The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ominous Roadsigns: London Edition

So, as some of you are aware, one of my hobbies is collecting photographs of ominous road signs. I recently was in London, a trip that I will probably describe in a few future entries, and while there, I was astounded by the sheer volume of ominous road signs. So, here we go:

I'm not sure why this road is named as it is, but I'm guessing it has to do with a wharf breaking...

Not ominous from a flavor standpoint...but very ominous from a halitosis standpoint.

Then there's this pair:

So, a bit of background. The term "cheap" comes from a word that meant "traffic, bargain, a purchase", and is the root of the modern word "cheap" (meaning poor quality, stemming from another modern usage meaning low-cost), as well as the root of the modern word "shop". Still, given the modern usage of the word, it seems like a strange name for a street. And "The Ward of Cheap" sounds like a euphemism for Wal-Mart.

...and then there's this, an argument in favor of why a location should never be named for the dominant object found in said location:

On the other hand, it is a wonderful counterpart to Brown Material Road.

....And now, these aren't ominous road signs. But they are amusing and/or surprising business and organization names. Unlike the amusing business names in Japan, these were written by someone with a command of the language. Some of them make sense given their location (such as the pub located near a major Freemason's hall, or the church that was once located in a Jewish neighborhood), while others are just clever names:

I think that this one got grandfathered-in past the appropriateness police.

Soon, on Vixen Video DVD, Jenna Jameson meets the Honest Sausage!

Contrary to what you may think, this pub is really not significant.

Not content to merely control the world, the Freemasons also want to control your drinks!

And in case you think I'm being alarmist, here's more proof of the grand, world-wide alcohol conspiracy:

Quick, someone call Mr. Icke!

This was advertising a play about Enron, but it was still odd to be walking down the street in London and see a large, lit-up Enron sign.

I tried checking out, but they wouldn't let me leave.

And, the best name ever for an eatery...or, wait, no that's not a very good name at all:

Really, there's only one type of slug worth celebrating:

...Just sayin'

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I have survived. Six weeks ago, I stated that I had been charged with completing a rather voluminous report in six weeks (during a week and a half of which I would be out of the country and unable to work on it). I was lucky in that my co-worker Kelly was also assigned, and between the two of us, we wrangled a crew of thirteen people who were spread all over California, and managed to produce the report on time.

All of the crew working on this were fantastic. Without the help of the GIS folks who work for my company, our maps and graphics would not have been produced on time or nearly as well. The lab techs all pitched in to help create cleaned-up and readable site records (nearly 600 of them, in the end). And between my boss and I, we had the text of the report hammered out within a few days. Even Kaylia, being sick of me being gone all the time, spent time in the office with me over the weekend, printing out pages for the report.

We had many late night putting it together, especially towards the end. Wednesday night, I was at the office until midnight. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I was here until 1 AM, and the report wasn't complete until 2 am Sunday night/Monday morning.

In the end, the report contained 8,000 pages of text. It took up 18 binders. Yesterday, I drove it to Chowchilla (a town in the eastern portion of California's Central Valley) to drop it off with my boss.

This was the largest project that I had ever been involved in. The total project area covered 200 square miles, and while we only had access to a portion of that, we were responsible for accounting for all of it in some manner. It took nearly seven months of field work, and the sheer number of sites found resulted in a management challenge that proved even more difficult because, due to another large project taking priority, we had mostly green employees in the field, and were having to teach them fieldwork while simultaneously trying to finish the project.

Add to that the fact that our client, a very large company, had poor internal comunication, and even poorer comunication with their various contractors, and you have a situation in which the archaeologists were working hard to finish the project, while various individuals within the client organization were only ever getting part of the picture (and therefore thoroughly confused as to what we were doing, despite our best efforts). The client kept adding new paperwork and meetings to our schedule while simultaneously complaining that we weren't moving fast enough. And, of course, there were the frequently insinuated threats directed at me and Kelly.

Anyway, suffice to say, it was a struggle.

But, the draft report is off. Mind you, that is not to say that we are out of this yet. We sent the draft report to the client, but we still have to assemble a copy for the government agency that will be reviewing it. Once that is done, we wait for agency comments (and there will be some), and then we have to revise.

But, for the moment, I am done with a huge task.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Strip Clubs

If there is one thing that having friends getting married (and therefore having bachelor parties) has taught me, it is that I loathe strip clubs.

For some reason, this surprises people. "What, a man hates strip clubs?"

Yes, this one does.

"He must be some sort of religiosu zealot!"

Nope, I'm an atheist. I am not going to moralize about the evils of such places. I am not going to demean the strippers themselves (I have met many rather accomplished women who have, at some point, worked as strippers). Nor am I going to point to the owners of the establishments and yell "sleaze merchant" - I haven't a clue as to who any of these people are or why they run these businesses as opposed to some other, so any argument I make about them will be steeped in ignorance.

"He must be a left-winger who hates them on social/political grounds!"

I imagine that most people are prepared to hear an argument about the commodification of women and marketing of female sexuality. This, in turn, might cause somebody to react by arguing that the strip club can be re-claimed by women and used as a place and tool of female sexual empowerment. This will then usually result in the person opposed to strip clubs arguing that the sort of "meat market mentality" of the strip club reinforces gender stereotypes and roles that normalize the view that women are simply objects for men's pleasure, thus disempoewering them even if women are attempting to use the strip club for the counter purpose. The second arguer will then start providing case studies of women who had, through the confidence and self-wroth that they gained while working as a stripper, gone on to do great deeds...and the argument will continue to go in circles until someone gives up or both argument partners get distracted by something else.

Yes, I did hear these arguments occuring at almost every barbecue I attended while in graduate school. Drunk anthropologists are either entertaining or annoying, depending on your tastes.

But I can't be bothered to get far enough to decide which, if either, side of this debate has the better point, because I despise strip clubs for another set of reasons altogether.

There are two things that I don't like about them. One is the physicial environment, the other is social. Let's take the physicial environment first.

For starters, they are loud. The flashing lights, the extremely loud music, I find it physically painful. They're generally as bad as dance clubs in this regard - another place that I can't stand. Unlike dance clubs, however, the strip clubs that I have been in aren't built for movement, so getting outside or to a relatively quiet place is rather more difficult.

Then, of course, there's the activity set to take place in the strip clubs. Yes, there is a woman undressing on stage and moving in a (usually allegedly) suggestive manner. However, any eroticism that such a thing might hold for me is completely and utterly nullified by the fact that I can think of nothing less arousing than being surrounded by a bunch of drunken frat boys - and yet this is what has been the case everytime I have been in such an establishment. What's more, if I am interested in some sort of sexual satisfaction, I can get that at home and don't need to spend money or time in a place that I find physically uncomfortable.

On the margins one will often see the psuedo-sophisticates sitting back, trying to be cool, as if there is nothing much happening here and they're a bit bored. They may have their girlfriend or a date with them, and this may be a bit of foreplay, or it may simply be them trying to show how trendy they are by going to a strip club and not getting riled up. Either way, I have always wished I had the ability to wander over and try to distract them with card tricks or something equally inane, just to see how they would react.

And then we come to the social aspect of the strip club. I'm not taslking about the social costs of such places for women, there are many people who have done a much better job of debating and discussing that than I possibly could (and even more people who have muddied the waters through rhetoric and questionable claims). What I am talking about is the sort of socialization I have been subjected to during and after visits to the clubs.

Some folks would argue that this is a forum for male bonding, and that I should embrace such things to become closer to my friends. But, you know, I really don't want to bond with people while they are preparing to shove money in someone else's G-string (and, no, I don't want them shoving money in my G-string either - they always want to give me rolls of coins and that's just uncomfortable). I also don't want to sit in the back with the psuedo-sophistactes trying to look bored. I really just want to be as far away from loudspeakers and flashing lights as I can get.

During the visit, social interaction between my friends and I seems to turn into arm punches and pushes, the occasional exclamation of "check out those tits! Look at that ass!", and someone moping because they weren't offered a lap dance (I always am, and by women who don't seem to want to take "no" for an answer, which leads me to believe that R. K. Milholland is right). After the visit, things don't improve much. There's always a couple of guys who want to out-tally the other's lap-dance total (uh, guys, they do it because you paid, not because they think your hot, so don't get your ego too tied up in it), and constant back-and-forth about "the boobs on that one!" or some such thing.


If I wanted to see my friends reduced to over-sexed gibbering idiots, I'd do it in the comfort of my own home by spiking their Cheerios with Mescaline and showing them clown porn. That might actually produce a conversation worth hearing.

So, yeah, I am, indeed, an adult male. I do, indeed, dislike strip clubs. I am, in fact, mystifieid as to their appeal. anyone who decides I need my "man card revoked" can go get bent.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Uhhh, That's Not a Site...

Some years back, when I was working for a different company than the one that currently employs me, I was in charge of a large monitoring project in an area that was simply a filled-in estuary formed by the convergence of several creeks with the shore of the Pacific Ocean. By and large, the project was kinda' fun - we worked with a construction crew that was filled with colorful and interesting characters, I had a good crew of archaeologists working under me, and I was able to require one of my monitors to wear a bright-pink hard had. And we quickly discovered that walking in the trenches that were not waterlogged but that sat directly on top of ground that was resulted in each step taking on a weird bouncing characteristic, as if we were walking on a trampoline. Good times.

However, there was one incident that was less pleasant, but one that thankfully can be learned from.

About mid-way through the project, I received a phone call from one of my monitors reporting that a large excavator had uncovered a midden*. I notified my boss, and the two of us rushed out to the work site. The machinery was standing by, as were the excavator's operator and the construction foreman. My monitor was in the bottom of the pit, using her trowel to pick through the soil at the bottom and examine what was in it. My boss went down to join her, and I was left to talk with the construction crew.

"So, you can see it now, can we start working again?" the foreman asked me.

"Not yet, we need to figure out what this is, and the County has some protocols that we have to follow whenever anything is discovered." We then repeated these same phrases to each other for about ten minutes, until my boss returned with a handful of mud.

"This is classic midden soil! This is a site!" He was enthusiastic. Looking more closely at the soil, I was not.

Middens consist of dark, greasy soils, which this mud certainly was, and usually contain other materials such as stone artifacts, animal bones, shell and the like. In this case, there were numerous shells embedded in the soil, further stoking my boss's enthusiasm. But this is where the difference in training comes in to play. My boss had been trained and primarily worked in the western mountains and plains. On the other hand, I had been trained and worked primarily on the coast. So, when I climbed down into the put myself, I was not surprised to find that the soils were not a site at all, but were a buried estuary shore, which would also contain dark, greasy soil (estuaries tend to be rich in organic materials) and would contain shell. There were two things that tipped me off - one was that the sediments had a weird plate-like pattern, consistent with sediments impacted by wave action in an estuary but not with midden soils at an archaeological site. The other is that there were shells from both edible and non-edible varieties of shellfish, and no other bone or artifacts.

This was clearly an old estuary shore, and not an archaeological site.

Returning to the surface, I pulled my boss aside and told him that I didn't believe that this was a site. He was quite convinced that it was, and being the boss (and this being early in my career as a supervisor and therefore shy about fighting for my position on this one) he had his way and the non-site was designated a site.

This led to a several day chase in which I tried to fulfill the County's archaeological resource guidelines (which required speaking with a professor who was out of the country and therefore unavailable) all the while being called frequently by the foreman (who wanted to make sure that I knew how much the delay was costing), before my boss told the construction crew to go ahead and proceed.

In the end, it turns out to have been a good thing that this wasn't a site. If it had been, then my boss giving the go-ahead for construction would have been a violation of the county, state, and federal permits that our client needed for this job. For me, the lesson was: 1) always argue for your position if you have the data to back you up, even if this means arguing with your boss (since then, I have found that my current boss, not the same guy as the boss in this story, responds well to well-reasoned arguments in favor of a position), and 2) always know your regulations thoroughly - if this had actually been a site, then my boss's actions would have caused our client and our company considerable grief, possibly including legal troubles.

*Middens are areas of darkened soil resulting from the decay of organic materials. They usually represent the remains of old trash piles. They are also easily mistaken for other naturally-occuring areas of darkened soil.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Flag Burning and Political Narrative

We all know the story, it fits our narrative in an archetypal way. It was once illegal to burn a flag as a sign of protest. Finally, the police arrested someone who was willing to fight back, and with the help of the ACLU the case made it all the way to the supreme court. The conservative members of the court were in favor of upholding the ban, the liberal ones wanting to remove it in order to support free speech. In the end the liberals won, and the ban was struck down, and freedom rules.

That's the way that I have always heard it, and it seems to be the popular narrative.

Too bad the truth is much more complicated. Our narratives should always be questioned.

It was Gregory Lee Johnson who spurred the issue forward in 1984 while protesting at the Republican National Convention. He burned a flag while chanting that whether Mondale or Reagan won, we were on the path to the third world war, as well as chanting anti-globalization slogans that would sound familiar to anyone who has paid attention to politics for the last forty years. He was arrested and charged not specifically with flag burning, but with violating a Texas law that criminalizes the destruction of respected or venerated objects.

The case was appealed, and the ACLU, as well as other organizations, did in fact get involved. But when the matter reached the Supreme Court, things got interesting. The decision to strike down the law was close - 5/4, as would be expected. What might surprise many people is that the decision didn't break down along the conservative/liberal lines that people generally expect. Justice Stevens - in truth a moderate although he tends to get painted as a "liberal" - was in favor of the ban, and is on record as stating that the flag was a unique symbol to which the normal rules don't really apply, and therefore banning it's "desecration" is legitimate. Justice Scalia, generally regarded as an ideological conservative, argued that the ban should be struck down. He has written that he dislike Johnson, and disliked what Johnson did, but that the Constitution is clear on the right to free speech and that previous court decisions clarified that speech applied to conduct intended to convey a message as well as to the printed and spoken word.

I am surprised to find that I actually agree with Scalia on something, but on reflection am not as surprised that I would agree with him on this type of issue. Scalia is one of the justices who has argued that the Constitution should not be seen as a "living" document - that is, it's not open to reinterpretation as times change - but that it is static and that changes must come through amendments and not reinterpretation. I'm ambivalent about that, but what it does mean is that, where the constitution promises a right to free speech, if he is to be consistent then he must argue that there are no limits to that freedom except as declared in the Constitution.

To be certain, Scalia was not pleased to have to arrive at this conclusion. He has written that Johnson was a "bearded weirdo" and that he found the flag burning reprehensible, but he also recognized something that very few people seem to: if you ban something simply because you find it reprehensible and not because of a solid legal purpose, then you have opened up the floodgates for anything to be banned for reasons of subjective taste.

And, the fact of the matter is, the reason for the Constitutional protection of free speech is to ensure that people who hold unpopular views or who need to do shocking things in order to draw attention to something that they think is important are allowed to do so, provided that they don't impinge on the rights of others. This type of freedom is vital to a democratic republic.

It's interesting, given the breakdown of the court, that this issue has come to be seen as "liberal protectors of freedom vs. conservative upholders of order". This is probably because of the way in which our legislators behaved, as well as the fact that, for reasons that always seemed odd to me, self-professed "conservatives" are generally (though admittedly not always) more likely to support bans on speech directed against national symbols. But, in the end, things can and sometimes do play out in unexpected ways. Our political and social narratives are often (perhaps typically) wrong, and we should question them.

For a good discussion of the matter, go to this podcast.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Voucher and Ideology Ramble

Every few years the notion of school vouchers comes up. For those who are unaware, the concept of vouchers is simply that, rather than automatically funnel all or most education money to public (state-run) schools, the government would provide vouchers that parents could use to either send their children to private schools, or turn over to state-run schools in order to fund them. Some localities already provide these vouchers, but in most parts of the U.S. it comes up as a political issue once or twice a decade, and then fades away again.

There are a few different agruments that tend to be used on both the pro and the con side of the debate, and if you have internet access (and therefore are reading this) you can look them up easily on your own. While I am hesitant to muck with education funding any more than we currently are, I can see some merit in the basic concept of vouchers (though I did vote against them when they came up on a ballot). But there is one argument that seems to be the standard argument for those who are in favor of a voucher system and I have always thought it was a poor argument.

Okay, so, to not get too far ahead of myself: the standard argument that I have heard in favor of school vouchers is based on an old and overly-simplistic market economic model. Put simply the argument is this:

If a voucher system is in place, then schools will have to compete for funding, which will result in schools that fail closing down, and improved performance on the part of other schools as they compete with each other. Therefore, a voucher system will result in the education system improving overall, cutting out the deadwood and performing in a more efficient and productive manner.

Now, there's a few problems with this argument, the first of which being that there are many ways that schools can become more efficient and improve test scores while not actually educating students particularly well - the ol' "teaching to the test" issue. There's also the fact that this turns all schools into businesses with funding potentially coming before students. While it could pay off in the end, this is admittedly me being literally conservative in wanting to avoid what I think is unnecessary change to an important institution, there is a possibility of introducing an increased risk of financial corruption - We have seen such things in every other for-profit business, so why not here?

But, to my mind, the biggest flaw in the argument is that it assumes that parents will send their children to the school that bests educates them. Based on what I have seen from both private schools and home-school settings, I don't see any reason to assume that this will be the case.

Here's the basic problem - there are a lot of people in the world for whom ideology is more important than observable reality. These folks may be a minority, but they are a sizable minority. These are the people for whom ideology, usually political or religious ideology (often the two mixed together) is the arbiter of what they believe, even when it contradicts the pbvious facts of the world around them. And if vouchers are the reality, then these folks would be likely to seek schools that cater to their pre-conceptions and therefore not only fail to educate their students, but actually misinform in ways that range from the silly to the dangerous.

Creationism and Christian Nationalism are the most obvious examples of demonstrably false beliefs being taught already in private schools and home schooling programs (and, if the current Texas school board has its way, in public schools). I rant about them frequently already (in fact, a post ranting about them dropped last week), so let's try some other beliefs...

Consider, for example, that I know many people who are completely convinced that the Americas were settled not by people who crossed over from Asia 10,000 - 13,000 years ago, but by some other group of people at some other time. For some, such as the LDS (Mormon) church, this is a matter of religious dogma. For others, it's part of a conspiracy-mongering ideology that holds that all actual history is some sort of plan to dupe the populace. For others it is part of a racist claim to "white racial ownership" of the Americas. The effects of such belief on public policy should they become commonly taught are hard to say - certainly the racist views would be harmful, but some of the other views might simply be absurd. But regardless, there is nearly two centuries of archaeological and physical anthropological data, and increasing amounts of genetic data, showing all of these beliefs to be completely and utterly false. Students taught this in schools are not being well educated, and yet there are many people who would happily send their children to a school that taught such things, and many other people who simply wouldn't care if their children attended a school that taught such things. And yet the children would be astoundingly misinformed, and the education system would, by definition, not be working.

Let's take another example. I know many people associated with the home schooling movement who believe that modern medicine is a sham by major companies to keep the populace sick and take their money and/or control their minds, and that modern doctors don't actually know anything about preventative care. Aside from being paranoid in the extreme and completely out of touch with reality, this sort of belief also has another problem in that it sows the seeds of an unhealthy populace. People who reject scientific medicine don't just reject what are admittedly often troublesome or even downright dirty action on the parts of pharmeceutical companies, they also reject the methods that have proven reliable over the last two hundred years in identifying and either eliminating or else mitigating the causes of illnesses, steadily improving our cultural ability to cope with biological hazards. It is no surprise that the pockets where these sorts of beliefs have taken hold, whether it be the (not really all that) venerable Christian Scientists or followers of various New-Age paths, have become hotbeds for resurgences of previously near-eradicated disease. Moreover, by teaching that physicians and researchers are not to be trusted, these beliefs have, at least in my experience, had the tendency of teaching their followers (and the children of said followers) that facts don't matter in determining reality, and knowledge is only a lesser cousin to emotional appeal in determining the validity of a claim.

So, again, parents who buy into this but who are currently unable to put their kids into home-schooling (and I know many such people) would, with the vouchers, be able to use the education system as a tool to spread false and dangerous beliefs that are likely to create a public health risk.

Many people are probably going to say that I am being paranoid. Maybe they're right, but I don't think so (well, I guess it's rather obvious that I wouldn't think so, being as how I'm the one advocating this position and all). I am now at an age where many of my old friends have school-age children. I have found that most of these people tend to expect that their children's textbooks will be well-researched, and the teachers well-trained. And so, if they are sending their children to school, they will assume that what the child learns is more-or less accurate. It is generally the more zealous folks, driven by ideology rather than an attachment to reality, that will question what is taught in schools, but they will question it for all of the wrong reasons and in all of the wrong ways. As a result, these folks, it seems, would be more likely to look into changing their childrens schools if it were to become feasible to do so. So, rather than an improvement to the schools, with well-run schools with a good curriculum becoming more common, we'd likely see schools run for ideological reasons becoming more common. The economic argument just seems like a very poor one.

However, perhaps I am completely wrong. So, here's what I will do as time allows, I will start looking into school districts where vouchers have become part of the system. I'll see, if such information is available, what types of schools thrive in that environment. And in a few months time, I will write a follow-up with what I find.

And I hope that I am wrong.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Back in California

So, despite the best efforts of London Transit (which shut down an important undeground lines without notice), the European Air Traffic Controllers (who routed a whole butt-load of flights through British airspace and delayed many flights out of London), and Iceland, which continues to spew it's supterranean ash into the stratosphere, I am back from London.

It was a great trip, and I learned a few things:

1- a. Despite my usual "go with the flow" attitude towards visiting a place, Kaylia's right, it helps to have some sort of a plan.
1- b. Kaylia's awesome on multiple continents.

2- a. British food is better than is generally claimed. Perhaps not fantastic, but certainly tasty enough.
2- b. Indian food in London is good, but not better than in, say, San Francisco or Los Angeles, contrary to what most people hold.
2- c. Contrary to what many Britons seem to think, mayonaise is not a major food group. It may be a major mucus group, but it is not a major food group.

3- The British Museum, London Museum, and London Museum of Natural History are fucking fantastic.

4- If there is actually interest in making it so, public transportation in a major city can be both more efficient than using a car and cheaper for the individual (a lesson alos learned in Tokyo) - now to convince the population of Los Angeles.

5- Just because you're British doesn't mean that you know what you're talking about.

6- Old architecture is especially photogenic.

7- Kaylia thinks that there is always room for tea...myself, I miss coffee, and I don't even drink much coffee.

8- The man who won't give out when there's trouble all about is, in fact, John Shaft, and not Gordon Brown.

9- British game shows seem to be simply weird Japanese game shows, but with white contestants and snarky narration.

10- Election politics is silly in Europe as well as in North America.

11- It is, apparently, illegal for English men and women to own suits that are not either black or navy blue.

12- If you live in a sunny beach town, taking a vacation in a rainy, grey city actually works out pretty well.

13- British English often sounds like baby talk to Americans ("telly", "loo", "poo" etc., and even place names like Picadilly and Waterloo), which makes me wonder what American English sounds like to the Brits.

And there you have it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Fighting Against Delusion

Here's one of the things that frequently bothers me.

When you are attempting to stick up for the evidence-based position, when you are fighting for reality, you are fighting an up-hill battle, and one that you are always in danger of losing. There is one, very simple, reason for this - you are the only one who is constrained by facts. Everyone else can just lie and make shit up, they can whip of hysteria, and they can push every emotional button that there is. They can be hypocritical and know that their supporters and/or followers are unlikely to call them on it. They can make false assertions and know that nobody will check up on it.

You, on the other hand, have to stick with the facts, because without them you have no credibility. While you are the one who is in touch with reality, it's difficult to push through the juggernaut o' propaganda that you are facing off against because you are not allowed access to all of the tools that the other side is.

Case in point, take the issue of evolution vs. creationism. If you are on the side of the science, you are saddled with the responsibility of explaining very complex and seemingly counter-intuitive scientific facts. the creationists, on the other hand, can make false claims about the evidence ("There are no transitional fossils" - umm, look here for an answer to that one), call on delusional beliefs ("Darwin learned evolution from Satan himself!" - yes, I have met people who believe this), and stir up baseless fears ("people want evolution taught in schools in order to damn your children to Hell!" - yes, I have met a lot of people who honestly believe this). The deniers of reality have at their disposal a wide range of rhetorical, social, and emotional tools that we don't and that we can't have if we wish to maintain any credibility.

A related group, those who claim that the United states was founded as "a Christian Nation" in direct contradiction to, well, every scrap of evidence available likewise do the same. They tell lies and misconstrue truths about American history. they create false claims about "liberal elites controlling the academy" supposedly trying to brain-wash the youth. Every case where a Christian group is not able to impose it's will on non-Christians gets warped into the Christians being persecuted, when it's really the other way around (look at any of the various fights over gay marriage). Enemies are invented, lies are told, and literally psychotic - that is, broken from reality - claims are made ranging from phantasmagorical "homosexual recruiters" coming after your children, to plans to merge the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, to the ACLU attempting to ban Christianity, to concentration camps being built to "kill of true patriots" when the "socialist takeover happens", etc. etc. etc.

And all of this gets tied together into a single narrative of "Satan and his wiles vs. God: WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?" that discourages people actually stopping to think things through and realize just how absurd these claims are.

For another example, look at the anti-vaccine movement. There have been many, many studies looking for any connection between childhood vaccines and autism, as well as other health problems allegedly linked to the vaccines. While there have been a small number of well-documented cases of extremely bad side-effects linked with vaccines that are now no longer in use, the standard childhood vaccines as of 2010 have been shown pretty much conclusively to not be linked with the various horrible things that that anti-vaccine people claim (or, in a few cases, the risk of a particularly bad side-effect is lower than the risk of death should someone be infected by one of the diseases being vaccinated against). So, what do the anti-vaccine people do?

Well, just like the creationists, they lie (claiming non-existent evidence linking vaccines to various health problems, lying about the ingredients of vaccines, etc.), they misconstrue information (claiming that vaccines contains "toxins" which are, actually, quite safe in the levels in vaccines - some, such as formaldehyde, even being naturally produced by human metabolism in much higher levels than is present in the vaccine), and they press every emotional button that they can think of: claims that corporations are poisoning children to make money being the most common but also including claims of weird government conspiracies, scientists doing unethical experiments, etc. also pop up every now and again. And all of this is tied together in a compelling but false narrative of "evil pharma companies vs. good natural healers: WHO'S SIDE ARE YOU ON?"* which also pushes people to pick a side and not think too carefully about it.

Of course, due to a quirk of human psychology, the people who have taken the anti-reality route, regardless of what issues or sides they favor, will tend to buy the narratives of their community as a shield. So, people who point out that the U.S. Constitution does not, in fact, create a "christian nation" will be labeled "liberal secular humanists in league with Satan", people who point out that vaccines are in fact one of the great medical advancements of the last 200 years will be labelled as either shills or dupes of "big Pharma". And the true believers will cobble together bits and pieces of information, both false and real, as evidence for their position, making connections where none exist in order to keep the house of cards standing.

These are just three examples, but there are many others: Holocaust denial, 9/11 conspiracy claims, "birthers", claims of an ancient matriarchal goddess culture, HIV-deniers, etc. etc. etc. What they all have in common is that they attack truth with outright deception (including both outright lies and a misleading and deceptive acceptance of only select real facts), attempts to push emotional buttons to get potential followers to shut off their critical faculties, and a narrative in which you are either one of the enlightened/knowledgeable/moral/what-have-you, or you are corrupt or a dupe to some big bad evil force. Truth, unfortunately, often doesn't come out in the end, the forces of nonsense often have a more exciting story.

And anyone who wants to introduce reality will face an up-hill battle against zealotry built upon dishonest tactics that we can not use.

It makes me very nervous for our future as a species.

*The irony to this is that the large pharmaceuticals companies have been guilty of some horrible things, but with most of the criticism of these companies coming from the anti-vaxxers and similar groups, it makes all of the critics, including legitimate ones, look like wing-nuts. So, with all of the false rhetoric, the anti-vaccination lobby is actually strengthening the position of the companies that they claim to be opposing by effectively drowning out the legitimate criticisms.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Do You Believe in Magic?

Have you ever had one of those over-bearing co-workers who was so absorbed by their need to be a unique little snow-flake that they would do anything and everything to draw attention to themselves and make themselves look special*?

Some years back, I worked in a store in Modesto, CA with a fellow, let's call him Skippy, who described himself as a witch**, complete, he claimed, with the ability to cast spells. Now, I have worked with people with a wide variety of religious beliefs, and I generally don't spend much time worrying about them. But this guy was obnoxious. If a customer was not in the store, he was doing something to draw attention to himself - singing, or telling stories, or exaggerating the closeness of his relationship to somebody by whom we were supposed to be impressed, or, as often as not, he was talking about his alleged ability to cast spells.

Being the sort of person that I am, I began asking questions that were reasonable, but seemed impertinent to Skippy. It started simply by asking him to describe a spell. Ready to impress me with his knowledge, he explained that he could cast a spell that would make someone itch.

"Really?" I asked, "how would you do that?"

"I look at you, and then I say that you look like you're itchy. Maybe I'll say that you shirt looks itchy, or I'll say something about itchy hair, or something."

I stared at him blankly for a few minutes, and then said "that's not a spell."

"Yes it is."

"Well, a spell would involve magic, right?"

"Yes" he beamed triumphantly.

"So, you just described really crude basic psychology, you know, simple suggestion. There's nothing magical in that. It's about as mundane as you can get." I looked at him, waiting for a reaction.

His response: "Maybe you just don't understand what magic really is. Magic is all around us and part of everything we are."

There are probably a lot of people who would think that his response was somehow wise. The problem, though, is that it is faux-wisdom. It's a sound bite that might make someone sound deep or "spiritual" to a room full of half-drunk college students, but is actually completely devoid of meaning upon examination. If magic is all around us and part of everything we are, then magic is literally everything, and any term that is defined so broadly as to include everything is a term that ultimately has absolutely no meaning and is completely useless. It's like the people who define God (with a capital "G") to mean "love" or "goodness" and not "Judeo-Christian concept of an omnipotent spirit that glares at humanity." Just because it sounds good while one is stoned doesn't mean that it actually makes any damn sense. Statements such as this are wisdom vacuums, sucking all wisdom away and leaving a wisdom void in their wake. People who spout such things are prone to patchouli poisoning while under the influence of Deepak Chopra books.

Nonetheless, Skippy continued to talk about his magical powers and his ability to delve into the mystical arts. Meanwhile, I rolled my eyes frequently and occasionally cast an itch spell on him for good measure.

Oooooh! Such dark arts I weave!

Finally, one day, I began asking questions again. I don't recall the exact route of the conversation, but it was the usual back-and-forth of him claiming magical powers, and me claiming that he was full of it. By this point, most of the other employees at the store were at least willing to pay lip service to this guy having some sort of power, and he really wanted me to believe. So, I put it in simple terms: I would believe when he provided evidence.

"What?' Skippy asked, "do you want me to cast a spell on you?"

That wasn't quite what I was thinking, but I gave it a moment's reflection and figured that it would work.

"Yeah, sure. If you can cast a spell on me, I would have to concede that you have the ability to cast spells."

He hesitated for a moment, and then said " don't have the ability to do that."

I figured he would have a cop-out of some sort, that he would say it was against some sort of magical code, it would be an unethical use of power, or something along those lines. So, I asked if he was unwilling to do it for an ethical or moral reason.

"Well, no." he said, trying to look confident and failing, "you don't believe. Your lack of belief in magic will shield you from a spell, so it just wouldn't work."

So, the only way for me to believe would be for me to have evidence, but the only way for him to provide evidence would be for me to believe. In other words, there was nothing to what he was claiming, it was all basic psychology fueling an illusion in people who were willing to be fooled, and deep down he knew it.

I felt a bit bad about this. On the one hand, the guy could be obnoxious, and his claims were pretty damn tiresome. But in retrospect, I can see that the guy felt like he had very little in the way of solid friendships, and his job as an assistant manager at a store in Modesto, while not bad for a guy in his early 20s like Skippy, fell far short of the glamour and excitement that he really wanted and that few of us ever achieve. He felt insecure, and his claims to this "magical lifestyle" was the thing that he had chosen to mark himself out as special and distinct from the crowd. And here was this smart-ass college student dismantling it.

I lost touch with him years back, but I can sincerely say that I hope that Skippy has since found something that excites him, and has made better social connections. He wasn't a bad guy, just an insecure one.

At the same time, I had already proven myself to be the sort of person who was going to ask questions and not accept faux-wisdom as an answer. So, while I probably could have handled myself better, he was also pushing the matter by trying to win me over. He bears some responsibility as well.

So, yeah, we were both being dicks.

In the end, we became friends of a sort. He stopped trying to push me to believe his various stories, and I stopped being overly analytical of everything that he said. We had some good times even after I stopped working there. But, as happens, we eventually fell out of contact.

*Which is, of course, completely different than those of use who keep blogs and announce our thoughts to the world. I don't have a giant ego in need of stroking, not at all. Move along, there's nothing to see here.

**There are, of course, actual witches, people who are members of various different religious groups which claim that name. I have met many such people over the years, and when I tell them about this fellow, they invariably roll their eyes and say something to the effect of "yeah, we attract a lot of those people, but they don't stick around long."

Monday, May 3, 2010

Surf's Up

This is why I think that it's cool to live on the coast and own a camera. I took all of these photos withint he space of fifteen seconds: