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July 31, 2005

Week in Review 1(8)

NT Week in Review
Vol. I, Issue 8

Welcome to number eight. I've decided to start doing only news and review links because there are so many great anthropology material out there that I've found myself linking the same writers week after week. If it's on my blogroll (the list to the left) then it's good writing and opinion, so check it out. I still may quote an blog post here and there if it's of particular interest, otherwise they'll get their own post throughout the week. In the meantime, I'll concentrate more on commenting on various news stories and other links that catch my attention.

A neat story from the Guardian about an Iron age village that has been constructed based on archaeologial evidence. Visitors can come and live for a week or a weekend like a "real" Iron Age villager. Awesome... Read Village will take visitors back to the Iron Age.

The darker side of archaeology: From USAToday, Mexican archaeologists have uncovered a rare Aztec sacrifice at Templo Mayor in Mexico City (also at IOL here):

Priests propped the child — apparently already dead, since the sand around him showed no sign of movement — in a sitting position and workers packed earth around his body, which was then covered beneath a flight of stone temple steps.

On a similar note, a brief news report from the 21st Congress of the International Association for Caribbean Archaeology at which the president gave a message that Archaeology (is) more than just dead things.

Here is a review from Scientific American of The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, a book that everyone with an interest in ancient history should buy (myself included).

An interesting story from National Geographic News, Race Affects How We Learn to Fear Others, Study Says:

"We'll more readily associate somebody of a group that's not our own with something negative, and that fear isn't changed by new information as readily as [it is] with somebody in our own social group," said Liz Phelps, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University and a co-author of the study.
Phelps and colleagues say that the persistence of fear toward members of another race is a product of both evolutionary factors and cultural learning.

Also from NatGeo, a report that newfound insects have the ability to combine and create a third species. Furthermore, the article describes how humans may be playing a role in this process:

Among cichlids this process likely takes thousands of years. The Lonicera fly's evolution, however, has occurred only in the 250 years since its honeysuckle host plant arrived in North America.
The introduction, via humans, of non-native species makes speciation through hybridization more likely, says Schwarz, the Penn State ecologist.

The Nomadic Thoughts Week in Review Series presents the "best of" from the anthropology, philosophy, religion, and science news feeds that make up a part of Will's blogroll. It is published every Sunday night/Monday morning.

Posted by Will at 03:46 PM

July 28, 2005

Random Security Checks versus Racial Profiling

In the wake of 9/11 (still) and the most recent terrorist attacks in London there has been quite a bit of discussion online and off about the increased vigilance at airports across the United States. While security has been extremely tight since 9/11, the London attacks have caused New York City subway security to initiate “random searches” of both bags and people. Needless to say, millions of Americans, not just in New York, have been bitching and moaning not about the use of searches but about the fact that they are random. Many people feel that it is wrong to search old ladies and mothers with children because they are supposedly far less likely to commit an act of terrorism than a person with Middle Eastern descent. These critics would wholeheartedly support racial profiling based solely on the fact that the few terrorist attacks on American soil that have occurred were carried out by individuals with such ancestry. Criticisms such as these are ludicrous and completely miss the point of the nature of terrorism and its causes.

I would like to think that the American public, or at least those with an opinion, are intelligent enough to make distinctions between race, religion, and actions but they are not. My issue with critics of random searches (or any form of racial profiling for that matter) is that they are convinced that people’s actions can be predicted based on how they look. I’ll avoid discussing my beliefs about race because we would be here for hours, but suffice it to say that I become visibly agitated when a person or group of people cite race as a meaningful criterion for any decision or basis for opinion-forming. What critics of random searching often forget (or don’t realize altogether) is that race, religion, and action have no causal connection. In other words, a person is not a Muslim because he or she has a rusty complexion with dark hair and eyes. Taken to the extreme, a person is not even a Muslim because he or she is born in a certain geographical location. A person is Muslim because that person is influenced by other people’s preconceived ideas of the world and the way it works. For these reasons, it makes no logical sense to single out in a security check an individual who appears to be of Middle Eastern descent.

My experience has been that a Muslim extremist is more likely to commit an act of terrorism than a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Still, it would be wrong to single out individuals simply because they are Muslim (or not). While this would not be racial profiling, it would be profiling of another sort and just as logically impossible (not to mention a huge waste of time). So, if it makes no sense employ racial or other forms of profiling, what are we left with? You got it, random security checks. Would it be possible for a Muslim extremist to slip through the random checks? Is it possible for a pregnant Caucasian woman from suburban Ohio to strap a bomb to her body and blow up a subway station in the name of Islam? The answer to both of these questions is yes and it is why, effectiveness aside, random security checks are the only logical measure that can be taken to catch would-be terrorists.


Bradford Plumer has this post on MoJo Blog which mentions that racial profiling could potentially create more problems that would outweigh any perceived benefit:

Even if a particular Arab never rode the mass transit, he would realize that if he wanted to do so, he would very likely be searched, and that thought in itself could lead to real resentment. Moreover, it's hard to expect police officers to remain courteous and non-racist if they are explicitly instructed to use race as a factor in their surveillance. It's also very hard to argue that telling commuters to be aware of young Arab or South Asian men could possibly avoid exacerbating racial tensions in general. Another more practical problem is that the police could miss out on other terrorist threats that aren't so swarthy.

Plumer's post also links to this article in which James Forman Jr. argues that even conservatives should oppose racial profiling:

Most conservatives who support racial profiling are not racist; they simply consider the practice an essential ingredient of effective law enforcement. But it isn't. Indeed, the great irony of conservative support for racial profiling is that conservative principles themselves explain why racial profiling actually makes law enforcement less effective.

Posted by Will at 04:43 PM

Trackbacks turned off

Because of spam, I have decided to turn off the trackback feature of Nomadic Thoughts which allows readers to follow discussion on other blogs. John, who runs AnthroBlogs, has done the same for the group blog.

Posted by Will at 10:01 AM

July 27, 2005

"Over There" Television Series

I haven't written about non-science television on Nomadic Thoughts yet and don't plan to on a regular basis, but I caught the premiere of the new FX series "Over There" tonight. The promos made it look gritty (the only kind of drama I really like) and I found tonight's episode just that. Set in Iraq, it's very similar to the film Traffic, both visually and dialogically in that it has the feel of a documentary rather than a drama (no ambient music, shaky camera, etc.). I obviously can't give a qualified opinion as to its level of authenticity but from what I can tell the show has rather realistic combat scenes and interaction between the soldiers. One to check out, but like all programs I like from the beginning it will probably be cancelled after a few seasons.

Posted by Will at 11:25 PM

Book: The End of Faith

For the past several days I have been devouring Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. I found out about this book through a review online and subsequently discovered that he’s been making the rounds promoting the book, which came out last year. I am impressed and humbled by the level on which Harris discusses the problem of religion and its detrimental effects on society; he’s not simply another ranting atheist out to remove every Ten Commandments monument in the United States. Rather, he logically and rationally dissects the problem of religion and many of its social implications. Miraculously (I know...) he manages to achieve this by not coming across as offensive to people of faith (as far as I can tell). I’m not quite half way through the book and I can already tell this is easily one of the best contemporary refutations of religious belief that I have come across. Harris argues that reason is being sacrificed for unfounded belief structures that have shown time and time again to be more harmful to society than most people realize. This is the book I’ve been waiting for. Not so I can blindly recite Harris’ theses when arguing with a Christian (or a Muslim or a Jew) but so I can have a better understanding of what it means to embrace reason and reject religion. I highly recommend it to both atheist and faithful alike. Full review to come.

The End of Faith/Sam Harris website

Posted by Will at 12:43 AM

July 26, 2005

GG&S Debate Heats Up

This post is simply a way for me to organize the growing number of blog links that are discussing the recently-concluded Guns, Germs and Steel mini-series on PBS. In just the past two days I've noticed a sharp increase in GG&S discussion, at least on the blogs that I read. A few people are jumping all over the two Savage Minds posts, linked below. This post will be continiously updated as debate (hopefully) continues...

The two Savage Minds posts critical of Diamond's theory:

Anthropology's Guns, Germs and Steel Problem by Ozma
What's Wrong with Yali's Question by Kerim

Posts that directly respond to the links above:

Nobbled Savages by Henry at Crooked Timber
A Better Class of Critics of Jared Diamond, Please... by Brad DeLong
Kerim and DeLong begin to tangle antlers in the comments of this SM post.


Lindsey Beyerstein weighs in (mentions the "Diamond-bashers" at Savage Minds): Guns, Germs, Steel, and TV

John Hawks injects a history lesson into the debate here.

Henry at Crooked Timber refutes Tak's characterization of Jared Diamond as a racist based on a 1998 article he wrote on the Japanese.


Nomadic Thoughts' final review and analysis.

Michael Balter's Review in Science

Leave a comment if you have any more links that contribute to the debate, including reviews. I am elated to see so much discussion on such a notable book. Whether you agree with Diamond's theory or not, and whether you have an informed opinion or not, it is a fascinating topic for an online debate and one that will hopefully continue to grow.

Last updated 7/27 @ 1:51pm

Posted by Will at 07:00 PM | Comments (4)

A Momentary Art of Living: The Documentary

This past Spring semester (my last at UNC-Wilmington) I took a Philosophy course called "The Art of Living." It was an upper level, rather free form discussion-based course looking at various arts of living. We read things like Epictetus (one of my favorites), Thoreau's Walden, and even some Dr. Phil (not to imply that he's in the same league as the other two). One of the assignments for the course was to maintain our own "Art of Living" blog (mine is still up here).

Anyway, one of the guys in the class, a film student, made a short documentary film consisting mostly of interviews with students plus some footage of class discussion. He did a great job editing and adding a soundtrack and it turned out really well.

It is currently up only on Google Video so in order to view it, you have to download the Google video player (a small file that seems to integrate well with IE). The link to the video is here. And just in case you were wondering, I'm this guy in the video:


Posted by Will at 05:45 PM

Temptation Cave

A recent discovery in Germany is BlogPluse's 16th most popular link of the day. I can't figure out why so much interest in archaeology all of a sudden (warning: don't read below the fold lest you have a lithic fetish):


So along with Indiana Jones, we're now known for this:)

Posted by Will at 04:27 PM

Guns, Germs and Steel: Final Review and Analysis

Last night was the conclusion of the Guns, Germs and Steel mini-series on PBS. Episode Three, Into the Tropics, tests Jared Diamond’s theory of global European domination on the continent of Africa. He looks at why Europeans were so successful in and around the southern tip of Africa and why the Dutch failed miserably at extending their domination northward. Diamond concludes his train journey by examining the role of disease, climate, and technology in the development of global inequality.

Like the previous two episodes, Into the Tropics was wonderful aesthetically but it was a little more scattered than its predecessors. Africa is a rather large continent and it is clearly impossible to apply Diamond’s theory to such a geographically expansive area in less than an hour. Whereas Episodes One and Two achieved the goal of providing a good introduction to the roots of European domination, Episode Three was a bit of a stretch. The conclusion, however, was well written and summed up the series quite well, but it felt rushed; sort of that “oh crap, we’re running out of time so let’s get to the point” feeling. I believe I got this feeling because this particular episode dealt with a vastly important and emotional topic and focused largely on contemporary human suffering. The footage of Diamond breaking down in a Zambian children’s hospital was awkward yet effective.

Now that I have the entire series to base my opinion on, I still stand by my belief that documentary filmmaking on scientific topics does not have to be high-density in order to provide a useful tool for both laypersons and professionals. The fields relevant to Guns, Germs and Steel (geography, anthropology, environmental science, etc.) all have their professional journals and academic conferences that provide a useful and necessary forum for the exchange of ideas and thus the development of theory and method. Speaking from an anthropological perspective, I have always thought that the entire point of scientific inquiry was to address real problems relevant to real people. If a topic is of absolutely no use to anyone and as a result makes no useful contributions to the broad base of human knowledge then such a topic is a lost cause (thankfully, it is hard to think of a feasible research project that does not meet these requirements). For this reason, the aim of any scientist, social or otherwise, should strive to make their research available to the masses. This may mean numerous translations in some cases or the preparation of visual aids in others. Particularly in anthropology, there is a cultural divide that often must be crossed to do this.

I feel that Guns, Germs and Steel (the television version) does just that: it provides a succinct yet informative introduction to Jared Diamond’s theory. It doesn’t rob the viewer of the importance of the topics covered nor does it sell short the science of those topics. The television series never purported to be a highly scientific documentary examining the ultimate and proximate factors in the development of inequality. In this respect, neither does the book that the series is based on (although is does examine the factors closely).

There has been some great discussion happening on academic blogs in the wake of Guns, Germs and Steel, most notably at Savage Minds which offers two posts, both critical of Diamond’s theories rather than the television series itself. I suggest you read them to balance out the GG&S love-fest that has been going on here at Nomadic Thoughts for the past three weeks:

Anthropology's Guns, Germs and Steel Problem by Ozma
What's Wrong with Yali's Question by Kerim

Posted by Will at 11:13 AM | Comments (1)

July 24, 2005

Week in Review 1(7)

NT Week in Review
Vol. I, Issue 7

Apologies for the hastiness of this week's issue. Links away...

From the blogs:

Tad at FieldNotes explores the differences between environmental anthropologists and environmentalists.

John Hawks reports and opines on the story that scientists are using robots to research the bipedality of A. afarensis.


First, a very cool news story about the recent discovery of a quipu at an ancient site in Peru:

LIMA, Peru - Archaeologists in Peru have found a “quipu” on the site of the oldest city in the Americas, indicating that the device, a sophisticated arrangement of knots and strings used to convey detailed information, was in use thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

Spirit tales reveal ancient landslides

A study of Native American tales of a two-headed serpent spirit has hinted at the potential impact of a fault that lies directly beneath Seattle.

Archaeologists Unveil Pompeii Treasure

ROME - Decorated cups and fine silver platters were once again polished and on display Monday as archaeologists unveiled an ancient Roman dining set that lay hidden for two millennia in the volcanic ash of Pompeii. (here too).

9,000-Year-Old Beer Re-Created From Chinese Recipe

A Delaware brewer with a penchant for exotic drinks recently concocted a beer similar to one brewed in China some 9,000 years ago.

Seven New World Heritage Natural Sites Named by UN

The UN this week designated seven natural landmarks as new World Heritage sites—places the World Heritage Committee considers to be of outstanding value to all humanity.

3,000-year-old settlement found in Fiji

Fiji archaeologists have found and unearthed 16 human skeletons at a burial site of Bourewa on the South Pacific island of Fiji believing the site was a 3,000- year-old settlement, according to reports from Suva Tuesday.

The Nomadic Thoughts Week in Review Series presents the "best of" from the roughly three dozen anthropology, philosophy, religion, and science news feeds that make up a part of Will's blogroll. It is published every Sunday night/Monday morning.

Posted by Will at 04:19 PM

July 22, 2005

My psuedo-interview with Jared Diamond

As I mentioned a few posts back, Washingtonpost.com hosted an online "chat" with Guns, Germs and Steel author Jared Diamond this past Wednesday and the question I submitted for the chat was answered (read the whole transcript here):

Wilmington, N.C.: Dr. Diamond, whenever a documentary such as Guns, Germs and Steel is released on television, there always seems to be some criticism from academics and other experts in the discipline that the program focuses on. What was your experience with helping to produce a television series in which your expansive theory was adequately covered in such a relatively short amount of time (a three-hour program)?
Dr. Jared M. Diamond: Well, I had to get used to the fact that a 200,000 word book that would take 20 hours to read out loud has to get summarized for TV within 3 hours. A lot had to be shortened, but on the other hand, TV can evoke and recreate in a way that a book cannot. And I myself think that it is wonderful how National Geographic and Lion TV succeeded in making complex subjects come vividly alive.

(My question was actually inspired by recent posts by two other bloggers: PZ at Pharyngula because of his concern over the "low-density" format of science shows on television; and Alun for his post on archaeology on television.)

Diamond's response to my question is parallel to my own belief that the visual aspect of television and other multimedia can work wonders for both students that are learning for the first time and experts who are already familiar with the subject matter. I've been reading the book off and on for a few years now and just from watching the first two episodes I already have clearer understanding of Diamond's theory. Naturally he's going to defend science on television because he's currently promoting his special on PBS, but I think low-density science programming for the masses is just as important (if not more so) than technical professional journals. Naturally, I would have loved to see Guns, Germs and Steel as a 10-disc epic documentary a la Kens Burns, but three hours was enough to scratch the surface in such a way as to provide a thorough introduction to the theory of ecological/geographical determinism.

As an aside, the GG&S DVD that I ordered from Amazon.com the other week just arrived and it's magnificent. The 2-disc set includes all three episodes plus some pretty cool interactive special features. If you're going to buy it, get it at Amazon because it's about $15 cheaper than the PBS store and Best Buy.

Posted by Will at 06:35 PM

How to be an Archaeologist

Savage Minds directed me to IndyGear.com, a website (I kid you not) about the clothing, equipment, and archaeology of Indiana Jones.

Posted by Will at 06:22 PM

Panda's Thumb reports from Creation Mega Conference

Jason at The Panda's Thumb is providing a series of incredibly fascinating posts about his time at the Creation Mega Conference in Lynchburg, Virginia (home of Liberty University, Falwell's institution). They're coming in parts, so read there or keep an eye on this post for excerpts:

Part 1:

People start taking their seats and Jerry Falwell approaches the platform. Golly! He's famous. I've seen him on television.

He describes the conference as an historic event, and claims around 2000 attendees. My own informal count says that's a plausible number. He then asserts that all the polls show that 2/3 to 3/4 of Americans agree with AiG on this issue, which is total nonsense. The polls have consistently shown that the percentage of people accepting the Young-Earth position is just under fifty percent.
He boasts that the debate is being won by the church. He says that despite having the media, Hollywood and academe against them, the church of Jesus Christ returned George W. Bush to the White House. And this is about science, right?

Part 2:

At scientific conferences, the purpose of the presentations is to transmit facts and ideas to the audience. Glitz and flash are not viewed as important. But in creationist conferences, the point is to fool people into thinking that something of great import is being delivered from the stage. They want to provoke the reaction, “How could they be wrong? Their presentation is so slick!”

Part 3:

Nonsense has to be confronted. A short drive from my home, some two thousand people are gathering to listen to a series of frauds and charlatans impugn the characters of my colleagues and tell lies about what scientists believe and why they believe it. How could I live with myself if I didn't do what little I could to challenge it? Frankly, I think it should be a requirement of every science PhD program in the country that students attend a conference such as this. Let them see first-hand the ingorance, the anti-intellectualism, the anti-science propaganda, the anti-anything that doesn't conform to their idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible attitude. Maybe then people on my side of this would wake up, and stop acting like it's a waste of time to pay attention to these folks.

Posted by Will at 06:08 PM

July 20, 2005

Woo hoo!, Free School! (Sort of)

Not sure where it's going to take me but today I mailed off my form for a tuition waiver that comes along with my graduate assistantship. I have to be taking at least 9 credit hours of graduate coursework (which I am) and I am hoping that I will get a tuition waiver for all of those hours. Considering that I am out-of-state and thus with one semester's payments I could probably buy a really cool boat, any cuts would be greatly welcome.

So it looks like things are starting to fall into place quite nicely. I've told the yacht club that my last day will be August 7th, which will give me plenty of time to pack up what little belongings I still have here in Wilmington, go home to Winston-Salem for a week or two, and spend some time with my primary source of financial aid (i.e. my parents).

Posted by Will at 01:38 PM | Comments (2)

July 18, 2005

GG&S Episode Two Review

We're two thirds of the way through the epic Guns, Germs and Steel mini-series on PBS and I'm becoming increasingly more convinced of the validity of Jared Diamond's theory of geographical/ecological determinism. I'm hesitant to admit that a "popular" television program has been helpful in elucidating Diamond's theory, but I would be lying if I said that I'm glad I read the book before watching the program. While many criticisms of adapting archaeology and history for television may be true in this case (see Alun's enlightening post here), I am nevertheless impressed by the program thus far. For anyone wishing to delve into the book, I would recommend watching the series first for a visual backdrop and a relatively brief introduction to the man and his theory. While the series clearly does not do the entire scope of the book justice, it is helpful in this respect.

Like the first episode, the second was beautifully filmed and included plenty of helpful animated maps and re-enactments. It focused primarily on the Spanish conquest of the Inca in the 16th century, culminating in the capture, exploitation, and eventual execution of Atahualpa, the great Inca Sun-God (the son of the sun to be specific). Jared Diamond believes that the reason the thousands of Inca were taken by the small band of rag-tag Spanish adventurers lay in each civilization's respective geography. The Spanish had agriculture on their side, enabling them to develop the technologies necessary to create steel for swords and armor. They also brought with them the powerful and intimidating horse, which no Inca had ever seen at the time leading up to conquest. Perhaps most crucial of all, the Spanish carried immunity to human diseases derived from European domesticated animals, two things the Inca lacked. All of these things interacted in such a way as to enable a small yet representative group of one civilization to literally demolish an entire empire stretching almost the length of South America.

As I mentioned in my review of Episode One, I was a little nervous about the re-enactments that were so prominent in Episode Two. Fortunately, they weren't too cheesy and I'm elated that they used no translations or even subtitles in the little dialogue that was spoken by the actors. Only Spanish and what I presume to be a native Inca language could be heard throughout. In a way, this provided an inkling of what it must have been like to experience this extreme example of a clash of cultures.

Posted by Will at 11:20 PM

New Blog: Cosmic Variance

Thought I'd join the crowd and help announce the launch today of a new academic blog called Cosmic Variance, written by a group of five physicists. Wonderful site design and the posts are already very interesting...check it out.

Update: Crooked Timber writes about CV here.

Posted by Will at 04:02 PM

Online Chat with Jared Diamond; Episode 2 Tonight

Washingtonpost.com is hosting an online "chat" with Jared Diamond this Wednesday at 3pm ET. Diamond will be discussing the Guns, Germs and Steel series on PBS as well as the book. You can submit questions now or during the chat on Wednesday.

In related news, Episode 2 of Guns, Germs and Steel airs tonight on PBS:

On November 15th 1532, 168 Spanish conquistadors arrive in the holy city of Cajamarca, at the heart of the Inca Empire, in Peru.
They are exhausted, outnumbered and terrified – ahead of them are camped 80,000 Inca troops and the entourage of the Emperor himself.
Yet, within just 24 hours, more than 7,000 Inca warriors lie slaughtered; the Emperor languishes in chains; and the victorious Europeans begin a reign of colonial terror which will sweep through the entire American continent.
Why was the balance of power so unequal between the Old World, and the New?
Can Jared Diamond explain how America fell to guns, germs and steel?

Episode 2 review to come...

Posted by Will at 03:18 PM

Life's Little Pleasures: Mailbox Flags

Today I had two pieces of mail that I needed to send off today. Since I am staying in the upstairs bedroom of my buddy’s house for the remainder of the summer, I was pleased to realize that because he lives in a house, he has a real mailbox. As I walked down the driveway toward the mailbox, a man was walking by on a late morning stroll down the tree-lined street on which my buddy lives. We greeted each other with a brief "hello" and a nod of the head as I reached for the mailbox. I placed my letters inside, closed the door, and slowly raised the little red plastic flag that alerts the mailman of the documents inside awaiting post. At that moment, I realized that I hadn't raised a mailbox flag as long as I can remember....ever.

When we lived in Texas, I wasn't old enough to mail anything. Our next two houses in Winston-Salem had flagless mailboxes, the kind with the top flap and decorative metal emblem or image on the side that doesn't really mean anything but gives it an aura of pseudo-prestige. For two years I lived on the campus of UNC-Wilmington and was reduced to a combination of numbers to a small box of a few square inches. One among hundreds. For the past two years at my apartment, I was upgraded to a small box with an actual key. Still, if I wanted to mail something I only had a community box which, of course, had no red flag: the chances of having outgoing pieces must be statistically greater if a few hundred patrons are concentrated to one or two boxes in which to place their mail. That or the postal service simply got tired of hundreds of really tiny red flags on each individual box.

My life's little pleasures can come in any form, like a seemingly insignificant yet completely necessary red plastic flag. That's what pleases me. Where as most people get pleasure out of money and attaining material things, I get pleasure out of observing things that nobody else has given any thought to. In other words, the flag itself does not please me (that would be too creepy) but rather the fact that they are almost always overlooked because they aren't normally thought of as having any meaning outside of their obvious function.

Check out Sam's Mailbox Picture Collection. Apparently I'm not the only freak who finds mailboxes interesting.

Posted by Will at 12:43 PM

July 17, 2005

Week in Review 1(6)

NT Week in Review
Vol. I, Issue 6

This week's list will be pretty bare-bones as I've been away from the computer for a while and don't have many links as a result. Lots of good stuff out there nevertheless:

From the blogs:

In the wake of my obsession with the Guns, Germs, and Steel special on PBS this month, Alun writes about good and bad television documentaries:

Based on my limited experience of talking to a handful of companies I can see two inter-connected issues which could make the difference between a good show and a bad show. One is poor communication between the TV people and the archaeologists - that’s both sides fault. The other is when the TV producer comes in with a fixed idea of exactly what he wants to do even if the archaeologists show that concept is wrong, trivial or irrelevant. When that happens it’s the archaeologist’s fault.

Pharyngula appeals to the great Steven Jay Gould for his opinion on evolutionary psychology.

Pharyngula also gives us one of the most humorous posts of the week, characteristically responding to the "three sins of evolutionists."

Savage Minds writer Tak discusses the globalization of anthropology.

Leiter reports that maybe there is some money in philosophy afterall.

From UTI, a blog I've just started reading, comes an entertaining post about the evolution of whales and "creationist lies":

They are the Whales, the cetaceans, our fellow mammals. And they are magnificent illustrations of megafauna and evolutionary biology alike. If you'd like a short break from the intensity of politics, let us talk of the Whale's Evolutionary Tale and Creationist lies ...

News stories:

PHOENIX -- Archaeologists working at a proposed development site in Mesa say they have unearthed one of the largest integrated canal systems the Hohokam Indians ever built in the Phoenix area.
The pirate Blackbeard's flagship may finally be yielding its identity after nearly 300 years on the ocean floor. Though researchers have yet to find definitive proof, evidence continues to surface off the coast of North Carolina that wreckage there was once the vessel known as Queen Anne's Revenge.
The conviction in Britain of three Angolans for the abuse of a girl they accused of being a witch has turned the spotlight on customs in Angola.

The Nomadic Thoughts Week in Review Series presents the "best of" from the roughly three dozen anthropology, philosophy, religion, and science news feeds that make up a part of Will's blogroll. It is published every Sunday night/Monday morning.

Posted by Will at 06:43 PM

July 14, 2005

Way too many blogs?

It occurred to me tonight as I was reading my blogroll that it's really starting to get out of hand. I currently have 121 total feeds on my list. Broken down, about 30-40% of these are written by anthropologists, philosophers, academics, and other scientists. The other large chunk is political blogs encompassing conservative, liberal, progressive, and radical view points. The rest are news feeds, delivering headlines and other non-opinion bits that are of interest to me. I have only recently (in the past couple of month) began reading academic blogs and they take up most of my time. As a result, political blogs, which I started reading first, have started to become unread as I devote more attention to the scholarly realm of the blogosphere. Afterall, I can only read so many Malkin posts before wanting to urinate on my CPU.

Over the past several weeks, I have spent on average at least one hour a day just reading other blogs. It becomes increasingly more time consuming as my blogroll grows at the rate of one or two blogs or feeds a week. No problem yet, as it’s only summer and I don't have any real obligations other than my optional summer job at the yacht club. Currently, I can hardly bring myself to not at least read every post title in my anthropology and philosophy lists every time I check Bloglines (at least once a day for my day to feel "complete"). When they pile up over the course of a day or two, this usually means a rapid scanning process until something pops out at me (that's how you know a blog is good).

I fear, however, that come Fall when I am knocked over the head with the hammer that is graduate school, I will spiral into an ugly episode of blog withdrawal. What will happen when I'm not able to devour and absorb every tasty Savage Minds or Pharyngula post? I can picture myself waking up at night in a cold sweat, rushing to the warm glow of my computer screen and making sure that I haven't missed something that Brian Leiter has written.

I write the above paragraph partly in jest (my addiction really isn't that bad), but I do find myself spending awkward amounts of time reading blogs and posting on my own. Previously, when I was "addicted" to Radiohead message boards I now find myself swimming in a sea of blog posts about everything from evolutionary theory to the latest opinion on how Bush is trying to turn the US into a Church. I'm confident I'll be weaned off my obsessive blog reading when I am intellectually stimulated as a graduate student as opposed to a blog junkie. Same addiction, different drug.

Posted by Will at 12:27 AM

July 12, 2005


I've finally received word about approximately when I have to be in Tampa. I was able to score an extension on the start date of my graduate assistantship, so I won't have to struggle to find a floor or couch to sleep on while I wait for my apartment lease to begin. I'll probably start the assistantship around August 22nd, which is when graduate orientation is.

Posted by Will at 09:11 PM

Death to Academic Bloggers contd.

The academic blogosphere has been going nuts over this opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which (anonymously) blasts academic blogs, claiming that they can, and usually do, hurt potential job applicants (I mention the article in my post here).

Well, the article has hit #4 on BlogPulse's most active links and while virtually all posts I've read have been critical of the piece, Jeff feels otherwise:

Thank you, "Ivan Tribble," whoever you are, for reminding me why choosing not to pursue an academic career was one of the best decisions I ever made. Thank you, "Ivan Tribble," for personifying the petty tyranny that I am newly grateful to have avoided. Thank you, "Ivan Tribble," for confirming that I was right to spend the past seven years working, traveling, and writing rather than leaping through hoops to please fickle and cowardly hiring committees. Thank you, "Ivan Tribble," for showing that there are few rewards, spiritual or otherwise, in scholarship and pseudo-collegiality predicated on the fearful question, Gosh, what if some fool expresses his personal opinion?


Posted by Will at 12:33 PM

July 11, 2005

GG&S Episode One Review

I'll give a complete series review in about three weeks when it's over, but if the first episode of Guns, Germs and Steel is any indication, this PBS special is going to rank up there with Nature's Africa mini-series (the best history/nature documentary ever).

Entitled "Out of Eden," the first installment was about farming, plant and animal domestication, and the establishment of the first settled communities in Mesopotamia, Asia, and Northern Africa. It was beautifully filmed with some great archival footage of New Guineans muscling out a living. I was thankful that the reenactment sequences weren't terribly annoying and overdramatic as I'm afraid they're going to be in the next episode which features Pizzaro's conquest of the Inca.

The visual representations of the topics discussed in Guns, Germs and Steel the book have clarified many aspects of Jared Diamond's theory of geographical and ecological determinism. It was helpful to see a couple of the relevant archaeological sites that support his theory as well as the actual people that provided Diamond's inspiration to answer "Yali's question."

Update: PZ has his review at Pharyngula, along with some good discussion in the comments section.

Posted by Will at 11:28 PM

MIT Blog Survey

I know this has been circulating for a while, but nevertheless:

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

Posted by Will at 05:44 PM

GG&S Program Reminder

Just a reminder that the first installment of the 3-part series Guns, Germs and Steel airs tonight on PBS (the DVD hits streets tomorrow). As always, check your local listings.

That being said, if anyone needs me tonight around 10pm I'll be planted in front of the television with my copy of GG&S in one hand and my Jared Diamond action figure in the other.

Posted by Will at 03:54 PM

Must-Read Piece on Iraq Looting

From Mother Jones magazine comes a great essay from Chalmers Johnson's collection Nemesis: The Crisis of the American Republic. In it, Johnson sets a backdrop for the West's treatment of the looting and vandalism problem that has plagued Iraq since the war began, specifically at the Iraq National Museum. Johnson is critical of US efforts to curb the decimation of the invaluable artifacts and manuscripts that are located within Iraq's borders, claiming that

...the American forces made no effort to prevent the looting of the great cultural institutions of Iraq, its soldiers simply watching vandals enter and torch the buildings. Said Arjomand, an editor of the journal Studies on Persianate Societies and a professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, wrote, "Our troops, who have been proudly guarding the Oil Ministry, where no window is broken, deliberately condoned these horrendous events."[19] American commanders claim that, to the contrary, they were too busy fighting and had too few troops to protect the museum and libraries.

A sad situation all around and one that must be continuously addressed if we are to save our collective history from the ravages of war (see my post here). I'm becoming increasingly more passionate about the issue of Iraq's cultural heritage and the implications that seem to drown in the blood that steadily flows from the country. While human life is infinitely more valuable that a stone tablet or a tattered manuscript, in many ways they are similar. Both can teach us about the past as well as our future, whether it be destruction or prosperity.

My favorite part of the MoJo piece is actually from Tom Engelhardt's introduction to Johnson's essay, in which he beautifully sums up the whole situation:

The destruction began as Baghdad fell. Words disappeared instantly. They simply blinked off the screen of Iraqi history, many of them forever. First, there was the looting of the National Museum. That took care of some of the earliest words on clay, including, possibly, cuneiform tablets with missing parts of the epic of Gilgamesh. Soon after, the great libraries and archives of the capital went up in flames and books, letters, government documents, ancient Korans, religious manuscripts, stretching back centuries -- all those things not pressed into clay, or etched on stone, or engraved on metal, just words on that most precious and perishable of all commonplaces, paper -- vanished forever. What we're talking about, of course, is the flesh of history. And it was no less a victim of the American invasion -- of the Bush administration's lack of attention to, its lack of any sense of the value of what Iraq held (other than oil) -- than the Iraqi people. All of this has been, in that grim phrase created by the Pentagon, "collateral damage."

(As an aside, Johnson's essay made me aware of The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad : The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia, yet another volume that will soon be on my shelf.)

Posted by Will at 12:16 AM

July 10, 2005

Week in Review 1(5)

NT Week in Review
Vol. I, Issue 5

The 80th anniversary of the Scopes trial was this week so needless to say, the anthropological and biological blogosphere was abuzz with opinions on evolution, those curiously knat-like "Intelligent Design" theorists, and the future of the whole debate (hopefully it doesn't have one). I only highlight one blog post and one news story about evolution/creation, but only because I got antsy wading through all the ones I had clipped, intending to include them here. Trust me, they're out there in force. Nevertheless, here we go again. Let's hit the links...

From the blogs:

First off, a link I saw in many blogs I read this past week was to Science magazine's 125 questions not yet answered by science, which will eventually be whittled down to twenty five questions. National Geographic News has highlights.

One of my faves, Brian Leiter, has a mind-numbing (in a good way) yet fascinating post. The title says it all: "On Rhetoric, "Persuasion," and Tone...or Knowing the Difference Between Hard and Easy Questions."

Alun writes on the problem of religion and humanity from an astronomy perspective.

Oneman at Savage Minds briefly noted this LA Times piece that raised the question (aimed at Intelligent Design theorists) if we and the universe were indeed designed by a supreme creator, why are human bodies clearly not designed for optimal performance?

We have bad backs, weak knees, prostates that have older men leaning against a wall for half an hour trying to take a leak, and birth canals routed through skeletal structures barely (and often not even barely) wide enough to fit a baby through.

News, news, news:

For the Evolution/Creation news story, New Scientist has a special piece with some good background about the Creationism vs. Evolution debate. The 80th anniversary of the historic Scopes trial was July 10th.

The Toronto Star has an author profile/book review that catapulted said book to the top of my "to read" list:

A Stanford University philosophy graduate and now a doctoral student in neuroscience, [Sam] Harris has delivered a 323-page jeremiad against religion entitled The End of Faith (W.W. Norton), a bracing, unsubtle yet eloquent plea — more like a clarion call — for a stop to dogmatic religion as we know it, and the start of an age of reason that will render religious faith as archaic as the worship of Odin.

An article about the ever-important topic of historic preservation. This time it's Panam Nagar, the former capital of the state of Bengal:

The New York-based World Monument Fund included Panam Nagar, located some 30 kilometres northeast of the capital, in its 2006 World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites.
The heritage conservation group says structures in the former capital of Bengal will be totally ruined and lost to posterity unless preservation measures are taken immediately. ‘Threats to the site include vandalism, unauthorised occupation, illegal development, poor maintenance, flooding and vulnerability to earthquakes.’

From National Geographic News: Early Australians to Blame for Mass Extinctions, Study Finds:

Roughly 60 species of the continent's large mammals and some bird species became extinct around 45,000 to 50,000 years, as a result of a change in the ecosystem brought on by massive fires set by the early settlers.
The exact purpose of the fires is unclear; the settlers may have been clearing land, signaling other tribes, or hunting. What is clear is that the fires changed the landscape from a mosaic of forests and grasses to the fire-adapted shrubs and spinifix (a grass) found today.

The Nomadic Thoughts Week in Review Series presents the "best of" from the roughly three dozen anthropology, philosophy, religion, and science news feeds that make up a part of Will's blogroll. It is published every Sunday night/Monday morning.

Posted by Will at 11:54 PM

July 08, 2005

Underwater Archaeology in Belize

Channel 5 in Belize has a story about the Archaeology Symposium going on there and the discovery last year of a wooden paddle in a peat bog in the Toledo District of the country. Makes me want to go back so bad:(

Dr. Heather McKillop, an archaeologist based at Louisiana State University, and a team of graduate students made the find in the Punta Ycacos Lagoon in 2004 while searching underwater for evidence of how the ancient Maya produced and distributed bulk products to its cities inland. One such everyday item was salt.
Intensive tests on the paddle and posts have since determined the artefacts date back to the late Classic Maya, AD 680-880. But more significantly, the discoveries have led experts to theorize that the more than forty sites in Punta Ycacos are the remains of the infrastructure of a large factory, with a production line of standardized pots, hundreds of workers, and a number of buildings.
Archaeologists are now desperately searching for the canoe that was used to paddle up the various rivers to deliver the precious salt. According to Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Jaime Awe, the unique find in Meso-America is just one of the more than thirty presentations made in the third annual Belize Archaeology Symposium.

(Thanks to ArchaeoBlog)

Posted by Will at 11:34 PM

More on the Guns, Germs, and Steel Special on PBS

I mentioned a few weeks ago the special that is going to air on PBS (July 11-25) based on Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel book. John Hawks writes about a Science magazine review (subscription only, of course) of the special that turns out to be somewhat critical of the three-part series, as indeed many observers have been of Diamond's GG&S theory in general. John writes:

As for myself, I think the book is very entertaining. But it clearly leaves out much of what we know from archaeology about the origins of complex societies -- and much of what we know is not congenial to his thesis. By and large, Diamond does not think that non-geographic social factors were important to the makeup of complex societies. Nor does he give any credence to the idea that genetic differences have any causal role. It has been many years since I read the book, but my troubles with it mainly derive from these issues. Diamond assumes that the fate of societies is essentially cast by their ecological circumstances. Once agriculture begins, all else is an inevitable consequence of population growth and local ecology.

I've just begun reading Collapse (see my post here), the "sequel" to GG&S but I might have to go back and re-read the latter with a more critical eye. When I first read the book I did take note of the relative lack of archaeology but didn't think it necessarily hurt Diamond's theory of ecological determinism (it was clear he used archaeological evidence, but it wasn't that prominent). In regards to the PBS special, I'm expecting it to be popularized for a general audience (as it should be) but at the same time I hope to get a clearer picture (literally) of Diamond's general theses.

Update: Tad at FieldNotes alerted me that PBS's official website companion to the series is now up in all it's geographical, ecological, and anthropological glory.

Update 2: National Geographic News has an interview with Jared Diamond here.

Posted by Will at 02:22 PM

July 07, 2005

Blogging and Annonymity

I'm prompted to write a post about the more functional aspects of blogging because of this post at The Valve in which Scott wonders why many academics using the Blogger.com platform blog anonymously. While I haven't seen such a correlation personally (I really haven't been paying attention to blogging platforms, although I do notice them for aesthetic reasons), I have noticed the two major groups in academic blogging: those who divulge their personal information and professional affiliations and those who do not. As Scott points out there seems to be no reason for anonymity if your blog is professional, on-topic, and not too political. My experience has been that academics that choose to remain anonymous do so because they write about individual colleagues, students, and controversial opinions.

In the comments section of the Valve post I describe why I chose to put quite a bit of information in my "About" page:

As a pre-first-semester graduate student (how’s that for “new to the game") I recently began writing an academic blog of sorts. I chose to divulge my name and bio only after careful consideration of what that may mean down the line. No matter how much we like to think it’s not, academia is characterized by its politics as much as its quest for knowledge. I’m about as new as you can be to higher education and while I’m not sure where I’ll end up, I’m fully aware of anything I write on my academic blog (as opposed to my personal blog) now can have very real implications for future plans, jobs, etc.

Pretty straightforward. I have nothing to hide because most of what I write on Nomadic Thoughts is on the topic of anthropology: news stories, general observations, and responses to posts on other blogs. My personal blog, on the other hand, could get me in trouble only if it provided a direct affiliation between my career as a new graduate student and my personal life. I think it's pretty obvious that what I write in The Journal has nothing to do with how I conduct myself as an anthropology student. However, in the wake of the story about the Brooklyn College professor who "chose" to remove himself from the process of becoming the Chair of the Sociology department (see my post here), I am starting to rethink how controversial I do get on my personal blog. The last thing I want is for something I wrote years ago to come back and haunt me at a very inopportune time, although I like to think such a scenario is unlikely.

Update: Oneman throws down in response to this opinion piece in the Chronicle for Higher Education criticizing academic blogging (first noted by Bitch, PhD. here).

Posted by Will at 12:14 PM

July 06, 2005

More on the Mexican Footprints

My post yesterday on those Mexican footprints got a nice mention at a blog called Alun, which is written by an archaeoastronomy PhD student at the University of Leicester in the UK. He has a very thorough post about the discovery and gives some good background about the debate. There is even a website now about the footprints: http://www.mexicanfootprints.co.uk/.

Posted by Will at 09:54 AM

(Lack of) graduate school update

It just dawned on me today that I haven't written about the grad school thing in several weeks now. Considering that's about 70% of the reason I started this blog in the first place, I think it's about time for a post.

Nothing is new with the grad school thing.

Still waiting to find out when I have to be in Tampa for my assistantship to start (what it will entail I don't know yet either). I am going home to Winston-Salem next week to hang out with the parents and I plan on calling the department to see if they know anything yet and play the "extenuating circumstance" card yet again. Also need to get in touch with my apartment complex and find out if they have the contact info of my roommate. I went pot luck, which can be risky especially in such a big city but if management stuck with the roommate profile survey thing all should be well.

So I'm still in this sort of suspended animation state where I don't know which way is up. Trust me; as soon as the semester starts you'll be reading alot more about the grad school stuff and less about really old footprints and Ancient Maya beekeeping.

Posted by Will at 12:24 AM

July 05, 2005

Footprints from the Past

Perhaps more convincing evidence of early human occupation of the Americas: archaeologists in Mexico have discoved several footprints preserved in volcanic ash and made by four to six individuals. Dating techniques seem to shatter the long-accepted date of arrival of the first Americans (full story here):

The layer of volcanic ash in which the 269 footprints are preserved has been dated by two different techniques - radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence dating - to between 38,000 and 39,000 years ago. Until now the earliest definite dates for a human presence in the Americas were 15,000 years ago. Given the location of the find, deep in the Americas, it makes it almost certain that humans must have first entered the Americas at least 40,000 years ago.

The find, coupled with research of prehistoric climate, is becoming increasingly important in determining approximately when the Americas were first populated and how.



Good article in Nature here.
Another from BBC News here.

Other blogs writing about the story:

Posted by Will at 12:02 AM | Comments (1)

July 03, 2005

Social Neuroscience

The Guardian reports on recent findings about the nature of beliefs and the growing field of social neuroscience. Previously reserved for philosophers, the subject is crossing over into the realm of imperical science. How are beliefs formed? How are they maintained and changed? The answer seems to be complex interactions of biology, culture, and environment:

"Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain," says Taylor. "If you challenge them by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you're going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other."

What does this mean for anthropology and other social sciences? If social neuroscience begins answering the many questions it has raised, then we will be better equipped to understand such things as social interactions and behavior and the dynamics of culture and spiritual beliefs. Temporary relief from my fear of not having anything to research in the future.

Posted by Will at 11:23 PM

When's the "drugs, sex, and devil-worshiping" seminar?

Fascinating piece in the New York Times a few days ago about a secular summer camp geared toward children from non-religious families. Camp Quest in Ohio has all the typical summer camp activities but with presentations and skits that attempt to alleviate some of the anxiety many non-religious children can feel in a society dominated by conservative religious traditions. The goal of the camp is to help them realize that there is nothing wrong with not believing in the Bible, God, or any other supernatural spiritual worldview.

I'll quietly await the "get 'em while they're young" criticisms of such a program, but I don't think that will happen in the national press. Camp Quest seems to be a legitimate and enriching program for children and that's the last thing the mainstream religious establishment wants publicized.

Posted by Will at 10:48 PM

Week in Review 1(4)

NT Week in Review
Vol. I, Issue 4

Despite working my posterior off at the yacht club over the past couple of days (and the 4th isn't even until tomorrow!), I have a quality list of blog posts and news stories to include in this week's edition. Let's get to it:

From the blogs:

If you read anything from this week's edition, read this Savage Minds post about morality and anthropology. Oneman charges head on into the difficult question of what is anthropology's "moral core?":

My concern is with the moral values and principles that are put into practice or embedded in the practice of anthropology itself. How do we justify our own existence? On what are our claims to authority premised? What do we hope to accomplish with our work? Obviously, there’s some grey areas between this sense and the sense I outlined above, but in many ways anthropology is a study of grey areas and I don’t find this overlap too disturbing.

Heavy questions and some that anyone in the field should think about.

Adam at In the Agora writes about his dismay at the media's coverage of the Dennis Rader (the "BTK Killer") murder story. Not so much the coverage of the story itself but how the news channels are airing Rader's graphic descriptions of his murders. As the first comment states, it's all about ratings.

Paul attacks again, this time Conservative commentator Dennis Prager's rejection of a humanist worldview, accusing it of "reducing the status of humans to that of a dolphin" and that "Without God, man is another part of the ecosystem, and a lousy one at that." Would it be correct to assume that such a point of view says alot about one's confidence of life? I believe that man is just another part of the ecosystem, but I'm pretty darn happy with my position.

The news, NT style:

This is cool:

PORTLAND, Ore. - After nearly a decade of court battles, scientists plan to begin studying the 9,300-year-old skeleton known as Kennewick Man next week.
A team of scientists plans to examine the bones at the University of Washington's Burke Museum in Seattle beginning July 6, according to their attorney, Alan Schneider.

How far will technology go? New Scientist has a great article about a proposed technological "dark age" that is looming just around the temporal corner. When will it happen? According to Jonathan Huebner, a physicist at the Pentagon, I'll be 42 when it happens (2024). Skepticism of his claim seems to be reasonable and I'll reserve judgment for now on whether or not we'll stop getting cool stuff, like smaller iPods and thinner televisions (thanks Dienekes).

The Woodstock of Evolution: Scientific American has a thorough article on the World Summit on Evolution, held in the Galapagos. Besides discussing the conference, you can read a bit about the history and opinions of evolutionary theory.

Finally, The tyranny of therapism: haven't read all of this yet but it seems interesting/enlightening. Homework assignment: read it and write a 10-page report summarizing and elaborating on the main points:)

The Nomadic Thoughts Week in Review Series presents the "best of" from the roughly three dozen anthropology, philosophy, religion, and science news feeds that make up a part of Will's blogroll. It is published every Sunday night/Monday morning.

Posted by Will at 06:57 PM