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July 28, 2006

Mel in Mexico

From ABC News:

Mel Gibson Said to Offer Aid to Mexico Poor
VERACRUZ, Mexico Jul 14, 2006 (AP)— Mel Gibson, about to wrap up the filming of his Mayan epic, "Apocalypto," in the jungles of Mexico's Veracruz state, is donating money to build houses for poor people in the region.
The 50-year-old director-actor will donate the money through the Rotary Club and Mexico's family welfare agency, government officials announced Thursday.
Officials said the donation will be used to construct homes for poor residents of the port city of Veracruz and the city of San Andres Tuxtla.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 08:21 PM

July 27, 2006

The Alma Mater

Here are some photos I shot today around the campus of my beloved undergrad institution, The University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Click the photos to go to the original Flickr photo page.

UNCW Fountain

UNCW Columns

Hoggard Hall

View from the new student union

Posted by Will at 12:00 PM

July 20, 2006

Money see, monkey avoid

Seeing the serpent
The ability to spot venomous snakes may have played a major role in the evolution of monkeys, apes and humans, according to a new hypothesis by Lynne Isbell, professor of anthropology at UC Davis. The work is published in the July issue of the Journal of Human Evolution.
Primates have good vision, enlarged brains, and grasping hands and feet, and use their vision to guide reaching and grasping. Scientists have thought that these characteristics evolved together as early primates used their hands and eyes to grab insects and other small prey, or to handle and examine fruit and other foods.
Isbell suggests instead that primates developed good close-up eyesight to avoid a dangerous predator -- the snake.
monkey.03.jpg

Read the entire press release from EurekAlert.

Posted by Will at 10:16 AM

July 19, 2006

Become your own reporter

If you're confused about what's going in the Middle East, Kos elucidates the situation quite eloquently:

So we've got Israel attacking Lebanon. Israel attacking Palestine. Hezbollah attacking Israel. Palestinians attacking Israel. Israel threatening to attack Syria and Iran. Iran meddling in Iraq. The US meddling in Iraq. Lots of terrorists and insurgents targeting the US. The US threatening Iran. Sunnis attacking Shiites. Shiites attacking Sunnis. The US and NATO fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. Kurds attacking Turks.

Seriously, things are getting pretty bad between Israel's offensive against Hezbollah. From my perusal of alternative media outlets it seems that much of the story as reported through the major US outlets is being skewed in one way or another (big surprise there). What we cannot forget is the face of war: the innocent victims that are caught between (and often at the receiving end of) bullets and bombs.

So how do we wade through all the useless garbage constantly muddling the airwaves of CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, and others? Over the past year or so I have become quite the news junkie, and I have my strategy down to a science. All you need is an open mind and an internet connection.

First, CNN and the other TV news outlets do serve a useful purpose despite carrying stories about Oprah's sexuality and President Bush caught saying "shit" while chatting with Tony Blair. CNN in particular is known for their worldwide network of reporters and bureaus positioned to provide up-to-the-second news as soon as it happens. For this reason, I often check CNN.com for breaking stories as they happen. That’s where they cease to be useful. Find what the headline is and get out.

The next step is to seek out news sources that aren’t based in the United States. This is especially critical with world news stories such as the Middle East situation and Darfur. My next stop is usually the international version of the BBC News homepage. While a major news outlet and not immune from biasness (no agency is), they offer a different angle on major stories and often report them in a more straightforward and concise manner. And like CNN, the BBC has a fantastic network of their own reporters around the world. So, between CNN and the BBC you are sure to read about every major news story out there if only by virtue of their highly integrated worldwide network.

As I mentioned, major news outlets are good for reading headlines, but the underlying significance of a story cannot be gleaned through a single outlet, especially the big ones. For that you have to rely on independent and aggregate outlets. Perhaps the best aggregate news outlet is Yahoo! News. They have spent quite a bit of money and energy into developing a pretty comprehensive website that pulls together stories from a host of news agencies, both big and small. Aside from a few public interest features, the meat of Yahoo! News is not original and are stories pulled from various sources. It’s usefulness lies in being able to quickly see how different agencies are reporting the same news and what priority they give a particular story. Another aggregate news site is Google News and they are unique because they don’t use human editors. All pages within Google News and computer generated based on the frequency of a particular story on outside sites monitored by Google. This virtually eliminates human bias and allows for lesser known but just as useful resources to surface.

My favorite, alternative news sources (or more accurately, opinion sources). I simply do not know enough about the world to recognize every possible angle of a story. Nobody does. As a result, we must rely on people that have a specific knowledge about a particular topic or geographical area. Finding these voices is often difficult because everyone and their mother thinks they are an expert. Typically from a global perspective, alternative sources are great for reading “the other side” of the story and seeing other points of view. Even if I don’t always agree with alternative descriptions of events, they are useful for making up your own mind. Sometimes, these sources do have original, first-hand reporting but usually they pick up on news from news wire services such as the Associated Press or Reuters and do further research. This research comes in the form of interviews, archival research, or simply applying one’s own knowledge to an event. Personal opinions sometimes find their way into alternative news stories but their insights are indispensable.

The Socialist Worker Online is a good example. The Socialist Worker is the newspaper of the International Socialist Organization: the extreme opposite of FOX News. While often extreme, their take on major stories is refreshing and makes you think. By no means an unbiased news source, The Socialist Worker online is more of a op-ed site than a traditional news agency but they sometimes highlight lesser known stories, typically human rights related, that don’t make the headlines of the more prominent outlets.

The online version of Mother Jones Magazine is in the same vein, but not as extreme as the Socialist Worker. They offer different takes on top stories and follow up that can’t be found anywhere else. As with many alternative sites, Mother Jones doesn’t pretend to be unbiased. They simply claim to bring forth stories you may otherwise never hear about and highlight perspectives that are typically suppressed in the mainstream media.

Truthdig.com is one of my favorite alternative news sites because its premises are exactly what I’ve been getting at in this post:

The purpose of our new Web magazine is to provide you with insightful and accurate reporting on current subjects and on issues that need to be brought to your attention. We want to challenge conventional wisdom. Over time, we hope to build a solid and reliable resource for those of you who want to explore particular topics by drilling down to unusual depth. In addition, we hope to create a home for thoughtful, provocative ideas and dialogue by a group of talented contributors and editors.

Truthdig is the epitome of what I want when I read the news: the story between the headlines. By bringing in a variety of editors and columnists, the site certainly exudes an air of relative objectivity in a world dominated by bloodthirsty corporate news agencies out for ratings. But as with any site that claims to present “the rest of the story,” one has to make up his or her own mind and go a step further by looking at still more sites.

As you can see, I am clearly a news junkie but I am even more of a truth junkie. I find nothing more satisfying in terms of news that finding out for myself what is happening in a different part of the world. You have to become your own reporter, culling information from a variety of sources and sorting out the hundreds of opinions that may or may not help you shape your own. It is dangerous to take what you hear on CNN or FOX News and think that’s the way things played out. It is equally unwise to rely solely on alternative sources for your information. They typically do not have the resources the large corporate agencies have at their disposal. The trick is to first figure out what is happening, then take a few minutes to search out other facts and opinions, including those that you are pretty sure you will disagree with (this is why I read Townhall.com for opinion and less frequently, FoxNews.com).

Posted by Will at 03:05 PM

July 18, 2006

Atheism in America

Joseph Gerteis, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota has a fantastic piece up at The Secular Web discussing a recent article he published in the American Sociological Review called “Atheists As ‘Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society” (American Sociological Review. Albany: Apr 2006. Vol. 71, Iss. 2; p. 211). The insights discussed by Gerteis in the Secular Web piece are, as he mentions, not surprising to me and other nonbelievers:

When we were putting together the survey, we thought that it would be Muslims that topped the list in these post-9/11 times. We asked about atheists mostly as an afterthought, as a kind of counterbalance to our questions about conservative Christians. But it was indeed atheists at the top of the list of the folks Americans rejected--and the finding was robust; we asked the question in two ways just to be sure. Our "private" measure was to ask whether or not people would object if their son or daughter married a person of a given type, with the idea that this would tell us whether Americans would welcome different kinds of people into their own homes and families. Our "public" measure was to ask whether or not such groups agreed with the respondents' vision of America. Here the idea was that we may not want to associate with some people, but we might still accept them as part of the fabric of the country.

The study seems to suggest the difficulty in gauging any sort of public perception in America. Clearly, it is logical to assume that Muslims would top a list of most rejected group of people. Even homosexuals seem a natural heir to the tile of “most threatening to the American way of life” (Gerteis discusses this as well). Is the term “atheist”, as Gerteis suggests, a catch-all term for anyone who holds different political views or worldviews? Perhaps, but I think it is mostly a misunderstanding of what it means to subscribe to an atheistic worldview and the stigma that has dogged the term since the 18th and 19th centuries. People know what “atheism” is, even if it is a general and vague notion. My experience has been that individuals who have made the decision to reject religion and spirituality have not done so on a whim. They have thought about the existence of God and the supernatural at length. For some, myself included, this was not an easy process and involved many restless nights and countless hours of contemplating the implications and meaning of nonbelief (sometimes for credit hours).

Another problem that clouds public perception of atheism and nonbelief in America has to do with social construction. It is easy to forget (and some would argue not true) that one is not born into this world with a belief in God or the supernatural. Like language, religion and spirituality has to be learned; etched onto a blank slate that has the potential to go any number of directions. If one holds that a human is imbued with a spirit at birth, then the “blank slate” mindset is pushed aside in favor of a God-bestowed reason to breathe. In the haze, it is forgotten that even deep-seeded religious beliefs are socially constructed, subject to the same mechanisms that govern biological evolution (see Daniel Dennett). This, I feel, is one of the main impediments to atheism in America and why so many Americans (according to Gerteis et al.) place atheists at the top of their list of most threatening group. More from Gerteis:

So where does this leave us? The findings are the findings. As a scientist, what I can say for sure is that there is a widespread rejection of atheists, that it is manifest in assumptions about who atheists are as both public citizens and as private individuals. As someone who cares about this issue, what I can say is that I am convinced that it turns on issues of morality and how we understand it. And I think that it is not as black-and-white as it might seem.

Posted by Will at 10:25 AM | Comments (1)

July 17, 2006

Archaeological Tourism

From the New York Times:

Amateur Archaeologists Get the Dirt on the Past
We were at Tel Maresha, in the 1,250-acre Beit Guvrin National Park, which lies in the Judean plain an hour southwest of Jerusalem. Everyone in the group had signed on to become an archaeological excavator in the three-hour Dig for a Day program, run by Archeological Seminars (972-2-586-2011; www.archesem.com; $25; $20 for ages 5 to 14), a company started 25 years ago by Bernie and Fran Alpert, archaeologists and Chicago natives.
There are approximately 5,000 caves around Tel Maresha — less than 10 percent of which have been excavated — and remains from the Hellenistic period, roughly 2,200 years ago. About 1,300 feet above sea level, the ground here is chalky and soft, and early on, people began to dig caves, which they used as quarries, burial grounds, storerooms for animals, workshops and spaces for raising doves and pigeons. Many of these caves are linked by an intricate underground network of passageways.
There are three phases of an Archeological Seminars dig. Typically, a guide will first take a group of as many as 20 people down into a cave, where they will participate in an excavation. With shovel in hand, they spend the next 45 minutes digging through the dirt (remember to wear clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty), searching for pottery shards, bones, glass and the occasional piece of metal, often coins.

Read the rest of the story here.

One interesting quote from the story that I found amusing:

"While most archaeological excavations require hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mr. Alpert said, this one is unusual because it is self-supporting."

Most digs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Posted by Will at 10:13 PM

Job Position at FAMSI

Just got word of this job opportunity from FAMSI, which has a great website that has been useful to me.

Bilingual Proof Reader needed:
The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), http://www.famsi.org/, is currently seeking a detail-oriented individual(s) with the ability to read and write proficiently in both Spanish and English languages and who possesses an advanced understanding of anthropological / archaeological / ethnographical terminology, to assist in proofreading previously-translated documents [from English to Spanish as well as Spanish to English]. A qualified candidate will possess the necessary skills required to compare the translated material with the originals to ensure the appropriate context/meaning has been conveyed in the translation as well as be able to correct any grammar, spelling/punctuation errors, typographical errors, numerical transpositions, etc. that may exist in either version. Must be extremely detail-oriented and be able to work independently. No relocation required. Please contact Karen Allen for further details at karen@famsi.org.

Posted by Will at 09:32 AM

July 13, 2006

Historic Downtown Wilmington

While on my mini-vacation in Wilmington, NC I decided to head downtown to take some photos, which I've uploaded to my Flickr page. Taking these shots made me realize how much I miss living in Wilmington: five minutes from a beautiful coast (photos of that to come) and a few minutes from an awesome historic district. Paradise.

front_princess.jpg

memorial_bridge.jpg

south_water.jpg

battleship.jpg

Posted by Will at 07:35 PM

July 11, 2006

Classic

This is just too funny not to disseminate and is making the blog rounds accordingly: an anti-abortion blogger cites an Onion article to back up his case. And no, this is not satire...

(thanks Pharyngula)

Posted by Will at 08:07 AM | Comments (1)

Magical Mushrooms

From EurekAlert and Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions:

Hopkins scientists show hallucinogen in mushrooms creates universal 'mystical' experience
Using unusually rigorous scientific conditions and measures, Johns Hopkins researchers have shown that the active agent in "sacred mushrooms" can induce mystical/spiritual experiences descriptively identical to spontaneous ones people have reported for centuries.
...
Cited as "landmark" in the commentary by former National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director, Charles Schuster, the research marks a new systematic approach to studying certain hallucinogenic compounds that, in the 1950s, showed signs of therapeutic potential or value in research into the nature of consciousness and sensory perception. "Human consciousness…is a function of the ebb and flow of neural impulses in various regions of the brain-the very substrate that drugs such as psilocybin act upon," Schuster says. "Understanding what mediates these effects is clearly within the realm of neuroscience and deserves investigation."

At the end of the linked article is an interesting Q&A with the study's lead author.

Posted by Will at 07:33 AM

Greek Antiquities to be Returned

From the New York Times:

Getty Museum Agrees to Return Two Antiquities to Greece
After months of international scrutiny of its collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles announced yesterday that it had agreed to relinquish ownership of two of four rare ancient works that the government of Greece says were illegally removed from within its borders.
The compromise accord, which was initially reached in May at a meeting in Athens between the museum’s director, Michael Brand, and the Greek culture minister, Georgios A. Voulgarakis, provides for the return to Greece of a large stele, or grave marker, acquired by the museum in 1993, and a small marble relief from the island of Thasos bought by the museum’s founder, the oil magnate J. Paul Getty, in 1955.

Posted by Will at 07:24 AM

July 10, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

Today I finished reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and went to see the movie to kill some time. I have always been slightly behind in picking up on the latest fads and hypes, and this is no different. The Da Vinci Code has been out for a couple of years now and I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Why? Because it recently hit me just how much the book is ruffling the feathers of the religious. I had to find out the reason.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly and is one of the few fiction novels I have read cover-to-cover. Regardless of the position you take on the subject matter, Dan Brown is a talented writer and knows how to craft an intriguing story that is both complex and easy to follow. The puzzles and instances of realization are very entertaining, and the historical explanations of the people, places, and events compliment the action and suspense well. Perhaps one reason I liked the Da Vinci Code so much was because I could relate to the main character, Robert Langdon. Not because I am a notable Harvard symbologist (I’m not), but rather it is Langdon’s quest for the truth that I can see in myself. As for the movie, it follows the book closely, with only a few minor changes in the way the plot unfolds. Tom Hanks was good as Robert Langdon, and the other characters blended seamlessly with Dan Brown’s portrayal of them in the book. At two and a half hours, the film is long and drags in places but the length doesn’t detract too much from the overall success of the adaptation. Additionally, a few scenes from the book were “muted” or scaled back in the film, perhaps as a response to the obvious attention The Da Vinci Code has received since its release a few years back. I haven’t become obsessed with The Da Vinci Code and its implications like many have, but I enjoyed it enough to pick up Dan Brown’s earlier book and Robert Langdon’s first appearance, Angels and Demons.

I have yet to come to any conclusions about the nature of the claims in The Da Vinci Code. I simply don’t know enough about the history surrounding early Christianity to have an informed opinion. I am, however, intrigued with the premise of the Holy Grail story and the possibility of a Church cover-up of Jesus’ story. Many Christians are rejecting The Da Vinci Code as pure fantasy and nothing more than a knock against their faith. Few of these critics seem to realize that The Da Vinci Code is in fact a work of fiction and therefore none of it can be taken at face value, despite Dan Brown’s disclaimer that parts of the story are factual. I find it amusing that people get worked up about something like this, going to great lengths to defend Christianity against a single book (just look on Amazon.com for Da Vinci Code spin-offs). The irony of offended Christians not being able to distinguish fact from fiction is delightful.

Posted by Will at 09:54 PM

July 07, 2006

Another Challenge to Cultural Relativism

We're all familiar with the classic "intro to anthropology" example of female genital mutilation (within Africa, most prevalent the east) as a challenge to the sacred anthropological concept of cultural relativism. That's not all:

'Breast ironing' to stunt girls' growth widespread
YAOUNDE, Cameroon (Reuters) -- Worried that her daughters' budding breasts would expose them to the risk of sexual harassment and even rape, their mother Philomene Moungang started 'ironing' the girls' bosoms with a heated stone.
"Breast ironing" -- the use of hard or heated objects or other substances to try to stunt breast growth in girls -- is a traditional practice in West Africa, experts say.

CNN.com story.

Posted by Will at 01:05 PM

July 05, 2006

So they don't want us to burn the flag, but...

...this type of desecration of a national symbol is OK? From the New York Times:

05liberty.large1.jpg
At a megachurch in Memphis, the Statue of Liberation Through Christ was consecrated Tuesday. The statue, says the church's pastor, is a way of "letting people know that God is the foundation of our nation."

Posted by Will at 04:37 PM

July 02, 2006

New Thom Yorke Album

I realize this isn't archaeology or science related, but it is "nerd" related and can pass as culture, so I'll post it. The musical genius of my generation will release his first solo album on XL Records next week, called The Eraser. Radiohead's music practically defined my late highschool and college years and some of my best memories have been at the two shows I attented (or tried to attend, the one in VA was flooded out). I snagged a leaked copy from the internet, and its safe to say its on track to be one of my top albums of the year. The Eraser has lots of typical-Radiohead electronic bips and beeps but also a very mellow, melodic album that definitely stands on its own. Hopefully Thom will go on a solo tour so I can have an excuse to escape Tampa...

Read a NYT interview with Thom here.
Official The Eraser website here

eraser.jpg

Posted by Will at 01:51 PM

Firefox vs. IE

To kill some time I decided to download and try out Internet Explorer 7, Microsoft's response to the success of Mozilla Firefox, which I have been using for at least the past two years. At first glance, IE7 is better looking than the default setup of Firefox, but looks aren't everything. Even so, IE7 seems to have more useful and streamlined features than Firefox and is a little more robust feeling. I originally switched to and got hooked on Firefox because of tabbed browsing, something that IE now has. They even do it a little better, with a "quick view" that lets you see all your open tabs layed out in thumbnail view. To top it off, migration of my bookmarks was pretty seamless so the switch was easy, making a permanent move likely. And thanks to free market competition, Microsoft has apparently addressed several security issues which answer my original concerns when I switched to FIrefox a few years ago.

Update: Nevermind, Firefox is still better. Try again, Microsoft.

Posted by Will at 12:07 AM | Comments (1)

July 01, 2006

Archaeologists' criticisms of 'Apocalypto'

'Apocalypto' now for Mel, Maya and historians
Given Gibson's cinematic history, experts on the ancient Maya are looking forward to his upcoming epic, Apocalypto, with a mixture of curiosity and dread. They're pleased that Hollywood will feature a period of world history still little understood but worry that once again a movie may sacrifice historical accuracy for the sake of a good story.
"A lot depends on how well they depict the Maya. It may serve as a really good springboard into a lecture," says archaeologist Lisa Lucero of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "Or it may be something we have to nip in the bud in that first lecture."
Gibson wasn't available for comment, and the public relations firm for his Icon Productions declined to offer any details on the film's plot.
But according to the film's website, Apocalypto promises "a heart-stopping mythic action-adventure set against the turbulent end-times of the once-great Mayan civilization." The story centers on a kidnapped hero's bid to escape a mass sacrifice at one Maya center. According to another description of the plot in Time magazine's March preview, a ruler orders the mass sacrifice of hapless captives to appease the gods and avert a drought.
The only problem, and big cause for worry among archaeologists, is "the classic Maya really didn't go in for mass sacrifice," Lucero says. "That was the Aztecs." Other concerns: the modern-day Mayan Yucatec language spoken in the film is not the language of the ancient Maya, and the film's Mexican shooting locale is not the classic Maya homeland, says Penn State archaeologist David Webster.

Full USA Today story here.

Posted by Will at 05:22 PM