Google Knol Live

Alun tells me that Google Knol is now live. It’s like Wikipedia, only written by experts and pwned by Google. Check it out!

Also, I happened upon Everything2, this other weird & interesting hypertext community where anything goes, not modeled on an encyclopedia.

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Against Theoretical Archaeology

A Trondheim colleague has kindly invited me to head a session at the Nordic TAG conference next May. T.A.G. means “Theoretical Archaeology Group”, and denotes a series of annual conferences rather than a defined group of people. The invitation hinted that I might perhaps want to contribute something provocative. After a moment’s thought, I realised that my attitude to TAG (Nordic or otherwise) goes beyond provocative: I am simply hostile to it. Archaeological theory, in my opinion, belongs within the context of real specific archaeological research and is useless in an abstract form, which goes against TAG’s basic premise. So I declined the invitation, explaining that my message to the conference-goers would be a brief deal-killer: “Go home everybody and do archaeology”.

Outsiders often find the term “theoretical archaeology” humorous, evoking an image of scholars building ancient castles in the air, without contact with the gritty grimy reality of the archaeological record. The truth is that theoretical archaeology is indeed pretty risible, but not in that exact sense. The whole endeavour started in the 1960s with attempts to formalise a body of abstract interpretive theory for the discipline. This coincided with a brief spell in the history of archaeology when scholars dreamed of finding out general cultural constants, “Laws of Culture” as it were. In this perspective, theoretical archaeology would be a lot like theoretical physics, striving to formulate universal laws and ultimately achieve a Theory of Everything.

These attempts fizzled. Most archaeologists abandoned all hope of finding cultural constants around 1980 and returned to our standard business of finding out the unique kaleidoscopic non-generalisable details of individual (pre-) historical situations. But theoretical archaeology somehow survived, it even thrived, as an end unto itself. (Thus TAG, whose first conference took place in 1979.) No longer did it in the main aim at making archaeology better: it splintered into a myriad philosophical sects, abandoned the concept of “better”, and set out on a trend-driven random walk, existing to produce not better, but more new theory, mainly in the form of buzzwords. The 1980s reaction against the technocratic natural determinism of the 60s and 70s also opened the door wide to all manner of post-modernist philosophisering from the weird fringe of lit-crit and sociology. And thus, today, we have a few Swedish university archaeologists writing about Heidegger and fake ruins in theme parks.

Instead of going to TAG, I’ll just set out a few brief points on what I think archaeology should be and do. (These points are controversial only among the minority of archaeologists who work in academe. About 95% of everybody in the world who makes a living from archaeology are diggers at contract archaeology units and have very little reason, time or funding to pay any attention to theoretical archaeology.)

  • Archaeology is part of the hugely successful, rationalist, empirical, scientific Enlightenment project to find out what the world really is and has been like.
  • Archaeology is one of the disciplines within this project responsible (in close interdisciplinary cooperation) for finding out what life was like for people in the past.
  • Archaeology alone takes care of the study of material remains of past societies.
  • All enquiry that does not concern the life-ways of people in the past and/or does not study material remains is non-archaeology.
  • All non-rationalist enquiry is non-science and thus non-archaeology.
  • All impressionist-aesthetic commentary is non-science and thus non-archaeology.
  • Politics are about values and thus non-science. Archaeology should therefore resist all attempts from inside and outside the discipline to ascribe political relevance to it.

Finally, lest someone accuse me of being inconsistent here, dissing archaeological theory yet writing about it, let me just point out that I wrote this brief blog entry on vacation between two fieldwork campaigns. This is not my job, it’s what I do after dinner instead of watching TV.

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Game Review: Pandemic

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Pandemic is a new board game for 1-4 players. The players take on the roles of field operatives for the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA, as four simultaneous pandemics threaten global life and civilisation. It’s a collaborative game: either you find cures in time and everybody wins — or everybody loses. And it’s really exciting!

I recently learned the term “game fluff” from my old buddy and long-time Aard regular Akhorahil. The fluff is the story that hangs on the abstract framework of a games’ rules. In order to win a game, you need to understand and exploit the game mechanics (“to optimise”, in gamer parlance), not think too much about the fluff. Many classic games have little fluff (like chess) or none at all (like bridge, backgammon, dominoes and parcheesi/ludo/fia). But I have a weakness: I care more about the fluff than the mechanics, and I don’t like abstract games.

Pandemic’s game mechanics are elegant and innovative. But its fluff is full of holes if you start to think about it. Why are four CDC employees the only people in the world who seem interested in finding the cures? Why are at best two of them medical doctors? How come cures are often found by the team’s dispatcher and the guy who sets up their research stations? Why is it so hard to travel? Why are air tickets and crucial bits of scientific data represented by the same cards? Why does each infective agent tend to stay in a certain part of the world, so that an individual city is hardly ever hit by more than one of them?

But it’s a good game, nail-biting really, as you discuss among yourselves who goes where to whack-a-mole infected cities that threaten to break out, as you try to figure out a way to pass a card to a player who needs it, as any one of the several defeat endings starts to loom ahead. A ten-year-old can understand the rules. But even grown-up seasoned gamers will find it hard to win at Pandemic, simply because it’s fine-tuned to be hard. Importantly, when the end comes, it’s pretty abrupt, so you don’t have to suffer through long slow defeat. I grade Pandemic an 8 out of 10.

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Rental Sculpture

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I’m a big fan of sculptress Maria Lundberg, particularly her work in hardwood. Now, I can’t afford to buy her stuff. But being a good friend of the family, she’s agreed to a somewhat unusual arrangement. I’ve rented one of her pieces for a year.

Most artists have a large backlog of unsold work sitting around their homes and studios. This way, Lundberg has one less bulky piece to house, it earns her a modest amount of money, and she retains the option of selling it at any time with a simple partial refund for me.

I’m not a hoarder. This is actually an ideal arrangement for me: I get to keep a great piece of sculpture around in my home for just as long as it takes for me to become used and numb to it. Then I’ll return it and rent something new.

Sculpture (to which may be counted architecture) is the ultimate art form of the digital age: the last kind of art that can’t be transmitted adequately over the net. If you want to experience Maria Lundberg’s lion, you need to visit my living room. I’m going to move it around every few weeks, rotate it slightly every now and then, get to know it well. There’s delight in being pleasantly surprised in the familiar setting of your home.

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Slave to Love

A much-publicised trial in Falun, Sweden is giving me a funny feeling. The man on the stand has confessed to the murder of a woman and a small girl, and is also charged with the violent rape of both and of a second woman. The case makes me feel queasy in more ways than one.

Anybody half sane will of course feel incomprehending revulsion when faced with the fact of men with the drive to beat, rape and murder. But there’s something more to it for me. And I think I know what it is. This insane sadistic sex murderer was just following his strongest urges. And so have I done for all my adult life.

I’ll make no bones about it: since my lower teens, I have had a strong irrational urge to have hot, tender, consensual sex with women, preferably several times a week. This has been an important factor in the style of both of my marriages, and the ladies in question will be able to testify that I am indeed quite possessed by that urge. [Comments indicate that I should clarify that what I am confessing to here is randiness, not promiscuity.] In the interval between my marriages, I did little but pursue the fulfilment of my inclinations, and they led me to perform remarkably silly stunts for someone who calls himself a rationalist.

As luck has it, my urges are socially acceptable. Indeed, a number of people even seem to have found them charming. But the thing is, I didn’t choose my orientation. I just did whatever felt right. And so, when I read about the crimes of this unfeeling, twisted child-killer, I feel sick to the stomach. Because the main reason that I’m not committing rape and murder is that I have no inclination to do so. I don’t know if I would have been able to abstain if I had been built the same way as him.

Bob Lind Challenges Me to a Duel

Amateur archaeologist Bob Lind, whom I have often mentioned here in connection with his wild archaeoastronomical ideas, issued me a challenge today (and I translate):

Hello Martin!

I saw a statement of yours in yesterday’s Sydsvenska Dagbladet, where you encourage researchers to blog more, which you have certainly done yourself both regarding Ale’s stones and Heimdallr’s stones. And what rot it all is.

Since you have insulted me in writing to journalists and called me an arch-idiot [Sw. ärkeidiot] among other things, while also claiming that my research regarding Ale’s stones and Heimdallr’s stones is completely wrong, I hereby challenge you to a public debate in front of TV, radio and newspaper people.

In addition to the above, you have also slandered geologist Nils-Axel Mörner who has taken part in the investigations of Heimdallr’s stones. I am going to send a press release about the coming debate to the media, which you with your fine archaeological credentials surely will not find reason to complain about.

We will surely be able to agree on a venue for the duel on short notice. I have a flexible schedule. You can either call me or e-mail me your response.

Best wishes,

Bob G Lind
Independent researcher

I generally try to distinguish between issues and people, and I haven’t called Bob (or anybody else) ärkeidiot. This fine but somewhat outdated insult simply isn’t part of my otherwise reasonably colourful invective vocabulary. But I’d happily debate Bob on TV if any station wants to bring us together. It would surprise me, however, if another one of Bob’s press releases aroused much media interest. It looks more like he wants to organise a debate regardless of whether any media representatives will be there or not. I don’t see the point of travelling to some Scanian village hall and debating Bob in front of fifty locals. They’ve probably already read my opinions about his ideas.

But I think this is really about a major difference between Bob’s approach and mine. I don’t care passionately about the two sites in question, and I wouldn’t see my personal honour threatened if someone proved my ideas about them grossly wrong. Anyway I’m pretty sure that if current scholarly consensus (to which I subscribe) is one day thus proven wrong, then the new results won’t tend to support Bob’s views.

Sailing the Ley Lines with Dr. Curry

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Reading up on some pseudoscientific ideas common among dowsing-rod enthusiasts, I happened upon a funny detail. Many Swedish dowsers believe in the “Curry grid”, consisting of “power lines” across the surface of the Earth, detectable only by dowsing. They were invented (not discovered, as they are entirely fictitious, and never survive blind tests) by German physician Manfred Curry (1899-1953). As it turns out, Curry was far more known during his lifetime as a keen sailor and student of sailboat design, inventor of the cam cleat (Sw. fjädrande skotlÃ¥s) and contributor to the invention of the Genoa jib (Sw. genuafock). Both of these latter were common and very useful features of the two-sail dinghies I used to sail in my lower teens.

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Skepdude Beefcake Calendar

i-5a1408ffbd21761ad4ed54c82b823af9-beefcake.jpgOn my desk is a copy of the 2009 Skepdude pinup calendar. It features lascivious images of many prominent skeptical gentlemen, including D.J. Grothe, Hemant Mehta and Brian Dunning. For March, there’s even a picture of a skinny white dude in partial déshabillé, skilfully shot by my art-school-trained wife at sunset in the woods just above our housing area.

If your cognitive abilities are more strongly perturbed by the female form than the male one, there’s the 2009 Skepchick calendar. All for a good cause: sending cool people to The Amazing Meeting who wouldn’t otherwise be able to be there.

Order here!

Film Review: Sizzle

i-7bf6ca8410168a3d5b30bf78bfc2a7f6-polar-bear-face.jpgI know what a documentary film is. I know what fiction is. And I know what a mockumentary is: a fictional documentary. Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy attempts to combine these approaches within the framework of comedic fiction, and it left me really confused.

Director and narrator Randy Olson exists, I know that. But what about the scientists he interviews? Are all of them real? Some of them? None? There certainly are a few pretty outlandish characters there. Yet the only people in the movie I could be entirely sure must be played by actors were the in-movie camera man and sound guy, because they appear on screen as they couldn’t if they had actually been shooting and recording. But that in turn suggests that every scientist that interacts with the fictitious camera man is also acting, at least to some extent. And that guy is one of the film’s main characters, who talks to everybody. What am I supposed to do — Google everybody on my handheld to check their ontological status as I watch the movie?

I have to rate this film from two different perspectives: as a documentary and as comedic fiction. On one hand it’s a sitcom about in-movie Olson having to deal with cliché gay airhead producers, his camera man interrupting his interviews, and everybody being more interested in celebrities than scientists. And in this perspective the film’s mildly funny. Olson is a decent comedian.

On the other hand, Sizzle can’t escape comparison with An Inconvenient Truth. In some sense, this is marine biologist Dr. Randy Olson communicating about global warming. We learn that he thinks a) it’s a serious issue, b) we cause it, c) we need to do something about it. And we learn (if we didn’t already know) that global warming denialism is a tiny minority position among scientists. But Olson doesn’t offer any data or argument for the audience to mull over. In fact, he ridicules the idea of presenting data in a documentary. Instead it’s on from one talking head to another via comic relief scenes with the camera man. Denialists are given equal screen time. To the extent that Olson offers any constructive ideas to the issue, it seems mainly to be that if everybody got to see a polar bear they would care more about them, and if/when Hurricane Katrina repeats itself, everybody will start to take the issue seriously.

As far as I can see, the film doesn’t even try to deliver a serious message. It’s more like Olson secured funding to do a documentary but got bored and decided to put the money into a low-budget comedy starring himself instead. Then, as an afterthought, he tacked some criticism of the New Orleans rehabilitation efforts onto the end of the thing.

Even if it reaches a large audience, I can’t really see Sizzle influencing US public opinion — and thus policy decisions — on global warming. Indeed, I’m not sure if Randy Olson has any such hopes for it. If he does, I’d humbly advise him not to blur the distinction between fact and fiction next time.

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