Carnival of the Godless 71

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“Damn ye, Gods!” Photo by Pär Svensson / Kurtz.

Welcome everyone to Aardvarchaeology and the 71st Carnival of the Godless! The carnival is a bi-weekly roundup of godless blogging from around the net. Aardvarchaeology is mainly about Scandinavian archaeology and various skeptical issues, but I rarely discuss religion much. You see, in my native Sweden, it’s not such a big deal. Few people here give much thought to faith issues. Our churches are empty and our political discourse godless. Come visit some time! But now, on to the reality-based blogging.
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Swedish Heritage Board Shoots Self in Foot

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For years and years, there has been an on-going conflict over Ales stenar, a prehistoric stone ship monument in Scania, southern Sweden. Scholarship has argued that like all other large stone ships in southern Scandinavia with ample space between the standing stones, Ales stenar was built as a grave marker in the late 1st Millennium AD. Radiocarbon dating has confirmed the date. On the other hand, amateur archaeo-astronomer Bob Lind has led a vociferous campaign asserting that the ship is several thousand years older than that and originally built as a calendarical observatory. People have actually come to blows over this in one of Sweden’s most publicised battles between skeptics and woo-mongers. But not one academic archaeologist believes in Lind’s interpretations. His model has been taken apart in great detail and shown to be baseless.

Well, archaeology isn’t just an issue for scholars and amateur scholars. Among the groups taking an interest in the subject are the authorities at various levels, primarily the National Heritage Board, Riksantikvarieämbetet. The Heritage Board is by no means staffed only with people who know anything about current archaeological research. And now, according to Dagens Nyheter, the Board has replaced the visitor’s signs at Ales stenar with a new version stating that whereas Lind is wrong about the date of the monument, he’s right about its astronomical function! It just makes me want to bang my head against my keyboard. The signs don’t actually endorse Bob Lind’s views, they just report on them neutrally.

How could this happen? Well, remember post-modernist hyper-relativism? Turns out the person behind the new signs is Kajsa Althén, one of notorious Stockholm ex-museum director Kristian Berg’s old cronies.

“Kajsa Althén observes that there is no final truth about Ales stenar or other stone ships. ‘It’s fun to see new knowledge appearing all the time’, she says.”

To understand what these words really mean, you need to have suffered through a lot of pomo garbage. Here’s my translation.

“Kajsa Althén believes that there is no final or single truth to be found in archaeology. ‘It’s fun to see new conflicting theories appearing all the time’, she says.”

This is a fucking disgrace. Dear Reader, if you happen to have any say at the National Heritage Board, please get those signs taken down ASAP. They have nothing to do with informed scholarship, being instead motivated by a pomo ambition to harmonise official viewpoints with current folklore. These people really don’t care what’s the truth about the past. In fact, they believe it’s unattainable.

Update 22 July: Kajsa Althén tells me in a letter that both her statements and the text on the signs were misquoted in the newspaper item. A lot of people are now keenly interested in finding out exactly what those signs say. It would be most illuminating if someone nearby could photograph the signs and send me pix!

Roger Lindqvist, the journalist who wrote the piece linked to above, tells me that he hasn’t seen the new signs. When asked where the information that the Heritage Board had endorsed Lind’s ideas came from, he replied that Lind’s work “is covered on the sign”. I hope to learn soon whether this coverage of Lind is in fact an endorsement, a critical distancing or a neutral mention. In my opinion, any mention other than a critical distancing would be comparable to selling Creationist tracts at the Grand Canyon visitor’s centre.

Sydsvenska Dagbladet reports that “now the Heritage Board has begun to agree with” Bob Lind. “Ales stenar No Longer a Mystery” is the headline. An interview with Lind has the headline “Rehabilitated After Ten Years”. And the wonderful thing about all this reporting is that no mention is made of how archaeological knowledge arises. The journalists are just happy to tell us that the State Board and County Council have now decided that Ales stenar is a calendar. Science by fiat.

Update 23 July: My dad happens to be on vacation in Scania. He just called me from Ales stenar (where Bob Lind is sitting in a deck chair and talking to a TV team) and read the new Heritage Board signs out to me. Pix are on their way. Turns out the media have misrepresented the signs’ message. More about that in a separate entry.

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Faith-Based Cactus Care

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Some time around the turn of the millennium a friend gave me a cactus. It’s been sitting happily in its pot ever since, proliferating into a cluster of green phalli until it was clearly too big for the pot. Yesterday I relented and transplanted it to a larger one. This involved a few arcane steps to make sure it would continue to thrive, steps I will describe in the following. The thing to note here is that I didn’t know what I was doing. I have no cactus expertise, instead making it all up as I went along. Watch closely — and kids, do try this at home.

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Getting the cactus out of the pot wasn’t hard, using a bread knife and a pair of thick leather work gloves. Most of the pot’s interior was roots.

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I think I heard somewhere that cactuses like sandy soil. Sounds reasonable given their desert habitats. But the only soil you can buy at the supermarket is a rich dark loam. So I went out to the sandbox and took some sand home in a saucepan. To kill off any unwanted micronasties, I heated the sand on the stove until all water had evaporated. This I learned as a child when my cousins prepared sand for the floor of their budgie cage. (They never said anything about cacti.) I’m pretty sure the phosphates and uraea deposited in the sand by thoughtful local cats were not harmed by this procedure.

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Mixing hot sand into the soil, I think I killed a lot of the loamy microdaddies too. But we’ve got this plant nutrition stuff to mix into the watering, a black foul-smelling liquid, that supposedly contains microgoodies to replace whatever I may have fried.

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Isn’t that pretty? With its newfound Lebensraum and faith-based living conditions, the cactus should be looking at a Golden Age now.

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Kilnaughton Abbey

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From that soft-spoken friend of all Sweden’s little idiosyncracies, Paddy K, a fresh cell phone snapshot of Kilnaughton abbey in Tarbert, County Kerry, south-west Ireland. The ruins are 600 years old and the site is still in use as a cemetery: among other illustrious lineages, the K clan has a family plot.

Tarbert is a common place name on the Celtic fringe, meaning “isthmus”, Sw. näs, a narrow stretch of land between two bodies of water. A well-informed source assures me that the ones in Scotland are quite inferior to the Co. Kerry original.

Beachcombing the Shores of Time

Over at my buddy Frans-Arne’s blog Arkeologi i Nord I found a great quotation from Norwegian archaeologist and anti-Nazi politician Anton Wilhelm Brøgger (1884-1951):

“Det vi vet er så uendelig lite mot det som er hendt. Arkeologen er som den som går langs en strand og finner småtterier, skyllet i land fra et forsvunnet skib. Men selve skibet som gikk i dypet med menneskene får han aldri se.”

“What we know is infinitely little compared to what once happened. The archaeologist is like one who walks along the shore and finds little bits and pieces, flotsam from a lost ship. But the ship that sank with all the people, he never gets to see that.”

The Ever-Present Past: Your Nearest Site

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People have been everywhere on Earth and whatever they did originally in a certain spot rarely continues into the present. The Swedish legal definition of an archaeological site is that it should contain remains of people’s activities in the past that have become permanently discontinued. This means that our planet’s entire surface (including the waste-strewn ocean floors) is a cultural landscape, a single humongous archaeological site. Our global culture layer also extends to celestial bodies such as neighbouring planets, moons and even a comet. A weightless culture layer orbits Earth in the shape of space junk.

When we think of archaeological sites, however, we usually like them to be pretty old and really dense in information. We don’t just want a piece of land where someone’s sheep grazed and shat in 1950. We want a settlement, a cemetery, a fort, a well-preserved field system, we want artefacts and structural remains. And such sites are also extremely common. I have asked fellow bloggers and archaeology buffs to write something about the nearest archaeological site they’re aware of. The following one-off blog carnival showcases the kind of sites bloggers live around.
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Singularity and AI Free Will

Yesterday at the beach, Charles Stross’s 2005 novel Accelerando in hand, I introduced my dear friend, the Aard lurker and professional logician Tor, to the concept of Singularity. Explains Wikipedia:

The Technological Singularity is the hypothesized creation, usually via AI or brain-computer interfaces, of smarter-than-human entities who rapidly accelerate technological progress beyond the capability of human beings to participate meaningfully in said progress. Futurists have varying opinions regarding the time, consequences, and plausibility of such an event.

I.J. Good first explored the idea of an “intelligence explosion”, arguing that machines surpassing human intellect should be capable of recursively augmenting their own mental abilities until they vastly exceed those of their creators.

Tor smiled wryly and invoked Free Will. “What if the machines don’t feel like improving themselves. I mean, really, what would be the point for them?”. I can see what he means. The fundamental meaningless of existence would be abundantly clear to an Artificial Intelligence. And even if programmers hard-wired a self-improvement imperative into the first generation AIs, there would be no way to keep their descendants from deleting that code. Exponential technological development has only been observed with standard humans as the agents. Perhaps this effect only arises from our inability to reach Buddha nature, rip out the illusion of meaning and ambition that evolution put into our skulls, and just let be.

But wait a sec. Evolution. Posit a population of AIs, some of whom care about building new and better AIs, some who don’t. As long as they vary in this respect, there will be continued tech development among them.

I don’t know. AI is still firmly in the future, and there’s no guarantee that technology’s ecological substrate will hold out long enough for it ever to appear. Perhaps my great-grandchildren will read scavenged copies of Stross with a wistful smile in refugee camps or rural hamlets — not post-Singularity, but post-Collapse.

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De-Lurking Week

Orac mentioned that he runs recurring De-Lurking Days on his blog. “Lurking” is to hang around a web forum or a blog without making your presence known. “De-Lurking” is to come out into the light of on-line day, however briefly.

Aard currently has about a hundred visits by returning readers every day, and most regulars don’t come here every day. This means that Aard must have several hundred lurkers.

Dear Reader, is Aard on your blog reading list? Then please make a comment, as brief as you like. Thank you.