The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Not Much Simpler Times

It's been a while since I wrote - family, work, the usual.  But something occurred today that has me contemplative.

My sister wrote to me this morning to tell me that one of my childhood bullies, a kid named Sam, grew up to be a 36-year-old man who stands accused of beating a man to death.  While he awaits trial, and as always one should be cautious about referring to someone as a murderer rather than accused murderer until after the trial, it sounds as if the case is open-and-shut.  Sam got into an argument with a man in a bar, this escalated into a fight, the man ended up in the hospital, where he died a few days later.

As a kid, I had thought that my various tormentors would one day meet some sort of justice.  I remember thinking "one of these days, everyone else will see you the way that I do - and I'll be there to laugh."

Now that this day has come, I don't feel like laughing.  I feel like weeping.

Over the years, I have heard occasionally about my childhood bullies. I never asked, but sometimes people would tell me things, or else I would hear a familiar name on the news.  Several became meth addicts and then fell into complete obscurity.  One was arrested for sneaking into a house, undressing, and climbing into bed with a child.  Others have rap sheets that include a range of violent crime and property crimes.  I have no doubt that some of them turned out okay, but I have never heard any more of them, so I simply do not know.

And now, murder.  Looking up his full name and town of residence reveals a long string of crimes, mostly property crimes, committed by someone with his name (I can't confirm that this was him and not someone else with the same name, a distinct possibility, but he is at least of the correct age to have be the person cited in several of the reports).  This before his altercation in the bar.

As a kid, Sam was a shit.  I will not claim otherwise.  This was not some sweet, caring kid who grew up to be a violent man.  This was a violent, bullying child who grew up to be a violent man.

But I can't help but feel that it could have turned out differently.

The community in which I grew up was very much a blue collar neighborhood, and I came to know and respect many of the various mechanics, carpenters, and cannery workers who lived around me.  Most of them were decent people, and to this day I remain convinced that we, as a nation, need to have a better respect for blue collar workers as a result.

But there was also a frequent under-current of anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and anti-accomplishment that pervaded much of my neighborhood.  Calling someone "schoolboy" was a grave insult, academic achievement was frowned upon, and anyone who became "to big for their britches" by having aspirations was to be put down by a combination of ridicule and force.  Amongst the kids, and even a small (but active) set of the adults, bullying was the norm, even encouraged.  And I don't mean simple name calling - it was common for me to come home from school covered in bruises and cuts as everything from fists to feet to rocks to broken glass were used on me and anyone else considered "weird".  Add to this that a few of the fathers of some of the neighborhood boys instructed their sons that it was fine to beat up on anyone, and if they couldn't fight back, that was their problem...well, you begin to see what was going on.

The adults who encouraged bullying and violence were few in number.  But that the targets of the bullying were those who didn't quite fit in meant that the other adults, while they might try to stop, were often not trying too hard.  "After all," they often seemed to think, "maybe it would do those weird kids (weird kids being the ones who had interests outside of the norm, not necessarily kids with behavioral problems) some good to get some sense smacked into them!"  And kids who did have behavioral problems?  The general attitude towards "shrinks" was such that these kids would likely never see anyone who could help them.

I don't know whether or not Sam's father encouraged him to beat on the other kids.  But I do know that the environment in which we lived offered only a few checks on his behavior, and those generally ineffective and countered by other factors.

In this environment, where aspiration was often punished, where violence was encouraged, and where the ability to remain calm when faced with conflict was seen as a weakness, it's no surprise that someone emerged who would beat a man to death over a bar room argument.  What's surprising is that this hasn't happened more often.

I don't know that Sam had any underlying psychological problems.  He may have, but he may just as easily not have.  If he did, an environment such as this would have exacerbated his problems.  But even without underlying problems, this environment tended to feet aggression and anger, and tended to frown on people wanting to get out of the environment*.  That most of the kids I grew up with turned out alright (holding down jobs, raising families, and the kid who grew up across the street from me has become a very succesful business owner in a line of work for which he is very talented and skilled) is a testament to how resilient people tend to be.

But there were quite a few who are lost.  I do not claim that they are not responsible for their own actions.  However, it takes a special kind of ignorant fool to assert that our actions take place in a vacuum, without context, and are not influenced by where we come from and how we learned to live there.  Sam has no excuse for his actions, but that does not mean that his actions don't have an explanation.

*For example, when I left for college, a large number of the people with whom I had grown up either stopped talking to me, or else would only talk to me in order to be condescending and insulting towards me. They made it very clear that anyone who was leaving for college was not someone that they wanted to have anything to do with.

Monday, October 29, 2012

What's in a Name? Or, Why You Should be Cautious in Comparing Languages...

While driving out the the field the other day, one of the archaeologists with whom I am working asked what the linguistic connection was between Cachuma - a place name from Santa Barbara County - and Kuuchamaa - a similar-sounding place name from San Diego County.

I didn't know the origin of Kuuchamaa, but it is the native name for Tecate Peak, an important sacred mountain that is the spiritual center for the Kumeyaay peoples of southern California and northern Mexico.  Having read up on it, I still haven't a clue as to what the word means, but it is the name of both the place, and of a culture hero - a wise and powerful shaman - said to have once lived in that place*.  The translation of the word appears to be hard to come by, so I am at a bit of a loss.

Cachuma, however, is a bit easier.  Cachuma is the English bastardization of the Spanish bastardization of the Inezeno Chumash word Aqitsumu, meaning "constant signal", which was the name of a village located in the Santa Ynez Valley, near the current location of Lake Cachuma.

So, while Cachuma and Kuuchamaa seem similar at first glance, one appears to be the actual Kumeyaay word, while the other is a rather tortured telephone game version of an Inezeno word.  Now, there could still be some linguistic connection between them, but that seems somewhat unlikely, as Aqitsumu fits in perfectly well with the Chumash language family**, and Kuuchamaa, as far as I have been able to tell (though I am a bit shaky on this) seems to fit in well with the Kumeyaay language, a dialect of Diegeno, part of the Yuman language family.  So, there is no reason to assume a connection, despite superficial similarities.

The words, though similar, refer to different types of things (a sacred mountain/person's name and a village), and there is no reason to assume that they would have similar meanings.  What's more, the version of Aqitsumu that bears the most resemblance to the Kumeyaay word, Cachuma, is also the version that is most divorced from native pronunciation.  Further, the names come from two unconnected languages.

There is, in short, no reason to think that these words are in any way connected, and some reason to think that they are not.

What is interesting about this is that there is no reason to assume a linguistic connection between two groups of people who were separated by only a few hundred miles of space for centuries.   Pseudoscientific language comparisons are often employed by people who wish to show a connection between two completely unrelated groups of people.  It is a favorite approach of those who see the ancient Isrealites landing int he Americas, the Celts taking over parts of the midwest, Medieval Japanese explorers settling Mexico, or Egyptians colonizing South America (yes, there are people who believe every one of these things).

The method is as follows:

Step 1: Find a few words (or sometimes even one) from two languages that have even a superficial similarity

Step 2: Claim that the link between these two populations is proven

Step 3: Ignore everyone who actually knows what they are talking about when they point out that you are a fool.

But, as illustrated, even in a case where two words are both used as placenames, sound extremely similar, and are from groups separated by only a few hundred miles, there is still reason to doubt a connection.  Keep this in mind whenever your wacky neighbor claims that some vague language similarities prove that the native people of New Jersey were actually descended from a clan of Bavarian sausage-makers.

*Kuuchamaa appears to be a manifestation of a messianic religious concept that appeared throughout southern California either shortly before or around the time that the Spanish arrived.  Whether the Kuuchamaa version of the story is the origin for the others, represents a merger of the messianic story with another older religious tradition, or else a spontaneous manifestation of a similar story, I do not know...nor does anyone else as far as I have been able to tell.  It's neat that even after well over a century of research, we still have some mysteries like this to explore in California.

**Chumashan languages were, until recently, thought to be part of the Hokan language family, but that view has now been largely discredited.  As a result, Chumash is an oddity in that it has no known related languages (similar in this respect to the Basque language of Spain) and exists as a linguistic island alone on the California coast.  While this is speculative, some researchers have posited that Chumash may be the last version of the original Native Californian language family, as the other languages in California appear to have come in from elsewhere.  While intriguing, this idea remains speculation until such time as physical or paleolinguistic evidence can be found to back it up.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Ghost Town of Calico

Just east of Barstow, in the Calico Hills, is a rebuilt old mining town, named Calico.  It is currently operated as a regional park by the County of San Bernardino, but was once a busy silver mining town.

Welcome...TO HISTORY!
The Silver Rush of the late 19th century is less well-known than the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century.  However, the Silver Rush was important in the histories of both Nevada and California (especially southern California).  The town of Calico was founded in 1881 by a group of miners who headed into the local mountains looking for silver.  Within two years, the town had grown to house around 1,200 residents, had 500 mines, and the usual accompaniments of a successful old west town (justice of the peace, post office, hotels, restaurants, numerous brothels, etc.).

Calico...never will you see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy
Before long, Colemanite borate (an ore of Boron that can be purified, and can itself be used for the manufacture of glasses, medicines, cosmetics, as well as for numerous industrial processes).  The town swelled to 3,500 people, with settlers from both Europe and Asia joining the American settlers.

The structures constructed during this time ranged from standard wooden construction, typical of 19th century houses and businesses, to stone structures that integrated the slopes and cliffs into their structure.

And, of course, there was no shortage of mining structures and equipment, including machinery such as a stamp mill.

Remember - it's not an exploitative Hell hole that OSHA would shut down anymore, it's historic!
However, as is so often the story with mining towns, the fall came almost as quickly as the rise.  The Silver Purchase Act of 1890 had the effect of reducing the price of silver.  As the decade wore on, Calico's silver mines became less economically viable, and the town began to depopulate.  By 1898, the post office shut down, followed by the school, and the town was pretty much abandoned by 1900.

In 1915, an attempt was made to recover unclaimed silver from the old mines, using cyanidation (a metallurgical process for the extraction ore using the chemical properties for cyanide).  While this did result in the brief resurgence of silver mining, it did not cause Calico to boom again.

In 1951, Walter Knott, of Knott's Berry Farm, bought Calico and began restoring many of the buildings.  While the purchase of historic buildings by the wealthy is hardly unusual, this was a unique turn in two ways: 1) Walter Knott had, as a young man, been a local homesteader and helped to build the cyanidation facilities, and 2) he turned it into a historic park with restored buildings, repaired or re-built based on old plans and photographs, and donated it to the County of San Bernardino in 1966.  

See, tacky Halloween decorations

While the buildings may have been restored to a close resemblance of their historic grandeur, the town is more tourist attraction than ghost town.  While it does serve to teach a visitor a bit about local history, it also has numerous souvenir shops and chachki stands that don't exactly stand up to historical scrutiny.  Oh, and if you happen to visit in October, as I did, you will witness numerous tacky "spooky" plastic skeletons and ghosts arranged about the place, further removing the historicity of the place.

Nonetheless, if you poke around outside of the central town portion and walk on some of the other paths, you will find the remains of buildings that have not been rebuilt, as well as some that have been rebuilt faithfully in ways that don't romanticize the old west.

The solution to California's high housing costs!

Oh, and if you visit, be sure to check out the cemetery.  It is fascinating both in terms of the tombstones, and of the construction of the graves themselves.  Observe:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Calico Hills, California

So, the new father routine has been keeping me busy and occupying much of the time that I used to use to keep this blog.  However, for now I am away from home and working on projects in the Mojave Desert, based out of Barstow rather than Lancaster, this time.

Contrary to popular opinion, Barstow isn't too bad a place - it's not high on my list of vacation spots, but it is a decent enough place out of which to be based.  It beats the hell out of Taft, at any rate.

We finish our work day a few hours before dark, and so I have been using my late afternoons/early evenings out exploring the area.  Yesterday, I headed out to the Calico Hills, an area of interest to me for a few reasons.

There are claims that the Calico Hills was host to a Ghost Dance movement.  The Ghost Dances were religious movements that had begun amongst the Paiute in Nevada and moved out among Native American groups during the 19th century (the best known being the one that sparked the massacre at Wounded Knee).  They varied considerably from place to place, and were often known by names other than Ghost Dance.  The ritual consisted of an extensive dance, coupled with lifestyle changes towards clean living, which would summon the ancestors (or, in some versions, the spirits worshiped by the ancestors) who would wipe the Europeans and their descendants from the Americas.

Needless to say, as often happens with apocalyptic religious  movements, the members of the Ghost Dance cults were tragically wrong.

I have been unable to confirm whether or not there was a Ghost Dance cult involved in the Calico Hills.  It may very well have, there were groups in the general vicinity who had been influenced by the Ghost Dance, but much of what is readily available about the Calico Hills cult comes from half-wit new age "spiritual investigators" and therefore isn't worth the air that the Wi-Fi on which I read about it penetrates.

The area was heavily mined for silver during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The town (now ghost town and tourist attraction) of Calico Hills - about which more will be written in a following post - is partially in ruins and has been partially rebuilt.  However, the tunnels for the silver mines are still present, if falling apart, and make for some interesting viewing.

Another interesting aspect of the Calico Hills is the alleged "early man site" - a site that allegedly has artifacts that date to up to 200,000 years old depending on what dates you accept.  Now, I have not handled these alleged artifacts directly, but having seen photos, I am unconvinced.  They do look like they might be artifacts...or they might be geofacts (naturally occurring rocks broken in ways that make them look like artifacts).Given the dearth of any other evidence of humans or pre-human hominids in the Americas prior to 20,000 years ago (the most reliably dated old deposits date to around 12,000 years ago, though that may be beginning to change), and the ambiguous nature of the Calico Hills items, it seems safe to say that they are likely just geofacts.

Many of the supporters of the early man hypothesis like to point out that the legendary Louis Leakey believed these to be genuine artifacts and not geofacts.  However, becoming familiar with the actual work of Louis Leakey (as distinct from the work of his wife Mary or his son, Richard, both of whom have well-earned good reputations among archaeologists and paleoanthropologists) tends to lead one with becoming impressed with his business/fund-raising acumen, and somewhat less impressed with his skills in archaeology.  In fact, Mary Leakey cited his involvement with Calico Hills as being one of the primary causes of her losing respect for him as a researcher, and a contributing factor to the couple separating.

Regardless, the Calico hills have a weird, almost alien, beauty.  And they made for an excellent place to relax and watch the sunset over the playa below and behind the mountains across the valley.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Why I Hate Election Years

Okay, I know, I haven't been writing much lately, and much of my writing hasn't been about archaeology...and this post will continue that.

It's getting nearer the election, and I am sicker and sicker not of the campaigns, but of my fellow voters.  It is a rare person that I see who is not either buying into the notion that their side (be it Republican or Democrat) has presented a messianic figure who wills ave us all...or, alternatively, that the "other side's" candidate is so reprehensibly evil that it will destroy the nation if they win the election.

If you believe either of these, then you have bought into delusion.  The truly insidious problems in our government at the moment - financial corruption, lack of transparency, a willingness to pander for votes with nonsensical policy - are not only endemic to both major political parties, but are well on display in the campaigns and records of both candidates.  That most people think that it is only the "other side" that is really, truly, unforgivably guilty is an indication of the fact that most people have insulated themselves from harsh reality - if you get much of your news from the Huffington Post, the Tea Party News, Mother Jones, Fox News, or any other such ideologically/partisan-driven outlet, then you no doubt consider yourself well-informed, but you are actually woefully and poisonously misinformed.

Both candidates are fairly standard politicians.  Romney shows signs of being a better manager (he has demonstrated extensive administrative skills), Obama of being a better leader (he is capable of inspiring and getting people to join a cause) - both are skills that a president needs in equal measure (indeed, in many governments they are split between two separate offices), and the fact that each seems to hold more of one than the other only commends that person in the eyes of those who value one more, and that is an arbitrary judgement given the degree to which both shows skills and shortcomings.  Each candidate has their deficits - Obama is willing to compromise on things where he should stand and fight, and stands and fights on things where he should compromise.  Romney's own record contrasted with his current rhetoric indicates a candidate willing to say or do whatever is needed to win the election, leaving it difficult to know what he would do in office.  Both are perfectly willing to exaggerate, lie, and obfuscate...but this is standard in current politics and shouldn't surprise us*, though it should disgust us.

There are real differences between the candidates, to be certain.  For example: Obama is more likely to support civil rights legislation to help gay people, Romney is more likely to support the privatization of many government functions.  Whether you consider these good or bad, they do show actual differences, but the differences are not as stark as most people want to think that they are.

But for most of us, in our day-to-day lives, which one is in office is unlikely to be the huge difference that we think.  Contrary to what his supporters seem to think. Romney is unlikely to actually try to repeal the recent health care law (indeed, once he seized the nomination, he began back-pedaling on many of his previous statements).  Obama is not going to take measures to shoot tax rates through the roof (indeed, even if he wanted to - and he doesn't - he'd have to get through congress).  In fact, for most of us, our lives changed little when Obama took over from Bush, and that was a much larger change in personalities and records than Obama-to-Romney would be.

And yet, most people are convinced that the election (or re-election) of one or the other of these two men would be apocalyptic.

It won't be.  The issues of corruption and government secrecy would continue no matter which of them is in office (they are both parts of parties that support the status quo, contrary to their rhetoric, and even the president would, again, have to go through congress to make any real changes...and I don't see that happening regardless of who wins).

One of the more irritating aspects to this, however, is that everyone that I know who demonizes the other side or glorifies their own also tends to talk about how sick they are of the "polarization of politics" and how "the extremists seem to have the power!"

The problem is that, to the degree that there is truth to this, it's in large part due to the fact that so many people are willing to delude themselves into seeing these huge, world-shaking differences that aren't really there...and then pass those claims on to others.  Part of this comes from media fragmentation - yeah, if you are using the sites/channels/publications listed above as significant news sources, you are not only deluding yourself, you are also feeding the monster of partisanship and polarization - and part of it comes from the fact that we have been treating our politics like sports for some time - consider that you are angry with a referee when he makes a fair call against your team and think him wise when he makes a bad call in favor of your team...we do the same thing with politics, ignoring the fair criticisms of our favored candidates, and accepting as true even the most deranged criticism of "the other guy."

Every day, on Facebook, in conversations, in the comments on news stories, and so on, I see people uncritically accepting bizarre claims about one of these two, sometimes based on mis-quotes/selective quotes from speeches, and other time just plain made-up shit: No, Obama is not trying to prevent overseas soldiers from voting; no, Romney does not think that corporations should have all of the rights of an individual; no, Obama does not think that business owners are lazy people who didn't achieve anything; no, Romney is not going to seek criminalization of homosexuality; no, Obama didn't apologize to terrorists; no Romney is not seeking to destroy the Middle class; and so on and so forth.

When you accept these claims and forward them on, you are feeding the polarization.  It's like an arsonist bitching about all of the fires in his neighborhood.  If you do this, I don't want to hear you complain about it.

You know what would help?  How about accepting that both candidates are human - both have their flaws, both have their strengths, neither is evil incarnate, neither is out to destroy the nation or world.  If you still choose to support or oppose one or the other, that's fine, but do so for reasons based in reality, not rhetoric.  If you find that both of them turn you off, vote for a third party - I know, I know, "it's a wasted vote" but it really isn't - when third party candidates get a significant number of votes - even if they don't win the office - it causes the major parties to pay attention and see what they might want to change in reaction.  Moreover, the reason that third=party candidates don't win is, quite simply, because so many people are convinced that they "have to" vote for one of the two major parties - but you don't have to.  If you vote for a third party and convince other people to follow suit, you can help to make some changes.

Regardless, at the very least, accept that the candidates are neither evil nor angelic, and stop with the bullshit.

*One of the more irritating things I keep seeing - people from each side sharing claims about the "lies of the other side", all the while ignoring that their side can be fairly accused of exactly the same sort of thing, and many of the things cited as lies in these claims are debatable.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Loose Theory

Archaeologists are notorius for, to paraphrase a T-shirt, stalking other disciplines down dark alleys, whacking them across the head, and then rifling through their pockets for loose theory. 

There is, it should be said, some benefit to archaeology from this behavior.  There are ideas from fields as diverse as physics and literary criticism that have found good employment in the field of archaeology. 

However, there are also many times when this results in bizarre concoctions of intellectual puree that make little sense, but are championed by certain practitioners as if they were the height of human intellectual achievement. 

Back in 1971, the archaeologists Kent Flannery wrote a perceptive and hilarious article titles Archaeology With a Capital "S"  in which he was extremely critical of the tendency of many of the archaeological theorists active at that time to uncritically adopt concepts from physics, mathematics, and biology without thoroughly considering the applicability of these concepts to the archaeological record.  Unfortunately, I can not find an on-line copy to which I could direct you - it is really worth a read.

Flannery's complaint was that the archaeology of the 60s and 70s was filled with sciencey-sounding buzzwords and claims, though he was writing 10 years too early to see how many of the post-modern views of humanity would filter into archaeology and displace many of the sciencey-sounding buzzwords with philosophy-sounding buzzwords.  In both cases, there was good that came from it - the theoretical changes of the 50s through the 70s provided us with a fairly robust model for developing and testing hypotheses, as well as for checking our ideas against the real world, while the post-modern ideas that began filtering in during the 70s and really came to the fore in the 80s provided ways of looking into behavior that wasn't easily quantifiable, as well as providing reminders of our own biases and the subjective nature of our conclusions when dealing with something as convoluted and open to interpretation as human behavior.  There was also a whole lot of pseudo-intellectual posturing that came from it, and more than a few examples of archaeologists mis-applying concepts because they simply did not comprehend them.

For example: one approach to studying changes in material culture is to attempt to find similarities between the way that artifacts types change over time and the ways in which biological entities change over time.  While there are some definite issues to be dealt with (people design tools and can do so relatively quickly, while evolution works through a process of random mutation and decidedly non-random selection over many generations), there is some benefit to employing the concept to try to understand how the physical or social environment might result in the selection of certain tool forms over others by the tool's makers and users.

However, this can become problematic when the archaeologist doesn't understand either evolution, or the difference between biological evolution and choices on the part of toolmakers.  This was thrown into stark relief for me one day, when I was in a theory seminar, and we were discussing this approach.  I commented that one way that the concepts of biological evolution could be applied would be to see which changes survived and became more common amongst tool types, and which only appear on a single or small number of known specimens.  The common tools would indicate either a tool well adapted to a variety of uses or tools adapted to a narrow range of common uses (such as an arrowhead - it only serves one purpose, but that purpose is quite common in the life of a hunter/gatherer, so there's a butt-load of the things lying around archaeological sites); the less common tools would either indicate tools that ultimately didn't work or didn't work as well as others, or else were specialized tools for particular niche tasks that were relatively uncommon.

As soon as I said this, one of the other students stated "well, you're forgetting what any biologist could tell you.  Evolution happens at the level of the individual!"

No.  Any biologist could tell you (and many have told me) that mutation occurs at the level of the individual.  Mutations only feed evolution if they spread throughout the population, meaning that evolution is a generational/population-level phenomenon.  This is relevant to the application of the idea to archaeology in that it provides a loose framework for trying to make sense of the relative frequencies of both different types of tools and different traits of similar tools.  When you assume that evolution=individual change, then you get it backwards and can easily doom yourself into attributing more importance to each individual variation than is warranted.

You see this sort of thing occur with all manner of ideas taken from other fields, however: resistance (from literature and history), identity theory (from history and sociology), carrying capacity models (from biology), etc.  Each of these ideas is useful, to an extent, but tends to be at least somewhat misunderstood by many of its adherents in archaeology, and as a result, tends to get somewhat abused and misused.

This is, it should be said, a bit of a shame, as all of these ideas are good ideas, and can be applied to archaeology, but the mis-use by many of the more fervent supporters results in these concepts being misunderstood by other archaeologists, and therefore good ideas get scoffed at due the the enthusiasm of some of the more enthusiastic and misguided.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Oh, Baby!

So, as noted in my last post, I have not posted for about two weeks due to much of those two weeks being taken up with the birth of my daughter and her first week of life.  I am working on a few entries on archaeology, and will hopefully have those up soon.  In the meantime, I am going to do the blog equivalent of showing you boring family photos by showing you family photos on my blog.

I know, you are so excited.

Little Ella Marie was born on Thursday, September 20th, and 7:27 PM, and weighed in at a whopping 9 lbs, 3 oz (outweighing my baby weight by 1 oz, and her mom's by 2 oz).

She had some rough patches in the first five days, with trouble feeding, but we seem to have turned the corner on that, and she is gaining weight and energy every day.  It's true that every baby has some sort of problem, and feeding problems are among the most common, and these do not prevent the child from turning out just fine...

...and I know all of this, which kept me from going into total panic.  Nonetheless, when it's your baby, you have a hard time seeing this for the typical set of issues that it is, and instead worry about the dire potential of the situation.

As a result, the last week has been a worrying one, but now that she is feeding more regularly and seems to be getting stronger and healthier, both Kaylia and I are breathing easier.

Over the last few days, she had two modes: hungry and asleep (well, truth be told, hungry would sometimes grade into frustrated/angry).  However, she has now added brief episodes of "awake and curious" to the mix.

It is too early to tell what her eye color will be, but there are some indications that it may be green like mine (though, in truth, they could very well turn brown like her mother's).  She has ears that match Kaylia's, but she has her dad's cleft chin (statistically speaking, an unusual trait for a girl).

At any rate, I am finding a great deal of satisfaction in simply holding her and having her look up at me.  And I have even taken to reading to her from Doctor Seuss books in the evening - she may not understand anything being said, but she gets to have her dad talk to her, and she seems to like the sing-song timbre of the books.

Okay, I'll get back to archaeology soon, but I felt inclined to share.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

New Arrival

So, my daughter, Ella Marie Metcalfe-Armstrong was born last Thursday at 7:27 PM.  She was 9 lbs, 3 oz. at birth, and her mother was in labor for 51 hours.  So, it should be no surprise that I wrote nothing at all on this blog last week.

I hope to be back up and blogging soon.  In the meantime, I am going to enjoy being a dad.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wacky Adventures in Career Archaeology

As you may have noticed (those three of you who look in here semi-regularly), I have been a bit busy lately and therefore not posting.  It's the usual: baby prep, work business, family issues, etc.  I am going to try to get back to posting 2-3 times a week, but it may take a while.  In the meantime, I will try to post the occasional bit o' stuff when I get the chance.

At the moment, though, I had a few minutes to pause and reflect on the direction that my career has taken over the last six years.  I have, at various points, considered changing careers, either to make more money (I'm doing okay, but I could do better if I went back into business) or to get away from the stress that my job can entail (significantly lower with my current employer).  I have, however, come to the conclusion that while my job has both low and high points, at least I'm not usually bored for long. 

It is difficult to conceive of other lines of work in which you are likely to be ordered by the county coroner to carry human remains in your trunk, run into a macrobiotic dieting cult in the middle of the forest, or discover that your required communications equipment is so poorly adapted to the environment that it literally creates a greater safety hazard than it could possibly solve. 

Even at my job's worst, I have at least gotten good stories about running into grounded boats in the middle of deserts with no water around, being told by oil company executives that "the laws don't apply to people like us" (incidentally, turns out that they do apply), trying to find my way through a maze of improvised roads with no clear landmarks in dense fog, and had weird run-ins with drunk biologists who were tracking rats.

Kaylia, my fiance, has taken to describing my fieldwork as "field adventures."  I would typically disagree with this - digging holes next to a highway in high temperatures is more of an annoyance than an adventure - but there is a degree of truth to it.  When I was younger, I was very timid, and while my friends were out climbing mountains, skydiving, experimenting sexually, going to clubs, and generally finding ways to look for excitement, I was either at work or at home, and feeling a bit down.

Now, most of these friends have moved on, and have jobs in which they sit in an office all day, and go home to a fairly normal home at night.  While there are elements of this that I find agreeable (indeed, I am actively working on the whole "fairly normal home" part of this), I must admit that I get a bit of enjoyment out of being the guy with the best stories when we get together: "Your boss wants that code finished before it's even possible?  That sucks.  Hey, did I tell you about the time that I learned how to chase off a charging pack of dogs armed with nothing but my voice?*"

While there are things that I would change about my career, I think that, on the whole, I've been pretty lucky.

*Yes, this actually happened.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Thinking About Guns

So, after the recent shootings, we have people once again screaming at each other over the legality of firearms.  While debate over issues such as this are healthy, much of what gets thrown about is hyperbole and vitriol, and as such it is just typical stupid politics. As there is alot of shouting and many people whop think that they have well-thought out positions, when they are actually just having knee-jerk reactions covered up by barely coherent figleaf justifications, this annoys me...and if it were likely to lead to any real policy changes, they would probably be bad policy cased on emotional over-reaction and vitriol more than on actual facts.

Before I get into the meat of this entry, I want to tell you where I stand on this issue, so that you will understand my own interests and biases:

As a legal matter, the 2nd amendment is vague regarding actual gun rights.  Yes, I know, you are certain that it states flat-out that the right to keep and bear arms must not be infrigned, or perhaps you are certain that it states that only a well-regulated militia should keep arms.  Go read the damn thing - see the placement of that comma?  That actually makes the phrasing vague.  And in legal terms, the phrasing being vague means that the law itself is vague.  Grow up and deal with the fact that interpreting the amendment is not a clear-cut matter.  If you believe otherwise, then you are reading what you want the text to say, but not what it actually says.

However, I am one of those people who thinks that, in cases where phrasing is vague, the law should be interpreted in the way that people are given a greater degree of freedom vis-a-vis the law. So, I am of the opinion that the 2nd amendment should be read as allowing relatively broad gun ownership rights to the average citizen. 

However, whatever my view of the law, I am myself not a lover of guns.  I do not own guns.  I do not like guns.  I will not have a gun brought into my home.  Unlike many people involved in this shouting match, I am mature enough to understand that people can have a legal right to something without me personally wanting to exercise that right. 

While I strongly dislike guns, I do like many people who themselves like guns. I have known enough gun owners to realize that the notion of the "gun nut" is mostly fiction.  Yeah, there are a few scary firearm owners out there, but my experience is that they are abnormalities and, frankly, the gun owners that I know do not scare me.  They are generally responsible, safety-minded, and not a threat to me or anyone else.

So, my position: I dislike guns, but they should be legal, most gun owners don't bother me and I even really respect the safety-mindedness of most of them, and I am of the mind that most of the vitriol regarding gun control is political nonsense either pushing or opposing an agenda that is calculated to motivate voters rather than forward policy.

Okay, on with the entry...

Much of what the people in favor of weapon bans worry about is dubious or just plain wrong (in other words, it's bullshit): firearm violence is actually much less common than it was even as recently as the 1990s, despite a growing population, and most of what is committed is gang-related and not likely amenable to control using standard gun control measures; most gun violence is committed not with "assault weapons*" but with hand guns; when one compares rates of gun ownership to number of gun homicides, while there is a relationship between the number of firearms and the number of homicides, it isn't exactly the tightest correlation around; events in Europe have demonstrated that mass-killings are not unique to the United States; and when one looks at the numbers and the spread of firearm violence around the world, the inescapable conclusion is that these massacre shootings are both abberations away from trends involving firearms and are not unique to the U.S., though that goes against much popular opinion.

At the same time, people who are opposed to gun control measures are known to spew their own particular brand of bullshit.  While there are incidents where the possession of firearms by the general public has assisted in ending violent attacks, there are many cases where the use of a gun against an assailant is most likely to have increased the body count (consider the logistics of people firing back at the Aurora, Colorado gunman in a crowded theater - the body count can only have gone up if people fired back), so the usual claim of "more guns = less deaths" isn't necessarilly true; while the precise ratio is open to debate, the data does show that firearms in the home are far more likely to result in death or injury due to mis-use or accident than to be successfully used in self defense (indeed, I myself once had a gun pulled on me by a family member who mistakenly thought that I was a burgular - and for the record, I was in a bedroom with the door closed and a light on light on and not skulking about a dark house sneaking up on people); and comparisons often used in rhetoric championed by the NRA is often completely absurd; for example, comparing gun deaths to automobile deaths - an automobile is built for transportation, and as dangerous as it can be, its principle purpose is to transport people and goods; a gun is a weapon, it is designed specifically to kill or injure either a human or an animal [in the case of hunting rifles] - these are not at all the same things and comparing them is mind-bendingly stupid.  Similarly, the phrase "guns don't kill, people do" is as sophomoric and half-witted a slogan as one can have - the tools available influence people's decisions, and that guns make killing easier and more prone to quick impulses can not be ignored.  The tools influence the people just as people use the tools.

But here's the rub.  Both sides are partially wrong, but tend to act as if they are entirely right.  The end result, both have taken up office space in a house of cards. Most people probably don't have a particularly strong view on this subject, but of those who do, there is a polarization into increasingly irrational camps, and advocation of positions that often make little sense.

If there is going to be any meaningful steps taken towards curbing gun violence, they will need to account for the legal realities of gun ownership within the United States, they will have to account for the culture of gun ownership, they will have to account for the real facts of self defense vs. accidental gun deaths, and they will have to be based on the real nature of gun violence - both the truth regarding it's prevalence (ignoring media panic) and regarding how guns play into it (ignoring the NRA's slogans). 

Until and unless we are able to ignore the noise, admit that "my side" can by wrong, and look at the truth of the matter, we shouldn't expect to make any progress regarding gun violence.

*The more time I spend around people who are into guns, the more I come to realize that the term "assault rifle" or "assault weapon" means very little in a technical sense, and as such isn't very useful in actually understanding the issues.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Morro Rock

Morro Rock, at the mouth of Morro Bay, is a large chunk of volcanic rock, over 20 million years old, a result of long-extinct volcanoes along the California coast.  It is one of the Nine Sisters - a chain of similar large volcanic peaks located in San Luis Obispo County - and may represent locations where the continental plate moved over a volcanic hotspot over the eons. 

Of interest to me, Morro Rock is often held to be a sacred place to both Chumsh and Salinan peoples, and given its looming presence at the mouth of Morro Bay, it would be surprising if it weren't.  Unfortunately, like many elements of Native Californian Religion, the importance of Morro Rock is largely preserved through an oral history that has been damaged due to the impacts of Spanish colonization and the post-Gold Rush Americanization of the region. 

When I was in graduate school, I would pass by Morro Bay and see Morro Rock whenever I drove north to visit family in Modesto.  I always thought that I should stop off some day and have a look, but never did. 

Last Saturday, I had the day to myself, and decided to take a drive out to the area, stopping to spend a good part of the day in the town of Morro Bay itself.  The rock, which was once essentially an island off-shore, is now reachable via an artificial sandbar and walkway.  I drove out and parked next to it, and spent some time walking around the 1/3 or so of the rock that has walkways.  Climbing on the rock is prohibited, as it is a bird sanctuary, and given that large slabs of rock often fall off of it's nearly vertical surfaces, climbing on it is not particularly safe, anyway.

Given the history of the area, it was appropriate that, as I drove by the narrow estuary that is Morro Bay itself, I saw a strange canoe in the water.  My first thought was "hey, that looks like a Tomol" the unique Chumash plank canoe.  As I drove, I came to the boat launch, and saw a sign indicating that there was a meeting of Chumash elders that day, meaning that I had, in fact, seen a Tomol.

This was particularly exciting for me as the Tomol has long been prominent in my mind because there are strong arguments that the advent of the Tomol canoe allowed frequent trips across the Santa Barbara Channel, allowing some rather important trade routes to be more reliably opened, sparking the growth of Chumash culture after AD 1000.  I had seen the canoes hanging in museums and in illustrations, but never in use - but here were two of them being paddled around the bay by a group of Chumash elders.  And here I was, perfect timing, with a camera in my hand.

Anyway, I am very happy that I finally decided to visit Morro Bay.  What's more, I discovered that it is only a 2-hour drive from home (for some reason, I had always thought it was a longer drive), which means that getting out to the beach for a day trip is going to become more feasible for me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Science Process and Scientific Literacy

A common theme on this blog is irritation with the scientific illiteracy of much of the public.  This is, it needs to be noted, different from a lack of educational achievement.  While it is popular to divide the world into uneducated cretins and enlightened college graduates, this is complete bullshit.  While certain forms of anti-scientific thinking are popular among those without degrees, things such as vaccine denial, hysteria over GMOs, and belief in bogus "energy healing" are extremely common among people with degrees. 

In fact, my own experience is that those with degrees tend to be far more intractable in their false beliefs in large part because they have degrees.  I have lost count of the number of times that I have had a conversation with someone who was spouting pseudo-scientific nonsense and had them respond finally with "well, I earned a degree from Stanford [or another major university], so clearly I'm smart enough to understand this!"

A degree from Stanford, or anywhere else, in literature or history does not make one knowledgeable about biology, medicine, or physics.  Certainly, someone with such a degree can become knowledgeable about these subjects, but to rely on the fact that you have a degree and not on training on the subject in question is a sign of sloppy thinking.

Most of the time, people are simply accepting whatever is convenient for their social and political views, and ignoring any disconfirming data.  So, people on the political right are perfectly willing to accept marginal and poorly done studies that conclude that there is doubt about climate change contrary to the general scientific consensus, but people on the political left are willing to accept equally dubious studies that allege harm from GMO crops; people on the social right are willing to buy all manner of nonsense about the alleged harms that homosexuals do to their families, but people on the social left are only too ready to accept dubious studies concerning the role of self esteem in crime. 

Part of the problem is, I think, that there is a tendency to equate scientific literacy with acceptance of certain conclusions, a scientifically literate person is one who accepts that evolution occurred, to use one example.  In truth, scientific literacy is about having a knowledge of the methods of science.  Importantly, it is about knowing the parameters under which scientific knowledge is generated.

Let's take the example of the study by Andrew Wakefield that is used to make claims about a link between vaccines and autism.  Many people either accepted it because it gelled with their social and political views (medicine bad, big pharma evil) or rejected it because it clashed with their views (vaccines are part of the progress of mankind!).  Very few people who hold a strong view on it have actually read it.

I did read it.  When I read it, I, like everyone else, was unaware that Wakefield had falsified data or tweaked his results.  But I was struck by two things: 1) the causal mechanism that he suggested, wherein the thimerisol in the vaccine caused inflamation int he digestive tract that allowed infection leading to autism, didn't sound plausible.  However, I am not a medical doctor and am aware that there may be something to this that I simply didn't understand (this recognizing of one's own limits in knowledge is an important part of scientific literacy).  2) The sample size was small, totaling 12 children.  A small sample size is useful in trying to prove the plausibility of a basic concept, but is insufficient for actually proving anything medical because of the high odds of random chance interfering with a sample size that small.

So, after reading it, I went away thinking that it sounded implausible, but that I didn't know enough about the subject to judge that too strongly, and that the sample size was small and larger scale studies would be needed to find a link between vaccines and autism with any confidence.  In other words, my own scientific literacy pointed to the problems with the study, but prevented me from ignoring it outright until such time as further data was generated.  I continued to get vaccinations myself, and encouraged people with children to get them, as the general scientific consensus was still in favor of them, but I was open to the possibility that this might be wrong.

In time, large scale studies were performed, and they showed that there is no link between vaccines and autism, and Wakefield has since been revealed as an outright fraud.  However, by that time, numerous people had jumped on the bandwagon of a hypothesis supported by a dubious small-scale study, leading to the resurgence of numerous nearly eradicated (and in some cases deadly) illnesses.  A greater degree of scientific literacy would have cautioned people early on, and they would have considered the possibility of the study being accurate alongside the need for further study to test the hypothesis.  Considering that children have been injured and killed because of vaccine denial, this is a case where a lack of scientific literacy resulted in very serious consequences.

Recently, studies have been published arguing that organic farming leads to healthier soil and that acupuncture is effective in dealing with pain.  In both cases, people either jumped on board or rejected the claims based on their pre-existing beliefs, without ever actually looking into the contents of the studies themselves.  The acupuncture study was riddled with problems (for a summary of it and similar studies, look here) that effectively eliminate it from consideration, while the organic farm studies are interesting and seem plausible, but tend to have small sample sizes and some methodological problems that decrease their ability to elucidate the issue.  However, you would only know these things if you read the papers themselves and read the scientific discussions and criticisms of the papers, which most people don't.  Most people go to Fox News or the Huffington Post and accept the summary from whichever source aligns with their social and political views without ever questioning the actual science itself.  And, importantly, this is extremely common amongst educated people with degrees from well-respected universities.

Acceptance and rejection of many scientific claims often falls along political lines.  Left-leaning individuals are more likely to accept that acupuncture is great, that organic farming improves soil, and that vaccines cause autism, all without seriously considering problems with and criticisms of the research; right-leaning individuals are more likely to embrace climate change denial and notions like intelligent design.  Those with college degrees are most likely to be able to convince themselves that they are too smart to have been fooled and to be able to rationalize their conclusions, no matter whether they are debatable but possible (organic farming improves soil) or flat-out false (intelligent design).  All are scientifically illiterate, and yet all think that they alone understand the world.

In sum: scientific literacy isn't about having the right knowledge, it's about having an understanding of how science works, which means knowing that one study doesn't "prove" anything, that multiple studies are necessary, the larger the scale the better, and that the criticisms of the studies are important - having certain base knowledge (the Earth orbits the sun, DNA codes many of our traits, etc.) is necessary and important but is no literacy in of itself.  It's about knowing that you are not knowledgeable about any but a narrow range of topics, and that you have to accept that you may be wrong and that people ideologically opposed to you may be right on any given topic.  It's about knowing that your educational background prepares you to evaluate information and ideas within the field that you studied, and does not make you more likely to be able to evaluate information outside of that field.  And, importantly, being scientifically literate means understanding that the things that you wish to be true or that align with your beliefs may be false, and that you have to listen to criticism of ideas that you hold dear, for those criticisms might be correct.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Romanticizing the Egalitarians

As a graduate student, I worked as a teaching assistant as well as a lab instructor, and taught many a student the rudimentaries of anthropology and archaeology. A necessary part of the instruction is explaining the different types of social organization one is likely to encounter in the ethnographic and archaeological records. 

And when you are dealing with alot of idealistic young college students, they tend to become quite enamored with "egalitarian" cultures...pretty much always without having a real understanding of what the term means.

And egalitarian culture is one where everybody is at about the same social level most of the time - someone may become a leader for a short time when their particular expertise or confidence is useful in a situation, only to give way to another leader under different circumstances.  People follow not because someone is a chief or king or any other fixed hierarchical leader, but because that person is able to persuade others to follow them.

There are, of course, many different variations on egalitarian societies.  In some, there may be some degree of formalized leadership, but it tends to be fluid and open to anyone who meets certain requirements (all men past the age of puberty, for example), in others there really are no recognition of leaders, just people who can persuade you to do things.

Naturally, my students would romanticize people who live(d) in these societies.  There was a pervasive notion amongst the undergrads that people who lived in egalitarian societies were inherently more peaceful and led idyllic lives.  One student even informed me that she felt moved to write a paper for another class that compared the (as she saw them) egalitarian and peaceful !Kung San of Africa with our current status-obsessed violent culture, and found us to be quite lacking.

I pointed out to this student that, according to the ethnography on which she was basing her views of the !Kung San, domestic violence was fairly common, and abject poverty the norm.  In other words, there ain't no such thing as Utopia.

What my students never seemed to pick up on is that social organization tends to evolve in place (with the exception of those relatively unusual instances where it is successfully imposed from the outside...even in which cases it tends to e warped to fit local conditions and traditions).  Egalitarian societies are not the product of gentle, enlightened souls who see a better way of organizing, they are the product of a system of resource procurement and use coupled with a low population density that allows such societies to exist without descending into chaos.  Importantly, they only seem to work when you have a society in which there are a small enough number of people that everyone can both keep tabs on each other (to ensure that you are engaged in no wrong doing, and to make sure that you are not aggrandizing yourself) and equally share in the available resources.  As soon as you have a large enough number of people packed into a small enough area, and accompanying resource stress, there is a need for organization in order to distribute what is needed to where it is needed.  In other words, hierarchies, if they haven't formed already, will begin to form.

Now, with our ancestors, it's not clear which came first: did the population density/resource stress require hierarchies to develop, or did hierarchies develop and allow larger population densities to grow?  It's an interesting question, but one that is rather beside the point as far as making judgements go.  Once you have the number of people in the volume of space that occur in modern industrial and post-industrial nations, hierarchies are necessary. 

That's not to say that the hierarchies always work well (they can be inefficient and ineffective) or that they are always nice to live in (ask a 19th century factory work about how much they enjoy life), but they are necessary to allow life to continue past a certain point in human cultural development.  And we're not going to go back without killing off a huge portion of the global population.

If my students had recognized this, then they may have been able to start working towards what they really seemed to want: a society in which there is some degree of social equality even if organizational inequality is necessary - indeed, during the 19th and 20th centuries, progress was even made on this front.  But as long as they romanticized these other cultures without recognizing both what allowed them to work, and the shortcomings of these societies, they were going to be dreamers without a viable cause.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Severing the Hand

Sometimes it seems like the people who work outside of California get all of the weird-ass sites.

So, in Egypt, pits have been found that contain the remains of hands.  Specifically, the remains of severed right hands.  In all, sixteen hands have been found, and some were located in areas where their burial pits in front of the throne room of a Hyksos* ruler by the tongue-twisting name of  Seuserenre Khyan (original paper available here, summaries available here and here). 

The Hyksos and Egyptians shared a practice of post-combat mutilation wherein a defeated opponent's right hand was severed (I have to wonder if, when a left-handed a opponent was defeated, a left hand would have been taken, but I don't know).  This served a few functions: 1) it disabled an opponent, reducing or even destroying their ability to fight again; 2) it was a way of taking an easy tally of the number of opponents defeated (count up the hands, and you have your total); 3) in cases where a bounty was given for defeated enemies, it allowed proof of the defeat.

In this case, Egyptian records make it clear that the severed hands of defeated enemies were  turned in to authorities for "the gold of valor" - that is, a bounty payment. 

When I first read about this, my initial thought was "weird, a bunch of severed right hands!  That's just bizarre!"

But, of course, it really isn't that bizarre.  Post-combat mutilation, whether to the bodies of enemies, or to the still-living enemies, is fairly common, likely even the norm in complex, hierarchical societies that engage in organized warfare.  The histories of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are replete with societies in which trophies were taken of the bodies of enemies, sometimes as proof of their defeat, sometimes for ritual purposes, sometimes for another reason altogether.  And this isn't something relegated to our "savage" past.  In the book Dead Mean Do Tell Tales, forensic anthropologist William Maples indicates that it was common enough for returning GIs to bring some rather grisly trophies back from the war, that when a skull that showed signs of being from a Japanese man was found, they initially assumed that it was the boiled-down remains of a decapitated Japanese soldier that had ended up in a U.S. soldier's grandchildren's attic.

The exact method used varies - sometimes it's a hand, sometimes it's an ear, or the head, or the scalp, or any number of other body parts.  But the intention remains the same - mutilate the enemy, and take a sign of their defeat.  Historically, this has backfired in some ways - there have been places where bounties offered for the removed body part have resulted in people taking the body part from other, innocent people, in order to collect - after all, who is to know whether the scalp came from an enemy soldier or your neighbor? 

In addition to the reasons outlined above, I often wonder whether this prescribed mutilation might serve another purpose.  We often fail to consider how the business of war screws with people's minds.  Indeed, there has long been a tendency in the western militaries to deny that killing and being shot at has much of an effect on your psyche.  But, throughout the world and throughout history, there have been practices geared towards directing the aggression and turmoil of soldiers.  The Bible tells of Hebrew rituals that likely served to help warriors put their acts into perspective, and Roman and Greek sources talk of things that soldiers were and were not allowed to do in and after combat in order to keep them disciplined but also sane; and I rather suspect that if I did a reading of the war practices of other cultures throughout the world, I would see more of the same.  In fact, when I read in the newspaper about U.S. soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan involved in the mutilation of bodies, as much as I may be disgusted, I am not shocked - they are doing something that humans have since the onset of warfare, that it doesn't happen more often is a tribute to the level of discipline in modern militaries.

In this sense, I have to wonder if the prescribed mutilations might serve as a way of directing people's post-combat violent tendencies to a particular, predictable goal and preventing them from acting out in even more destructive ways.  As distasteful as we may find these practices, I can not help but wonder if they served an important purpose. Regardless, archaeology has confirmed that Egypt was also home to this practice.  

*Fun fact - many a biblical literalist, when confronted with the fact that there is no archaeological evidence for the Hebrews having been held captive in Egypt, will claim that there is plenty o' evidence, but that they were known as the Hyksos.  This seems to come from a rather dubious claim made by the early historian Josephus Flavius, backed up by a misunderstanding of the etymology of the word Hyksos.  Despite the fact that both archaeological and historical investigation have proven that the Hyksos were not the Hebrews - and, what's more, were perfectly capable of holding their own militarily, not the subjugated slaves of Exodus - this claim is still frequently made by Biblical apologists.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Movement Rock, Blandness, and Acceptance

I grew up in a neighborhood where a number of the other kids were only allowed to listen to "Christian Rock". As a kid, I was rather unimpressed with the music, but, then, I was also unimpressed with most of the pop music that I heard*, so I didn't think much of it. Years later, I worked with a woman whose music of choice was Christian Rock, and I listened again, and was further unimpressed. I didn't comment on my dislike until she asked me what I thought of it, and then I simply expressed that it wasn't to my taste. Her response was that I disliked it because of the "Christian message."

This wasn't true.

You see, I enjoy blues, I enjoy some jazz, I even enjoy some gospel music, and all of these (especially, and obviously, gospel music) have numerous entries that clearly espouse a Christian message. I may not be overly-fond of the message, and yet I often enjoy the music anyway. Why? Because it is good. The Christian messages in these songs are either expressions of the actual beliefs of the musicians or else expressions of ideas and concepts in play in the culture of the musicians. In other words, they were an inherent part of the musician's artistic intentions, and the music itself is often quite good - driven by the interests, emotions, and passions of the artists.

The Christian Rock that this woman and the kids in my childhood neighborhood listened to? It was essentially just over-produced pablum made to provide parents and teens with the means to listen to something that sounds vaguely like what was popular in the world at large without leaving their bubble and being challenged by outside ideas. It was the musical equivalent of religious Velveeta. What I had heard was less "Christian" music than the soundtrack to a niche marketing campaign.

I would, as time went on, encounter other music that gets grouped in with Christian Rock but which is produced by musicians who were trying to create their own music in their own voice, and was often quite good a result, regardless of my view of the "message". This sort of rock is solid music at worst and legitimate art at best. And yet it is rarely what people play when they play Christian rock, which I always found rather odd.

In the book Rapture Ready, Daniel Raddosh observes that while there is legitmately good art, in the form of music, fiction, visual art, etc., produced by evangelical Christians, much of what floods the Christian niche market (which is itself largely comprised of Evangelical Christians with a particular right-wing political bent) is of poor quality and of bland taste. He attributes this to the fact that much music, fiction, film, etc. is accepted based on its "message" rather than its merit, and as such, the producers who are able to produce the most simplistic, straightforward message are the ones who are easiest to spot as "safe."

More recently, I began to notice this same tendency in the atheist/skeptic communities.  While these communities lack the financial backing to produce the sorts of market-friendly artists that the Evangelical Christian community possesses, and therefore the works produced in and for this community tend to remain quirkier and less "mainstream", there is nonetheless a definite tendency for people to grasp on to the message, rather than the work itself.

For example, I have often, both in person and online, been asked my opinion of George Hrab's music.  Hrab is a professional funk drummer who also produces a wide range of music in many different styles, all of it with his own quirky, oddball twist.  I have heard a few of his albums, and while I don't object to his music, with the exception of a few particular songs, it is not to my tastes.  When I explain this, I typically receive a response of "but he's providing a good, skeptical message in his song lyrics!"  Yes, yes he is...but that I agree with his message doesn't mean that I enjoy the music itself.  In fact, there are times when the message actually hurts the music by using it as a ham-fisted vehicle for delivering a secular sermon.

Now, there are many people that I have met who legitimately like his music, and I say more power to them.  But there is a definite undercurrent of people in these movements who listen to him because of "the message" rather than because they like his music.

Similarly, horror and science-fiction writer Scott Siegler writes stories based, as much as possible, and either real current science and technology, or on reasonable extrapolations thereof.  As a result, he has gained a following amongst the skeptic/atheist community for his "realistic horror" stories (that is, stories that gain horror from potential real events, and not from supernatural nonsense).  I have read one of his novels, and tried to read two others.  While I can see the pulpy appeal of them, they are not for me.  But, again, he is someone who is often held up for promoting a secular, materialist worldview in his writing.  But, if I am reading a horror novel, I am doing so for entertainment, and if I am not entertained, I don't care what worldview the author is promoting.

And yet, people with whom I communicate in these communities routinely express disbelief that I would "fail to support a secular author."

Evangelical Christianity and the atheist and skeptic communities are, of course, not unique in this regard.  I have encountered similar types of emphasis on message-over-substance amongst every group that could be considered a "movement" - from Libertarians to Greens, from hunters to vegans, etc. etc.

This shouldn't surprise us.  That music, writing, visual art, and so on grow up out of these movements is to be expected.  Given that these things have, since at least the early 20th century (even earlier depending on the art form) been essentially commercialized and badges of belonging, it makes sense that many producers would be accepted because they "send the right message" rather than because of their individual merits.

But damn, it is annoying.

*Yeah, I've always been a contrarian.