extremely rare. I am not claiming that the sky is falling, it certainly is not. However, I know of a handful of archaeologists who are on the take, and I know that the current arrangement benefits them.

This is an uncomfortable tension. I have had more than one client take the attitude that I am their consultant and therefore should only be producing things that benefit them, truth and professional ethics be damned. I have always worked through these situations with my code of ethics and my conscience intact, as do the majority of my colleagues.

The alternative would seem to be either for the agencies to have enough archaeologists on staff to do all of this work themselves, or else to contract directly with us. This presents its own problems, however, both economic and political (really, can you see a bill requiring this passing through Congress? Neither can I).

I don't know the solution, but it is a potential source of problems, even if it has caused relatively few so far. I think that, perhaps, part of the solution is simply letting people in on these facts, as I am doing here.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Railriders - a Menace to the Public Good

There is a segment of the population that is ever growing, recruiting from our youth to fill their ranks to swelling. They have long had a media presence that portrays them as lovable, free-wheeling, and even admirable, hiding the unsavory truth of their filthy lifestyle. Although there is one true name by which they should be known, they have adopted many different euphemisms to make themselves sound more appealing. They often portray themselves as victims, living life as they see fit only to be "oppressed" by those of us with a strong enough sense of morality to call them for what they are and try to stop them.

I am speaking, of course and obviously, about hobos.

They may go by many other, more "P.C." terms - gentleman of the road, boxcar men, and many others - hobos are known to all of us, but most people deny their true nature in favor of the popular depictions.

In order to expose the vile hobo to the light of day, let's look at the song that might be considered the hobo "national anthem" - Big Rock Candy Mountains

One evening as the sun went down and the jungle fire was burning
Down the track came a hobo hiking and he said boys I'm not turning
I'm headin for a land that's far away beside the crystal fountains
So come with me we'll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountains

We see here that the hobo is addressing a group of boys, that is youths or children, hoping to lure them into the hobo lifestyle. He, of course, doesn't tell them of the true hobo lifestyle, no. Instead, he tells them that the lifestyle is literally about sweet things like candy.

One has to wonder if hobos eat so many beans in the hopes of replacing their nonexistent moral fiber with dietary fiber.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
Where the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

The handouts grow on bushes. You see here that the hobo clearly desires a socialist system in which he receives handouts rather than working.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs
The farmer's trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay
Oh, I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall and the wind don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

First the hobo calls down disparagement on the police, those fine and upstanding enforcers of law. And this song first gained prominence during prohibition, when the police not only enforced man's law, but also God's law.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew and of whiskey too
You can paddle all around 'em in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

And here we see that the hobo hates such time-honored traditions as sobriety, there is further disparagement of authority figures who might force the hobo to be a moral individual, and the hobo shows his distaste for sanitary conditions, wishing to not change socks and paddle a canoe around the food supply.

Again, what is so disturbing is that the hobo is telling this tale to children so that he might lure them into his degenerate lifestyle.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains the jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in
There ain't no short handled shovels, no axes saws or picks
I'm a goin to stay where you sleep all day
Where they hung the jerk that invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

I'll see you all this coming fall in the Big Rock Candy Mountains

And the hobo shows his complete disregard for morality, desiring to be allowed immediately out of jail without ever being forced to pay for his filthy lifestyle, his desire to allow his hands to be idle (and hence the playground of the devil), and to violently overthrow those who support the social order of which he wants no part.


And, of course, he anticipates that the children to whom he is speaking will follow his example and join him "this coming fall" - these words are neither accidental nor a simple allusion to a season of the year, the hobo knows that his path is one of moral decay, and he hopes to lead the children along it.

Of course, this disturbing recruitment is not limited to songs or chance meetings on the railroad tracks. It has also infiltrated our mass media, and the media elites are using every tool at their disposal to forward the hobo agenda. Whether it's Disney, that den of iniquity, and their animated "classic" Boxcar Willy to Buddy Ebsen's dark and disturbing turn on The Andy Griffith Show, the image of the hobo as a happy and carefree character has caused far too many of our youth to choose life as hobos.

The simple fact is this: hobos are immoral beings, disgusting in the eyes of man and abominations in the eyes of God. If everyone followed the hobo's path our society would be in shambles, therefore nobody should be allowed to follow it. The advancing hobo agenda must be stopped. I suggest three simple steps:

1. We must petition, pester, and if necessary, use force to make the immoral media elites stop portraying the hobo as a happy or positive character. We must change the false image of the hobo from this:


to a more accurate portrayal, such as this photo taken of a hobo at a train yard:


2. We, citizens concerned about decency, must surround train yards at every opportunity to prevent hobos from leaving their trains and attempting to recruit our children. We must be clear through our actions, however, that we do not hate the hobos, we just hate hoboism, and this means that we desire to beat the hobos as a show of our concern for them and for our children.

3. We must support legislation aimed at preventing the spread of hoboism such as Proposition 83b(c).321(k), which outlaws train yards within the state of California.

Only in this way can we hope to stem the rising tide of hoboism and save our families and communities.

I sincerely hope nobody has to read this line to realize that this is a joke and satire. I mean no ill-will towards hobos anywhere, and if any hobos are reading this I will say only STOP FOOLING AROUND ON THE INTERNET AND GET BACK ON THE FUCKING TRAIN!

*image from

**image from the Doctor Who episode The Deadly Assassin

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Corporate Culture Porn

I used to work for one of the big Silicon Valley tech companies, specifically I worked for a company that produced hard drives and other such storage devices. One day, while walking to my desk, I caught site of a flyer that had been posted on the wall. The flyer advertised an upcoming seminar (which we would all, inceidentally, be required to attend) on the conflict-resolution skills of the people of the island nation of Mauritius. The people of Mauritius, the flyer informed the casual reader, were comprised of five different religions, multiple ethncities, and had an economy that, like others of Africa, was often tumultuous - and yet they managed to all live together in complete happiness with no of ethnic or religious division or tension, no xenophobia, and no real conflict.

I was skeptical, but realized that, as we were all required to attend the seminar*, I would see soon enough what was up.

When the appointed day came, the human resources people all rounded us up and led us to the corral...err...meeting room. We sat down, and the presentation began. Over the course of the next hour, we watched a video produced by a company that sells products intended to increase workplace morale. In the course of watching this video, we were informed that the people of Mauritius are the ever-so-nicest people ever who completely accept each other despite religious, ethnic, and language differences, and gosh don't you know that in Mauritius there isn't ever any form of prejudice or bigotry because we are all ever-so-happy being one big family, and isn't it so great and makes you feel so warm and fuzzy seeing this so why don't you apply all of these ever-so-special and sugary sweet lessons to your job and have the ever-so-bestest work place ever!

Hmmmm....perhaps I should insert more "ever-so's" into the above paragraph...nahhh...

When the video was done, the human resources overlord who was running the show turned a whiteboard around to face the captive audience, and on it were printed three questions. I don't recall questions #2 or #3, but questions #1 was:

What do you most admire about the people of Mauritius?

It was at this moment that I came up with the term Culture Porn. The producers of this video had clearly taken another culture, stripped it of its complexities and vitality, denied the real hardships and hence the acomplishments of the people of the culture, and packaged it as a consumer product to sell to corporate managers who were more interested in placating their employees than solving the real problems within their own corporate culture. I was thoroughly disgusted.

We had been shown a completely false image of Mauritius. In truth, there is much to admire about the people and the culture (or rather cultures) that they had developed. There was also much to be wary of. Like any nation, Mauritius has both admirable and damnable qualities. Within a year of sitting through this indoctrination session, I had re-entered the world of anthropology, and learned that, Mauritius did indeed have high rates of literacy and education, that it did function remarkably well as a civil society despite many economic and social problems, and all of this was certainly remarkable and well worth taking note of. At the same time, the claim that the island was free of prejudices and bigotries was an outright lie - ethnic and religious prejudices play a significant role in Mauritian politics, for example. Likewise, like many other physically constrained societies, the compact population leads to a society in which one is not exactly free to puruse ones own interests when they don't mesh with the often irrational prejudices of those around you.

In other words, Mauritus is, in many respects, a remarkable place, and it has a compelling story that is of value and interest to the outside world. However, to deny its problems is to deny the realities of life there, and also to deny the adversities that the people of the island have had to overcome, and is to cheapen the truth of their lives in favor of creating a consumer product.

To make matters worse, the entire presentation was rather disturbingly reminiscent of the racist "happy savage" stereotype that had been very much a part of 19th century colonial discourse.

Which brought us back to the question that had been scrawled on the white board.

What do you most admire about the people of Mauritius?

I was at this point so disgusted that I decided to speak my mind about this. I commented to the room that the image that had been portrayed was obviously false, that it was quite offensive and borderline racist, and that it was impossible from such a false image to say if I admired the people, much less what I admired about them.

The HR people looked surprised, then annoyed that I had commented as I had. A few minutes later we were dismissed without further question. A few other employees thanked me for expressing sentiments that were, apparently, also on their minds.

*Like most large companies, the one for which I worked had developed a number of strategies to try to increase the morale of the work force, and as simple things like being honest with the employees regarding whether or not they would be laid off right before Christmas was apparently off the table, they did all manner of rather weird things instead. Amongst these were requiring us to read a book about finding happiness at work even if your job is a drag and makes you long for the sweet release of death (what I referred to as the "happy drone book"), and attending seminars on how people in harder situations have good lifes and so we really shouldn't be worrying about the dangling sword of unemployment, such as this Mauritius seminar.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Grains, Archaeology, and Scientific American

One of the podcasts that I frequently listen to is Scientific American's 60-Second Science. Most days, the podcast features a short clip of audio detailing some a discovery, novel approach to problem solving, or some similar type of science-based issue. A recent episode described the find of a granary in a hunter/gatherer site in Jordan. The find is deemed important because it provides information on the antiquity of the storage of edible seeds in the Middle East. This, in turn, is important because the storage of seeds likely was a necessary step in the eventual development of agriculture as we know it today - simply put, the storage of seeds led to the ability to have seeds on hand for planting, and therefore the development of intentional crops*.

This is, without a doubt, interesting stuff. One of my own personal research interests is the lives of Late Period (ca 1000 AD to 1750 AD) hunter/gatherers in California, and the question of the possible development of proto-agriculture is an active topic of discussion in this field.

What bothered me, however, is that, as it was presented by Scientific American, a generally reliable source for science information, it sounds as if the discovery of a granary at a hunter-gatherer site is a completely new thing, and fills in some missing link between hunter-gatherers and farmers that otherwise might never have been known.

Well, that's not the case at all. I am not an expert in Middle Eastern archaeology, but I do know that in the Americas, Australia, and Africa, granaries are not uncommon features in hunter/gatherer sites. So, the notion that this discovery was new, revolutionary, and mind-blowing is false. It is, in fact, exactly the sort of thing that one would expect to find based on the archaeological records of every other location where hunter gatherers began farming or came close to farming.

At the same time, from a public relations standpoint, perhaps this is a good approach. Many people will be excited if they hear about something like this as if it is cutting-edge research rather than more of the same thing that archaeologists have been finding. In this way, perhaps not correcting Scientific American would have a beneficial effect on public interst in archaeology.

I don't know. It's another one of those places where the public perception and the reality of archaeology are not in agreement. However, unlike some of the other such instances, here, at least, the sensationalism leads people directly into the real archaeology rather than away from it. I have to wonder whether my immediate response of "hey! That's not right, they've ignored all of these other important matters" might actually be wrong-headed. I simply don't know.

*There are other things that likely influenced the development of agriculture which were likely as important, if not more important than the storage of seeds. These include the management of natural plants, sometimes to the point that it is open to debate whether they are natural or domesticated.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Persecution Complex

Man 1: "I had always thought that you made more than me."

Man 2: "No, all of us camp counselors make the same amount."

Man 1: "Huh. Well, I guess that's the way it goes."

Man 2: "Yeah, we get paid very little. It's part of our persecution for our belief in Christ. I view this work as part of my ministry, though."

The above snippet of conversation was overheard in my local coffee shop. The two guys talking were both wearing shirts that indicated that they were part of the staff of Mission Springs Christian Camp, a local, well, Christian camp. These two were apparently camp counselors.

Now, leaving aside the grandiosity but otherwise inert harmlessness of statements such as "this is part of my ministry", I want to focus really quickly on how he described his low wages: persecution.

Yeah, persecution.

The vast majority of Christians are aware enough of the world to know that they are the ones in power, and therefore by definition are not being persecuted. Nothing I say here as addressed to this large majority. However, there is this weird thought floating around among certain fundamentalist groups that holds that they are being persecuted, and anything that doesn't go their way is a sign of further persecution.

Non-Christian groups are allowed to put ads on buses, and so these fundamentalist folks claim that they are being persecuted.

A fundamentalist Christian group (specifically, the misnamed Liberty Counsel) claims to be persecuted when no religious group is allowed to distribute fliers to students, and then claims persecution when more than just Christian fliers are distributed to students.

These groups also hold that not being able to force other people's children to pray in public schools is also a form of persecution.

And, apparently, getting low pay when one has a job indoctrinating children into Christianity is a form of persecution*.

There's a long-term and short-term problem here.

The short-term problem is that the use of the term "persecution" can be used to silence opposition. This creates obvious problems, especially when, as in the case of Prop 8 for example, the people screaming persecution are the persecutors. However, this is a short-term problem because even now a growing number of people, Christian and non-Christian alike, are becoming increasingly aware of the vacuous nature of this ploy, and it is seems to become less effective with each passing day.

The long-term problem is that there is real religious persecution in the world, and every religious group, including Christians, has been targeted. In a number of nations, Christians are being genuinely persecuted, as are Jews, Hindus, Atheists, Jains, Muslims, and almost every other religious group. This is a very real, very serious problem. However, by constantly crying wolf, this particular minority but VERY vocal strain of Christianity is causing many people to ignore the very real problems by making them look like more of the same nonsense.

*Was it in the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke where Jesus said "And truly I tell you that the sign of my imminent return will be low wages, and cheap furniture imported from Sweden"?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Just because you disagree doesn't mean that they're stupid...

One of the things that you're likely to come across whenever you delve into a controversial topic is alot of accusations of stupidity, craziness, etc. etc. back-and-forth between the proponents of the different sides. For example, when I express doubt regarding a supernatural claim, I typically find that I am labelled as "closed-minded" with the person applying the label rarely, if ever, stopping to consider that I would change my mind if they could simply give me a persuasive argument. Likewise, I am often dismissive of people who believe various supernatural claims, when I really should consider the fact that they likely come from a background and a subculture in which these claims do not seem all that strange, and therefore their belief is not a sign of insanity or low intelligence, but rather a sign that they are part of a particular group, and that I probably hold a number of irrational beliefs myself that I don't think of as irrational because my own group tends to support them. It's a subtle version of the the echo chamber effect.

I think that this is a point that everyone, whether you consider yourself a skeptic, believer, Christian, Deist, atheist, or any other label needs to keep in mind. We believe things not only when they are aligned with reality, but often when they aren't, provided that we come from a background in which such beliefs align with what we have been taught, our interests, and out prejudices. I think that Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid Podcast sums it up extremely well.

I have friends who believe things about the past that, often due to their religions but also for other reasons, that I know to be false based on my exposure to the evidence of archaeology. However, none of that changes the fact that these people aren't insane or stupid, but rather that they come from a background in which such beliefs are common and espoused by trusted community leaders.

By the same token, for a very long time even after I ceased being a believer, I myself long believed that religion was the only reliable source of morality, a concept that I now know to be deeply flawed and incorrect. However, I also no longer hold to the belief that a secular morality is necessarily going to have a stronger hold on people once they are exposed to it* - a position that I would not have reached until quite recently because I was, irrationally, clinging to a belief common amongst many of my current peers.

Anyway, the point is that we need to be cautious when confronting beliefs that seem strange to us. Leaving aside the question of whether or not they can be objectively justified, it is unusual for the people holding them to be guilty of whatever easy shortcomings we can slather them with. The bad news is that this means that weird, even dangerous beliefs may be extremely resistant to eradication. The good news is that it means that we are usually dealing with people who are reasonable within a context, and understanding that context, rather than insulting or dismissing the person, may help to figure out what underlies such beliefs.

Oh, and Brian Dunning has leapt in my estimation from being fairly bright to being a genius.

*I will still argue that a morality based on actual reasoning and thinking rather than arbitrary religious rules is better for everyone. I just don't believe that it can be as easily come about or permeate the culture as other methods.