TAM London, Saturday

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Unusual to use an off-line computer. The wifi in the Hilton London Metropole is ridiculously expensive, so I use the complimentary service in the lecture hall and have none in my room.

I wonder if it really makes business sense to make people pay separately for the wifi instead of sharing the cost over all the guests’ bills. It is after all 2010. When I look at hotel rooms on the web I don’t go “oh look, free wifi included, what a selling point”. I just react badly when it’s not there. Still, being off-line does improve concentration no end.

Anyway, I’m in London for the second Amazing Meeting London skeptics’ conference, as a delegate for the Swedish Skeptics. I came here Friday night, did some socialising with skeptical buddies and went to bed early. Notable from an Sb point of view is that I met PZ Myers live for the first time after having been around him in the backstage forums for almost five years. As everybody always remarks, he is a charming soft-spoken man live. I even got to fondle his tentacle beard while Rebecca Watson shot the above pic. On the subject of curse words such as the coarse Swedish expletive “Devilish shit of Hell”, I explained to my company that the Swedish word for cunt originally meant “small fen”. “I take it you Swedes make sure they are generally moist, then”, observed PZ sagely.

Saturday was solid talks and socialising. My M.O. is basically to walk up and shake everybody’s hand within range, say “Hey, I’m Martin from Stockholm, Sweden” and chat for a while. My most exotic catch so far was a charming young couple from Istanbul, but I’ve talked to innumerable Brits and Scots and Irish and Americans and Scandies, a few Germans, a Belgian, a Dutchman, a Swiss lady, a few Italians, well, it’s really a blur by now. The crowd is a very good mix of age and gender, even some high school kids.

The talks.

Sue Blackmore was probably slipped some acid in her tea once back in 1970, attributed the effects to the paranormal and then spent 25 years doing parapsychological research before realising that it was all crap. A lot of fun to listen to!

Richard Dawkins thinks that just like the study of the Classics once formed the uniting anchor in a good education, so should the study of evolution today.

Cory Doctorow spoke eloquently about copyright.

Adam Rutherford entertainingly related his experiences taking the evangelical Christian Alpha Course.

The Amateur Transplants, a musical duo consisting of two doctors, played hilarious short send-ups of pop songs. For example, they interpreted Nora Jones’s 2002 hit song with the chorus “Don’t know why I didn’t come” just the way I always have. I mean, the way that wench looks you’d think a guy might put in that little bit of extra effort.

Richard Wiseman interviewed his old actor buddy Andy Nyman (of whom I had never heard) about his participation in a successful stage play (that I haven’t seen) and other projects of his such as writing and producing shows with Derren Brown (never seen them either), and I experienced cultural disconnect.

Karen James spoke about a project to build a replica of the HMS Beagle on which Darwin sailed in his youth, and I failed to understand why this might be worthwhile apart from as a lark.

Paula Kirby, a collaborator of Dawkins’s, spoke at length about how nasty a small English organisation named the Christian Party is, and then revealed that it got only 0.5% (or was that 0.05%?) in the last election. Pretty pointless worrying about kooks like them, I think.

Simon Singh, former lib-dem MP Evan Harris, Sense About Science director Tracey Brown and David “Jack of Kent” Allen Green did a panel on skeptical activism.

Robin Ince interviewed James Randi about old times and I experienced cultural disconnect again.

Well-deserved awards were handed out to Ben Goldacre and promising youngster Rhys Morgan. Holy crap, was I really his age when I lost my cherry? Probably months younger, actually. Well, we all mature at individual rates.

I had nice Japanese breaded pork with rice and veggies and soy for dinner with new friends.

Saturday evening’s Tim Minchin gig started out with a series of opening acts, of which the Amateur Transplants were again very good, and Jon Ronson’s rendition of some violent Insane Clown Posse raps over Tim Minchin’s beatboxing was hilarious. After a break, Mr. Minchkin performed three or four stellar songs, and then followed the premier of the animated film set to his stellar poem “Storm”. In my opinion the film is well made, in a neo-50s Power Puff Girls style, but does not add much to the whole thing. Finally came a very long chat amongst the filmmaker, the producer and Minchkin, toward the end of which the audience shouted for more songs and Minchkin said he was tired and didn’t feel up to it. Then people started leaving for pubs, but I too was tired and didn’t feel up to it, so I went up to my room and wrote this missive before crashing out.

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Recent Archaeomags

One of the perks of keeping Aard is free magazine subscriptions. I make it worthwhile for the publishers by writing these “Recent Archaeomags” entries, which may look a little strange since it’s the New Media reporting on stories in the Old Media. But I concentrate on stories that interest me, and most of the mags I get are probably not read by many Aard regulars, and so I hope you, Dear Reader, don’t mind.

The Danish Skalk is one of my favourite periodicals, and it’s not just because its editors tell me they like what we do with Fornvännen. In the August issue (2010:4), I particularly like the feature story about the archaeology of the aurochs in Denmark. A piece about a 17th century brassworks in Elsinore is also good. I wouldn’t have complained though if the ten pages about the cult of Breton saints in Medieval Denmark had been halved to make room for some more prehistory.

Sweden’s closest equivalent of Skalk is Populär Arkeologi, and its issue 2010:3 has a lot of interesting new stuff. Among other good things, there’s the latest underwater results from the harbour of the Viking Period town of Birka, a heartbreaking 18th century execution victim from Gotland (a very young woman, severely disabled from childhood, decapitated and buried shallowly near the gallows, most probably as punishment for infanticide or incest), and a 4-page overview of the extremely rich Late Mesolithic river-bank site in Motala. I was surprised though to find a rewrite of the Skalk piece about the Elsinore brassworks (duly credited). There must be many readers who take both mags.

Archaeology Magazine’s Sept/Oct issue (63:5) ranges widely, as always, but failed to grab my attention. I was depressed by stories of mismanagement, looting and political abuse of the archaeological record in Jerusalem and along China’s Yellow River, and I don’t care enough about dogs to want to read ten pages about their archaeology worldwide. There must be many readers who love Archaeology Magazine’s selection criteria, but sadly I am not one of them. Give me stories about Europe and about contract archaeology in the US, please! And no more elite burials in Mesoamerica.

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European Commission Rules Against Swedish Metal-Detector Legislation


Good news for Swedish metal detectorists! And for us Iron Age scholars who want the finds, the sites and the free expert labour these amateurs are eager to provide us. And also for any small-finds nerd who would like to have a labour market (who? me?), communicating with the detectorists and classifying their finds.

The European Commission has ruled that the Swedish restrictions on metal-detector use contravenes EU rules for the free mobility of goods. If Sweden doesn’t take measures towards legislative reform within two months, the issue will be referred to the EU Court of Justice.

As I’ve argued in Fornvännen and Antiquity, I think metal-detector permits should be handled similarly to licences for hunting rifles. Apply for a licence, take a test to show that you know how to use the machine responsibly, then keep the licence as long as you don’t turn out to be a hazard to the interests of others. I’d be happy to volunteer one day for the group that drafts our new rules.

I want to be able to look my Danish colleagues in the eye when we talk about the 1st millennium AD! The finds are steadily turning into fine green dust out in the fields…

Update 14 October: Paul Barford does not agree. And he thinks I have a silly hat.

Via Fredrik Svanberg / museum.nu.

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Dorrik Stow’s Vanished Ocean

i-7b12fe56cce214cfb99561d02d602c29-vanishedocean.jpgIn his fine new book Vanished Ocean, geologist Dorrik Stow uses the biography of one of our planet’s vanished oceans to teach the reader a wide range of veeery long-term perspectives on geological history. The ocean that geologists call the Tethys came into being when the Pangaea supercontinent coalesced in the Late Permian, 260 million years ago. Its last vestige finally disappeared when one of the Mediterranean sea’s forerunners dried up 6.5 million years ago.

Along the way, Stow explains plate tectonics, the birth and death of seas, deep-sea sedimentation (his research speciality) and a lot of palaeontology and palaeoecology. Stow describes his travels to relevant rock outcroppings around the world and takes some time at the start of each chapter to wax eloquent over the current scenery in each area, not forgetting to offer wine suggestions.

The main point of controversy that I could detect is that Stow does not believe that an impacting space rock caused the K-T mass extinction, nor that this extinction was a brief catastrophic event. In fact, he thinks that the public has been “thoroughly hoodwinked” on this issue (p. 180). Stow looks more to long-term ecological change and the Deccan supervolcanoes. To me his arguments appear sound, but I know that they don’t convince most of his colleagues, so I’ll just go with their consensus and continue to believe that an impact killed off the dinosaurs.

A smaller point of contention is that Stow repeatedly compares the last land-lubbing ancestor of whales and dolphins to a hyaena. This may be true in the outward shape of the beast in question, but taxonomically speaking it was an ungulate, not a member of the Carnivora. This would have been worth mentioning.

An extensive glossary and an alphabetical index add to the book’s value.

My main complaint with the book has to do with copy editing: Dorrik Stow has a tendency to purple prose and sometimes doesn’t appear to know quite what certain big words mean. He would have come across as a more trustworthy narrator if someone had helped him weed out expressions like “oceans are bathed”, “island archipelago”, “those halcyon seas”, “rich pastiche of history”, “fought for prowess in the sky”, “we can measure and even quantify”, and “We have dwelt too long in the opulence and security of her balmy central gyres and so seen pernicious death descend”.

Then there’s the whole poetry thing. I’m not a fan of Pablo Neruda, but the man is a legendary poet and a Nobel laureate, and so it’s no surprise that his collection Stones of the Sky has supplied a number of chapter mottoes. But there’s another poet who gets to introduce almost as many chapters – Dorrik Stow himself. His bits aren’t bad, but quoting your own poetry about palaeontology, and putting it alongside excerpts from Pablo Neruda, does look a bit self-congratulatory.

All in all though, I found Vanished Ocean to be a lively, engaging and solidly informative read, which even manages to make deep-ocean sedimentology look pretty exciting. And that is no small achievement.

Dorrik Stow, Vanished Ocean. How Tethys Reshaped the World. Oxford University Press 2010. 300 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-921428-0.

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Recently I wrote about some policies advocated by the Swedish anti-immigration party (SD) regarding public funding of the arts. I remarked that the party’s suggestions show that their members do not have much education regarding the arts or public debates in the field during the past decades. “They are after all a party for the blue-eyed, blue-collar, disappointed, rural, jobless man.”

One of the comments to this intrigued me. Said Robert Pearse,

As opposed to the consciously multi-ethnic, university-educated, self-satisfied, city-dwelling, rich?
My, I haven’t seen such a display of elitism in years.

To begin with the factual matter, it appears that the typical voter who helped give the SD 20 seats in Swedish Parliament is not in fact consciously multi-ethnic, university-educated, (self-)satisfied, city-dwelling or rich. With that out of the way, let me examine the charge of elitism.

This word is not common in Swedish political discourse. I know that it’s used a lot in the US, where it seems generally to go hand in hand with distrust of academics, and is a sort of opposite to “populism”. I was really surprised when I learned that the American Left likes to be called populist. In Europe, populist parties offer anti-immigration dissatisfaction tickets on the brown edge of the right wing. If I have to choose between elitism and populism in European terms, I’m an elitist, thank you very much.

According to Wikipedia,

Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who supposedly form an elite — a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight or those who view their own views as so; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.

To me, this begins to explain Mr. Pearse’s attitude. Note how he bundles “university-educated” with “rich”, and how Wikipedia enumerates “intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience”. In Sweden, where taxes are high, the public sector is large and a lot of things are free, you don’t have to be rich to get a good university education. You just have to be smart enough to study for your degree. Anybody can get a study loan here. And I certainly think that being smart and well-educated renders a person “especially fit to govern”. Who wants stupid people with no education (these two traits are separate) making important policy decisions? But as to wealth, I prefer my politicians comfortably but not extravagantly provided for.

I can really see why people would be angry with their political class, their “elite”, if the only way to join it was to pay huge term fees at Harvard or Princeton. But in Sweden, that is not the case. “Putting your kids through college” is not an issue here. Nobody has a trust fund. We pay a >30% income tax instead.

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Sensible Archaeology?

Sensible. Tell me “sensible” and I’ll reply “shoes”. Sensible shoes is what your butch 60ish aunt and her partner wear when vacationing in Paris. Although my Ireland-based colleague Stuart Rathbone and I share a great many opinions, I don’t think it’s a good idea to call for sensible archaeology.

Empirical, yes please. Plainly phrased, indeed. Solidly argued, always. Do I scoff at pretentious academic jargon, like Stuart does? You bet your trowel I do. Should we avoid unfounded speculation, perhaps even accept the “positivist” moniker? Sure.

But rather than sensible archaeology, I think we should aim for mind-blowing, flamboyant, outrageous archaeology. Archaeology to make your hair stand on end and leave a damp spot in your knickers. Like the sequined red 3-inch heels your aunt’s partner changes into for a long night in Parisian boîtes de nuit after three days of walking the halls of the Louvre. Because if it ain’t fun, archaeology ain’t worth a damn.

Thanks to Cornelius Holtorf for the tip-off.

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Trendy 90s Archaeological Theory Lives On In India

The Indian Express reports that according to Dr. Gautam Sengupta, director general of the Archaeological Survey of India, “it is time for us to rethink our own ideas and concepts of archaeological analysis in order to combat the worldwide crisis in the discipline”. Disturbing words from a very powerful archaeologist! What’s going on!?

Though woefully ignorant of Indian archaeology, I have a reasonable grasp of Western European and US archaeology, and I believe I have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in Scandinavia. And I have seen no sign of any worldwide crisis. Particularly not one that might be effectively mitigated by practitioners “rethinking their ideas and concepts of analysis”. What has Dr. Sengupta discovered?

The Indian Express quotes from a speech given yesterday by Sengupta at a graduation ceremony at the Deccan College in Pune. But though we are told that there is a problem, we do not learn specifically what the problem is, only a little about what Sengupta believes should be done to solve it.

“…archeology needs to reinvent itself. This is just the beginning and there is still a long way to go. This is the beginning to a more critical, interpretive, self-reflexive and holistic archaeology which wishes to understand the various dimensions of human behaviour in the past and the present.”

Critical, interpretive, self-reflexive and holistic. This, Dear Reader, is a clutch of outdated buzzwords from UK theoretical archaeology. The words are badges that used to identify the theoretically hip in about 1997, when Ian Hodder used them to market a new kind of fieldwork methodology that turned out not to be so new after all.

So, unless there was a lot more to Dr. Sengupta’s speech, I would like to take this opportunity to reassure any worried recent archaeology graduates of the Deccan College. There is no worldwide crisis in archaeology. The discipline does not need to reinvent itself. This is not the beginning and there is not a longer way to go than there was before. You need not strive for a more critical, interpretive, self-reflexive or holistic archaeology, as this has been tried and did not lead anywhere. As for understanding the various dimensions of human behaviour in the past and the present, that is just business as usual. Surely most of the graduates listening to the director general’s speech were completely aware of this.

Via History Hunters.

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Sunday Mushrooms


Yesterday’s walk in the woods near Drevinge garnered us the following:

  • Shaggy ink cap, Fjällig bläcksvamp, Coprinus comatus
  • Terracotta hedgehog, Rödgul taggsvamp, Hydnum rufescens
  • Shingled hedgehog, Fjällig taggsvamp, Sarcodon imbricatus
  • Common puffball, VÃ¥rtig röksvamp, Lycoperdon perlatum
  • Velvet bolete, Sandsopp, Suillus variegatus
  • Copper brittlegill, Tegelkremla, Russula decolorans
  • Birch bolete, Björksopp, Leccinum scabrum

I’ve never picked the ink caps before as I knew that the Common ink cap is poisonous at least in combination with alcohol. But now I know better. The shaggies are always plentiful around here!

This autumn holds a small anniversary for me and my wife. She moved in with me in January of 2000. In September of that year we bought a mushroom spotter’s guide and wrote both our names in it. Arguably, a couple can’t really get any more married than that. And now we’ve used the book for ten years!


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