The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Friday, January 29, 2010

Nerdery by Any Other Name

I remember, one Thanksgiving, sitting at my maternal grandparents house while my grandfather, uncles, and male cousins all gathered around the television to watch football. I went out on the patio and read my book - I forget what it was, but I do remember that it was science fiction - and relaxed. After a short time, one of my cousins came outside, saw me sitting there, and asked why I wasn't in watching football with the other men-folk. I replied, honestly, that I simply wasn't interested in football.

"What? Are you gay, or something?"

Ahh, yes, the predictable response. I will never understand why it is that some people assume that I'm gay because I don't watch men in tight pants jumping on top of each other.

The cousin then proceeded to mock me because I was reading a science fiction novel. I was used to it by this point in my life, and just ignored him and went back to my book. But I noticed something that day that I have found rather fascinating ever since, and I thought I might share my observation here: those traits that people make fun of in "nerds" (defined here as people into escapist recreation such as reading science fiction, playing role-playing games, etc.) are identical to traits observed in "jocks" (defined here as people who are really into sports)*, but because the subject matter, one is generally socially accepted while the other is generally mocked. I find this interesting.

Let's do a quick compare-and-contrast to show what I'm talking about...

It is common to note the tendency for the nerd to know all manner of things about their particular science-fiction or fantasy realm of choice. We often make fun of people who can tell you the fine details of the engine room of the Star ship Enterprise, or who know the full back story to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or who can name all of the actors to appear as the lead in Doctor Who. This devotion to a particular bit of pop-culture is seen as quirky at best, and shameful and juvenile at worst.

However, most of us don't think twice when we meet an adult (especially a man) who can give you the details of the 1989 line-up of the San Francisco Giants, or who knows the complete list of all players who have scored the winning points in all of the Superbowls. We tend to think of this as someone who is simply a sports fan/hobbyist. No big deal.

However, both people accumulate absolutely useless information. They do so because they enjoy it, and there's nothing wrong with that (I fall into the nerd camp, myself, and hold no grudge against those who do the equivalent with sports), but that doesn't change the fact that it is, in the end, useless information. It's even used in the same way - as social currency with other fans in both groups.

Okay, let's try another set of identical behaviors...

I have often seen my fellow nerds mocked for collecting memorabilia. For me, it's old gaming books (hey, I like to read, and books take up less space than other collectibles, and I collect used books, so I'm keeping things out of landfills), but for others it may be Star Trek props, or Star Wars toys, or DVDs, or...well, all manner of things.

Jocks often collect sports memorabilia. It may be home-run balls, it may be merchandised team clothing, it may be autographed photos of athletes, it may be...well, anything sports related. I have never seen anyone mocked for this, and yet the collecting and display behaviors are absolutely identical. In both cases, the person gathers items, and may even attribute significance to certain ones (really, how is "this was Mark MacGuire's record-setting home run ball" any different than "this is the phaser prop that William Shatner used in Star Trek II"? Either way you're attributing special significance to an inanimate object because of it's connection to a prominent individual), and in both cases the problems associated are the same (running oneself into debt for the collection, and - in the case of people who collect merchandise - adding to the glut of consumer goods that will some day occupy a landfill).

Let's take a look at another place where the difference is non-existent...

A common staple of the sit-com is a scene in which two science fiction fans argue about the relative merits of their own particular fascination: the Star Wars fan fighting with the Star Trek fan, for example. They always throw around obscure terms, and argue about minutiae that seem silly to the outsider because, well, it is pretty damn silly.

Ever hear the fans of two sports teams have at each other? Same damn thing. I was in one of my company's offices last week listening as a San Diego Chargers fan and a Vikings fan, and the absurdity of their conversation became increasingly apparent as time went on - calling out obscure points, and getting quite heated with each other over a game. It was also pretty damn silly.

One last behavior, that of the fantasy game...

It is common to see the nerds mocked for our enjoyment of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. It's even a common scene on television to see** this used as a shorthand way of signaling that someone is a geek, and the games are always portrayed as especially silly. But, let's look at what the games actually are: players create characters, which are abstracted as (usually) number-heavy abstractions on a sheet of paper or a computer program, and conflict resolution is determined through player description of action coupled with mathematical formulae based on the character sheet.

Now, let's look at something that is becoming increasingly popular in the jock world: fantasy football. In fantasy football, one builds a team, which is a set of player descriptions comprised of number-heavy abstractions on a sheet of paper or a computer program. Conflicts (in this case, fictional football games) are resolved through mathematical formulae based on the team sheet.

So, ummmmm, fantasy football is really nothing but sports-themed Dungeons and Dragons.


I could keep going, but I think you probably get the point. The distinction between nerd fandom and jock fandom is truly a distinction without a difference. so why do we make this distinction?

Well, I suspect that it comes down to time. Sports have been with us for a very, very long time. Everyone is familiar with them, and therefore comfortable with them. By contrast, science fiction, in it's modern form, really began with the pulps of the 1930s, and was, for a long while, primarily the province of magazines and movies aimed at young audiences, adding to it's assessment as a "juvenile" form of entertainment. Add to that the fact that many of those interested in science fiction and fantasy were attracted to it because it offered a safe harbor from the sports that we were either not good at or simply uninterested in, and the distinction is set.

However, as time goes on, the distinction is beginning to melt away. As noted, Fantasy Football is nothing but Dungeons and Dragons with sports trappings. The popularity of computer games such as World of Warcraft and science fiction movies is making these things more socially acceptable. While the zealots are still going to be looked down on, we also see examples of sports zealots getting similar treatment (I have, in recent years, seen more pop culture examples of people who paint themselves in team colors being mocked, for example). And as the average age of the Role Playing Game player increases (at age 34, I was, until recently, the youngest member of my group), even these seem to be becoming more acceptable.

So, what's interesting to me is that it really does seem to be a matter of time for something to move away from the perceived realm of zealots and geeks, and into the mainstream. It seems that the marginalization of certain forms of entertainment (and those who indulge in them) has more to do with how familiar the rest of the population is with it than with the content of the entertainment itself.

And that, I think, is rather fascinating.

*And yes, I am aware that there are plenty of people who are very much into both nerd and jock things. I'm using this simplification because it's one that most people in the U.S. use, and so the phenomenon exists as a social construction, if nothing else.

**There is a commercial for Monday Night Football, one that I actually thought was quite funny, which contrasts a guy watching football with his friends playing Dungeons and Dragons, the implication being that the guy watching football was having a better time. While the commercial was funny, having known people who are into both activities, I found myself thinking that the gamers were probably having more fun than the football watcher.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Warp Drives - Hollywood Hillbilly and Swedish Chef Style!

Courtesy of the

In case you'd rather the the Warp Drive Argument in psuedo-hillbilly style:

ah's hankerin' warp drive ingines t'be real, ah reckon.

Yo' know, like in Star Trek, warp drive ingines thet will aller a star ship t'move significantly faster than th' speed of light, allerin' us t'travel t'distant stars in a matter of days, o' mebbe even hours. ah's hankerin' t'be able t'git on board a star ship an' travel vast distances, seein' whut is out thar, an' eff'n alien life exists, meet it.

This hyar will not happen in mah life time. In truth, it will probably nevah happen at all, ah reckon. Th' laws of physics bein' whut they are, th' odds of ennyone alive today evah venturin' out past our solar system is purdy much nil, ah reckon. Even eff'n hoominity does travel t'distant stars, it'll likely hafta be through sumpin like junerashun ships - whar a populashun thet reprodooces on over th' course of centuries travels, rather than indivijools of a particular junerashun beginnin' an' indin' th' trip. An' this hyar is assumin' thet we kin figger out how t'have a populashun live fo' extended periods of time on a space ship an' not be killed off by enny one of th' millions of thin's in th' unyverse thet thrett up us once we leave th' safety of Earth's atmosphar.

When ah consider this, it depresses me a bit. Th' Earth, vast as it us on th' hoomin scale, is nothin' in comparison wif th' size of our galaxy, an' t'knows thet ah will be fo'evah limited by th' atmosphar of this hyar watery rock makes me feel mo'e than a bit claestrophobic when ah stop an' cornsider. ah's hankerin' mah warp drive, dammit! Fry mah hide!

But, of course, ah cain't haf mah warp drive (o', better yet, a TARDIS). Wantin' it, reckonin' about how great it'd be, an' cornsiderin' how much less interestin' life is wifout it does not in enny way cuz th' laws of physics t'change an' make th' warp drive (o' TARDIS - mine'd be disguised as a filin' cabinet) postible.

Okay, Mr. Armstrong, whut does this hyar have t'do wif ennythin'?

Wal, I'll tell yo'.

One of th' mo'e frequent argoomnts thet ah hear in favo' of debatable proposishuns is a variashun on mah argoomnt in favo' of warp drives an' TARDISes. Varmints may phrase it diffruntly, they may say sumpin like "wifout X" whar X may mean ennythin' fum ghosts t'gods t'magic, "th' wo'ld/unyverse'd seem so cold/bo'in'/uninterestin'/lonely thet ah cain't accepp thet X ain't real, ah reckon."

Wal, as stated, wifout warp drives, th' wo'ld seems too isolated an' cornstrainin' fo' me, but thet don't make warp drives real, no' does some one's tendency t'be cold/bo'ed/uninterested/lonesome make whutevah their pet noshun is true. Likewise, th' fack thet someone has dedicated their life t'a false premise, whutevah thet premise may be, don't in enny way make th' premise true an' mo'e than th' fack thet varmints haf dedicated their lives t'dreamin' up methods of faster-than-light travel has made this hyar a physical postibility.

Fo' an example of this hyar principle in ackshun, cornsider sumpin thet happened t'me back in 2000. An acquaintance at wawk axed eff'n ah was a Jedtian, as enny fool kin plainly see. ah responded thet ah was not. They axed me whuffo', an' ah replied thet ah had nevah see enny persuasive evidence fo' th' exissence of a god of enny so't, much less th' Jedtian God, cuss it all t' tarnation. They then stated thet they had a quesshun thet, eff'n ah answered it honestly,'d brin' me t'Jedtianity. ah was curious, ah requested thet they reveal this hyar quesshun t'me. It was this:

"Don't yer hankerin' t'spend an eternity in th' bliss of Hevvin?"

Classic Warp Drive Argoomnt.

Do ah find th' idea of an eternally blissful af'erlife appealin'? Yessuh. Do ah wish thet thar was sech a place an' thet ah w'd git t'go thar? Absolutely. Is this hyar desuhe evidence of it's exissence? Unfo'tunately, no.

So, in th' end, th' co-wawker who wished t'convaht me went away disappointed, cuss it all t' tarnation. Mah desuhe fo' thar t'be a benevolent God an' a Hevvin does not provide evidence fo' th' exissence of Kin'dom Come o' God, cuss it all t' tarnation. An' unnerstan' thet ah's not bein' sarcastic hyar, ah pow'ful does wish thet thar was a benevolent God an' a Hevvin (hey, thar haf been times when ah jest wished thet ah believed wifout wishin' fo' mah beliefs t'be true), but mah wishin' fo' it is simply not evidence thet it is true.

Th' same is true of ghosts, psychic powers (which'd be mighty bost...if they existed, thet is), Reiki, Trimenjusfoot, an' all manner of other thin's. Th' basic problem is thet menny varmints doesn't reckanize thet they is usin' a Warp Drive Argoomnt even when they are. But, perhaps, eff'n yo' point it out, yo'll haf less friend, cuss it all t' tarnation....ah mean, yo'll improve varmints's ability t'reckon critically about their beliefs.

...or, perhaps you prefer the Muppet's Swedish Chef:

I vunt verp dreefe-a ingeenes tu be-a reel.

Yuoo knoo, leeke-a in Ster Trek, verp dreefe-a ingeenes thet veell elloo a ster sheep tu mufe-a seegnifficuntly fester thun zee speed ooff leeght, ellooeeng us tu trefel tu deestunt sters in a metter ooff deys, oor meybe-a ifee huoors. Um gesh dee bork, bork! I vunt tu be-a eble-a tu get oon buerd a ster sheep und trefel fest deestunces, seeeeng vhet is oooot zeere-a, und iff eleeee leeffe-a ixeests, meet it. Um de hur de hur de hur.

Thees veell nut heppee in my leeffe-a teeme-a. In troot, it veell prubebly nefer heppee et ell. Zee levs ooff physeecs beeeng vhet zeey ere-a, zee oodds ooff unyune-a eleefe-a tudey ifer fentooreeng oooot pest oooor suler system ere-a pretty mooch neel. Ifee iff hoomuneety dues trefel tu deestunt sters, it'll leekely hefe-a tu be-a thruoogh sumetheeng leeke-a genereshun sheeps - vhere-a a pupooleshun thet reprudooces oofer zee cuoorse-a ooff centooreees trefels, rezeer thun indeefidooels ooff a perteecooler genereshun begeenning und indeeng zee treep. Und thees is essoomeeng thet ve-a cun feegoore-a oooot hoo tu hefe-a a pupooleshun leefe-a fur ixtended pereeuds ooff teeme-a oon a spece-a sheep und nut be-a keelled ooffff by uny oone-a ooff zee meelliuns ooff theengs in zee uneeferse-a thet threetee us oonce-a ve-a leefe-a zee seffety ooff Ierth's etmusphere-a.

Vhee I cunseeder thees, it depresses me-a a beet. Um de hur de hur de hur. Zee Iert, fest es it us oon zee hoomun scele-a, is nutheeng in cumpereesun veet zee seeze-a ooff oooor gelexy, und tu knoo thet I veell be-a furefer leemited by zee etmusphere-a ooff thees vetery ruck mekes me-a feel mure-a thun a beet cloostruphubeec vhee I stup und cunseeder. Hurty flurty schnipp schnipp! I vunt my verp dreefe-a, demmeet!

Boot, ooff cuoorse-a, I cun't hefe-a my verp dreefe-a (oor, better yet, a TERDIS). Vunteeng it, theenking ebuoot hoo greet it vuoold be-a, und cunseedering hoo mooch less interesteeng leeffe-a is veethuoot it dues nut in uny vey coose-a zee levs ooff physeecs tu chunge-a und meke-a zee verp dreefe-a (oor TERDIS - meene-a vuoold be-a deesgooised es a feeling cebeenet) pusseeble-a.

Ookey, Mr. Hurty flurty schnipp schnipp! Ermstrung, vhet dues thees hefe-a tu du veet unytheeng?

Vell, I'll tell yuu. Hurty flurty schnipp schnipp!

Oone-a ooff zee mure-a freqooent ergooments thet I heer in fefur ooff debeteble-a prupuseeshuns is a fereeeshun oon my ergooment in fefur ooff verp dreefes und TERDISes. Um gesh dee bork, bork! Peuple-a mey phrese-a it deefffferently, zeey mey sey sumetheeng leeke-a "veethuoot X" vhere-a X mey meun unytheeng frum ghusts tu guds tu megeec, "zee vurld/uneeferse-a vuoold seem su culd/bureeng/uneenteresting/lunely thet I cun't eccept thet X isn't reel."

Vell, es steted, veethuoot verp dreefes, zee vurld seems tuu isuleted und cunstreeening fur me-a, boot thet duesn't meke-a verp dreefes reel, nur dues sume-a oone's tendency tu be-a culd/bured/uneenterested/lunesume-a meke-a vhetefer zeeur pet nushun is trooe-a. Leekooise-a, zee fect thet sumeune-a hes dedeeceted zeeur leeffe-a tu a felse-a premeese-a, vhetefer thet premeese-a mey be-a, duesn't in uny vey meke-a zee premeese-a trooe-a und mure-a thun zee fect thet peuple-a hefe-a dedeeceted zeeur leefes tu dreemeeng up methuds ooff fester-thun-leeght trefel hes mede-a thees a physeecel pusseebility. Bork bork bork!

Fur un ixemple-a ooff thees preenciple-a in ecshun, cunseeder sumetheeng thet heppened tu me-a beck in 2000. Un ecqooeeentunce-a et vurk esked iff I ves a Chreestiun. I respunded thet I ves nut. Um de hur de hur de hur. Zeey esked me-a vhy, und I repleeed thet I hed nefer seee uny persooeseefe-a ifeedence-a fur zee ixeestence-a ooff a gud ooff uny surt, mooch less zee Chreestiun Gud. Bork bork bork! Zeey zeen steted thet zeey hed a qooesshun thet, iff I unsvered it hunestly, vuoold breeng me-a tu Chreestiunity. Bork bork bork! I ves cooreeuoos, I reqooested thet zeey refeel thees qooesshun tu me-a. It ves thees:

"Dun't yuoo vunt tu spend un iterneety in zee bleess ooff Heefee?"

Clesseec Verp Dreefe-a Ergooment. Um de hur de hur de hur.

Du I feend zee idea ooff un iternelly bleessffool effterleeffe-a eppeeleeng? Yes. Um gesh dee bork, bork! Du I veesh thet zeere-a ves sooch a plece-a und thet I vuoold get tu gu zeere-a? Ebsulootely. Bork bork bork! Is thees desure-a ifeedence-a ooff it's ixeestence-a? Unffurtoonetely, nu.

Su, in zee ind, zee cu-vurker vhu veeshed tu cunfert me-a vent evey deeseppuinted. Bork bork bork! My desure-a fur zeere-a tu be-a a benefulent Gud und a Heefee dues nut prufeede-a ifeedence-a fur zee ixeestence-a ooff Keengdum Cume-a oor Gud. Bork bork bork! Und understund thet I em nut beeeng sercesteec here-a, I reelly du veesh thet zeere-a ves a benefulent Gud und a Heefee (hey, zeere-a hefe-a beee teemes vhee I joost veeshed thet I beleeefed veethuoot veeshing fur my beleeeffs tu be-a trooe-a), boot my veeshing fur it is seemply nut ifeedence-a thet it is trooe-a.

Zee seme-a is trooe-a ooff ghusts, psycheec pooers (vheech vuoold be-a tutelly buss...iff zeey ixeested, thet is), Reeeki, Beegffuut, und ell munner ooff oozeer theengs. Um gesh dee bork, bork! Zee beseec prublem is thet muny peuple-a dun't recugneeze-a thet zeey ere-a useeng a Verp Dreefe-a Ergooment ifee vhee zeey ere-a. Boot, perheps, iff yuoo pueent it oooot, yuoo'll hefe-a less freeend. Bork bork bork!...I meun, yuoo'll imprufe-a peuple's ebeelity tu theenk creeticelly ebuoot zeeur beleeeffs. Um gesh dee bork, bork!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Warp Drive Argument

I want warp drive engines to be real.

You know, like in Star Trek, warp drive engines that will allow a star ship to move significantly faster than the speed of light, allowing us to travel to distant stars in a matter of days, or maybe even hours. I want to be able to get on board a star ship and travel vast distances, seeing what is out there, and if alien life exists, meet it.

This will not happen in my life time. In truth, it will probably never happen at all. The laws of physics being what they are, the odds of anyone alive today ever venturing out past our solar system are pretty much nil. Even if humanity does travel to distant stars, it'll likely have to be through something like generation ships - where a population that reproduces over the course of centuries travels, rather than individuals of a particular generation beginning and ending the trip. And this is assuming that we can figure out how to have a population live for extended periods of time on a space ship and not be killed off by any one of the millions of things in the universe that threaten us once we leave the safety of Earth's atmosphere.

When I consider this, it depresses me a bit. The Earth, vast as it us on the human scale, is nothing in comparison with the size of our galaxy, and to know that I will be forever limited by the atmosphere of this watery rock makes me feel more than a bit claustrophobic when I stop and consider. I want my warp drive, dammit!

But, of course, I can't have my warp drive (or, better yet, a TARDIS). Wanting it, thinking about how great it would be, and considering how much less interesting life is without it does not in any way cause the laws of physics to change and make the warp drive (or TARDIS - mine would be disguised as a filing cabinet) possible.

Okay, Mr. Armstrong, what does this have to do with anything?

Well, I'll tell you.

One of the more frequent arguments that I hear in favor of debatable propositions is a variation on my argument in favor of warp drives and TARDISes. People may phrase it differently, they may say something like "without X" where X may mean anything from ghosts to gods to magic, "the world/universe would seem so cold/boring/uninteresting/lonely that I can't accept that X isn't real."

Well, as stated, without warp drives, the world seems too isolated and constraining for me, but that doesn't make warp drives real, nor does some one's tendency to be cold/bored/uninterested/lonesome make whatever their pet notion is true. Likewise, the fact that someone has dedicated their life to a false premise, whatever that premise may be, doesn't in any way make the premise true and more than the fact that people have dedicated their lives to dreaming up methods of faster-than-light travel has made this a physical possibility.

For an example of this principle in action, consider something that happened to me back in 2000. An acquaintance at work asked if I was a Christian. I responded that I was not. They asked me why, and I replied that I had never seen any persuasive evidence for the existence of a god of any sort, much less the Christian God. They then stated that they had a question that, if I answered it honestly, would bring me to Christianity. I was curious, I requested that they reveal this question to me. It was this:

"Don't you want to spend an eternity in the bliss of Heaven?"

Classic Warp Drive Argument.

Do I find the idea of an eternally blissful afterlife appealing? Yes. Do I wish that there was such a place and that I would get to go there? Absolutely. Is this desire evidence of it's existence? Unfortunately, no.

So, in the end, the co-worker who wished to convert me went away disappointed. My desire for there to be a benevolent God and a Heaven does not provide evidence for the existence of Kingdom Come or God. And understand that I am not being sarcastic here, I really do wish that there was a benevolent God and a Heaven (hey, there have been times when I just wished that I believed without wishing for my beliefs to be true), but my wishing for it is simply not evidence that it is true.

The same is true of ghosts, psychic powers (which would be totally boss...if they existed, that is), Reiki, Bigfoot, and all manner of other things. The basic problem is that many people don't recognize that they are using a Warp Drive Argument even when they are. But, perhaps, if you point it out, you'll have less friend....I mean, you'll improve people's ability to think critically about their beliefs.

Monday, January 25, 2010

When to Stop Talking...

So, here's a question, at what point is it considered worthwhile to stop contact?

A few days ago, I received a message from an old friend (with whom I've had little contact in recent years) via a website which read:

WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Press 1 for English. Press 2 to disconnect until you learn to speak English. And remember only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you, JESUS CHRIST And the AMERICAN SOLIDER. One died for your soul, the other for your freedom.*

Okay, so posts on websites aren't going to change the world, and the fact that this was posted on one isn't what bugs me. It's the fact that someone felt that they could insult a large swath of people for no good reason that bothers me.

So, now, there's two parts to this. The first is one which slams people who don't speak English. While there's a lot of overblown rhetoric concerning this, there is at least a basic and valid argument about whether or not people coming to a predominantly English-speaking country should be expected to learn the language. Making that argument in a way which essentially says that they aren't welcome and is rather insulting isn't going to help further such an argument and is just childish, but at least there is a valid argument buried under that mess, and that's not my particular pet issue.

Then you have the second part. Why bring soldiers and Jesus into a message about learning English? Well, as the first part seems concerned with making a claim as to who is welcome in the U.S., it rather follows that the second part is connected, and that the author of the original message probably intended to make it clear that people who don't value the military and aren't Christian - who are in this message being conflated as one in the same - are also not welcome in the author's opinion. If this was not the author's intention, then the author has made a rather stupid mistake by including those comments in this way.

So, I called the person on this. I posted a response asking why she was saying that non-Christians are unwelcome in the U.S. The response from her and others alternated between obfuscation and proclaiming that someone has a right to voice such an opinion.

Well, of course someone has a right to voice such an opinion, I never challenged her right to make a statement, I challenged the statement itself. It is absurd to claim otherwise. I also have the right to voice my opinion, and to challenge the opinions of others. That is the American way, folks.

When I post a blog entry, or send out a mass email, or post something on a web site, or go off on a rant at a party in which I make comments that can be taken as insulting about a religion, I fully expect that I will get called on it. If I am making statements that are factually correct but taken as insulting, then I will try to explain my position without being needlessly insulting (not always easy). On the other hand, if my comments were indeed intended to insult then I should get called on it. I have a right to express my opinion, and everyone else has a right to respond to my expressed opinion. If I dislike their responses, well, then I shouldn't have opened my mouth to begin with.

But the responses that most of these people, including the friend, gave were to essentially say "how dare you challenge her opinion!"

I challenged it because it was ill-informed and bigoted. How dare anyone else try to tell me that I am not allowed to challenge it?

In the end, I simply arranged the website settings to block myself seeing anything further that she posts. If I am going online for recreation, I don't particularly want to get frustrated by other people's prejudices.

But I have to wonder whether that was appropriate. Certainly, comments of this sort have not been unheard of from her in the past, though they were usually significantly less insulting, and she usually at least was willing to accept that someone might disagree. Perhaps she's just having a rough few days and I should cut her some slack.

At the same time, I know that she has been surrounded by people who encourage these sorts of sentiments, and to have someone who challenges them around may help to keep her thinking rather than just accepting. So, cutting even the limited contact that I had is probably not good from that perspective.

At the same time, the fact that the response was not "hey, it didn't occur to me that it could be taken that way", or an attempt to defend her position, or an explanation of what she intended to say, or even an apology for being needlessly insulting, but rather to claim that I was being unreasonable in challenging something rather prejudiced that she said in a public forum...well, that rubs me in all sorts of wrong ways. Again, if I had said something similarly insulting about Christians, then I would well deserve to be called on it, nobody should be exempt from that.

But this will come up again with other people. And so, I find myself wondering, is it better to blow the person off, as I did here, or maintain contact in the hopes of demonstrating through action that their prejudices are ill-founded? I don't know, but I guess I'll stumble through it the next time such a thing occurs.

...and not to get too nitpicky, here, but isn't it sacriligeous to conflate the soldiers of a worldly government with the Messiah? I suspect that, were I still a Christian, I would find that rather unnerving.

* And, just for the record, this is factually incorrect anyway. I don't deny that soldiers have died to defend the U.S. But so have police officers, diplomats, civil rights workers, firefighters, intelligence operatives, and political leaders. The U.S. military (which includes Marines, the Navy, and Airmen, as well as the army's soldiers) is one of many groups that faces dangerous situations to preserve our rights. They are an important one, certainly, but they are not the only one.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Just This White Guy

As Patrick McLean has pointed out, race is weird.

Conversations about race, and even private thoughts about race, are often disturbing or upsetting because it's so often the elephant in the room. It's the thing that everybody wants to talk about and think about, but nobody wants to mention or ponder too deeply. And race doesn't exist in a vacuum, as its own independent thing, but rather is a factor that influences every part of our lives, and so it creates a situation where nearly everything can be discussed racially, and yet most of us choose not to.

What brought this to my mind most recently is something that happened this afternoon. During my lunch break, I visited a friend in the hospital. As I was in the room, another friend of hers entered. This friend was an African-American woman, and she was not someone who I had met before.

As I left the room, I gave my usual goofy farewell, which was to give one of the many political slogans that I had heard shouted about when I was a college student, in this case "fight the power and damn the man!"

As I walked down to my car, I found myself wondering about the origins of this set of slogans. I had always heard them used by rather affluent children of affluent parents who would attend a rally to show their opposition to global capitalism before driving off in the BMW that their parents had given them to scarf down lattes at the local cafe. I had never heard these slogans from anyone who was actually well informed - they tended to engage in a wide variety of political activities and didn't just limit themselves to rallies - nor from anyone who had actually experienced any form of oppression. I had only ever heard them shouted by those who benefited from and engaged in the sort of activity that they claimed to be fighting against, and as such their context within my mind was a fairly silly one and I have found the slogans to be jokes as a result.

But, as I walked to my car, I began to think about the slogans, and I believe that they, or their immediate ancestors, were in use within the civil rights movement, where they had a definite and clear meaning and purpose before they were abducted and mutilated by the goateed coffee-house sorts during the 80s and 90s. And then I found myself wondering if my use of them would have been offensive to my friend's other friend. Had I inadvertently said something racist while trying to crack a joke to amuse my friend?

I then considered that, consistent with a running gag between this friend and I, I had cracked a "yo' mama" joke as I left. And then I considered that these jokes come from common perceptions of inner-city "black speak" and could be considered racist, even though the context in which I learned them was the "people sitting around cracking weird jokes" context.

And then I went into white-guy apoplexy. I didn't feel that I could ask if my comments were offensive or viewed as racist because to do so would be to draw attention to them and possibly point them out if they had been missed before. To ask would also reveal me for the racially insensitive Caucasian guy that I probably am (whether my jokes reveal it or not). At the same time, I couldn't ignore the possibility that they were, and couldn't stop worrying that I had inadvertently offended a stranger and, just as bad, found some racist core within myself.

So, of course, instead of asking, I wrote a blog post. Which, really, just reinforces some of the stereotypes about middle-class white people.

Did the other visitor even notice my comments, or give them any thought? I don't know. Is my worry about them a sign that I am making the ironically racist assumption that someone of African American ancestry would be concerned about me saying these types of things without acknowledging their historic context? Yeah, probably. Am I painting with a broad brush in thinking that every African-American is going to be sensitive to these sorts of jokes? Definitely. Would it be folly of me to not be aware that at least some African-Americans aren't going to think about such jokes? Yeah, probably.

As I got into my car and turned on the radio, a program on "conversations on race and a post-racial America" was on. The discussion panel and many of the callers were echoing my own thoughts - that it is currently impossible to determine what is and what is not truly racist because we don't have any clear idea of what racism actually is, and because race doesn't exist in a vacuum, but rather touches on so many other aspects of our lives.

When someone is denied a job because the hiring manager believes that someone of the applicant's ethnicity is clearly unqualified, that is clearly racism. When someone distrusts someone because of their ancestry rather than their actions, that is clearly racism. When someone cracks jokes that could strike a chord because of the history of racism, but to the mind of the joke teller are actually reflections on the silliness of other people regardless of ethnicity? Well, it's hard, if not impossible, to say if that is racism, because there is no clear definition of what racism is.

Clearly, there was no racist intent. In my mind, race never even entered the equation when I cracked the jokes. But, again, the vernacular of the jokes is rooted in the previous generation's struggle with issues of race, and in that sense there was a racial component whether it was intended or not. Is it going to cause offense? Well, that depends on who hears it and whether or not they care. And whether or not the hearer cares is not entirely dependent on their own ethnicity, but also takes into account many other factors from their upbringing and their current life.

Why can't we come to some sort of agreement on which "fringe" (for complete lack of a better word) behaviors are racist and which are not? Because race and racism are complicated matters.

We frequently hear about "what black/white/Latino/Jewish/Native American people think about race" as if any of these groups is a monolithic whole, which they are not. Martin Luther King and Malcom X both had different ideas of race, and while they had some similar experiences, they also had many that were different. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both southern whites, also had different ideas and experiences of race. No matter what racial group you are speaking of, it is guaranteed that you will find a diversity of opinions and experiences, even if certain types of experiences and opinions are more common than others. When we speak about the experience of any particular group, what we are really doing is speaking of statistical groupings - people in Group X are more likely to have had experiences A and B, and hold opinions C and D, but not everyone within the group is going to have those experiences or hold those opinions.

There's not even a real definition of what race is. When biologists and physical anthropologists talk about race, they are talking about common ancestries producing statistical clusters of genetic traits - but these traits are always in flux and no race is "set", they are simply the current clustering of traits, and genetic drift is always happening*.

When most people talk about race, what they are usually referring to is a mix of physical traits (largely, but not solely, due to genetics) and cultural traits that come from upbringing and general environment. The cultural and biological component are two different things, and the genetic component is again a statistical clustering - people in group X are statistically more likely to have genetic trait Y, but they are not the only group with any genetic trait, nor or members of this group guaranteed to have the genetic trait**. Also, no one group has lived in isolation, and genes have flowed from everywhere to everywhere throughout humanity's history, so the notion of set racial categories based on genetics is laughable.

The cultural traits that we think of when we talk about race are equally problematic. Modes of speech, family structure, musical preferences, etc. that we tend to use to mark race within western culture are all highly fluid and changing even faster than the fast-changing genetic clusters.

If you study anthropology, you'll often hear that race is a social construct. While there are biological aspects to our concept of race, the racial labels that we use were never good for labelling ever-changing phenomenon of either culture or race, and it is these very flawed labels that we tend to use. So, while elements of race may have ties in the physical world, the groupings that fall under our racial labels are basically arbitrary but loosely based both on geographic origin and history.

So, race is a difficult term to define, even loosely. Racism should at least be clear-cut...but of course, it isn't.

If one uses a term that has an origin in some racist aspect of our past, but which is not thought of by the person using the term as having any racial meaning, has that person said something racist? Many people would say that they have not, as the person wasn't thinking of race and had no racist intention when saying whatever they said. Other people would say that yes, it is racist - regardless of the intention of the speaker, the use of a racist term from the past perpetuates the feelings of that time even if only by causing upset to the hearer. Who is correct? Well, it probably depends on the people involved, the term used, and the nature of the conversation. But, at its core, you're looking at a question of whether the intention of the speaker or the experience of the listener should take precedence, and I don't know how that can be resolved.

Is it racist to point to objective facts that are the result of racism past? For example, is it racist to point to the higher levels of poverty in inner-city African-American communities? Well, it depends. If you are noting it as a result of historic racism, it'd be hard to label the observation racist. If you are citing it in an argument for the inferiority of an ethnic group, well, that's pretty definitely racist. If you are noting it as a reality and discussing it as a factor in politics? Well, then it's really going to depend on your exact point, and what assumptions are going into it.

But none of this helps me. Did I say something stupid and racist today? I don't know. Would it be appropriate for me to ask the person (who I don't know)? I haven't a clue. Should I let it bother me? I really have no idea.

I have no idea as to what the answer to most of these questions is. The simple fact of the matter is that, as a caller into the show I was listening to pointed out, we don't have a conversation on race. Some people try to talk about it, but they tend to be drowned out on all sides by people making proclamations based on their own experiences and assumptions without regard to the experience of others.

And in the end, I'm not just an oblivious white guy trying to figure these things out. I'm only this oblivious white guy trying to figure things out, and all I can do is get off of my ass and start trying to be more aware of what's going on around me.

* Consider that there are many racial groups noted in Roman and Greek histories that no longer exist because they have been absorbed into, or through physical isolation given rise to, other racial groups.

** When I was in graduate school, I routinely came across photos taken by ethnographers of people from Australia and sub-Saharan African who had traits such as blond hair and blues eyes. These traits were rare among those populations, but not non-existent. It was information such as this that caused most anthropologists to become suspicious of race as strong biological categories.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Poe's Side Hug

Have you heard of Poe's Law? Poe's Law states that it is often difficult to tell a legitimate crackpot from a parody of that crackpot. Although usually applied to fundamentalist religion, Poe's Law really applies to pretty much anyone who's a bit out of touch with reality. For one example, when people like Pat Robertson are wandering about claiming that Haiti was hit with an earthquake because it's made a literal national pact with Satan, well, it's no wonder that it's difficult for people to decide whether Landover Baptist is real or a parody.

However, people who are critical of religious groups really need to be aware of Poe's Law for the simple reason that not to be can often lead them to accept jokes as reality. For example, take a gander at Christian Side Hug:

Christian Side Hug from The Fathers House on Vimeo.

The song and video are jokes, but I have crossed paths with more than a few people who have held this song up as a clear sign of the "paranoid anti-sex stance" of modern Christians. And yet, the entire thing was a joke by a Christian about what that Christian thought was funny.

In other words, those who were quick to mock were the ones who didn't get the joke.

On the other hand, this did lead to one marginally amusing parody:

The curious thing about Poe's law, to my mind, is that it feeds clearly into an echo chamber, and so those people who are exposed to a Poe effect are likely to further dim their view of the group being parodied due to a perception that the lunatic fringe is larger than it is, despite the fact that the perceived large lunatic fringe of the group is actually at least partially composed of parodists.

So, next time you think that you have proof of the further extremes of some group you're opposed to, do a bit more homework. There's a fair chance that you'll find that humor and not conviction is the base of the perceived outrage.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bigfoot in my Back Yard

Much to the surprise of nobody, Santa Cruz County has a Bigfoot museum. It is located in the small town of Felton, along Highway 9, a short drive from Santa Cruz proper.

I am a member of a group called Skeptics Without a Cause (SWAC), a group that formed from a previous group that became rather more activist than most of the membership wanted. After a good deal of weirdness, SWAC split off from the other group, and exists purely as a place where people of a rather more scientifically-minded nature may get together to talk about whatever comes up and enjoy each other's company. It's modeled loosely on Skeptics in the Pub, but usually meets at restaurants, meaning that even teetotalers such as myself feel welcome*.

Naturally, once we heard about the Bigfoot Discovery Museum, we had to check it out. A visit to the hallowed halls (or hall) of this small log-cabin like building places you in the land of the sasquatch fan. The museum, such as it is, is two rooms in this small building, with a couple of display cases outside and a glass-encased diorama of the ol' skunk ape in its natural habitat...sort of.

An image that has inspired artists since the 3rd century AD, Bigfoot and Child

Forget Skeptics in the Pub, we have Skeptics in the Parking lot, biznitch!

The museum's first room contained a variety of pop-culture versions of Bigfoot, including adventures with Indiana Jones and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

What do Indiana Jones and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have in common? Poorly-drawn adventures with Bigfoot!

Click on the photo and read the sign. Trust me, you really want to.

Bigfoot and popular culture merge on the toy aisle.

The back room was dedicated to the "scholarly" study of Bigfoot. This included a display claiming that, despite the admission of the hoaxer the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film "can not be a hoax!"

Well, that settles it! I'm a believer now!

The owner/curator of the museum sat in the back and held court with all who were interested while we milled about. The bookshelves behind him were a near-library of psuedo-science, and his discussion of local Bigfoot sightings made it clear that he was quite ready to believe anyone who claimed to have seen Bigfoot, he would argue that any blurry video with a bird call soundtrack was video and audio proof of ol' Red Eye's presence.

The king holds court

The museum is owned and operated by Michael Rugg and spouse Paula Yarr. Michael Rugg worked in the tech industry until 2002, when the layoffs that also resulted in my propulsion to graduate school hit him as well. So, as I went off to study anthropology in southern California, he set about building a psuedo-anthropology facility in northern California, or as he put it himself, he "became the Bigfoot guy." When we visited, Mr. Rugg was in the back room, conversing with anyone who wished to speak to him. Some questions were conversational, some challenging, but he addressed them all - maybe not particularly well or thoroughly, but he nonetheless gave it a shot.

The wild Scott in his natural habitat...the Bigfoot Museum

They were skeptics, but now these two wander the country spreading the good word of sasquatch's love

Our group was quite large, and so I was only able to speak with Mr. Rugg for a few minutes, but what I little heard made me like him. I would love to return on a day without a large group and just hear him talk. While much of what he said was...well, let's just say that it wouldn't pass muster with anyone willing to ask a few critical questions (he kept falling back on special pleading when asked a question for which he didn't have a ready answer, and he also engaged in the popular but ridiculous the professional scientists just won't admit to the truth nonsense that betrays an astounding ignorance of how careers in research actually work), his enthusiasm and joy in having built his little piece of the paranormal landscape was obvious. He seems like someone that it would be a pleasure, if sometimes a bit jarring, to be around. I also wondered, after hearing his story, how much of what he said was his true beliefs, and how much of it was the showman in him. Regardless, I enjoyed his company for the brief time that I had the pleasure of it.

While I may find his claims dubious**, I don't find Michael Rugg a laughable figure. Oddly, I think that I admire at least one thing that he represents. In a very real way, I think that what I most liked about the Bigfoot Discovery Museum and Mr. Rugg himself was not it's reveling in the Bigfoot mythology, I can find that sort of thing anywhere, but rather the fact that it proves that someone who might otherwise give up on their luck - being an older man who's just been layed off in an industry that is less than kind to people of experienced age is not easy - can create something unique, delightful, and weird, and make a living off of it. While I may not take Bigfoot seriously, I do think that Mr. Rugg is someone who deserves at least a bit of respect for what he did, despite it's apparent impracticality. It's a real, if off-kilter, take on the American dream. That is very cool.

*While, yes, non-drinkers such as myself are welcome at most Skeptics in the Pub events, the fact of the matter is that we usually find ourselves quickly getting sidelined from the rest of the group, and feeling a bit unwelcome (being the only non-drinker in a group of people drinking pretty much always results in you getting a alienated from the group as the drinking goes on, though the drinkers tend to not accept that this is the case when you talk with them about it after the fact). This group, on the other hand, has always been very welcoming.

**And let's face it, I take many much more popular claims much less seriously.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Personal Geography

I was driving south on I-5, one of the four major north-south highways that cross California, and began to realize that I past scarcely a freeway exit without some idea of what I would find were I to turn off of the freeway and head either east or west. This is somewhat unusual, California is a huge state and it is rare for someone to have a working knowledge of the street-level geography of more than a few parts of it* due to its sheer size. But I have a unique job, and I have had to travel down more of California's backroads, into more of this state's obscure towns, and out to more isolated locations than anyone I know who is not a professional colleague.

This is sometimes a pain, seven months in the oil fields is longer than anyone should be forced to take, but most of the time it's a pleasure. When I drive with Kaylia I take great delight in telling her about my adventures down that road, up that hill, or around that corner. That I can usually add a historic anecdote ("Joaquin Murieta was supposedly killed there, but there may never have actually been a Joaquin Murieta", "arguing couples used to be locked up in stocks in the town square over there, for public humiliation", or "there's a rock art cave up that way that served the local native peoples as a sacred site, before it was covered over by graffitti from stage-coach passengers in the 1860s") makes it more fun for me, and Kaylia is kind enough not to tell me to stop yapping and keep my eyes on the road.

Even when I drive alone, there is great joy for me in recounting my relationship to my surroundings. Thinking about the view from a given mountaintop, or the stories that my field crew was telling as we drove up a particular road, or the cool site that we found where we least expected it within an otherwise unremarkable canyon, all of this gives me a greater appreciation for my home state and makes even the distant parts of it feel like home.

When I think about the abandoned mercury mine and the goast town that surrounds it, or the reservoir with the ominous name of Hell Hole, or the small mountain town named Priest Valley that would be a fine setting for a horror film, I am not thinking of places that I have heard of or seen photos of, or even just passed through once. I am thinking of places where I have spent time and come to know.

I am very lucky. I have an intimate immediate knowledge of much of California from Calistoga south to Los Angeles (and I am working my way farther north still), and I am comfortable enough in it that even when I have not yet been to a particular location, I have little fear of wandering off the beaten path to see what I might find. This vast state is like my own giant garden, and I love it.

*In some places, ignorance of even large-scale geography is the norm. For example, the vast majority of the people I know from Los Angeles have no clue as to where cities located north of Santa Barbara sit - I have routinely been informed that Monterey is a suburb of San Francisco and that Sacramento is a small town in the S.F. Bay Area, for example - and as it is lacking in major cities, many Californians never venture into the far northern parts of the state except to pass through them on the way to Oregon.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How Not to Make People Aware

So, if you are a member of a social networking site, then there is a fair chance that you have seen the women on your "friends" list posting a color for their status over the last week.

Supposedly, this was a campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer. I say supposedly because, as is so often the case, the notion that this is intended to increase breast cancer awareness is probably a post-hoc explanation of the rather weird activity. It looks like this actually began as a chain letter/thing-to-do-while-bored-on-the-internet, and had nothing to do with breast cancer awareness...

...which shouldn't surprise anyone as this is a lousy way to try to raise awareness of anything. For those who weren't included on emails notifying them of this particular activity, it just appeared that our friends were using colors as non-sequitor status updates. This was mildly amusing when we discovered what the colors signified, but not something that made us think about breast cancer or much of anything else.

So, how was this to raise awareness for breast cancer? When I have aksed this, the response I keep being given is that posting the bra color gets people to think about breasts, which gets them to think about breast cancer.

Okay, first off, if you happen to be one of the majority of people who didn't know what this was all about while it was going on (remember, 50% of the population is male and wasn't included, and a large portion of women weren't either, meaning the majority of people, even the majority of Facebook users, weren't privy to what was going on), then the who "post a color" thing was just plain nonsensical and didn't make us think of either breasts or cancer, much less both at the same time.

Secondly, if thinking about breasts is all that is necessary to raise awareness of breast cancer, then it follows that Playboy magazine is at the forefront of the fight against breast cancer. Don't buy that argument in favor of Hugh Hefner's empire? Neither do I.

Third, even if you get people to think about breast cancer, so what? If you are not providing useful information on prevention or detection, or at least telling people that such information exists and that they should ask their health care provider to help them out, then you are failing. You would be hard-pressed to find a person in the developed world who has not heard of breast cancer, so mentioning that it exists is not enough if you want to actually make any sort of impact - it's rather like the people I knew in college who thought that they were politically active because they sat around and talked about politics, but never actually voted.

Hell, if getting people to think of the existence of breast cancer is all that is necessary to make an impact, then I urge everyone reading this to go to the nearest shopping mall and yell the words "breast cancer" as loudly as you can. You are guaranteed to be at least as effective in raising awareness as the Facebook bra color gambit.

So, contrary to what the spokesperson for the Susan G. Komen foundation had to say*, this probably didn't raise people's awarenss of anything other than how easy it is to get people to do things on the internet.

But, hey, why listen to me. If you'd rather, here's another person on the subject.

*But note that she followed up her statements by urging people to become educated about breast cancer - in other words, even a person saying that this was good for raising awareness felt it necessary to actually add something to it to make it somehow actually relate to the subject that it is allegedly about. Hmmmm...

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ways to Help Out In a Disaster Area

As most of you know, Haiti was hit this morning by a large earthquake which has caused massive damage. Seeing as how I have nothing in the way of medical or engineering knowledge to volunteer, it seemed best that I make a donation to someone who does, in this case, Doctors Without Borders - and what is great is that any money not used in Haiti will be put to good use in another part of the world where it is desperately needed.

if you would like to do the same, here's a handy li'l button:

Support Doctors Without Borders in Haiti

If you'd like to help out in some other way, then follow this link.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Tools and Evolution

In a previous entry, I discussed the problems with appealing to "humanity's natural state", and I briefly touched on what I want to get into in a little more detail here - the fact that tools are part of humanity's evolutionary package.

One common variant of the Caveman Fallacy is to point to elements of the human body and claim that they are proof that humans should not be engaging in certain activities (usually involving the eating of certain items) because, lacking tools, we are lacking in the biology necessary to do the task or digest the food.

Claims such as this should not be dismissed out of hand. Humans are in the habit of doing all manner of things that are physically hard on us and that we would likely be better off not doing. However, these claims should not be seen as pursuasive without a good deal of thought either.

The basic problem is that the claim that humans should not engage in an activity because the human body is not built for that activity is based on a basic misconception about the role of technology in human evolution. As stated int he previous entry, our ancestors had tools well before we were anatomically modern humans. Indeed, many animals, especially some of our fellow primates, can be seen using tools in their environments. As out ancestor's brains became more complex, so did their tools, and so did their ability to adapt to the environment. By the time anatomically modenr humans arrived on the scene, we had evolved to a creature for whom tools were necessary extensions of the body - indeed, the ability to make, use, and rely on tools is physically ingrained into our brains.

The tools used for food production - grinding implements, cutting tools, and fire - are especially important. For the human brain to develop requires a huge amount of calories, and while most of us living in North America and Europe can take a steady supply of food for granted, our ancestors weren't so lucky. Over the evolutionary path that led to humans, the development of these food production tools allowed our ancestors to not only make use of a wide variety of plant and animal foods, but to process these foods in such a way as to improve the ability of each ounce to yield nutrition in order provide out infants and adolesecents with the necessary fuel to feed their growing brains and provide adults with the calories that they needed to store up for lean times. By the time the Holocene dawned, some 10,000 years ago, eating an omnivorous diet was as much a part of being Homo sapien as walking upright and using language (another tool, when you think about it).

When someone tells you that humans should not be doing something because we are not physically built for it, you should stop and consider what they are saying. They may have a point. However, if our ancestors developed tools for it, then it is part of our evolutionary kit, and our ability to fashion the tool means that we are, in fact, built for the activity.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Time as an Alt-Med Salesman

I moved to Santa Barbara in the spring of 2002 in order to attend graduate school at UC Santa Barbara. I had a severance package from my previous job, and anticipated having to take some loans, but I needed more money to fund grad school. Had I been a PhD student, I could have counted on Teaching Assistantships and Research Assistanceships to cover my bills, but as a Masters student, I had no such luck (I did eventually become a TA, thankfully, but that is another rather bizarre story). So, I needed to find a job.

I did the usual, canvassed places putting in resumes, signed up with temp agencies, and put my resume up on every job search website I could find. Eventually, I was asked to interview for a store manager position at a company called L'Occitane. L'Occitane, for those who don't know, is a company that markets rather expensive soaps, incense, and pretty much everything else to make your home smell like a perfume factory exploded.

They also sold various aromatherapy supplies, making me a small cog in the machine that is the alt-med industry.

I got the job, though I was made the assistant manager rather than manager due to my grad school requirements, and went through a rather surreal three months (at which time I left due to what could euphemistically be referred to as "ethical differences" - I didn't think people should be screwed over, my bosses disagreed). I immediately began reading up on the products that the company sold. Most of what I read was the companies marketing materials (after all, soap is soap and incense is incense, and if people want to spend too much on it, that's their business). However, on those products that made health claims, such as the aromatherapy products, some of the skin screams, and a few other odds and ends, I looked for information from actual doctors and researchers to see if the claims made for some of the products were actually plausible.

In the case of the moisturizing hand creams, the claims made by the company were clearly exaggerated, but at least based on reality. For the aromatherapy products...

Well, let's talk a bit about aromatherapy. It is a practice that involves using aromatic compounds from plants (primarily what are referred to as essential oils, but not limited strictly to them) in order to provide some medical effect. Usually the fumes from the oil are inhaled (hence "aromatherapy"), but they may also be applied to the skin or to an injury.

Some of these things work - chemicals within some plants will break down mucus when inhaled as fumes thus alleviating congestion, and other plant compounds contain toxins that kill bacteria and might stave off infection if applied directly to a wound, for example - but, as with so many of these types of things, most of them don't. And even with those things that do work, the claims of their efficaciousness is often terribly exaggerated. So, one is stuck in a weird position of attempting to figure out what does and what doesn't work.

L'Occitane and our regional manager did something that was both clever and weasel-like. They "suggested" that the store staff refer to medical claims - always in vague or nonsensical ways ("this oil helps to detox the liver"...yes, people who actually understand human anatomy may start screaming now), but the official marketing material touted these benefits in ways that made it sound like they were making medical claims but actually only made direct claims about subjective conditions where it could not be said whether or not the use of aromatherapy actually helped. They also relied heavily on claims about the antiquity of aromatherapy, claiming that this proved that it was effective.

Okay, a quick deal on that last point. It's basically just a variation on the Caveman Fallacy, a claim that "our ancestors did it, therefore it must be best!" In this particular case, the materials we had at the store all claimed that aromatherapy must be 100% effective in all cases because it's been used ever since the Medieval Period!

Yeah, that's right, according to L'Occitane's marketing material, we were supposed to take all aromatherapy claims seriously because they were taken seriously by people who thought that slitting open veins was a great way to cure a headache*. Ugh...

The other claims made generally referred to the improvement of mood, or concentration, or something else along those lines. They were phrased in a way as to suggest (though never outright claim) that these products would be effective in people with emotional symptoms and needing medications because of underlying medical problems. Okay, here's the deal, assuming that you are not suffering from a particularly nasty neurological disorder, the reality is that mood and concentration and the like are based largely on your state of mind. If you are actively doing something to try to improve your state of mind, then odds are you will be successful because acting with the intention is probably sufficient. So, it wasn't the essential oils or anything else that did it, it is the fact that you acted to benefit yourself emotionally. So, if you want to be aromatic plant stuff for that purpose, knock yourself out. But you don't have to spend money if you don't want to. You could do any number of things to get the same results.

We at the store were encouraged by our regional manager to say things such as "this essential oil helps to detox your body" (actually, your body removes toxins on its own through your normal respiratory and metabolic processes - if you actually need a toxin removed, you are probably lying unconscious or in pain in an ICU somewhere and not buying herbs or essential oils in a shop), or "this oil is popular in Europe" (well, so was Fascism**), or, my favorite, "this product has been proven in clinical trials" (no joke, the "clinical trials" involved a small group of women who were given free samples and asked leading questions by a company employee, these were clinical trials in precisely the same way that I am the Emperor of Spain).

So, what's an honest man to do?

Well, I did something that would have annoyed the regional manager had she ever been there to see it. People would come in, having been sent by their psychic***, and would say something like "I was told to buy lavender oil, because lavender helps you relax****"

I would respond with a simple question: "Do you like the smell of lavender?"

If they said "yes", then I would reply that lavender might help them relax and sell them what they were asking for. If they said "no" then I would say "if you don't like the smell of lavender, do you think it'll actually be relaxing to have it around? What scents do you like?" and we would begin finding something that they might actually enjoy having around (and which might, therefore, help them to relax).

And I never, NEVER claimed that the oils did anything medical or magical. When anyone would ask me about it, I would be honest and say that when I looked at the actually data, I was generally unimpressed, and that those plant compounds that are effective tend to get used by pharmaceutical companies making medications to do what the plant oils are claimed to do (yep, big pharma is perfectly happy to use natural compounds to get the desired medical - or, unfortunately, increasingly marketing - results).

The oils could be nice, they had a pleasant aroma, after all. But whenever anyone would ask me to recommend an oil for a medical condition, I always told them to talk with their doctor, as their doctor would be far more qualified to deal with medical issues than an underpaid soap shop employee.

*Amusingly, I also often meet people who are members of neo-pagan religions who claim that aromatherapy must work because of it's connection to Medieval Europe. This seems odd, as the people who they are citing as wise authorities are the same people who thought that burning non-Christians in their homes was a damn fine way to spend a Saturday night.

**Thank you, Mark Crislop

***no joke, most of the people who came in for aromatherapy products told me that they had been referred to us by a psychic, while most of the people who came in for skin scream told me that they had been sent by their plastic surgeon. Ahhh, southern California...

****Depending on which aromatherapist you ask (and I asked quite a few during this odd period in my life), you may be told that lavender helps you relax, or that it helps you to be more alert and ready to act. Two, mutually exclusive reactions, really, so which one is it?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sources of Information for the Archaeologist

So, this entry is a bit different. It's an excerpt from the second chapter of my Masters Thesis. I had to re-read this for a paper that I am writing (which should be published this coming year), and I thought that this excerpt might be interesting for my blog readers. It details the sources of information that archaeologists often end up working with, and is not written in my usual bloggy style, but like the research document that it is from.

I wrote about archaeological and ethnohistoric research on the Chumash peoples of the Santa Barbara Channel region, and so the sources discussed are specific to them, but similar sources are used by archaeologists the world over, so this may give you a bit of insight into how we work.

So, I hope you find it interesting. If not, it may replaced Sominex as your sleep aide of choice.


Sources of Information

Although they have been fairly intensively studied by anthropologists throughout the 20th century, sources for information regarding Chumash peoples and their predecessors are somewhat limited, and often contradictory in the information offered. A brief discussion of the sources of data concerning the Chumash is presented here so that the reader may be better able to critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of the background scholarship upon which this research is necessarily based.

Salvage Ethnography
Much of the information available regarding Chumash religion, kinship, social and political organization, craft methods, myth, and folklore comes from the notes of salvage ethnographers, primarily J. P. Harrington. To a lesser extent, the notes of early archaeologists who gathered ethnographic data has proven valuable. Such archaeologists include Bowers, Cessac, and Yates (Benson 1997; Blackburn 1975: 55-62; Hudson et al. 1977a; Hudson et al. 1977b; Johnson 1988a: 11-22). These notes are absolutely vital to any attempt to understand Chumash religion and cosmology, and for making sense of some patterns visible in the archaeology of the region.

However, these sources of information are not without their problems. First, this information was compiled well after the traditional Chumash lifeways had come to an end. The idiosyncrasies of human memory as well as the fact that the stories were likely to become confused and convoluted when transmitted between individuals and through generations would have hampered the recovery of basic facts about the lives of the traditional Chumash. As Horne (1981: 11) puts it – “…most of the recent studies based on the Harrington notes ignore or minimize the implications of the assumptions about cultural stability which are inherent in any use of upstreaming technique to reconstruct pre-contact culture…Aspects of Chumash life and culture which are inferred from the oral narratives may actually reflect a system in flux.”

To illustrate the impact that European contact may have had, both directly and indirectly, on native peoples, it is useful to compare the information collected by Californian salvage ethnographers to that of ethnographers who documented the traditional cultures of Native Australians. Because Australia was colonized more recently, it is easier to see from written records that the lifeways and traditions recorded by Australian ethnographers and other early anthropologists were influenced as much by institutions and technology brought to the continent by Europeans as by unrelated and indirectly related changes within the various native cultures (P. Clarke 1991; Head 1994; Head and Fullagar 1997: 418; Michaels 1985: 508; Smith 1999: 199).

Additionally, because much of the ethnographic record was created through the work of Harrington, the problem of Harrington himself must be addressed. Horne (1981: 10) describes Harrington in this way: “His data collecting was assiduous, wide-ranging, and, because of the salvage situation, unselective. He seems to have been genuinely incapable of systematically evaluating the reliability of his informants.” Similar reservations are noted by Johnson (1988a: 14-15) and Blackburn (1975: 7). Nonetheless, Harrington collected a vast amount of information that would have been otherwise lost. As a result, as imperfect as it may be, Harrington’s work provides some valuable insights into prehistoric Chumash culture.

Ethnohistoric Records

Ethnohistoric records are those records created by Spanish colonists and early Anglo settlers describing the protohistoric and historic Chumash. These records include the mission birth, baptismal, marriage, and death registers; diaries kept by priests, soldiers, explorers, and settlers; answer sheets from questionnaires sent to the colonies by the Spanish government; and other miscellaneous items such as newspaper articles or other early writings.

Of primary importance are the records kept by the early Spanish explorers and the Spanish priests at the missions. These have provided information regarding native social, ritual, and economic activities at the time of contact (C. King 1976; Gheiger and Meighan 1976), relationships between aboriginal corporate groups based on marriage ties (Johnson 1988a), population trends within and outside the missions (Cook 1976; Jackson 1987, 1990; Johnson 1999; Walker and Johnson 1994), rates at which native Californians may have chosen to enter the missions (keep in mind that early missionization was largely voluntary[Cooke 1976: 58, 73-74]) (Larson et. al 1994), and the ability of missions to care for neophytes or else send them back to their native villages (Coombs and Plog 1977). For the Santa Barbara Channel, probably the best recent synthesis of ethnohistoric information, especially as concerns inter-village marriage ties, is Johnson’s dissertation (1988a).

However, these records are also prone to their own set of problems. Political and economic conflicts of interest between the military and religious authorities, as well as between the colonists and their opponents, often colored the way that events were recorded, resulting in distortions, inconsistencies, questionable “shifting-of-focus” to justify activities, and perhaps outright lies (Cook 1976: 96-98; 123-134). The outlook, interests, biases, experiences, and goals of observers working to colonize California also impacted what was recorded and how it was described (see the responses to the questionnaires sent out to the missions by the Spanish government in Geiger and Meighan [1976] for examples).

Even the more objective records, such as those for baptisms, deaths and marriages, are not without problems. Johnson (1988b) lists the following as being of concern as regards these records: Omissions, misunderstandings, and other clerical errors; inconsistent renderings of the names of people and villages; changes in names after baptism; confusion on the part of the priests regarding the identity of the individual being written about; Spanish patrilineal bias which caused some confusion in geographic origins because the Chumash tended towards matrilocality, except for chiefs, who tended towards patrilocality (Johnson 1988a: 153-161); and Chumash taboos on providing personal names to strangers.

An additional issue may be mentioned with regard to the desire to project information gleaned from ethnohistory into the past. As noted above, this is essentially a “upstreaming” practice, and conclusions based on this data may not accurately describe many aspects of the lives of the people of the Santa Barbara Channel region prior to the arrival of the Spanish because of social changes resulting from climatic change (Larson et al. 1994) or the possibility of disease-driven depopulations and internecine warfare (Erlandson and Bartoy 1995; Preston 2004).

Even prior to the appearance of the Spanish in California, there is the possibility that Old World diseases may have moved along trade routes and decreased populations (Erlandson and Bartoy 1995; Preston 2004), which may have, in turn, increased internecine warfare and political instability. This possibility is suggested by Engelhardt’s description of internecine warfare caused by the outbreak of contagious disease (Engelhardt 1932, cited in Johnson 1988a: 124-125; 2006), although Cook [1976: 28-29] disagreed with such conclusions. While there is historic evidence that the spread of diseases such as smallpox was likely to have been patchy and the above-cited researchers may be overstating the likelihood of prehistoric disease pandemics (Cook 1976: 273; Walker and Johnson 1994: 118), the fact that disease epidemics appear to have occasionally moved rapidly and violently through less-dense (and presumably somewhat more immune) populations in California during the mid-to-late 19th century (Cook 1976: 14-18) indicates that the possibility of the early spread of such diseases existed. That being said, population reconstructions by Walker and Johnson (1994) indicate a society with a normal population period, suggesting that if earlier pandemics had occurred, the population had rebounded.

Regardless of these problems, ethnographic and ethnohistoric records also provide a treasure-house of data regarding marriage and settlement patterns, Chumash ceremonial and economic life, as well as the ways in which the Spanish and the Californians interacted. These records are extremely valuable not only to Californian archaeologists, but also to the general study of culture contact and resulting culture change.

Archaeology and Physical Anthropology
The primary benefits of archaeology are that it allows a region or culture to be studied over a long period of time. Furthermore, changes in material culture, settlement patterns, and other physical manifestations of behavior indicate changes in the lifeways of the people using the items being studied. Archaeologists are able to study certain aspects of the lives of past peoples, although with varying precision that is dependent upon preservation biases, types of behaviors being studied, and their exact relationship to the material remains being examined.

Physical anthropology can be used to study a much narrower range of topics, but the links between the research questions and the human remains studied by the physical anthropologist are typically much stronger and less prone to interpretation errors. These would include chemical analysis of bone to study diet (Walker and Deniro 1986), bone trauma as evidence of violence (L. King 1982: 147-187; Walker 1989), and bone pathologies as evidence of stresses (Lambert 2004).

Although archaeology can reveal important patterns, it also has problems that should be kept in mind. A very serious issue within California in general, and in the Santa Barbara Channel mainland and Santa Ynez Valley in particular, is that taphonomic processes – both natural and anthropogenic – can alter the archaeological record. Bioturbation, hydrologic activity, soil movement and removal due to land use and development, and other forces that disturb soils and sediments can cause the movement of cultural materials, deflation of site deposits, and general destruction of stratigraphic associations between materials within an archaeological site. Additionally, differential real-estate development may mislead the unwary researcher into believing that variability in settlement densities and patterns exist when what truly are being observed are differences in site destruction and visibility caused by construction.

Additionally, some materials are more likely to be preserved than others. Bone, chert, and shell tend to preserve in Southern California, while basketry, hides, cloth, and seeds typically do not. As a result, the importance of animal foods and stone tools tends to be exaggerated in the archaeological record. In a study such as this, where the goods imported into sites tended to have durable remains while those exported may not, this can create the illusion that there existed an exchange imbalance or tributary relationship between sites where a balanced exchange relationship actually existed.

Additionally, the research interests, goals, and methods of each individual researcher or research group will impact the types of information recovered and the ability of subsequent researchers to compare their work with that of others for inter-site comparisons and synthetic research. Problems of this sort can include a disinterest in a type of material that is important to other researchers. Harrison (1965), for example, did not even bother sorting faunal remains from his excavations at the coastal village of Mikiw (SBA-77), and Rogers (1929) focused so much on burials, as was the common practice at the time, that important information from middens was often only mentioned in passing. Even the equipment used has an impact, as can be shown by the differences in data generated by excavations performed prior to the 1970s (such as those described by Bowers [Benson 1997], Rogers [1929], Baumhoff [1976], and McRae [1999]) and those performed now.

Also, there exists no standard for reporting the types of data generated. So, to use faunal remains as an example, one researcher may report only bone counts (Hildebrandt 2004), another only weights (Colten at al. 1995), and the types of fauna represented may or may not be reported (Colten et al. [1995], for example, did not report the types of shell found at SBA-2464). This causes further confusion when inter-site comparisons are attempted.

There exists also a variant of the “boundary error” in Santa Barbara archaeology. It is easy to find similarities that seem important if one only examines a small number of sites or sites within a limited geographic zone. As long as the phenomenon being examined was limited to or centered on the geographic zone being examined, this is not a problem. However, when one attempts to extrapolate into other regions or zones, this can become a problem. For example, while locating the causes of complexity on the islands and coast may be useful in discussing complexity in these areas, it is open to debate how such models describe social complexity in inland areas.

Finally, and of special importance here, is the fact that often the early work in the Santa Ynez Valley was based on the assumption that all sites that were visible were roughly contemporaneous, dating to the Late Period. The most egregious example of this comes from Tainter (1975), who devised village territories based on the locations of undated sites. While the assumptions that led to his conclusion regarding site contemporaneity are understandable and seem reasonable, the conclusion itself is simply wrong (Glassow 1979; 2005).

While each of the research avenues has problems, each nonetheless provides some advantage that the others lack. Reliance on any one source will provide a picture of Chumash culture and life that is incomplete at best, deeply flawed or just plain wrong at worst. However, taken together and used critically and judiciously, they allow for strong research programs to be developed. Each line of evidence can suggest hypotheses that might be examined with evidence from the other approaches.

Works Cited
Baumhoff, M. A.
1976 Untitled – Description of 1950 Excavations at SBA-477 and 485 submitted to the Forest Service in 1976. Copy on file at the Central Coast Information Center, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Benson, Arlene
1997 The Noontide Sun: The Field Journals of the Reverend Stephen Bowers, Pioneer California Archaeologist. Ballena Press. Menlo Park, CA.

Blackburn, Thomas C.
1975 December’s Child – A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives Collected by J. P. Harrington. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Clarke, Phillip A.
1991 Adelaide as an Aboriginal Landscape. Aboriginal History 15: 54-72.

Colten, Riger H., Joyce L. Gerber, Karen Osland
1995 Results of Archaeological Eligibility Testing at SBA-2464, Lake Cachuma, Santa Barbara County, California. Copy on file at the Central Coast Information Center.

Cook, Sherburne F.
1976 The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization. University of California Press, Los Angeles.

Coombs, Gary and Fred Plog
1977 The Conversion of the Chumash Indians: An Ecological Interpretation,Human Ecology 5(4):309-321.

Engelhardt, Zephryn
1932 Mission Santa Inés: Virgen y Martir. Santa Barbara: Mission Santa Barbara.

Erlandson, Jon M. and Kevin Bartoy
1995 Cabrillo, the Chumash, and Old World Diseases. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 17(2): 153-173.

Geiger, Maynard and Clement W. Meighan
1976 As the Padres Saw Them – California Indian Life and Customs as
Reported by the Franciscan Missionaries 1813-1815. Santa Barbara Mission Archive Library, Santa Barbara.

Glassow, Michael A.
1979 An Evaluation of Models of Inezeño Chumash Subsistence and Economics. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 1(1): 155-161.

Harrison, William M.
1965 Mikiw: A Coastal Chumash Village. Archaeological Survey Annual Report, University of California, Los Angeles. 7: 91-178.

Head, Lesley
1994 Landscapes Socialized by Fire: Post-Contact Changes in Aboriginal Fire Use in Northern Australia, and Implications for Prehistory. Archaeology in Oceania 29: 172-81.

Head, Lesley and Richard Fullagar
1997 Hunter-Gatherer Archaeology and Pastoral Contact: Perspectives from the Northwest Northern Territory, Australia. World Archaeology 28: 418-428

Horne, Stephen P.
1981 The Inland Chumash: Ethnography, Ethnohistory, and Archaeology. PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Hudson, Travis, Thomas Blackburn, Rosario Curletti, and Janice Timbrook
1977a The Eye of the Flute: Chumash Traditional History and Ritual as Told by Fernando Librado Kitsepawit to John P. Harrington. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara, CA.

Hudson, Travis, Janice Timbrook, and Melissa Rempe
1977b Tomol: Chumash Watercraft as Described in the Ethnographic Notes of John. P. Harrington. Ballena Press/Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Santa Barbara, CA.

Jackson, Robert H.
1987 Patterns of Demographic Change in the Missions of Central Alta California. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 9(2): 251-272.

1990 The Population of the Santa Barbara Channel Missions (Alta California), 1813-1832. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 12(2): 268-274.

Johnson, John R.
1988a Chumash Social Organization: An Ethnohistoric Perspective. PhD Dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.

1988b Mission Registers as Anthropological Questionaires: Understanding Limitations of the Data. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 12(2): 9-30.

1999 Chumash population History. In Cultural Affiliation and Lineal Descent of Chumash Peoples. Edited by Sally MacLendon and John R. Johnson. Report prepared for the Archaeology and ethnography Program, National Park Service. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara.

2006 Discussant, Interior and Interface II. Symposium at 40th annual meeting of the Society of Californian Archaeology. Sacramento, CA.

King, Chester
1976 Chumash Inter-Village Economic Exchange. In Native Californians: A Theoretical Retrospective. Edited by Lowell John Bean and Thomas C. Blackburn. Ballena Press, Menlo Park, CA. Pp. 289-318

King, Linda Barbey
1982 Medea Creek Cemetery: Late Inland Chumash Patterns of Social Organization, Exchange, and Warfare. PhD Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.

Lambert, Patricia
2004 War and Peace in the Western Front: A Study of Violent Conflict and its Correlates in Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Societies of Coastal Southern California. PhD dissertation, UCSB.

Larson, Daniel O. John R. Johnson and John C. Michaelson
1994 Missionization Among the Coastal Chumash of Central California: A Study in Risk Minimization Strategies. American Anthropologist 96: 263-299.

McRae, Kaylee Stallings
1999 Soxtonokmu’ (CA-SBa-167): An Analysis of Artifacts and Economic Patterns From a Late Period Chumash Village in the Santa Ynez Valley. MA thesis, University of Texas, San Antonio.

Michaels, Eric
1985 Constraints on Knowledge in and Economy of Oral Information. Current Anthropology 26: 505-510.

Preston, William
2004 Serpent in Eden: Dispersal of Foreign Diseases into Pre-Mission California. In Prehistoric California: Archaeology and the Myth of Paradise. Edited by L. Mark Raab and Terry L. Jones. The University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City: 184-202.

Rogers, David Banks
1929 Prehistoric Man of the Santa Barbara Coast. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara.

Smith, Claire
1998 Ancestors, Place and People: Social Landscapes in Aboriginal Australia. In The Archaeology and Anthropology of Landscape, edited by Peter Ucko and Robert Layton. Routledge, New York: 189-218.

Tainter, Joe
1975 Hunter-Gatherer Territorial Organization in the Santa Ynez Valley. Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly. 11(2): 27-40.

Walker, Phillip L.
1989 Cranial Injuries as Evidence of Violence in Prehistoric Southern California. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 80: 313-323.

Walker, Phillip L. and Michael J. Deniro
1986 Stable Nitrogen and Carbon Isotope Ratios in Bone Collagen as Indices of Prehistoric Dietary Dependence on Marine and Terrestrial Resources in Southern California. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 71: 51-61.

Walker, Phillip L. and John R. Johnson
1994 The Decline of the Chumash Indian Population. In the Wake of Contact: Biological Responses to Conquest. Wiley-Liss, Inc. New York: 109-120.