The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Oh, well, at least we're better than literary critics!"

Back in the 90s, when Newt Gingrich was still Speaker of the House, he made a speech in which he ranted about government waste (as he was wont to do), and specifically, in this one speech, he argued against government funding for science.  His argument was that the government should not be funding research undertaken purely to satisfy a scientist's curiosity*.

Flash forward ten years...

When I was in graduate school, I took the last graduate seminar class offered by Brian Fagan.  Brian, being the sort of person that he was, liked to challenge the student's assumptions about their own importance, and the importance of their chosen field.  Unsurprisingly, most of us graduate students tended to take the earth-shaking importance of archaeology as a given, with little thought as to whether or not our assumptions about the importance of our field of study were, in fact, justified.  Just as unsurprisingly, most of us also held that our own little corner of that field, the focus of our research and interests, was of vital importance to the whole.

I was a little different.  Of the students in the room, I was one of only two who had held any sort of long-term employment outside of academics.  I was, in short, one of only two who held any idea of what the world outside of our particular enclave actually thought of what we were doing**.

Brian, staring at each of us in turn, asked why we thought that non-archaeologists should consider archaeology to be important.  When he got to me, I responded "well, because we assume it is.  I can give a list of justifications for studying archaeology, but unless the person with whom I am speaking shares my basic assumptions, they're not going to be persuaded by any of them."

Needless to say, this earned me a round of derisive laughter and annoyed everyone except the one other guy who had been outside of academics, and, interestingly, Brian.

the next week, Brian threw a question out to the class, asking what we figured we should be doing to gain and/or maintain public interest in archaeology.  While a few of the other students talked about various public outreach measures (some of which were quite intelligent, others were pretty uninspiring), most simply stated that we should keep on just doing research and not worrying about it. 

It was at this point that I remembered the Newt Gingrich speech that I mentioned at the beginning.  And I brought this up, pointing out that a high elected official had found this type of argument (trying to get rid of research funding by appealing to cost-cutting and phrasing it in a rather anti-intellectual way) pretty effective, and that it indicated that there was a sizable, if currently minority, segment of the public that actually disliked the fact that archaeologists received public funding int he form of research grants.  

One particular graduate student, I'll call her Jesse (because it would likely annoy her to know that I was using such a plain, "common" name for her), rolled her eye, and said "there is no reason why we should have to justify ourselves to a bunch of uneducated fools who don't even have the brains to understand what we're doing anyway."

I pointed out that in taking this attitude, she was ceding the public discussion to the people who wanted to reduce of entirely stop funding for archaeological research, and that this attitude that the lay public was somehow too stupid to understand what we were doing, but should continue to fund us anyway, was (in addition to being arrogant, wrong-headed, and just plain incorrect) one of the factors feeding the anti-intellectualism that many politicians depend on.  If we were so arrogant that we didn't think that we needed to defend what we did, then we were essentially ceding the field to those who would like us defunded, and while it might take decades, they would eventually win.

She rolled her eyes at me, as she tended to do to anyone who was a lowly MA student and not on the PhD track.  The then re-asserted that the general public was too stupid to understand her work, but that they would continue to fund it because it was so obviously important. 

Brian seemed to be enjoying this, and so her went from looking rather bored earlier in the day to looking intensely interested.

I pointed out to her that the research that Gingrich had been making hay by bashing was in fields such as genetics, chemistry, and physics, all of which have much more direct benefits to the public, and much easier to grasp reasons to fund.  Jesse again rolled her eyes, and shouted "oh, well, you can go ahead and waste your time with the idiots!  I have more important things to do!  And if you think we're going to get defunded, oh, well, at least we're better than literary critics!  They don't produce ANYTHING!"

And with that, Brian called the symposium to a close.  The next day, he asked me to talk to him in his office, and he announced that he was rather happy to see someone actually going against the grain and trying to inject a bit of reality.  So, it was nice to know that someone valued my opinion.

At the time, as stated, I was in the MA track, but I had the potential to switch to a PhD.  There are a few specific events that convinced me not to pursue the higher degree, though, and this was one of them.  I value research, and obviously I think that archaeology is a valuable field to pursue.  But I am also aware that I hold these beliefs based on a particular value system to which I adhere, and while I believe that it is a valid and strong value system, I am very well aware that I live in a society where elected officials hold a good deal of sway over what does and does not receive funding, and that the decisions that these officials make are based on a number of factors, one of the larger ones being what they believe either their voters want or they can convince their constituents to support. 

To not try to let the public know what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why we are doing it is for us, as a field, to commit suicide.  Indeed, the fact that a fellow academic was so ready to dismiss those who work in literary criticism shows both the snottiness of some archaeologists, but also where failing to defend a field gets you - there are many good reasons to study literature and literary criticism, many of which have very real consequences in the world (the literary critics that I know have often been the best at spotting political smoke-and-mirrors and working to expose it, after all, they understand narratives, which is what politicians generate), but these are rarely expressed in forums where the general public hears them.  As a result, literary criticism is often viewed as little more than intellectual masturbation by those outside the academy, regardless of how valuable it may actually be.  Similarly, the general public may believe that archaeology is valid now, but after a generation or two of politicians and pundits decrying government funding for research, it will be difficult to defend continued funding (or laws requiring archaeological review for construction) if people who value archaeology are not vocally showing their support and trying to win out in the intellectual marketplace that is the public sphere.

What's more, when academics of any stripe assume that the "general public" is too stupid to understand research, they not only underestimate the general public, they justify one of the great rhetorical weapons that the anti-intellectuals and those who for other reasons want to cut funding have:  they can point to researchers as being self-indulgent snobs with no regard for the common people.  It's an effective tactic, one that has worked before.  We have to be better not only at defending ourselves, but also humbler when doing so.  And it is entirely possible to defend research work without dumbing it down.  Brian Fagan is quite good at this, as was Carl Sagan and his successor, Niel DeGrasse-Tyson.  But we have to understand that this is necessary, and be ready and willing to do it.

If we don't, then perhaps we deserve the professional extinction that we will face.

*I will argue about the problems with such an attitude another time.  For now, I will simply say that it is, from an economic and technological standpoint, a very short-sided position to take.

 **I will not, however, refer to the world outside of the university as "the real world" partially because that's the sort of thing that only condescending assholes do, and partially because one of the most important lessons I learned in the business  world before returning to graduate school was that there is no "real world", the people in business face a particular set of challenges and adversities that people in academics don't, but they are equally sheltered from a variety of challenges and adversities that people in academics have to deal with.  And pretty much everyone living in affluent nations is sheltered, to some degree, from the "real world" outside of our comfort zones.  So, if you are the sort of person who thinks that you know what it's like "out int he real world" you are probably just as sheltered as the people who you look down upon.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Archaic Undies

So, it appears that archaeologists working in Austria have uncovered several 600-year old bras.

[This space left for those who are going to crack jokes about either pervert archaeologists or rank 600-year-old laundry]

The objects look like they could have come from the sock and underwear aisle at the local CVS, and aren't exactly consistent with what most of us think that Medeival women would have been wearing.  On the other hand, you can now tell your local SCA maven that your Hanes are historically accurate, thank you very much, and she should stop yammering on about how your underclothes fail to convey the proper historical era.

Now, if you were to compare this find with information from the era concerning other aspects of clothing, you might be able to make some arguments or draw some conclusions about how these undergarments reflect on attitudes regarding the body, bodily functions, and sex.  Depending on what other information is available, that may or may not be a fruitful line of investigation.

That, or it's a reason to crack a joke about archaeologists being late to the panty raid. 

However, what I find interesting is one of the narrative lines moving through the stories on this.  And it's not the content of the narrative line that's interesting, it's the form.

What the hell am I talking about?

Well, several of the articles I have seen on this quote a scholar who states that it had long been thought that the bra developed from the corset, and that the discovery of this corset may indicate that the corset actually originally developed from the bra.

So, what is interesting about this to me is that this pretty closely parallels other lines of discussion or explanation regarding the development of artifacts.

While radiocarbon dating, obsidian hydration, dendrochronology, and other forms of determining the age of a site are extraordinarily useful, they only work when there's materials in the site that are amenable to the method being used.  And so we require the use of time-diagnostic artifacts - artifacts that are routinely found in sites dating to particular periods of history or pre-history, which can therefore tell us the age of a site, at least approximately, even when datable materials are not present.  However, when an artifact is found to change, and then change back to it's previous form, that can throw a bit of a monkey wrench into the works. And so, bras apparently are an artifact type that can join a few specific others in bouncing between two different forms, making their time diagnostic properties somewhat more limited (though, given that they are made of cloth, the odds of these types of garments ever preserving to be good diagnostic artifacts is actually quite small), and while the applicability of this is probably rather limited, it's a good illustration of a basic principle.

The other way in which this is interesting is that it illustrates the challenges of attempting social interpretation based on types of artifacts, rather than common collection types.  Contemporary women's undergarments are usually explained through a combination of practicality and negotiation of personal freedoms and sexuality.  The corset of the Victorian age and early was typically viewed as both a tool and a symbol of woman's limited and subjugated role in society, while the bra was seen as a symbol of women choosing comfort over social pressure/convention, and the development of women's lingerie in general is seen as a sign of women controlling both their clothing and their own sexual behavior (though counter-arguments to the contrary have also been made).

So, to find essentially identical items 500 years earlier than the modern version appears, associated with a time and place with very, very different social norms and mores, it immediately begs the question: are we looking at similar negotiations and attitudes?  Are we looking at different ones that had a similar material manifestation?  Are we, perhaps, reading too much into the material culture of the people we study, and assuming that it tells us more than it does?

And if this is true for bras, is it perhaps also true of other artifacts to which we attribute great importance?  Do we read too much into the use of shell beads?  Are we properly considering the factors that lead to the development of milling implements?

It's essentially a "slow news day wacky story" that, if you stop and think about it, makes you ponder how we examine material culture.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

More Pre-Clovis Goodness?

You may have heard that more evidence for extremely early occupation of the Americas has been found.  This time in Paisley Caves in Oregon.  (look here, here, and here for some of the information, or the original paper is here).  

The basic run-down: A type of tool known as the western stemmed projectile point has been routinely found in contexts (or with obsidian hydration rinds consistent with) and age of up to 10,500 years ago.  At Paisely Cave, these points have been found in contexts that appear to date to up to 13,000 years ago (depending on the calibration used for the radiocarbon dates), indicating that they are older then had previously been thought, and may indicate a separate cultural tradition existing simultaneously with Clovis.  At the same time, new dates on coprolites (ancient human feces*) taken from the cave suggest occupation beginning by 14,300 years ago.

So, pretty old shit...literally.

Stemmed points, from the University of Oregon's website

When the dates were first released from coprolites several years ago, there was, of course, a good deal of debate regarding whether or not the ages were legitimate, and the possibility that the samples had been contaminated was raised.  While this appears to have annoyed the researchers at Paisley Cave, it is a legitimate point, and one that needs to be dealt with (and, it should be said, it appears that they have dealt with it).

This got a fair amount of press coverage, and there are, of course, many statements in the press (some by the researchers themselves, others by over-eager reporters) to the effect of "these findings put the nail in the coffin of the Clovis-first hypothesis!"

No, they don't.  Understand, I believe that the Clovis-first hypothesis is flawed, and I did before data started coming out that really put it into doubt.  But with every individual piece of data, there is the possibility of flaws - ranging from corruption of the data source itself to mis-interpretation of the results.  No one piece of data puts the nail in the Clovis coffin.  That was the case with Buttermilk Creek, and it is the case with Paisley Cave.

What is making the Clovis-first hypothesis less and less tenable isn't any one result.  Rather, it is the fact that results that are in disagreement with the hypothesis continue to show up.  It is also the fact that there is no known Old-World precursor to Clovis, making it unlikely that the Clovis culture appeared spontaneously in the Americas - it is much more likely that people already living here developed the material culture that came to be known as Clovis after the migrated to the Americas from Asia.

Clovis points uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Bill Whittaker

Older sites, or sites with older components, are being found...not routinely, exactly, but often enough that it no longer surprises me when I hear of Clovis-Age or pre-Clovis dates.  That the Clovis-first hypothesis is still around has more to do with the fact that it had been the best hypothesis for a long time, and therefore people are loathe to give it up even in the face of new evidence.  This is not proof of some sort of cover-up or refusal to accept "the truth" as many a pseudo-archaeologist would claim.  It is simply proof that archaeologists are human, and like all humans, certain of us are unwilling to accept new evidence that disproves old conclusions.  Still, the younger archaeologists generally are more than happy to accept this new data, and most of the older archaeologists are willing to do so as the evidence continues to become stronger, so I think that, during the course of my career, the Clovis-first hypothesis will go the way of the dodo.

It is a pretty exciting time to be a North American archaeologist.

More interesting that the data supporting pre-Clovis occupation of the area is the data that suggests that the Western Stemmed Tradition may have developed around the same time as, and in paralel with, the Clovis tradition.  This would indicate the possibility of two very different identifiable cultural groups** occupying the Americas, which may suggest that there are artifactual signs of the multiple waves of migration currently suggested by genetic evidence (looking at the types and distribution of genetic markers in the Americas suggests that people arrived here from Asia over three different periods of migration).  That being said, this is the early stages of such a hypothesis, and any of a number of different types of data may surface that kills the hypothesis before it can grow.

Still, once again, it is a pretty exciting time to be a North American archaeologist.

*Remember, archaeology is glamorous and exciting...even when you are dealing with fossil turds.

**It should be remembered that both Clovis and Western Stemmed traditions indicate tool types, not people.  It is fair to think that the makers of the Clovis points all derived from a related cultural group, and the same of the Western Stemmed manufacturers.  However, these were likely not monolithic groups, and the spread of the tools likely represents the spread of increasingly schisming cultural groups.  So, just because people in New Mexico and in Texas used Clovis points, doesn't mean that the peoples in these areas would recognize each other as being kin.  These tools let us identify the peoples as different, but the people making and using the tools likely saw themselves as having little but their tools in common.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

So, You Want to be a Paranormal Investigator, Part 2

It's been a little while since I posted part 1 of this, but here I am with Part 2 (edit to add: part 3 is here).  A quick re-iteration: there are many people who engage in activities that could be labelled "ghost hunting" or "paranormal investigations."  This set of entries is directed at the sub-set of them who are genuinely interested in trying to do good, robust work, and not those who simply want to hang out in creepy places (which, it must be said, is something that I enjoy doing, so I see nothing wrong with it).  So, here we go...

In the last entry in this series, I discussed the problems inherent in basic data gathering.  Although I focused on eye-witness testimony, and specifically all that is wrong with it, the basic concepts (know what type of data you are collecting, what [if anything] it actually means, and why you are collecting it) apply to any situation in which you are attempting to gather information. 

So, the last entry focused on some of the basic ways to think your way through data gathering, this one is aimed at saving you time and money by looking at the different tools of the trade.  I am going to be focused on actual tools that measure actual things - not on the use of "psychic devices" ranging from a medium's impressions to dowsing rods (which certainly have their own problems, but other have explained the issues there more clearly than I ever could).  I will briefly discuss some of the more "exotic" tools amongst the ghost-hunter's cache, but will spend a bit more time on two types of equipment that I have more direct personal knowledge of: cameras and audio equipment.

Now, many a ghost-hunting enthusiast will say "ha!  Well, this guy admits that his experience with this equipment is limited, so why should you listen to him and not us, us who use this equipment all the time?"  Simple:  Unlike them, I actually bothered to read up on what the equipment actually does and does not do, and while my direct experience is limited, I have been able to find enough to figure out that they are either lying or else know even less than I do about these devices.

So, for starters, here's a run-down of some of the more common equipment, what it gets used for, and what it actually does (Much of this information is well-summarized here, for the curious):

For starters, the ghost hunters seem to have a love affair with everything infra-red, which is odd.  Infra-red devices read heat signatures.  That's it.  They do different things with these signatures (create images, measure temperatures, etc.), but their purpose is, simply to read heat signatures.  What's more, each type of infra-red device reads heat signatures in a specific way, and usually (though I can't swear that this is always the case), they read SURFACE heat signatures.  So, for example, an infra-red thermometer reads the temperature of a surface - not the air, not gases, not ectoplasm, but a surface.  So, if you point an infrared thermometer through a room, you will get the temperature of whatever object happens to be on the other side oh the room (most likely the wall), but not something insubstantial, such as gasses, smoke, or a ghost.  What's more, depending on what the object that you hit is made of, and what is connected to it, you may get radical-seeming variations from fairly common things.  Infra-red motion detectors do a similar thing, detecting either major changes in temperature or the movement of objects with heat signatures different from whatever the background field is.  Even if one is claiming that there is a "cold spot", it would need to be of sufficient temperature difference and size to trigger the motion detector. 

Also, there tends to be a bit of an inconsistency with how these objects are used by ersatz investigators - I have seen shows, and had conversations with people, wherein images from infrared camera showing warm, human-shaped areas were held up as evidence of ghosts, while "cold spots" were also used simultaneously.  So what is it?  Is the ghost cold or warm?  The fact that both tend to get used depending on what the equipment is picking up indicates that these people are detecting randomness, not ghosts - in any sort of field of measurement, there will be natural "clumpings" of readings due to basic random distribution (remember, random does not mean "evenly distributed", it means "without pattern", and "clumps" will appear whenever a pattern is lacking).  Whenever you see these clumps, they can seem striking, if you don't understand the nature of random distribution (one thing I have learned about ghost hunters - they are, to a person - very, very bad at understanding statistics).  So, finding areas that appear hot or cold with an infrared device is not really useful information unless you can demonstrate a reason for it to be a different temperature (the common trope of "we can't explain these readings, therefore- GHOST!" grows out of a basic mis-understanding of how this works - there is always the possibility of seeming anomalies in randomness, the odd readings only mean something if you have good reason to expect them to be something other than what they actually are - and area that remains cold after being hit with a blow-torch, for example). 

Anyway, unlike some other critics of paranormal investigation, I will not say that infrared equipment is useless.  I will, however, say that it is only useful if you have a clear reason to be using it, and you have a sufficient understanding of both how the equipment works and of the environment in which you are deploying it to be able to know with some degree of reliability whether or not you should be getting one set of reading and not another - and knowing that tends to require alot of background knowledge of both the place where you are, and of the basic engineering that went into building it and selecting the materials to build it.  If you haven't done this minimal research, then your readings are essentially meaningless.

Similarly, electromagnetic field meters are often abused in the name of parapsychology.  What an EMF meter does is measure the electromagnetic field.  Electromagnetic fields are all around us - the Earth generates a giant one, and out bodies generate them as well, as do all electronics.  These tools are useful in the hands of people who work with electrical equipment for a living, but tend not to produce meaningful results in the hands of anyone else.  Why?  Simple: there are many possible sources for EMFs, and someone who is accustomed to dealing with them will have an idea of what EMFs are anomalous, and which are to be expected.  Moreover, when they find an anomalous one, someone with a background in electrical work is going to have an idea of what to look for as regards its source*.  Moreover, the readings that one gets with an EMF meter depend in large part in the specifics of how one uses it.  Many commercially available meters require multiple readings to be taken in a few different ways in order to find anything meaningful (so, someone walking into a room, taking one reading, and announcing that they have found something is a sign that the person in question hasn't a clue as to how to use their equipment).  Similarly, the way one handles the meter may create anomalous readings:  for example, my fiance and I once did a ghost walk during which we were all handed EMF meters, and she and I quickly discovered that we could make these particular models spike by flicking our wrists slightly while holding them - doing little to the electromagnetic field, but screwing with the sensors - it was fun watching the other tour members try to figure out why the ghosts wanted to play with her and I, and not any of them.

Similarly, people tend to like to use ion detectors and Geiger counters (although the Geiger counters are usually given another name).  Ion detectors detect ions, atoms in which the total number of electrons are not equal tot the total number of protons and therefore have an electrical charge (positive or negative).  Ions are both naturally occurring and can be created by a variety of different pieces of equipment.  Geiger counters identify ionizing radiation from nuclear decay (alpha particles, beta particles or gamma rays), which, again, can be (in fact, usually is) naturally occurring, or can be the result of human activity.  As with EMF fields and heat signatures, readings on these pieces of equipment are essentially meaningless unless you have a good reason to expect one type of reading over another. 

In all of these cases, the infrared devices, the EMF detectors, the Geiger counters, and the ion detectors, the devices are not measuring something mystical, something weird, or something abnormal.  They are not measuring paranormal energy, ghosts, or the Force.  They are measuring properties that exist in the world, all around us, at all times.  And all of them can only produce meaningful measurements if you know what should and/or should not be in a given location, which requires a whole heaping load of background research.  Hell, in the case of things such as radiation and ions, a basic knowledge of local geology and weather is necessary to know what should or should not be present, and I rarely see a paranormal researcher consult a geology or meteorology textbook. 

Okay, so now onto the items with which I have a bit more direct experience and a bit more to say. 

While in college, I trained to be a radio DJ, but found that I had a much greater affinity for the recording and manipulation of audio than for the on-air hijinks that accompanied DJ-dom.  I became pretty good at making the various audio devices to which I had access make all manner of weird sounds, manipulate signals in odd ways, and create audio effects unintended by the equipment's manufacturers.  What's more, I learned of the many ways that audio equipment can pick up unexpected noise, and I learned that following a basic train of cause-and-effect, I could invariably find the source of the sound (which, often, was very different from what it initially sounded like on the recording).  Now, mind you, I could track down the sources in a controlled studio environment - if the same sorts of things had occurred with a tape recorder out on the town, I'd have had a much harder time tracking down the source - it likely would often be impossible - but my experience in the studio had taught me that unlikely sources can create odd noise and effects in recordings. 

Most commercially available audio equipment is different from the professional-grade stuio equipment in that it is usually more compact, and gives the operator less control - but it has all of the same basic parts and features, it just either pre-sets them to "typical" conditions, or else automates them into a few pre-sets.  The point is, this equipment has pretty much the same ability to create anomalous sounds as the studio equipment that I used, but fewer ways for the operator to minimize interference or alter the sound produced to create a cleaner recording.  What's more, outside of a controlled studio environment, things such as tape recorders picking up faint radio signals, as well as the re-use of old tapes creating "bleed through" is common. 

Digital recorders avoid some problems (such as bleed through), but still have some of the same issues, and several new ones unique to digital audio.

To make matters worse, most enthusiasts of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP - the alleged voices of spirits captured on electronic equipment) advocate the use of white noise int he background when you make recordings.  This is dumb.  Dumb, stupid, foolish, and asinine.  As you may recall from Part 1, the human brain looks for patterns in randomness, and in laboratory experiments it has been shown to be very, very common for people to swear that they have heard human voices saying specific, coherent things in randomly generated noise.  So, if you create white noise and then sit and listen to it for voices, you are very likely to hear voices whether or not there is anything there.

So, when someone plays spooky noises that they recorded at the local cemetery, it probably goes without saying that I am singularly unimpressed.  Even when they are sure that they hear a human voice answering questions, it is really, really unimpressive.

Now, am I not saying that audio equipment is useless.  If you can routinely replicate certain types of phenomenon, and you are able to successfully rule out all common sources of interference, then you may have something.  Now, what you have may be an uncommon problem with your equipment, or it may be something truly strange, and you will have to find different ways to further explore it, but you might (and note, I say "might" not "are") be on to something.  In a more pedestrian sense, audio equipment, especially a good, simple tape recorder or digital voice recorder, is an excellent way to take quick, on-the-fly notes to help you out later.  These things are useful pieces of equipment for any researcher, but as with everything else discussed here, you have to understand what they are and how they work, and how your brain interprets sound in order to get any real use out of them.

And now, onto cameras.  I am a hobbyist photographer and have been for many years, so while I am not a professional photographer, I do know a thing or two about the subject.  And when I see photographic "evidence" of hauntings, I am consistently underwhelmed.

First off, there's the fact that many of the things that are currently held up as evidence of ghosts - streaks, "orbs", etc. - are actually pretty well understood properties of how cameras function.  A camera operates by bringing light in, and turning that light into an image, either on a photographic paper or through electronic sensors. Anything that reflects light will effect the image, and as cameras bring in light in a manner a bit different than how the human eye does, this means that objects may appear on film or in digital images that are not visible to the naked eye. Small objects that can reflect light (raindrops, motes of dust, insects, etc.) tend to reflect it in a spherical pattern that is not visible to the human eye, but does show up on camera. If the object is caught in a particular way or is moving quickly enough, this may show up as a "streak" rather than a sphere. Likewise, small light sources, maybe dim enough to not be noticeable to the naked eye, may show up on film as streaks if the camera or the object emitting the light is moving, even slightly, when the shot is taken. This is especially true in low-light conditions.  Now, some people will say "well, this orb is translucent, that one is solid, therefore we know that this one is an artifact of light, BUT the other is a ghost!"  Nope, sorry, both are artifacts of light, and anyone who tells you different is either completely ignorant of photography, or is lying to you.

Indeed, it is a sad fact that the reason why we have these obvious artifacts being held up as ghostly images is because most of us are familiar enough with special effects that we will no longer uncritically accept a modified image.  As a result, those who wish to capture ghosts on film have tried to find ways to use unmodified images to support their claims.  The problem there, of course, being that, to anyone who knows the ins-and-outs of camera functionality, these images are pretty clearly mundane.  The fact that there are some photographers who are only to ready to jump on the spooky bandwagon (usually to make money off of selling either their services or their photographs) doesn't change the fact that these really are pretty damn mundane.

On a related note, it is common for people to take other types of photographs from other people as evidence of ghostly activity.  Typically, the line goes something like this: a photograph appears to show something strange, it was taken to a photography expert who states that there are no signs of tampering with the image, and therefore the image really does show something strange!

Leaving aside the images created via pariedolia, there is another problem here.  All of the images below are analogous to types used as evidence for paranormal phenomenon.  None of them have been tampered with, and therefore would show no signs of tampering if examined:

Every one of them shows a vague human outline, or a human form that is insubstantial, or a face that seems somehow wrong.  In some of them you will have to look closely, but these sorts of ghostly images are present in every one of them.  Several have strange streaks of light or "orbs".

Those human shapes in the ghostly images are myself, and my friends Robin, Michael, and Robert.  None of the images were created using photo manipulation software, studio editing, or any other form of image manipulation.  In other words, not a single one was tampered with, and none of them would show signs of tampering if examined.

Which doesn't mean that there was no trickery involved.  I used a variety of techniques to create these images: pinhole apertures, slow shutter speeds in low-light conditions, and a mix of digital and film cameras, utilizing properties unique to each of them.  In some of the images, I intentionally used non-optimal settings (making the exposure to bright or too dark, putting the image slightly out-of-focus, etc.) to make the image look just slightly not-right before inserting the spooky element (this serves to prep the viewer to see the image as spookier than it really is).  I used cameras with light leakage, or used flashes, to create the streaks and orbs.  I created the images intentionally, knowing full well what I was doing, and what I was going to get when I was done.  So, just because a photo has not been edited or altered doesn't mean that it is real, and this should be kept in mind whenever you are presented with a photograph as evidence.

But this also brings us to another issue: that, like the audio equipment, lower-end cameras (especially digital point-and-click cameras, but also many non-professional film cameras) have the same parts as higher-end cameras (lenses, film or sensors, apertures, etc.), but generally automate those parts or have them at pre-sets, limiting the ability for the user to manipulate them in order to cut out interference, creating numerous anomalies that may seem odd or even spooky to someone not familiar with how to intentionally create the same sorts of images.  Moreover, an unwary user of a film camera is likely to end up with double-exposures, which can result in "a person who wasn't there appearing in the image!", and most people using these cameras on ghost hunts do not keep accurate photo logs in order to recall the precise conditions under which images were created.

Like audio equipment, cameras are useful tools.  They can allow you to document conditions, act as a supplement to your field notes, and there is a small but real chance that you may even catch something in the image that might prompt further investigation.

While the IF devices and EMF meters, etc. are probably best left at home, cameras and audio equipment are legitimately useful, and should accompany someone who is trying to do real investigation.  But you should always be aware of the limits of your equipment, the nature of your equipment, and of the fact that many of the things taken as evidence of ghosts are, in fact, easily explainable by someone who knows what the equipment is and how it works.  So, bear all of this in mind when using it.

Okay, the next part, which I hope to post in the not-too-distant future, will focus on the basica problems inherent in the lack of theory and testable hypotheses in paranormal research, and what you can do to make things better.

* Fun fact: on occasion, a television show will bring someone in who is said to have the correct background to make sense of EMF readings.  Assuming that they do (and given the way that paranormal television shows often play fast-and-loose with the qualifications of people who I have actually know the background of, I have little hope that they get anyone else's qualifications correct), the devices are almost always shown being used in a manner inconsistent with what is needed to get reliable readings.  So, even in these cases, the devices are being mis-used.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Archaeology, Biblical Literalism, and "Shut Up, That's Why!"

Over the weekend, my fiance was playing about on Facebook, when she came across something that a friend of hers had posted.  It was an image of the Bible accomanied by a brief note explaining that there was no archaeological evidence that the Jewish people had ever been captive in Egypt.

Following the image and note were a series of comments, most of them ill-informed and rather stupid.  This included the people who insisted that the Bible was in all ways accurate, as well as those who used this as an excuse to call religious people idiots.  Then there was the anti-semitism on display (seriously, several people wrote comments stating that "all Jews are liars, so this shouldn't surprise us!" and things to that effect).

But buried amid all of it was one of the more absurd arguments for Biblical literalism I have ever heard.

One commentor wrote "Telling a people that they weren't kept as slaves is like telling a woman who claims she was raped that she wasn't!  Even if you're right, your still an asshole!"

Now, of course, there is a tremendous difference between discussing something that allegedly happened to a culture literally thousands of years ago, something which has literally become the stuff of myths and legends, and something that allegedly has happened to a person still living.  I will leave it to others to explain why accusing someone of lying about rape is counter-productive (hint - it has to do with the way that rape has generally been treated and the context in which accusations, both legitimate and false, occur), but saying "hey, I think you're lying about rape" is so different from saying "you know, there's no evidence to back up this series of mythic events that allegedly occurred 3,000 years ago" that they're not only not in the same ballpark, they're not even on the same planet.

It is what the write Greta Christina calls a "shut up, THAT's why!" line of argument.  It's intended to make the person advancing an argument not want to push it, no matter how much merit the argument may have, to tell them that they will either be wrong, or be an asshole, and either way it's not worth going further.

It's dressed up in such a way that it uses a mis-understanding of how to handle accusations of sexual assault to try to dissuade people from discussing the shortcomings of literally ancient historical claims.  It is essentially saying "you should just ignore all of that evidence from archaeology and history, as well as comparative folklore, that shows that this old story is probably false, because only someone loathesome would even briefly consider the possibility that perhaps a particular religious text isn't exactly the most factually accurate document on the planet...and besides, you're taking the side of the rapists!  You know, 1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted, and if you keep questioning the Exodus story, then you're helping the rapists!"  Yeah, when phrased accurately, the accusation comes across as disjointed and silly as it really is.

It's also, frankly, demeaning to victims of sexual assault to compare their trauma to discussions of history.  So, really, it's the person who would make this claim who's the asshole, not the people who doubt the Bible's accuracy.

The irony of this is that it is a "political correctness run amok" line of argument - the notion that you can't question a historical narrative simply because it might hurt someone's feelings, and the fact that it is phrased in such a way as to take generally "lefty" attitudes towards oppression - and yet it is most likely to be embraced by the very people who tend to dismiss complaints from women and minorities as "political correctness run amok" when there's a legitimate grievance.  Somehow, I doubt that very many Evangelical pastors or right-wing congressmen would have a problem with this line of argument.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Feast or Famine

One of the more annoying aspects of consulting work is the feast-or-famine nature of the enterprise.  So, I can have a period of a few weeks when I am having to scrounge for work to keep my time card full, followed by a couple of weeks in which I don't have time to breath.

I have to wonder how this is going to play out in the future.  It's already a bit of a trouble when I get bogged down - Kaylia can't drive, and Fresno has truly horrendous public transportation, so me being busy at work results either in Kaylia having trouble getting around town or in me leaving work to provide transportation and returning to work later, often coming home rather late.  With a child, things may be more chaotic, and it is going to be a challenge to keep things running.  At the same time, I will need to keep things running as I am the only income for our family.

The flip side is that when things are slower and there isn't as much work, while I am available to take care of errands and chores without burying myself in work, I am less certain that I will be able to put together enough work to justify a full-time salary, which is necessary because, as noted, I am the only income in our family.

Yay, stress!

Now, clearly it is possible to manage this, as several people who I know (including two with whom I currently work) have done so while they were in my current position.  Luckily, as noted, I work with them, so I can pick their brains and make sure that I am managing, as well.

Still, I would be lying if I were to say that there aren't times that I worry.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Princesses, Barbies, Daughters, and Panics

As the soon-to-be father of a little girl, I have been very aware of the things about which I need to worry.  To what do I expose my child?  From what do I protect my child?  What elements of our popular culture are bad?  What elements are good?

Through all of this, I have noticed that, with children in general, but especially with girls, there is a tendency to allow what amounts to moral panic to inform many people's views of what is and is not good for children.  Specifically, in the case of girls, I see a good deal of moral panic about the alleged "princess culture."

The argument goes something like this:  by presenting the "princess" as a model for what women are supposed to be like, we are creating the expectation that they should be more concerned with physical beauty, meekness, conformity to social norms, and, importantly, "waiting for their prince" than with being dynamic, intelligent, creative, etc.

Does that sound familiar?

Let me describe another element of pop culture that is often criticized in a similar way:  by giving our daughters Barbie dolls, we are teaching them to loathe their own bodies for failing to measure up to an unrealistic (literally plastic) standard of beauty, to be more concerned with the acquisition of material goods than the cultivation of one's other attributes (it is common to point out that there is a Barbie dream house and pink Corvette, but not a Barbie research laboratory or library*).

The problem with the claim that Barbie is bad for young girls is that it has long been asserted, but never been demonstrated.  It is a narrative that grew out of academic and political discourses about how women are portrayed in the media and in popular culture, but one which was never tested or scrutinized, partially because it seemed to make intuitive sense, and partially because it fit with other narratives developing at the time.  In fact, when researchers at the University of Bath in the U.K. actually decided to look into how children play with Barbie dolls, they found that there was no reason to think that they viewed it any differently than any other toy, and there was no evidence that girls viewed the Barbie as being some sort of paragon of beauty, or in any other way special, as the narrative demands.  Now, one study, of course, does not settle any issue, but it is, to date, the only real evidence that exists concerning how children view Barbie dolls, and as such, it has a leg-up on the "Barbie is poisoning girls' minds" narrative.

The concern that I am hearing about the "princess cultures" seems to be very much the same thing.  I am told constantly that if I should allow my daughter to become interested in princess fairytales, or call her "princess", or in any other way allow her to buy into the princesses of popular culture, then I will be debilitating her and causing her to become a doormat for whatever misogynistic ass she meets down the road.

But, well, there's no data to support that.  It's just a claim, an untested hypothesis at best, and ideological assertion at worst.

And it's not something that I worry about.  My daughter will be raised by myself and her mother, a published author and someone who has helped yank a non-profit out of the black hole; and she will be exposed to her maternal grandmother, a high-ranking nurse in San Jose (and lest you think that a nurse is a subservient role, I will simply point to the amount of training, education, and general moxie that most nurses have); her paternal grandmother, a judge; her aunts, who include a graduate of Berkeley's Haas School of Business, a law school graduate, a professional photographer, and someone who has managed to hold down the fort while all the rest of the family went askew; my daughter will be exposed to her father's boss, a woman who has earned a PhD, runs a successful branch of a successful company, has traveled to fieldwork in Africa, and managed to raise a family.

In short, my daughter will be routinely exposed to intelligent, powerful, capable women.  I have no worry about positive female role models being around to show her that there are many ways to be a woman, and there is no need to be a floor mat to anyone.  The notion that my calling her "princess" as a term of endearment, or allowing her to watch children's movies about princess characters, or even play-act the role of a princess is somehow going to crowd out or diminish the actual women in her life seems, frankly, absurd.

Will it harm my daughter to not be exposed to this, at least not by her parents?  No.  And I have to admit that I dislike the idea of buying into the commercialization that comes with the dominant Disney brand of princess stuff (and I think that Kaylia and I would agree on that).  But the notion that this is somehow a massive, horrible force out to destroy our children, or even a major part of the social ills that we do, and will, face?  That's pretty absurd.

*For all I know, these could be available accessories, but this is the common accusation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

How Not to Talk about India with an Indian

When I was in graduate school, the girlfriend of one of my fellow graduate students came to visit.  She was from India, and while she had lived in the United States for quite a while (her accent was so thoroughly western U.S. in its flavor that had she not told me that she had grown up in India, I'd not have guessed), she was, nonetheless from India. 

One evening, the lot of us went out to a bar near the university, where we spent several hours talking.  Another grad student was there, a guy who we will call Stan, was quite fond of accusing the white students of trying to push our "western narratives" onto other people (in case you're hoping for a heaping dose of irony on that point, he he was of mixed Mexican and Korean ancestry himself, and so was at least not one white student making the accusation to a bunch of other white students...he was, however, from Orange County, and so his frequent claims that we were all affluent and from conservative areas was deliciously ironic).  Indeed, most of us simply avoided any conversation that might turn to cultural differences and the assertion of cultural narratives (which was tough, as we were an anthropology department), and others (myself included) liked to play with him by throwing out bits of statements to see what we could get him to say or do.

Anyway, Stan began talking to our visitor, and in his usual way, he decided to buddy up with her by talking smack about "those evil colonialists."  He was shocked when she didn't agree with him.

In summary, her view was this:  The European colonial powers were basically a bunch of assholes who did some terrible things...but they left behind a physical and legal infrastructure that allowed India to begin excelling when left to its own devices, and the success of many Indian people, herself included, was a direct result of the colonial history.  So, she didn't see colonialism as being an entirely bad thing, in the long run.

Now, you can argue with her position.  I'm not sure that I entirely agree with it, myself.  But she articulated it well (what I wrote up there does no justice to what she actually said, it's a very crude summary), and she was willing to stick with and defend her position. 

Stan was perplexed, and then he was angry.

He would not accept that there might be any benefit from colonial activity.  He had so internalized the notion that colonialism was a purely evil thing, that he could not bring himself to accept that someone whose own personal history derives directly and (given both her and her parent's age) recently from European colonialism might not view it as a strict black-and-white issue.  She didn't say colonialsim was good, but she did say that it had beneficial long-term effects for many people in India.  Again, you can argue against this position, but you can not do so by simply nay-saying it without considering what was being said.

Then, of course, came the thing that made this evening so delightfully and memorably ironic: Stan accused her of attempting to impose her "western narrative" on the people of India.

That's right, the affluent boy from Orange County, who was able to attend a graduate school in a prestigious university system in California, accused someone who was actually from India of imposing a "western narrative" onto India.

The problem is that the strict black-and-white, good vs. evil view of Europe's colonial history and it's modern results is as much a product of western culture and beliefs as were the notions of European exceptionalism, of "white man's burden", of the particular form of greed and avarice that fueled it.  For all of his claims to being somehow non-western, Stan was as western as everyone else there, and he had bought into the late 20th/early 21st centuries western narrative of colonialism.  And just as those he criticized were unwilling to consider native views of history*, he was unwilling to do that very same thing.

The reason that I bring this up is that there is a tendency among many people, often (though not limited to) the political left, to attempt to correct past de-humanization of various groups of people by engaging in activities that are equally dehumanizing, just in a different way.  It is no less condescending to think of the people whose lands were colonized as hapless victims than it is to think that they should be grateful for having been made second-class citizens so that they might be "enlightened" by Europeans.  Similarly, if you object to histories being written by the descendants of the European colonials, you are not improving matters by creating an alternate history that tries to be sympathetic to the colonized while simultaneously ignoring what their descendants have to say on the matter. 

I have written in the past about the refusal of most modern people to really examine our histories as they concern colonialism and groups that we would not lump into the category of "minorities".  We want to create simple narratives with evil, maniacle bad guy colonists and shining, virtuous natives fighting a valiant, if losing, battle against encroaching modernity.  But the fact of the matter is that this is just false.  History is messy, and even horrible events can have good consequences down the road...and, of course, events that we consider good can have horrible long-term consequences.  But, ultimately, whether we are vilifying Europeans or Indians, we are applying a narrative to the situation...and Stan's narrative was just as much a product of his contemporary western political ideologies as the views of the colonial governments were products of theirs. 

A quick note - while I was writing this, I discovered that another blogger by the name of Natlie Reed wrote an excellent post on why the "progressive" notions of "non-western" cultures are just as dehumanizing and harmful as the attitudes that they claim to be trying to correct.  Read it here.

*For the record, most of us routinely worked with native consultants and informants and worked to make sure that we were accurately reflecting what they told us in our work.  Such a method is not without it's own flaws and pitfalls, to be certain, but it is more than Stan was doing in his work.  Again, the irony of it all was astounding.