Anthro Blog Carnival

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The thirty-sixth Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is on-line at Afarensis. Archaeology and anthropology, and this time dealing exclusively with koryÅ«. Explains Wikipedia: “KoryÅ« is a general term for Japanese schools of martial arts that predate the Meiji Restoration (the period from 1866 to 1869 which sparked major socio-political changes and led to the modernization of Japan). While there is no ‘official’ cutoff date, the dates most commonly used are either 1868, the first year of the Meiji period, or 1876, when the Haitōrei edict banning the wearing of swords was pronounced.”

The next open hosting slot is on 4 June. All bloggers with an interest in the subject are welcome to volunteer to me. No need to be an anthro pro. But you must be a student of koryū and favour the 1868 cutoff date, like me.

And check out the new Skeptics’ Circle!

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Wikipedians, Check This Out

I’ve discovered that the Wikipedia entry about Falun Gong is heavily biased. Indeed, before I took it upon myself to insert a few words about the criticism the organisation has met with, the article was entirely about a) how good FG is (and I disagree), b) how nasty the Chinese government is (and I agree).

Now, this article is guarded by a bunch of FG devotees who undo all attempts to introduce a more balanced view into the text. Their antics on the discussion page are quite a sight. I think it would be good if some of Aard’s readers joined me in making improvements to the article. Informative, referenced additions is what I have in mind. Let’s leave the pro-FG and anti-government material untouched and just introduce a solid anti-FG perspective. Editing Wikipedia is easy and self-explanatory. Don’t forget to check out the discussion page.

Update: This is the first time I’ve been involved in an edit war on Wikipedia. Very instructive. Some new (to me) knowledge:

  • Three Revert Rule: you are not allowed to make “more than three reverts, in whole or in part, on a single page within a 24-hour period. A revert means undoing the actions of another editor, whether involving the same or different material each time.”
  • The Falun Gong devotees try to get around this rule by ganging up and taking turns reverting anti-FG additions to the article. No individual participant breaks the 3RR rule except when they lose count.
  • Their main edit-battle tactic is to allege that an anti-FG addition is somehow against the Wikipedia guidelines, even if this forces them to contort like acrobats.
  • Edit wars against cultists are hard to win decisively. One way out of a stalemate is to attract more participants to the discussion, people who are willing to put a contested article on their watchlist, preferably Wikipedia admins or other Wikipedia junkies.

The Falun Gong article is of course just one example of many where Wikipedia’s basic principle does not work very well. (I oppose all cults, and I could just as well have had this fight with Raelians, Scientologists or Catholics.) But it’s still a hugely useful resource, particularly since warred-over articles tend to get flagged as such at the top. If I want to know the Swedish name of the hoki fish or the dates of Anthemius’s reign, then Wikipedia really can’t be beaten. Love it!

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Tech Note: Diacritic Characters

At PZ’s suggestion, I’ve twiddled some knobs behind the scenes to force the blog to speak utf-8 instead of iso-8859-1. This will hopefully allow you guys to write even stranger comments than usual. Maybe I’ll even be able to stop writing stuff like “& a u m l ;” Please try it out! SÃ¥y sömëthïng ïn Swëdïsh! Mattias, have you any lewd suggestions to make in Koiné Greek? Is anyone able to rattle off a few lines of Arabic love poetry? Go nuts, y’all!

Guide Dog Activism and Allergies

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An blind activist buddy of mine is on the war path. This time it’s about guide dogs on Swedish Rail:

“Three years ago I got a guide dog. It turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. Since then, my life has changed fundamentally. I exercise to an extent that I never thought possible. My physical condition has improved enormously and I feel much better to my soul. I used to avoid going out. Navigating a noisy city full of lamp posts and speeding cars was so demanding that I would avoid it completely for long periods. But since I got my dog, things have changed. It’s a pleasure to run around town with him at my side. A bit like regaining sight! In many ways I move as well and as freely as a seeing person. And of course it has done wonders for my self esteem.

But I’ve also come a cross a few frustrating problems. No law prohibits the discrimination of guide dog owners. Restaurant owners, shopkeepers and bath house staff can shut me out without risking legal repercussions. And I have met with discrimination, so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve filed a few complaints with the Ombudsman for the Disabled, but that’s just a symbolic act as there is no anti-discrimination law for such cases.

Now the Guide Dog Owner’s Association has set up a petition to convince Swedish Rail that people with guide dogs should be allowed to sit in any one of a train’s carriages. For several years, we have only been allowed to sit in designated pet-owner seats, which equates a guide dog with a pet.”

I replied to my friend that I kind of support his cause, but that those pet-seats on the trains are intended to protect another disabled group which is much more numerous than the guide-dog owners, viz people with fur allergies. Explained my buddy: as pet-owners and horse-riders are extremely common and wear the same clothes regardless of whether they’re bringing their pets along or not, all public spaces in Sweden are already heavily contaminated with fur. There are only about 300 guide dogs in the country (pop. 9 million), and only about 1% of the adult population reports serious allergic reactions to dog hair. All in all, it would pose no measurably increased problem for allergics if guide dogs were allowed everywhere on Swedish Rail trains. Such dogs are specifically trained to sit calmly with their owners. And the Swedish Asthma and Allergy Association agrees.

My buddy’s arguments (he asked to be anonymous, since the last time I blogged about him he got mailbombed by people who wanted him to take up their causes) convinced me, and I’ve signed the petition.

The man in the picture is not my activist buddy, though he’s pretty cool-looking too. I found it at the Guide Dogs for the Blind website.

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Film Review: Spiderwick Chronicles

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9-y-o Junior has had a remarkable streak of luck involving the kids’ fantasy movie Spiderwick Chronicles. First he managed to check his e-mail just as the book-club he’s a member of sent out a mass-mailed invitation to yesterday’s pre-screening of the film. Then, when he and I sat down to watch the thing, the Spiderwick books’ Swedish publishers ran a lottery with the seat numbers, and he was the first winner, harvesting two new books and a merch note pad.

In Junior’s opinion, the movie was a 8/10. I’m not a member of target audience, and I give it a 5. It’s a contemporary-world children’s fantasy in the tradition of Edith Nesbith: about three siblings who move to a big old house and find the field journal of their great-grand-uncle Arthur Spiderwick, who studied fairies and goblins in the 1920s. The movie’s action-filled and pretty violent, though most of the beings that get hurt are barely humanoid CGI critters. The mood is rarely particularly menacing or eerie. A funny detail is that twin brothers Jared and Simon are both played by Freddie Highmore (of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame), who does a very fine job of keeping the two characters distinct. (The integration of the separate takes is seamless.)

So, if you’re a grown-up looking for fantasy entertainment, then you can do far worse than this. And if you want to entertain a 9-12-year-old, then you are unlikely to do much better than Spiderwick Chronicles.

(On a side note, the art in Holly Black’s original book series, by Tony DiTerlizzi, is heavily influenced by Brian Froud. Anyone into him or the 1986 David Bowie flick The Labyrinth might check the books out too.)

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Falun Gong Puts On a Song and Dance

i-eb22068e8f45845ec77736cc51f67ecf-spectacular.jpgIn every story there is a villain, and his adversary is either a hero or a hapless victim. But we don’t live in a story.

Most people with democratic opinions see the Chinese government as a group of autocratic villains with a history of persecuting good people. When such a government persecutes a religious movement, it’s easy to assume that this movement must be quite nice. This not necessarily the case.

The much-publicised and long-standing conflict between the Chinese authorities and Falun Gong is an example of a nasty autocratic regime persecuting a nasty manipulative cult. Falun Gong’s leader Li Hongzhi preaches racism, anti-science, space aliens possessing humans, the emotions of plants, the ability to evade gravity and to walk through walls. His word carries absolute authority within the movement, as he is held to be the only person ever to understand the laws of the universe. “Whoever believes Falun dafa is just a health movement is the most worthless of living beings”, the cult’s web site used to explain. Think of it as Chinese Scientology or Raelianism.

The cult has put on a traveling show named the “Shen Yun Divine Performing Arts Chinese Spectacular”. Who really lies behind the show isn’t readily apparent from the posters, as it lists mainly newspapers and other media companies (Epoch Times, New Tang Dynasty Television and others) as its supporters. These are all, however, controlled by Falun Gong, and that’s where the profits end up.

The Shen Yun Chinese Spectacular visits Stockholm from 24 to 26 March and Linköping on 27 March. Wherever you are, Dear Reader, think twice before buying a ticket if the Spectacular comes your way.

Update 12 March: Here’s a recent New York Times story describing what the propaganda shows are like.

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Great Science Fiction Podcast

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I’ve been a devotee of Escape Pod, the weekly science-fiction short-story podcast, for 2.5 years now. Its audience has grown and grown and grown until Escape Pod is now the world’s second-largest paying market for sf short fiction regardless of medium. It’s second only to Analog! Steve Eley, who runs the thing, is a fixture in my life, the way Oprah wouldn’t be even if I watched TV. Now, in a blog entry, Steve’s giving the world a look behind the scenes at Escape Artists, Inc. Though you’d never guess it from Escape Pod‘s solid record of weekly publication, things have been rough for the guy lately, personal crisis sort of thing, and he’s come out of it determined to build a podcasting business. Yes, he’s putting even more effort into Escape Pod!

Dear Reader, Escape Pod is a Creative Commons free download, and it’s going to remain so. Donations are voluntary: I’ve been sending them a few bucks now and then, not really keeping tabs on how much it’s worked out to per month. Now I’ve shot them an extra one-time donation and signed up for the suggested monthly: $5. If you’re into science fiction and like to listen to podcasts, or if you think you might want to try a first, check out the site and consider signing up, you too!

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Samian Pierre Resists Attempt to Move Viking Town

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Sweden’s first town was a place called Birka, frequently mentioned in Viking Period written sources such as Rimbert’s book about Bishop Ansgar. The town was on an island in Lake Mälaren near Stockholm. Its remains are extensive and highly visible, and have been the object of constant archaeological attention since the birth of the discipline. Nevertheless, there’s a tendency among local-patriotic amateur scholars all around the Baltic to try to argue that Birka was in fact located in their favourite spot on Earth. This is so common that it’s a running joke in the trade. In the following, my colleague Samian Pierre Petersson (keeper of the AHIMKAR blog) reports on the most recent attempt to move Birka.


Populär arkeologi (“Popular Archaeology”) is Sweden’s only pop-sci archaeology magazine. I had never had reason to complain about it before, but today, as I received the latest issue, I found a reason: a short interview with Stig Enström. He is an amateur scholar who recently published a book claiming that the Swedish town of Kalmar had a predecessor that was one of the most important Viking Period central places of Scandinavia. Enström writes that this Viking Period town was named Birka and was actually the place that Ansgar visited in the 9th century. He also states that the pagan temple of Uppsala was actually situated closely north of Kalmar and that the ring forts of Öland were actually built as a defensive line to protect the town of “Kalmar-Birka”. The book is entirely based on mistreated source materials and circular reasoning where one unproven hypothesis is used as proof for another unproven hypothesis that then is used to support the first hypothesis. The fact that the archaeological record offers absolutely no support for the idea that the place in question was once was a major town is nothing that bothers Enström — or the editor of Populär Arkeologi.

Flipping through the magazine I find that the interview is not the only place where Enström and his book are mentioned. In an advert it is highlighted as “a dispute with earlier research claiming that Birka [in Lake Mälaren] held a key position during the Viking Period and in the Christianisation of Sweden. The author’s research is easy to follow by many beautiful pictures, maps and ancient documents”. The magazine also markets the book in its mail-order book store. On top of that the magazine issue contains a review of the book that offers no critical perspective at all on the many statements in the book. It talks of “the excellent illustrations”, as if good pictures is what makes a research publication important.

Now, what is this? Has the editor of Populär arkeologi lost her mind? The country’s single pop-sci archaeology mag supports unscientific work that has no grounding in the archaeological record whatsoever. It reminds me of the various Bob G. Lind affairs, such as the 2007 scandal when the National Heritage Board gave support to his crazy interpretations of Scanian ancient monuments, presenting them on a level with scientific knowledge. This is the exact same thing. Populär arkeologi tells its readers that unproven speculations are equal to scientific research. Why? I have absolutely no idea as to what might have made a fairly respectable pop-sci magazine suddenly abandon every semblance of source criticism. It’s unacceptable and — well, simply stupid. I can only hope that the mag will shape up and offer its readers an excuse for inflicting unfounded speculation on innocent people who paid good money to read the crap.

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Back to the Bronze Age Again

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Yesterday I began my return to the Bronze Age. For most of my career I’ve mainly worked with the Late Iron Age, a period that dominates the landscape of agrarian Sweden completely through its cemeteries and place names. But my first published piece of research, indeed the first research I ever did, concerned the Late Bronze Age. And now I’m thinking of going back there once my current book project in Östergötland is done.

My old Bronze Age studies, I’m ashamed to admit, involved no field trips and hardly any artefact studies, but lots of archive work. I had no driver’s license, hardly any thesis supervision, and I was 19. Also, the sites I worked with were old contract digs that had been obliterated by suburban land development, so there wasn’t much left to see there.

Yesterday, for the first time, I sought out a piece of the Bronze Age landscape I looked at back then, getting the coordinates for some burnt-stone mounds and cupmark sites at Älvesta in Botkyrka parish out of the on-line site register and plugging them into my GPS. My objective was to see the visible monuments and do some fieldwalking, in the hopes of finding some flint and pottery and possible even an axe.

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A cupmark, a simple Bronze Age rock art type, diameter a few centimeters.

It was a perfect day for a field trip. Sunshine, vegetation at its absolute annual minimum, naked ploughed fields where rain had washed all stones clean, yet still slightly frozen so that it wasn’t all mushy. A naked field is something deeply unnatural, cultivated if you will, a vast expanse of earth without a straw growing on top. Ploughing damages sites, but it’s been going on since prehistory, and it also makes sites uniquely accessible to archaeology.

I am not a very good fieldwalker, though I hope to learn. Through many hours of metal detecting in ploughed fields, I have found very little by sight, concentrating instead on the drone and grunting of the detector’s headphones. Some people, like Niklas Krantz who found the gold foil figure die last spring, can see and metal-detect at the same time, filling their pockets with flint and pottery. I cannot. But yesterday I practiced, hands on my back, stooping slightly, placing my concentration in my eyes, trying to disregard the input from my ears.

And what did I find? At first, mainly a lot of brick fragments. A little non-knapped quartz. Half a meter of iron chain. A piece of plastic pipe. A few bones. Part of the iron “tyre” of a wagon. A piece of a white clay pipe stem. Sherds of glazed China. A thrashed aluminium soda can. These are all obvious things whose colour and shape differ dramatically from the ploughsoil, and I kept none of them: they wouldn’t be informative to any scholar I know of, and I am no pack rat.

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Then I found something worthwhile, not far from a registered site with a cupmarked outcrop and a drove of burnt stone. From the ploughsoil I picked up a grind stone, like a smooth distinctly faceted rock tennis ball, and three pieces of knapped quartz. No museum is likely to want these finds when I offer to hand them in, but they’re definitely worth describing and reporting. They’re evidence of a ploughed-out settlement site of respectable dimensions. Situated at 20 meters above sea level, the site most likely dates from the early-to-mid-1st Millennium BC.

My future project, as I imagine it now, will treat the landscape situation of Bronze Age wetland sacrificial deposits in relationship to a coeval settlement pattern. My idea is to identify common landscape characteristics of such wetland sites as are known to date, and then apply that knowledge to hopefully make some interesting new finds under controlled conditions. Wetland archaeology is a huge underexploited field offering preservation conditions and modes of prehistoric behaviour unknown elsewhere. But I’m not averse to some more fieldwalking either. It’s fun!

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