The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Why Won't You Leave Me Alone?

A common task on my various projects is consultations with Native Americans likely to be concerned about the particular project area.  Usually, this starts with me obtaining a list of concerned NAtive American individuals and organizations for a given geographic region from the California Native American Heritage Commission.  Once I have the list in hand, I write up consultation letters describing the location and the project, and send them out to the groups an individuals listed by the NAHC.  A few weeks later, I will make follow-up phone calls or, when possible, send out emails.  Depending on circumstances, a second round of follow-ups is often necessary as well.

More often than not, I don't receive responses.  However, when I do receive responses, they usually falls into one of five categories:

1) Important information regarding something that may or will be negatively impacted by the proposed work.  When we get this information, we can signal to our client that this is likely to become an issue, and, if they are wise, they will be proactive in working with the Native community to address concerns.  If they are unwise, they will proceed ahead only to get caught up in a public relations battle (and sometimes legal proceedings) down the road.

Responses in this category are unusual, however.

2) Statements that the respondent has no information regarding the project area (the most common response).  This is usually accompanied by a request that the respondent be notified should anything be found during fieldwork.

3) Statements that the respondent has no knowledge about the area, but is concerned about the possibility that the proposed construction will impact previously unidentified archaeological sites or cultural properties.  Usually, responses in this category are well-written and thoughtful, on rare occasion they are just kind of odd or even surreal.

4) Statements that the respondent knows nothing about the project area/that it is outside of their area of interest. 

5) The respondent is irritated that we are contacting them and wants to know why we won't just leave them alone.

It's #5 that I want to talk about here.

Many of the individuals who we contact routinely respond that they are not interested in the various projects about which we try to consult.  I have, on more than one occasion, been screamed at over the phone by a Native American who was sick of getting a constant stream of mail regarding projects in which they are uninterested, and each time they demand to know why we keep contacting them when we know that they don't want to hear from us.

The list of Native American contacts provided by the NAHC is a composed of a group of self-selecting individuals.  They have to ask to be on the NAHC contact list.  However, it's not entirely clear how they get removed, when they get removed.  I have been told by some folks at the NAHC that it is as simple as requesting removal from the list.  However, I have also been told by some of the people on the list that they have been trying for some time to be removed, but that the NAHC has failed to do so. 

I take no sides, I don't presume to know the truth of the matter, this is simply what I have been told.

So, we are put into an odd situation where we are, usually, required to contact them, even if we know that they don't want to be contacted.  As long as they are on the list, a regulator or a member of the public who is looking to litigate against a project can point to our failure to contact even one individual as evidence that we failed to make a good-faith effort to identify cultural resources.  Similarly, a member of the Native American community who is not contacted can create a problem for our clients on the ground that they were not consulted as a stakeholder for a project.  And while those who ask not to be contacted generally don't want to be stakeholders, if there is one thing that is true about humans in general, it's that they are an unpredictable lot who are prone to changing their minds.

At the same time, it is understandable that many of these individuals and organizations might want to no longer be contacted.  One thing I have been told frequently is that those who signed up for the NAHC list had no idea just how many notifications they would receive in the course of a year.  Moreover, when they do tell us anything, we put it in our report, and most of the time the resources that are known are avoided, so from their perspective, nothing happened.  Some clients and government agencies are better than others in involving Native participation, meaning that while there are good outcomes, there are also many bad outcomes.  So, on those occasions where it doesn't seem like nothing happened, there is a fair chance that it will seem like something has gone awry.

So, again, I get why being on the list may seem like a waste of time.

Nonetheless, as long as they are on the list, I am required to contact them.  Which means that I can expect a future filled with unresponded-to letters, and the occasional episode of having someone scream at me that they don't want to be contacted, despite the fact that they remain on the list.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Tesla, Edison, and Narrative Formation

So, a cartoon on the oatmeal regarding Nikola Tesla inspired a response from a columnist at Forbes, which in turn prompted a response from the cartoonist at the Oatmeal.  What is interesting about this particular case is that both authors are (correctly) pointing out that the other is engaged in cherry-picking, exaggeration, and occasional "creative interpretation" of the facts. 

Contrary to the Oatmeal author's assertions to the contrary, Tesla is increasingly not only not ignored, but there is something of a "cult of Tesla" amongst a large number of people ranging from out-there conspiracy theorists who see an over-simplified version of the Tesla-vs.Edison story as a microcosm of the "us vs. the powerful conspiracy vs. the sheeple" narrative that they have, to tech gurus who see Tesla as a genius misunderstood, rather like the prefer to think of themselves (and for many of these people, the claim that Tesla is completely ignored by everyone but them is part of how they identify with the story).  In defense of the Oatmeal*, the cult of Tesla is a relatively recent development, and exists largely as a pop culture phenomenon rather than a fixture of the educational system, like the cult of Edison.

Until fairly recently, Tesla has, of course, largely been ignored by most of the public.  While everyone knows of Thomas Edison, it is only in the last decade or so that Nikola Tesla has gained any sort of wide recognition from the public.  Tesla's genius did make him, in many ways, ahead of his time, while his deteriorating mental health made him increasingly an outsider prone to making wild claims**.  Edison, meanwhile, was probably not the kindest or most generous of men, but he did play a significant role in the development of the modern world, whether or not his own grandstanding and marketing was geared towards making his role seem even larger.

What both narrative have in common is that they seek to create a hero.  Either Edison was a flawed, but ultimately strong and significant, man who created the modern world, or Tesla was a lone genius capable of great things, done in by the evil dictator of engineering, Thomas Edison.  While the authors of both narratives make concessions to the presence of other narratives (such as occasionally admitting when Edison did something shitty, or when Tesla was talking out of his ass), they nonetheless tend to commit to their heroic narrative to the degree that they will ignore confounding information.  For example, the author of the Oatmeal notes that one of Edison's assistants died due to Edison's experimentation with X-Rays and notes that Edison jumped to human experimentation without working first with animals, but fails to note that this was not uncommon at the time (in other words, there was a cultural precedent) and that Edison experimented on himself as well as his assistant, that the assistant volunteered and was enthusiastic, and  that Edison was apparently haunted by the death of the man (not the trait of an evil mad scientist or soulless industrialist). 

By contrast, the author of the Forbes piece downplays Tesla's importance by pointing out that Tesla's work was often just one component of larger attempts to tackle engineering problems, while advocating in favor of Edison's genius while pointing out that, well, Edison's work was often just one component of larger attempts to tackle engineering problems.  The Forbes article comes of as, frankly, a bit more honest, while it should bee noted that the Oatmeal never claims to be either thorough or factually correct. 

Okay, Armstrong, so why the hell are you going on about this?

Simple, while neither the Oatmeal nor Forbes are history publications (the Oatmeal is humor, Forbes is about business), both nonetheless wade into the waters of historic narrative, and both engage in the sort of myth-making that is common when the lay public, and many professional historians, engage in this. It's worth noting this both because of it's  interesting in its own right, but also because similar processes are used to sway us when someone is constructing a politically, religiously, or socially motivated historic narrative, and looking at it happen can help to sort it out.

Look at the Oatmeal comic and the Forbes article side-by-side, and reflect that both are as accurate with their facts as the other (and neither is playing particularly fast-and-loose), and yet both reach very different conclusions about the virtues of Tesla and Edison respectively.  Consider that the exact same process is at work whenever you see an evaluation of a historic event or person (even recent history, say the first part of the Obama Administration or the entirety of the Bush Jr. administration) and reflect that by simply downplaying some facts, or paying greater attention to others, even someone who is not trying to deceive can reach a conclusion that is far more personal opinion than defensible conclusion. 

Now consider that most people outside of academic history and Journalism (and even a minority of people within those fields) will provide historical narratives only because they want to use it to push an agenda, and as such they are often more tied to the agenda than to the facts.  If you can be pushed to reach such different conclusions using legitimate information, consider just how far astray you may be led by someone who wants you to believe a falsehood.

*There's a phrase I never thought that I would write.

**Some of the more "out there" members of the cult of Tesla seem to either reject that Tesla's mental health was in poor shape, or simply ignore it, and take many of his more dubious claims about what he had figured out (such as wirelessly transmitting electricity) at face value.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Long Night

Normally I post something on Monday mornings, typically it is written the night before or over the weekend.  However, this weekend was spent dealing with family functions, and then Kaylia and I spent the entirety of last night in the emergency room (everyone's fine, but she was showing symptoms that have a 50% chance of being no big deal, and a 50% chance of being a serious condition - turns out that, luckily, the "no big deal" side won out and all is well - oh, and Kaiser Permanente's personnel really impressed me last night, I can't speak for anywhere else, but their Fresno Emergency room staff were good people).

So, no new post today, and likely not until Wednesday.  Sorry about that.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Professional Knowledge Vs. Sources

A few days ago, a friend of mine posted a link to a column on regarding the misconceptions that people have about U.S. history.  One of the issues discussed in the column was the tendency for most modern people to think of the pre-European contact native peoples of the Americas as both primitive and few in number.  In the process of discussing the matter, though, the columnist routinely drew from population figures that seemed, at the very least, to be a bit inflated.  This likely wasn't entirely the columnists fault - population estimates for prehistoric populations tend to vary widely depending on the methods (and sometimes motives) used by the person doing the estimates, and the author of the column (or, more likely, their source) appears to have used the highest population figures that they could find in order to bolster their arguments about the sophistication of Native American groups*.

So, I commented on the link, noting that the population sizes given seemed, to me, to be rather on the large size, and likely weren't very accurate.  My friend responded by asking me to cite sources.

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable response.  Initially, my ego was a bit bruised (as I deal with analyzing these sorts of things for a living, I have grown accustomed to people just taking my word for things when, in fact, they should be asking more questions), but once I got over myself, I realized that this was a perfectly reasonable thing to ask.

The problem, however, is that there is no one good source to which I could direct my friend.

There are literally hundreds of published papers that provide prehistoric population estimates, usually providing detailed descriptions of the methodology used for making the estimates, and there are other sources that synthesize and summarize this information, though typically without providing a good description of the methods used to reach the various population estimates.  But there are no good resources that summarize the difficulties of estimating populations, nor the generally unreliable nature of most estimates.  This is something that is, quite simply, professional knowledge held by every archaeologist, and gleaned from spending several years in graduate school reading article after article, paper after paper, and book after book in which population estimates are made, and noting the various pros and cons of every method that you encounter. 

In the case of population estimates, they are always proxy measures, as prehistoric peoples, by the very nature of being prehistoric (that is, not leaving behind written records) didn't leave us with a census.  You can count burials in a cemetery, but this assumes that most of the people who died in an area were buried in its cemeteries (which is often not the case), that funerary customs and taphonomic conditions typically resulted in remains that will preserve archaeologically (often not the case), and that the burials provide a representative sample of the population (visit your local cemetery and note the volume of old vs. young people, as well as evidence of age associated with economic status, and you'll quickly see that this assumption usually doesn't hold).  So, once you do your count, you have to make a number of assumptions in order to come up with a population estimate.

Similarly, you could identify an artifact or feature (say, for example, house remains) and estimate population based on that.  The problem there, though, is that you have to make some assumptions regarding the number of people per artifact or feature, and these assumptions are often rather shaky.  Even when they're well founded, they still require an assumption that the ration of people artifact/feature remained stable across space and/or time, which is often not true. 

There are other methods, but what they all have in common is that we are trying to use some object or material that preserves archaeologically, and convert the number/volume into a population estimate.  And to do this, we have to make a number of assumptions (the precise assumptions made vary depending on the specific proxy measure), and this is rather problematic.  This is why archaeologists who are honest will both show their work and provide a range of possible population sizes (for example, John Johnson, in his doctoral dissertation examining prehistoric populations in the Santa Barbara Channel area, explained what his sources of data were, the shortcomings and benefits of each of those sources, and then provided a range of possible population sizes, rather than assert that a population of one particular size occupied the area - and then he followed that up by explaining that his estimates were the best that could be done with his data, but might well be wrong).

The problem, though, is that I have learned this by reading research papers, articles, and books, and from trying to apply some of these methods myself.  It's not something for which there is a ready-made source to which I can point people.  There was a decent article for the lay public published on of all places that summarized some of these issues, but even it was rather simplistic in its descriptions, and exaggerated that guesswork side of things a bit. 

This got me thinking about the sheer volume of other issues that my colleagues and I are aware of simply by virtue of our training or repeated professional exposure, but for which we can not point people towards one, or even a few, good sources to summarize the issues.  These include issues ranging from the use of comparative ethnography in archaeological work; both the correct and invalid use of linguistic similarities in determining cultural affiliation; when it is valid to use old sources, and when it is a bad idea to do so; and when data patterns are due to human activity as opposed to natural movement and degradation of items over time within an archaeological site.

I don't know that there is a good way around this.  One could certainly write a source and try to get it published (the publication part is a bit problematic for a variety of reasons that I am going to get into at the moment), but it would, by definition, be outdated almost as soon as it appeared, and it would only cover one specific subject, while there remain many others uncovered.  On the other hand, I can routinely go into descriptions of these problems when I encounter them, but that may or may not satisfy individual people asking questions and I am only one person doing it.

So, it is something I will have to think about (and, if I am lucky, get some of my tenured academic colleagues to think about it - they get paid to write, whereas I do not).  I am not convinced that it is unsolvable as a problem, but it is so far unsolved.

*The irony of this is that the population size estimates are not the most important elements to establishing cultural sophistication, but for some reason we tend to equate statements such as "settlement X had a population bigger than London's" with an assertion that the settlement was, therefore, in some (usually unclear) way more complex than London, when, in fact, all that has been claimed is that it was larger.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Genitals of Stone

So, if you have not yet heard, there is a bit of buzz out right now regarding the discovery of 37,000 year-old rock art in France.  The discovery, made in 2007 and being published currently, indicates the early presence of Homo Sapien Sapien (ya' know, our species) in Europe, and corroborates a narrative that holds that anatomically modern humans were in Europe by 40,000 years ago. 

Also making a bit of a buzz is the claim that the rock art depicts a vulva. 

While most of us are interested in this find because of its age, there is a contingent of my colleagues who are fascinated by the proposed subject matter of the image.  And get your minds out of the gutter, the interest comes from the fact that for so much of human history, we have had an obsession with either discussing or not discussing sex and genitals, and it is really not understood where this cultural predilection comes from, nor what it means about us as a species.  So, when we see early examples of either genitals or sexual intercourse in ancient art, it gives us another piece in the puzzle that (we hope) illustrates just how much our sex obsessions are based in biology, and how much they are based in culture.

Or, at least, it gives us another piece if the rock art actually represents what we think it represents. 

See, the problem is that many of the images that we see in rock art are not clear insofar as what they represent.  When we deal with recent rock art, we can often ask the people who made it, or their direct descendants, what the images may mean and reach some sort of conclusion.  With older rock art, it is much less clear.  Even when we know what an image represents, we still have to work out its actual meaning - sure, that's a painting of a wild goats, but does that mean that you were hunting goats?  That you were using some form of sympathetic magic to take on some attribute of a goat?  That you just like goats? 

Often, we can find clues to help us make a bit more sense in the surrounding rock art, or from features and artifacts present at the rock art site.  However, even then, our ideas regarding the meaning of the rock art remain preliminary and incomplete. 

I wrote, several years ago, about a rock art site in California where we saw images that have typically been assumed to be vulvae.  At the time, I was struck by just how amazingly close the rock carvings were to another human body part: the eye.  These things seriously looked like human eyes that were just glaring at anyone passing by.  However, much of the rock art interpretation written for the area described them as female genitals, which just seemed odd to me.  While I am admittedly not an expert on rock art, I really felt like repeatedly writing the phrase "sometimes an eye is just an eye" on the site forms.

The rock art from Europe, pictured below (linked to Gawker media), may represent a vulva.  It also may represent some other object, or perhaps even be an abstract representation of a concept.  I don't know.  I am, again, not an expert on rock art, but when I read about rock art, I often have to wonder just how many experts on rock art actually are experts.  While many of the descriptions seem reasonable and make sense, it is just as common to read odd flights of fancy about the alleged inherent human bio-psychology regarding colors or shapes that, frankly, typically makes little sense.

So, does the presence of a circle with a line in it indicate an early human attempt to represent genitals, and thus sexuality?  Yeah, maybe, it's a perfectly plausible explanation.  However, it is also entirely possible that we're applying our own often loopy post-Freud assumptions about sex onto ancient peoples who were trying to represent something completely unrelated. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Burritos of London

When I was visiting London a couple of years back, I was surprised by the number of burrito places that I saw.  When I had traveled to the Midwest, the Rockies, or even up the west coast a bit farther north, I had been severely disappointed with the quality of the Mexican food that I usually encountered.  In some places it was simply poor quality or preparation, while in others (especially in Aspen, Co), it was that someone had managed to take very high quality ingredients, and through a particular upper-class form of high skilled preparation, make them into something astoundingly bland and uninteresting.

I had, in short, thought of burritos as a food best eaten in Mexico, California, Arizona, and Texas.

And here I was, in London, noticing a large number of burrito shops.  Not taquerias, as I would see at him, min you, but burrito shops.  In London.  Unlike Aspen, not even on the same continent as Mexico.  What the hell?

Of course, this shouldn't have surprised me.  London is a huge, cosmopolitan city.  People from every nation on Earth have migrated to London, just as has happened with San Francisco, Tokyo, New York, Paris, etc. etc.  So, really, there are Mexicans living in London.  What's more, some of them are likely chefs or cooks, and the presence of Mexican food, and specifically the ever-popular burrito, shouldn't have surprised me.

And yet it did.

I am not someone who demands the "authentic local" dining experience when I go somewhere.  Yes, I will eat the local foods, and usually enjoy them (the food was easily the highlight of my trip to Japan, for example, and I wasn't even eating high quality food there, it was just really tasty), but I am aware that I am am an outsider, and as such, I don't have any illusions that I am living as a local even as I try to see and do what I can.  Nor am I one of those people who adopts the attitude that food prepared far away from it's point of origin must necessarily be bad. I have had excellent Italian food, excellent French food, and excellent Japanese food in places nowhere near any of those countries, so there is no reason why I couldn't get a good burrito in London.

And yet I was afraid to even try.  I can make excused - I was worried that the sauce would be insufficiently spicy, or that the meats would be inappropriately seasoned, or some such thing.  But none of this was true.  The simple fact of the matter is that, somehow, and I cannot put my finger on why, a burrito just seemed horribly out of place in England.  I could accept curry, I could accept tomatoes (which, like burritos, come from the Americas), I could accept Japanese katsu in London, but I could not, for some bizarre reason, accept burritos.

I have no idea why this was.  But it makes me curious.  Is there any food that you, the readers, enjoy, but could not bring yourselves to eat while visiting a particular place?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Landowner Fun!

I am currently engaged in a project to evaluate the potential for changes to a transmission line to impact cultural resources.  Translation:  I'm walking along, underneath power lines*, looking for archaeological sites.

The thing about power line surveys is that they tend to take you across alot of privately-owned land.  Now, to be clear, we are walking in existing easements, meaning that we are on land that the landowners knew was used by the utilities companies when they bought the land, so out presence shouldn't come as too much of a surprise.  Nonetheless, these types of projects tend to produce some unpleasant interactions with land owners.

Note one thing - I am not going to talk about any interactions with landowners that I have had during this project.  For a variety of reasons, this would be unprofessional, and I'm not going to do it.  However, I can speak about past projects, ones now long-since resolved and where describing these interactions will not create a problem, provided that I don't actually tell you who (other than me) was involved, or where they occurred.  Okay?  Okay.

Actually, come to think of it, note another thing: I am actually sympathetic to the landowners.  I'd be taken aback too if I saw strange people wandering on my land, even if I knew that the utlities company had an easement.  It's a bit weird and alarming to see strangers in an area where you anticipate nobody that you don't know, and I get why they can be a bit irate.  For this reason, I do a few things to try to make it clear that we are not sneaking onto their land or trying to get away with anything.  I wear a bright-orange safety vest, and I make all members of my crew wear similar vests, so that we will be clearly visible.  Whenever we pass near a building, I try to keep an eye open to see if there are any people out, and if there are, I at the very least wave to them, and if feasible, I'll walk over and talk to them, letting them know who I am and what i am up to.  If our project area passes near a house's main entrance, I will try knocking on the door to let the land owner know that I am there.  And, on rare occasion, when I have a phone number, I will call ahead of time to let them know that I am coming.

When we encounter landowners, there's, somewhat surprisingly, usually no issues.  Most of them see that we are trying to be visible, and while they may not be happy about us being there, they understand that they did buy land with an easement**, they get that we are there because our bosses sent us there, and they are perfectly polite to us.  Nonetheless, there is still occasional confrontation.  Interestingly, the confrontation usually moves in a predictable way, almost as if it had been scripted ahead of time.  Here's a common example:

Landowner:  Why are you sneaking onto my property?

Me:  Hello.  We're not sneaking on, I apologize if this came off that way.  We were told that [my client] had notified all landowners that we would be through here.  Also, we are wearing safety vests to be visible to all landowners so that you can be sure that we are not deviating from the line's route.

Landowner:  Oh, so [my client] thinks it can send people to sneak onto my land?

Me:  As I say, to the best of my knowledge, [my client] notified landowners.  I apologize if you did not receive notice...

Landowner:  Nobody told me you'd be here!***

Me:  Would you like us to leave?

Landowner:, I guess you should finish your work.

It is, in my experience, always good to offer to leave when confronted by the landowner, as they will almost never ask you to - they know that the easement exists and they don't have a right to keep utilities crews off of the lines - but this puts them into a position where they can not honestly claim that you were rude, pushy, or otherwise troublesome.  On the off-chance that they ask you to leave, it becomes the utility company's job to deal with them, and they utility company has more time and money (and ways to avoid firearms) to dedicate to it than you do.

In other cases, the landowner is indifferent to us doing our work, but they do not grasp that, as a contractor, I am not in a position of authority with the utility company, and complaining to me won't solve whatever dispute they have with the utility company.

For example...

Landowner:  What are you doing out here?

Me: We're doing [appropriate-level description of what we're doing] on the transmission lines.

Landowner:  What is [my client] planning on doing?

Me: They are [insert description of project that my client allows me to provide to people].

Landowner:  Oh yeah?  Well, last time YOU GUYS came through, you [thing that landowner blames my client for].

Me:  Yeah, that sounds bad.  I'm sorry that that happened, but I'm a contractor to [my client], not their representative.  I don't know anything about what happened before.

Landowner:  Really?  So, then, how are you going to keep it from happening again?

Me:  Like I say, I'm a contractor, I don't know anything about [bad incident], I wasn't around for that.  I don't know why it happened.  You'll need to talk with [client public contact for project].

Landowner:  No, you are here now, you are part of [my client], you are going to answer for THIS!

Me:  I am not part of [my client], I am a contractor.  I am here to do [appropriate level of description of my task], and nothing else.  I don't know anything about your concern, and can't help you, as much as I would like to.

Landowner:  This is what's wrong with [my client] - you all want to kick the can to someone else!

Most people are perfectly capable of grasping the difference between a contractor and a company's representative.  But every now and again, you'll get one of these people who either can't or doesn't want to grasp that yelling a single-service contractor about something outside of their service area is both futile and stupid.

Oh well.

There are also landowners who will try to challenge us on the utility company's need to have someone on their land - even though they will freely admit that they bought the land knowing that it had an easement.

These conversations go something like...

Landowner:  What are you doing on MY land?

Me:  We're contractors to [my client].  We're doing transmission line surveys for [description we're allowed to give].

Landowner:  Oh, and so [my client] needs to be on MY land for that, do they?

Me:  I don't know the technical specifications.  As I say, I'm here for [appropriate description], and a construction person would need to answer your question.  [client's point of contact] could help you out.

Landowner:  So, you don't want to tell me what is going to happen on MY land!

Me:  I can't tell you because I don't know.  Like I say, a construction person could explain how they're going to [description of work] and where they'll need to be for it.

Landowner:  Then why isn't a construction person the one out here?

Me:  Because a construction worker can't do my job.  I have to be out here.

Landowner:  So, YOU don't want to answer my question!

Me:  I did answer your question to the best of my abilities.  You'll have to speak with [client's point of contact].

Landowner:  So, [my client] thinks that they need to be on MY land to [project description, usually mangled].

And the conversation just spins in circles for a while until they get bored and/or figure out that I am neither going to feel intimidated by them, nor fly off the handle and give them reason to complain to my client.

Then, of course, there's the ones who mean well, and are perfectly polite, but who simply don't understand that you have a job to do, and it would be easier to do without them stepping into the middle of it.  Oh, and these people also don't understand what it is that you actually do.  Here's an example from my early days in archaeology, when I worked with one of the few remaining colleges that still sent archaeologists out to do basic CRM work...

Me:  Hi, we're from Cabrillo College.  We're here to do the survey.

Landowner:  Oh, yes!  So, what is it that you're looking for?

Me:  Well, we're archaeologists, so we're looking for artifacts, bedrock mortars, things like that.

Landowner:  Oh, so, are you going to be looking for earthquake fingers?

Me:  What's an earthquake finger?

Landowner:  Oh, you know.  There's also some interesting rocks around back, they seem to be coming out of a layer in my garden, and I think they're unusual in this area.

Me:  Oh!  No, you're thinking of geologists.  They study rocks and soils.  We're archaeologists, we're just looking for evidence of past human remains - so the sites of old villages or hunting sites, stuff like that.

Landowner:  Well, these rocks are interesting, and you might want to look at them.

Me:  Do they look like they were made into tools?

Landowner:  Oh, now, they're much older than people.  But they look kind of volcanic to me, so someone in your line of work would be interested.

Me:  Ma'am, as I said, we're not geologists.  We're only interested in rocks is they have been modified by humans.

Landowner:  Right, yeah, yeah.  So, anyway, those rocks might be important.  Also, I assume that you are going to be looking for earthquake fingers!

She proceeded to follow us around for the next hour, talking constantly about the damn rocks (which turned out to be old chunks of concrete) and "earthquake fingers" (which I believe was the mutant power of one of the X-Men).  We could have gotten the work done in half of the time if she had left us alone.

Anyway, there you go, landowner encounters are fun!

*And, no, I am not worried that this will somehow cause me to get cancer, for I am scientifically literate and know how to look up studies to find out what claims are bullshit.

**Most of the easements that I have walked are for lines that are 70+ years old, so while there may be the occasional person who inherited land with the easement, the vast majority bought the land knowing full well that there was an easement.

***While I suspect that some landowners are sometimes not notified, I have often been holding a signed letter stating that we are allowed on the land by the person claiming that they were not notified.  On other occasions, I have spoken with landowners on the phone the night before to make sure that they were okay with our presence, only to have them tell me the next day that they never received notice.  In other words, while this is sometimes probably true, I have unfortunately learned that most people lie about not having been notified.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

So, You Want to be a Paranormal Researcher? Part 1

Every now and again I get an email at the ghost story blog from someone who wants to engage in "paranormal investigations" and wants some pointers.  So, I thought I'd write up what most of them have asked for as a blog post to which I can point them in the future.  I should also not ethat this was inspired, in part, by entries written by my friend Dave Hasbrouk

Now, let me make it clear to whom this entry is addressed - there is a sub-set of people who wish to engage in paranormal investigations who actually want to do it well and in a way that produces usable results.  These folks may or may not believe that they are going to find something, but they absolutely want to make sure that if they do, it will be something that could convince any fair-minded but discerning audience.  So, I am writing specifically for some of those people, not for the large number of people who simply engage in ghost hunting for fun (and activity with which I have no problem), or those who are convinced that there is some sort of big, bad "scientific establishment" out to "hide the truth" (a viewpoint based in delusion)

There is no shortage of how-to guides both in print and online, and pretty much every one of them is filled with nonsense.  I am, admittedly, not an expert on paranormal claims (I would point out that such a title is pretty much always self-appointed, though), but I am trained as a scientist, which means that I know how to look for and analyze data, and also that I know the potential that we all have to fool ourselves into thinking that we have proven something that we actually failed to prove (the entire scientific method is, in fact, built around trying to prevent a researcher from fooling themselves).  So, my how-to-guide isn't going to tell you what equipment to use, but it will tell you how to think about what you are doing so that, should you find something, it is likely to be something real and not simply a figment of your own imagination.

This is in two parts - Part 1 is about data gathering, and points out some of the basic issues involved in gathering your data.  Part 2 will be about the use of technology in gathering data.  Part 3 will be about theory - that is, the body of evidence and conclusions that form the basis of any solid research.  So, here we go with the data gathering:

Do your background research!

Typically, the paranormal investigators that I have encountered will assume that local rumors or folklore are accurate descriptions of historic events at an allegedly haunted location.  The problem is that they usually aren't.  It's pretty much a given that in looking into ghost stories for a location I will encounter someone who claims that a particular person once owned a property only to discover that the person is not in the chain of title for the property in question, or that a location housed a particular type of facility that even preliminary historic research demonstrates never existed on said property, or that there will be claims exaggerating real events (a good example is that hospitals with reputations for being haunted are often said to have had a number of deaths that, if accurate, would actually have killed more people than lived in the region that the hospital serviced).  That doesn't even get into the number of places that are allegedly built on Native American burial grounds, but are, in fact, quite a distance away from any type of archaeological site at all.

Here's the thing - records exist for all of these things.  The archaeological records are hard to access (there's alot of issues with sites being looted, so site records are usually considered confidential), but most of the other records can be gained through visiting the county assessor's office (to work out the historic ownership of a parcel) or even the local library (many libraries have local history sections that have both published works and primary sources for regional history).  If the property that you are looking into is particularly famous, you may even be able to find books written by qualified historians documenting the history of the place.  In addition, looking into more general local information will provide a good reality check - for example, if a hospital is reputed to have had 1,000 deaths per day due to tuberculosis, but is located in a county that at the time of the outbreak had a population of 10,000, you can be pretty sure that the death estimates are bullshit.

This background research is usually not easy - it takes time, effort, and a willingness to deal with basic bureaucracy, which can be trying.  However, if you have not done it, then you have no reason to assume that any of the information that you have gathered for a property is in any way accurate.  More importantly, if you have failed to do this research because it is hard and time consuming, then you have essentially demonstrated that you are more interested in the folklore than the fact, which is fine in of itself, but it does mean that you should call yourself a folklore collector and not a paranormal researcher, as you are failing to do even the most basic preliminary level of research research.

If nothing else, the fact that you can correctly point out where the folklore gets the facts wrong, and also give a well-documented accounting of what non-supernatural things are known to occur in a place, you will buy a good deal of credibility with whomever you are speaking.

The Problems of Eyewitness Testimony

Okay, you've done your background research, and now you're ready to collect data.  No problem, there's loads of people who have experienced strange things at the location of the investigation, so you're going to have no shortage of eyewitnesses to weirdness!  The skeptics will have to have their eyes opened when they can't explain what people have seen, heard, and experienced here.  AmIright, or what?

Well, no, not really.

See, most data regarding supernatural events comes from eyewitness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. In fact, it is increasingly becoming a concern when used as evidence in trials, see here, here, here, and here.  In fact, the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey recently made a ruling calling out for new rules to be used in eyewitness testimony because of the problems with eyewitness unreliability.

There's a fair chance that you are reading this and wondering just what the hell rulings on criminal law have to do with paranormal investigations.  It's relevant because the issues with eyewitness testimony in a criminal trial also apply to every other form of eyewitness testimony.  And understand, these criminal cases involve trained observers such as police detectives, as well as people who have often witnessed huge important events (and are therefore often certain that they have a vivid memory of said event), and they are testifying in cases that at the very least involve property and are often literal matters of life and death.  If eyewitness testimony is problematic in criminal trials, it's fair to say that it is at least as problematic in a paranormal investigation.

Eyewitness testimony has its place, but from a scientific standpoint it is a weak form of evidence, and should never be taken at face value without other evidence to back it up.  There are a few reasons for this, and you need to understand them if you are going to actually use eyewitness testimony (including your own) as evidence for a claim.  Basically, it boils down to the limited nature of human perception.

Our eyes don't see all of our field of vision at any one point in time.  They are constantly moving, scanning, and only see a small portion of our field of vision at any given instant.  Our brain compensates by filling in the rest of the picture via our memory of what our eyes saw the last time we looked in a direction, as well as our general memory to fill in gaps.  As a result, it is common for people to mistake one type of object for another if it is hovering just at the edge of our field of vision - our brain fills in the details and tells us that one thing is in the area when something else is (edited 7-17-12: the webcomic XKCD has a great illustration of this here).

A case in point - a couple of years ago, I was standing in the post office, when a woman walked in behind me.  I saw her just out of the corner of my eye, and she bore a striking resemblance to the character of Veronica Palmer from the show Better off Ted, complete with grey business suit.  When I turned around again, I realized that, while the woman was tall, thin, and blonde, she otherwise bore no resemblance to the character, and her clothing consisted of a white shirt worn under a black apron from the bakery across the street.  My eyes had caught just enough of her to mark a few elements of size and color, but not enough to accurately account for her appearance, and so my brain filled int he rest with an image from memory that had some similarities.  When I turned around and was able to actually see her, she bore little resemblance to what I originally thought that I had seen.

This is very common - all of us do it, it's how our vision works.  And when we're tired, or stressed, or pre-occupied, or in low-light conditions, our eyes don't scan as well, and our brain has to go into overtime filling in gaps that our eyes are missing.  It's the reason why so many ghost witnesses describe seeing things "just at the edge of my vision."  And remember that our brain seeks patterns from our memories, so if you are constantly reading paranormal books, watching horror movies, etc., then the things that your brain has to draw from include those things as well - in other words, your' vision of an apparition might just be your brain trying to compensate for tired eyes. And, weirdly, these false images actually mean that your brain is working correctly, even when your eyes might not be.

In other words, many a spooky encounter might be due to the fact that our eyes suck.

There's another problem with perception that comes into play, as well.  This is called pareidolia, the tendency for our brains to try to force a recognizable pattern onto randomness.  It's the reason why we often perceive faces in the leaves of shrubbery, animals in the shapes of clouds, and so on.  It doesn't just work in our vision, though.  People tend to hear voices or music in what is clearly just random noise (for some cool examples, go here), and may even feel sensations on their skin that they misinterpret due to unfamiliarity. 

Okay, though, you have someone telling you that they saw something head-on, that it wasn't at the corner of their eyes, it was very detailed (ruling out simple pareidolia), that they were well-rested and out in daylight, and it was there long enough that it couldn't have simply have been their brain filling in details until their eyes could catch up.   What's more, there's no reason for this person to lie.  That would be proof, right!

Well, this is definitely better evidence than is usually presented to support claims of hauntings.  However, there is another problem: human memory.

People tend to think of memory as being like a computer's hard drive - data is stored, and then recalled as needed.  This isn't how it actually works, though.  Our memories are malleable, always changing, and changing due to a number of factors.  To make matters worse, whenever we recall a memory, we don't simply re-play it, we re-write it, taking things out and adding things in as befits the narrative forming in our mind at that time.  This means that our especially vivid, often recalled memories (where you were on 9/11, the first kiss with your spouse,  the death of a pet, your favorite childhood outing) are far more likely to be flat-out wrong than the memories that we recall less often.  And, to make matters worse, we can form unshakable, but patently false, memories due to suggestion.  And this is important:  this is true of normal, perfectly sane and healthy people.  This is not unique to people with psychiatric disorders, it is true of every human on the planet. 

To make matters even worse for eyewitness testimony, these tendencies are very prone to impacts from our direct experiences and social pressures.  This is the reason why someone who doesn't take ghosts seriously is very unlikely to encounter one, while people who hang out with believers are very likely to experience one.  Our brains are processing information based in part on the external world, and in part on our own internal workings and the social pressures working on us.

So, a perfectly sane, honest person can have fabricated memories of events based on their own psychological pressures as well as on the faultiness of human perception. 

By all means, gather eyewitness accounts.  These can be valuable when you are trying to figure things out.  But be aware that even the best eyewitness account is poor data from a scientific standard because of all of the issues discussed above.

Third Men, Emotion, and Perception

Related to the above-discussed issues with human perceptions, you also have a few other psychological factors at work that can be problematic to someone wanting to research a haunting.  Let's start with reported emotions.

When you read the accounts of haunted places, a very common thing that ersatz researchers will report is feelings of dread, fear, or startlement that they encountered when entering an allegedly haunted location.  Many people, called themselves "sensitives" will act as if their experience of these feelings is somehow objective proof of something spooky.

The problem is that we tend to ignore what our emotions actually our.  Our emotions are not the results of us somehow receiving "vibes" through the air, or being hit by weird energies (indeed, when someone talks about "energies" or "vibrations", you can be pretty sure that they don't know what they are talking about).  Our emotions are evolved responses to help us survive, and as such they have environmental triggers that make us feel certain things when confronted with particular stimuli.  So, entering a dark place where you expect to encounter something scary and weird?  That's going to make you experience feelings of dread, and it will make you easily startled, even jumping at things that are products of your own eyes and brain (as described above).  Feeling dread, fear, feeling as if we are being watched, etc. in the dark or when entering a place where we anticipate trouble is evidence of our evolutionary history amongst predators and other (sometimes violent) hominids, not of us being "tuned in" to something paranormal.  These types of reactions are normal, and have been studied by neurologists and psychologists, and so appealing to them as evidence of the paranormal indicates that one hasn't done their necessary research into perception, not that one has encountered a spirit.

To make matters even weirder, we have psychological effects such as the Third Man Factor (a term coined by author John G. Geiger), where a person under extreme duress (you know, like being extremely frightened while hunting for ghosts) will experience the presence of an incorporeal being who encourages them.  This appears to be another evolutionary adaptation in which our brain is literally telling itself to go on.

Now, I am going out on an interpretive limb here, but I would make an observation: most of our brain's survival techniques can get triggered by weird things, and are often triggered differently in different people.  I suspect, though I will be the first to admit that I have no evidence of this, that for some people, the Third Man might be triggered with minimal duress, or maybe with none at all.  This would explain why many otherwise perfectly normal people experience "presences" under some circumstances.  Given that many people have even inadvertently trained themselves to access some of their brains funkier functions, it seems reasonable to think that many people may have likewise trained themselves to experience a Third Man under particular conditions, possibly explaining why some people seem to routinely be contacted by spirits - it may literally be a normal part of their brain's functions being triggered under odd conditions.

Again, this doesn't necessarily mean that you should ignore emotional/internal reactions to places.  It does, however, mean that you shouldn't assume that you feeling something or sensing a presence means that it is really there, rather than something internal to you.

Does Your Data Mean Anything?

It is extremely common for paranormal researchers to gather data - whether it be their impressions, or information from equipments, or the claims of psychics - without any regard for what it actually means.   Here's a primo example:  if you hang out with ghost hunters, it won't be long before someone declares that a battery being drained quickly is evidence of a ghostly presence.  How do they know?  Well, everyone knows that the presence of ghost drains batteries, therefore a quickly drained battery = a ghost is about.

the problem is that nobody has ever established that this is actually the case.  It is, as far as I can tell, just a bit of lore that gets passed along from one ghost hunter to another.  Account is never made for the types of the batteries, the failure rates of the batteries, how old the batteries were before they were put into the device in which they are being used, whether or not their was some sort of equipment malfunction that could train the batteries*, etc.  All of these things are relevant to the use-life of a battery, but none ever seem to be accounted for (or they are hand-waived with a statement like "they were new batteries" - but, you know, I have had crappy new batteries that died quickly).  In other words, the data is collected ("battery drained") without any real reflection on whether or not this bit of data actually means anything at all.

Likewise, if you gather data based on what you see or feel, then you should also keep account of the various different factors that may influence what you perceive.  Hell, in field archaeology I have to keep track of this sort of thing (noting levels of fatigue, weather conditions, lighting, etc. in my notes), and we are nowhere near as subjective in our observations as ghost hunters are.

Add to this that there is often no attempt at bridging arguments made between data collection and the drawing of conclusions.  Basically, if you say "we saw strange lights, therefore: GHOSTS!"  you are being a fool.  Why would ghosts cause the lights?  Is there no other phenomenon that could cause them?  Even if you have ruled out all other phenomena that you can think of, that doesn't necessarily mean that it is ghost, it may simply be a phenomenon that you haven't considered. 

What I am saying is this: not all data is meaningful.  Some of it is just due to flukes (you got bad batteries, bro!), some of it is only relevant in context (what were the lighting conditions when you saw this shadow person?), and all of it has to be interpreted to be meaningful.  I'll go into this in Part 3, but you need to keep all of this in mind when you attempt to make sense of your data.

So, in Conclusion...

Many years back, I read an article in which a parapsychologist was being interviewed.  He said that he found it frustrating that scientists weren't taking his work seriously when he was doing "solid, good science."  The problem is that, as he described his work, he never did his background research (relying instead on local folklore), he always took the perceptions of himself and his team at face value without considering the limits and problems of human perception,  and he routinely gathered emotional and psychological impressions of places as if they were solid, reliable data.

In other words, he was routinely failing to observe even the most basic rules of data gathering: identify and account for potential biases; do not become overly-reliant on biased data.

He was not doing good science.  He really wasn't even doing science at all, contrary to his claim. 

If you are serious about investigating paranormal phenomenon, then don't make the same mistakes that every (and I do mean, pretty much without exception, EVERY) self-proclaimed parapsychologist makes.  Instead, learn something about the place, be aware of the limitations of yourself and your colleagues, and approach your work with the mind-set that you can be fooled, sometimes even by your own senses, and that you have to find ways to account for that.

Next time I'll get into the issue of using equipment in this sort of work, and how a serious paranormal researcher can save themselves some money.

*In high school I took classes on basic electrical work, and one of the fun pranks we would play was find small ways to tweak someone's work so that it would drain their batteries, but appear to function normally.  In other word,s your video camera may seem to be working without a hitch, but could still have a problem (sometimes an intermittent problem) causing battery drain. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Can't Write, Busy

So, as noted in Friday's entry, I'm pretty damn busy this week - I have a field project that I am leading, Kaylia and I have alot of pregnancy-related doctors appointments and business to take care of, and tonight I will be speaking at the monthly meeting of the Fresno County Archaeological Society.  In addition, I have been handed a box of bones to identify for a friend of mine who is doing research on sites in the San Joaquin Valley, and I am looking at a few possible topics to try to write up a short paper for journal publication.

So, my updates may be a bit sporadic this week and next.  I will try to keep stuff coming a couple of times each week, but I don't know if that's going to happen.  Still, I have abunch of stuff that I want to write about, so hopefully I'll be producing something enjoyable to read for all y'all soon.

If you are masochistic enough to want to hear me shoot my mouth off, you can find me in this interview.  And if you're in Fresno, come by the archaeological society's meeting at Fresno State this evening.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Manzanita Madness

Normally I would post a standard-length post on Friday, but this week is a bit chaotic (again).  First off, I am in the field, fighting my way through poison oak as this post drops.  Secondly, I have been preparing a talk for the Fresno County Archaeological Society (meeting at CSU Fresno on Monday, come by to hear the talk if you'd like), which has been eating up much of my time.  Third, as you can probably guess from Wednesday's post, family stuff has been eating up alot of my time (family gatherings have been taking me out of town, and Kaylia's doctor appointments require me to juggle my work schedule around a bit).  So, I've not had much time to write.

However, as I am writing this, I do have a little something to talk about: my fieldwork today.

I spent the day moving through dense manzanita.  For those who are unfamiliar with this foul plant, it's a small shrub-like tree that grows in dense patches.  The branches grow low to the ground and interlock with the branches of the neighboring trees, resulting in a dense, nearly impassable mess.  The branches can sometimes be broken, but more often you have to either just push through it, getting thwacked, cut, and jabbed by branches as you go, or you get down on your hands and knees and crawl through the small 2 foot area where the branches are not quite as thick.  It's miserable.

Today, my crew and I spent the entire day fighting our way through this crap.  My clothes are destroyed, my equipment is a bit damaged, and I am covered in cuts and bruises, as are my crew.  It was bad enough that a crew that can normally cover 10 to twelve linear miles a day spent most of the day fighting its way through a half mile of linear.  When we finished, we found ourselves facing oak woodland covered in a sea of poison oak, and we were, honestly, relieved by this site.

It was terrible.

So why were we doing it?  Well, there may very well have been sites in the area, but a combination of the dense manzanita and the duff (layer of dead leaves and small plants covering the surface) prevented us from being able to actually see the ground most of the time, and the dense manzanita also would have prevented any exploration with a shovel (there would, quite literally, have been no room to move the shovel or screen).  So, there was no good technical reason for doing it.

The reason was regulatory.  In order to get and keep the permits that they need for construction, our client has to be able to demonstrate that they made a good-faith effort to identify archaeological sites that might be impacted by construction.  To this end, we, as the cultural resources contractor, have to actually make the good-faith effort, which often means that we go into places where there is little visibility and little reason to anticipate that our efforts will be rewarded in order to ensure that our client gets what they need.

Add to that the fact that, at this location, we have to deal with a particular office of a particular government agency where little things such as "there's no reasonable way to expect us to see anything" are not taken as an excuse for not looking, and you have the conditions under which I, an usually sane and reasonable man, will not only push myself through manzanita, but will push others through it as well.

Ahh, the glorious and exciting life of the archaeologist.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Interview Available

So, a while back I was interviewed by Steve Jarjoura of the podcast Postcards from the Dungeon.  The podcast is about role playing games, and specifically about the introduction of various storytelling concepts and methods into role playing games.

I was interviewed to talk about archaeology, and to discuss how anthropological principles can be applied to designing societies in fantasy world.  The interview is available here

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

More Useless Advice Regarding Pregnancy and Childbirth

I was prepared for some of this, and I know that Kaylia is getting it worse than I am, but I am growing increasingly tired of the sheer volume of pregnancy and baby-related mystical nonsense and dubious and dangerous pseudo-science being pushed our way.  It began as a bit of a trickle, but the waters are rising, and I suspect it will be a full-on deluge before all is said and done.

As I say, it started small, but early, when Kaylia wrote on Facebook that she had eaten a few Chicken McNuggets early in the pregnancy for the wacky reason that they were about the only thing that her body wasn't making her vomit up. This received a huge amount of criticism, accusing Kaylia of "poisoning your baby!" as the people commenting on it demonstrated a complete and utter lack of comprehension of reality by confusing their culturally-conditioned notions of what is "gross" with more objective standards regarding what is actually dangerous.

Since then, we have received routine advice from well-meaning but ill-informed people about the value of such quackery as homeopathy and power-balance bracelets in dealing with pregnancy related problems.  As the people offering the advice usually have the best of intentions (and in the case of homeopathy, have typically been misled by the way that that particular quackery is marketed, and aren't aware that it is literally just water or sugar pills), we sometimes argue the point and sometimes just let it go, but have so far not followed any of it. 

As we have moved farther along in the pregnancy, we have been further drawn in to the absurdity that I call the Breast Milk Wars.  Now, to start, I should state the following:  I am well aware that the data supports breast feeding as an excellent way to ensure that the child is well-nourished and healthy, and may also provide psychological benefits for both the mother and child.  Moreover, I am not bothered by women breast-feeding in public.  So, people who find breast feeding repugnant, frankly, do seem to be pushing away a healthy practice, and people who get bent out of shape about children being fed in public places strike me as remarkably silly, often bordering on misogynistic.

However, breast milk is not magical.  While it may be the healthier choice, it is not an alchemical elixir that will solve all ills, and I have become more than slightly tired of smug, arrogant (and, it should be noted, generally privileged white people) attempting to stretch the actual data beyond all recognition in order to vilify or otherwise look down upon mothers who are unable or unwilling to engage in breast feeding.  Moreover, not every mother is capable of breast feeding as often as they would want, or their child would need.  In addition, we live in a world in which physical reality trumps all, and if the mother is away when the child needs to be fed, someone other than the mother is going to have to do it. Some of the logistical problems can be dealt with via a breast pump, but if the mother is unable to produce enough milk, even the pump isn't going to help.  Nonetheless, I have seen and heard more than a few rants lately in which the speaker (who while typically female is, interestingly from a social standpoint, also often male) rants about the evils of forumla, breats pumps, and any other thing that doesn't involve the child directly drinking from the mother, and about how anyone who would use such materials or devices is clearly either deluded or evil.  These rants are usually followed with "but I would never think to judge the decision of a woman who does differently than I."

In fact, for almost every one of these types of things that we have encountered, at least one person delivering a rant, pitch, or insane ramble is followed by them stating that they are not judging parents who do not act as they did.  Sorry, folks, but when you have just made your judgmental nature clear, you don't get out of it by claiming that you are not being judgmental anymore than a KKK member gets out of being racist by announcing that they aren't racist.

And the list goes on.  Recently, we were informed that choosing to have our child in a hospital (you know, those institutions with trained medical staff, each of whom has years or decades of experience in dealing with the myriad of potential complications involved in childbirth, on hand to deal with emergencies - AKA the institutions that mad the phrase "died in childbirth" something of an anachronism) is "sad."  No, it's not sad to want to have our child in a place and with people who can make sure that both our child and Kaylia are well taken care of.  The notion that we have committed some grievous wrong or are otherwise doing something bad in choosing to make a wise and prudent choice for the health of Kaylia and our child is what is sad.  No, actually, it's not sad, it's disturbing.

Oh, and, of course, there's the lunacy of people who think that vaccines are some big corporate conspiracy.  Vaccines.  You know, the things that made measles, polio, and rubella largely things of the past - though they are coming back due to the foolishness of the fore-mentioned privileged people who have never had to actually see the effects that these diseases have on children and communities.  Let me tell you this:  I have seen, first-hand, the long-term effects of some of these illnesses, and those who are choosing to avoid vaccines because they belief in the insane propaganda pushed by ideologues and fools are irresponsible and should be deeply ashamed of themselves.  But, of course, they won't be, instead they'll continue to put their communities and their own children at risk in the name of their bizarre and paranoid ideologies.

And all of that is the stuff that gets aimed primarily at Kaylia.  Let's talk briefly about the bizarreness that is aimed at fathers.

It came as little surprise to me that the majority of popular books on pregnancy and childbirth subscribe to the antiquated "dad, the idiot" model.  While the information in these books for fathers is useful, it is typically written in the most astoundingly condescending manner possible, and often verges into the realm of the mind-numbingly obvious.  For example, I have been informed that my partner may not be interested in sex when in the throes of morning sickness (if a man doesn't recognize this fact, then he has some issues that pre-date the pregnancy and likely render him unfit as a human, much less a father), that my partner may need emotional support while going through the pregnancy (what?  She might need emotional support while going through massive physical changes and alterations due to hormonal changes?  If you didn't already know this, how did you convince a woman let you get close enough to get her pregnant?).  Likewise, while these books do provide useful information on infant care for both mothers and fathers, they again adopt the attitude that childcare should be left to the (female) adults, and that the children (anyone with a Y chromosome, regardless of age) should just run along to their workplace to play and not worry their pretty little heads with the responsibilities of a caregiver.

Interestingly, one of the few books I have so far seen that accepts a significant role might be played by the father after fertilization is the "Husband Coached Childbirth" (AKA the Bradley Method) approach which, as far as I can tell, is not specifically religious in nature, but has earned a degree of popularity amongst the various religious-right sorts that I have met.  While it does have some really good ideas about how to reduce medical interventions during labor and delivery, it was written largely as a response to now-discarded practices from the 1940s and 1950s, and as such, its creators' anti-intervention stance should be more critically examined than it seems to be.  The culture of the Bradley Method is also so thoroughly steeped in pseudo-science and anti-medical rhetoric that, while it may have some useful ideas for the role of fathers, I have to admit that I have had to hold my nose when thumbing through the book.

So, the more "traditional" books seem to regard the father as an expendable amateur.  Surely the progressives will recognize the importance of both parents and encourage the father as a nurturer both to his partner and to their child, right?

Well, sort of, some of the time.  When it doesn't interfere with mystical thinking.

Many (though, it should be noted, thankfully not all) of the self-described "progressive parents" with whom I associate seem to have developed very clearly defined and inviolable roles for men and women in their minds, and these roles seem to typically play very much into the standard gender stereotypes with which Pat Robertson et al. would be very comfortable:  The father goes to work, brings home the money, and has only a limited role in childcare; the mother does all (and I mean all, no exception) feeding, most (if not all) basic care (bathing, changing, comforting, etc.) of the child, and is responsible for early childhood education.  Kaylia has been informed that she should not allow me to feed our child (even if I am using stored breast milk), and I have been often informed that, as I lack a uterus, I am incapable of reaching any sort of informed decision regarding childcare.

The difference between the religious right version and the progressive version of this seems to be centered around the idea of whether men or women are more valuable.  The religious right holds that the man is the head of the household, and all within it must submit to him.  The progressives hold that women are magical (though they will usually use terms such as "natural caregivers and nurturers" rather than "magical", but the use of the term "natural" might as well be substituted with the word "magical" for all of the actual meaning that it has), and fathers are doofuses who shouldn't be entrusted with the well-being of the child.  Us men are either dominators or dorks, and either way, we don't have what it takes to be anything other than either the breadwinner or the disciplinarian. 

Both sides will, of course, insist that they aren't claiming either gender is superior, they just have different roles.  Both sides are, of course, actually claiming that one gender is, in fact superior, and the other worthwhile only within a particular confined role.

Anyway, I have no more to say at the moment.  I'm just irritated and annoyed. 

On the upside, I will be a daddy soon, and I am looking forward to pissing off all ideologues by taking an active role in every aspect of my child's life.