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November 28, 2006

Social (dis)connections

Steven Johnson, a fantastic writer that I came across last week who writes about the intersection of science, technology, and personal life, has a post up on his NYTimes.com blog (unfortunately available only with a TimesSelect subscription) about the ever-increasing distance between, well, people:

This is the lament of iPod Nation: we’ve built elaborate tools to connect us to our friends – and introduce us to strangers – who are spread across the planet, and at the same time, we’ve embraced technologies that help us block out the people we share physical space with, technologies that give us the warm cocoon of the personalized soundtrack. We wear white earbuds that announce to the world: whatever you’ve got to say, I can’t hear it.

Social landscapes have been studied extensively in sociology and anthropology. How people interact and organize themselves can be indicative of how people organize themselves in certain social contexts. Johnson is speaking primarily about big urban cities like New York, but the iPod silencing effect (my awkward phrase) seems to me to be plausible for a variety of non-urban situations. For example, when we plug in we can not only cut ourselves off from other people but from nature as well. Imagine taking a hike in a forest only to miss the sounds and subtle vibrations that contribute so much to that environment’s beauty. There are social landscapes and natural landscapes each with their own unique characteristics (sometimes overlapping) and the encroachment of technology into our everyday lives invariable has an effect on our perceptions of our surroundings. In my opinion, it is often to the deficit of the perceiver.

So while Johnson eloquently describes the social distance that is often caricatured as the iPod-wearing urbanite, he is optimistic about the relationships that can be introduced and the dialogue that can be facilitated by technologies that permeate our everyday lives, mainly the internet:

So the idea that the new technology is pushing us away from the people sharing our local spaces is only half true. To be sure, iPods and mobile phones give us fewer opportunities to start conversations with people of different perspectives. But the Web gives us more of those opportunities, and for the most part, I think it gives us better opportunities. What it doesn’t directly provide is face-to-face connection. So the question becomes: how important is face-to-face? I don’t have a full answer to that – clearly it’s important, and clearly we lose something in the transition to increasingly virtual interactions.

The reason Johnson’s post satisfies me is because it strikes a happy medium between a hypersensitivity to the effects of technology in our lives on the one hand and the unbridled technophilia that so many of my generation have succumbed to. I wish that I could say more than this or offer some sort of insightful analysis, but like Johnson I believe the true sociological/psychological benefits of face-to-face connection are elusive at best and unattainable at worst. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that intimate communication is infinitely important to healthy social development, but to what extent can science (social or otherwise) lend itself to understanding the recently-renegotiated relationships and social dynamics brought about by the rather swift emergence of the iPod Generation?

You heard it here, you'll be hearing big things from this guy in the coming months. Stephen Johnson’s new book The Ghost Map (subtitled “The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World”) is currently on the top of my to-read list. His website is stephenberlinjohnson.com.

More iPod Generation:
Anxious life of the 'Ipod' generation - TimesOnline
Murdoch tunes in to iPod generation - The Register

The above are only two of many news stories and websites out there, and from doing a simple Google search most of them, interestingly, seem to be from UK-based publications.

Posted by Will at 11:20 PM

November 27, 2006

There are no words...

story.peace.wreath.ap.jpgFrom CNN.com, this is just one of those stories that forces you to lower your head, pinch that little area between your eyes, and desprately try to suppress a scream of range and/or a laugh of bewilderment:

DENVER, Colorado (AP) -- A homeowners' association in southwestern Colorado has threatened to fine a resident $25 a day until she removes a Christmas wreath with a peace sign that some say is an anti-Iraq war protest or a symbol of Satan.

That's pretty much the essence of the story. An innocent peace sign wreath accused of being anti-war or a symbol of Satan. My question is what sort of neighborhood did this take place in? Denver isn't exactly the backwoods of the deep south (pardon the stereotype, being from the south myself) and I can't imagine a gated community that gated. To top it off, the homeowners association president who was trying to force the lady to take her wreath down and fining her $25/day ended up firing the entire homeowners committee after they basically told him he was nuts.

11/28 Update: Truce declared in peace wreath battle

Posted by Will at 10:49 PM

November 24, 2006


From Inside Higher Ed:

Professors normally want people to pay attention to their research findings.
But when anthropologists learned that some of their scholarship may have inspired tactics used in the Abu Ghraib prison — and may be increasingly central to the interrogation of prisoners being held by U.S. forces in many locations, sometimes without standard protections — many were taken aback.
As a result, scholars attending the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting last week voted unanimously to condemn “the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of physical and psychological torture.” The vote took place at the association’s business meeting and the issue was such a draw that the group had a quorum (250 members, in contrast to last year’s 35) for the first time in 30 years

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 02:33 PM

November 21, 2006

The Archaeology of Agriculture

In recognition of the harvest festival of Thanksgiving, and the latest food-themed edition of the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival to be hosted at about.archaeology.com, I thought it might be interesting to explore agriculture in prehistory, particularly in the Maya region and northern Belize where I studied in 2004. For some reason, I find agriculture and subsistence the most interesting topic in archaeology. I was raised in a state that is known for farming, mostly of tobacco, and home to one of the top agricultural science schools in the country (NC State). Something must have clicked because a few years ago I realized I was fascinated by how ancient peoples worked the land to produce the most basic of all human necessities.

SlashBurn02H.jpgThe role of subsistence in the ancient economy of the lowland Maya has a long and dynamic history, consisting of hunting and gathering, animal husbandry, and agriculture (click here to see a map). Each of these was practiced at different times and to different degrees depending on environmental or social circumstances. Extensive agriculture requires a relatively large area of land and generally refers to the use of a plot of land followed by a long fallow period where the soil is allowed to replenish itself with nutrients. While this is occurring, another plot is under cultivation until it too needs to lie fallow. Farmers eventually return to land that has been naturally replenished and the process is repeated. The type farming known as swidden, or slash-and-burn, is an example of extensive agriculture and is still practiced today in some areas.

Belize_farming_gm.jpgIntensive agriculture in the lowlands is characterized by the continuous cultivation of a plot of land and short fallow periods, with some practices requiring none at all. Such practices may have occurred primarily in areas with abundant rainfall and healthy, well-drained soils, such as alluvial valleys and floodplains. This includes most of the lowlands as well as parts of Belize. The archaeological evidence for intensive agriculture can be interpreted most prominently from the ancient remains of terraces, raised fields, and irrigation as well as botanical remains. Such evidence has been collected at many sites in the central lowlands and northern Belize. The photo here is of intensive type agriculture as it is practiced today in the Maya area.

Data from several sites throughout the central lowlands and northern Belize has been interpreted as evidence of intensive agriculture. Many of these cases do not always offer clear examples that intensive practices were present or that agriculture has taken place at all. This is perhaps the result of the highly variable landscape of the region that can often mask what may or may not have been the case. It is important to examine multiple lines of evidence when investigating intensive agriculture in order to arrive at the best possible scenario, however incomplete this may be. One well-documented case of this is at the site of Pulltrouser Swamp. Pulltrouser Swamp is located in northern Belize, approximately 45 kilometers north of Lamanai and east of the New River. The area has been described as a complex of three elongated depressions that are a part of the bajo region of the eastern Yucatan Peninsula. The geography is comprised of low rolling to hilly limestone terrain that is characterized by surface and subsurface drainage.

Drainage is an important aspect of Pulltrouser Swamp and has obvious implications for intensive agriculture. Additional geomorphological research suggests that little has changed since the ancient Maya occupied the area. The component of this site that is of particular interest is the unique pattern of mounds and ditches on the landscape that have been interpreted by some as raised fields. The interpretation of this type of landscape as raised fields is based on aerial photographs and ground surveys that show irregular patterning in the landscape. Excavations yielded information on the dimensions of the mounds and ditches, soil type and stratigraphy, botanical remains, and artifacts that seemed to suggest subsistence practices were present. This data was used to interpret the ground pattern as consisting of fields and canals having cultural origins. Some dismiss the possibility that such a well-defined pattern on the landscape is the result of natural phenomena and cite inconclusive botanical evidence, including the presence of maize. In more recent studies that use similar types of data, others maintain that while northern Belize offers the earliest evidence for the development of agriculture in the lowlands, no evidence of human-constructed canal irrigation exists at Pulltrouser Swamp. Instead, it was found that the series of mounds are actually naturally elevated hummocks, or low ridge of earth, which are common in the area.

terrace2.jpgAnother site in the wetlands of northern Belize that yields useful information about agriculture is San Antonio Rio Hondo. Interpreting data previously collected by Dennis Puleston west of the Hondo River on Albion Island, researchers have shown that the ancient Maya were cultivating wetlands in the area by 1000 BC and that this was occurring in conjunction with swidden farming in the uplands during the wet season. Puleston’s initial hypothesis was that two stages of field use characterized early wetland agriculture at Albion Island. Observations of stratigraphy from three pits at San Antonio suggested that sediments from the flood plain were first built up and that platforms were subsequently constructed from quarry material from the uplands (similar to what is shown in the photograph). This hypothesis was revised when viewed in light of pollen, plant macrofossil, mollusk, and soil fertility data from pits that indicated “definite agricultural activity” in other pits but not in the ones mentioned above. This is the result of low levels of organic carbon in the soil.

Further depositional analysis suggests that the natural accumulation of mollusks and other sediments resulted in what initially appeared to be artificial planting platforms. Evidence for agricultural activity at San Antonio includes pollen and plant macrofossils that indicate maize cultivation was present. Organic carbon in the soil indicates that the ancient Maya cultivated at San Antonio during the dry season. Environmental changes during the Late Preclassic and Early Classic periods caused a rise in the rivers of northern Belize and higher water tables. Dated stratigraphic material collected from Quintana Roo, Mexico and Florida has been correlated with the stratigraphy of coastal lagoons in northern Belize, indicating a large-scale change in water level. Ditching appears to have occurred at the site, possibly because of the rising water which necessitated the construction of deep, narrow trenches for draining purpose.

This is just a brief example of what archaeology can tell us about how ancient societies utilized land and water resources for subsistence purposes. There are countless examples from all over the world of ancient farming and they vary quite widely. The brief example described here of the ancient Maya in northern Belize highlights the different lines of evidence that can be used to hypothesize how and on what time scale agriculture developed and changed, often correlating such activity to natural climatic or geologic events. Incidentally, one of the readings for my theory course this week has to do with gender and food. In this post I have talked about just one line of information we can take when looking at subsistence, but there are many other aspects of food production and broader relationships that can be gained from the evidence. Christine A. Hastorf writes:

Food systems, in many ways, are the bases of societies, essential to sustenance, division of labor, control, and social symbolism. Despite our archaeological fascination with how people got their food, we must not miss the ability of food to inform us about the equally important cultural dynamics. The use of botanical data has its limitations, but it also has important potential to view social and political relations. Paleoethnobotanical data should not be confined only to what people ate, but should help in investigating broader social and political relationships.
Hastorf, Christine A. (1991) Gender, Space, and Food in Prehistory from Contemporary Archaeology in Theory (ed. Preucel and Hodder)

Posted by Will at 08:48 AM

November 20, 2006

New Chris Mooney book

In perhaps the first instance of "breaking news" here on Nomadic Thoughts, a couple of hours ago Chris Mooney (author of the essential Republican War on Science) announced on his blog that his new book will be entiled "Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming." Don't expect it any time soon, though, he's still sort of writing it. Still exciting news, though.

Posted by Will at 04:02 PM

November 18, 2006

China in the NY Times

China is my latest pet interest. Never before have we seen such an important and immense expansion of population, economics, and influence. The "Waking Giant" is not only being thrust into the global economy, perhaps before it is fully prepared to, but it is having drastic effects on the natural environment as well. Related to China's entrance into the global economy are its cultural and historic resources. China is perhaps the most culturally rich yet understudied regions of the world in terms of archaeology and many predict that in the coming decades, the most important discoveries will occur within its borders. There's no reason to doubt that and now is as good a time is any to take notice.

This weekend, two great pieces from the New York Times:

China’s African Adventure
Angola is a very, very poor country, but it is also an extremely rich one, for immense deposits of oil lie under the South Atlantic Ocean within its territorial waters. Thanks to the growing appetites of several developing nations, China in particular, that need oil to sustain the furious expansion of their economies, last year Angola, which otherwise has almost no economy, had more than $10 billion to play with. And it has used that money to pay more advanced countries to rebuild its infrastructure. This vision — call it “Development by China” — looks like a catastrophic mistake to the Western experts and institutions that have scrutinized, invested in and at times despaired of Angola.
And yet Development by China looks more like Africa’s future than its past. Angola is not alone in having choices, for the high price of oil has begun to transform the prospects of African countries once viewed simply as basket cases. Earlier this month, Nigeria, the continent’s oil giant, signed an $8.3 billion agreement with China to build an 1,800-mile railway. Oil production in Africa is expected to double over the next 20 years while it stays flat or declines in much of the rest of the world. And China has already begun, in myriad ways, to serve the interests of these emerging clients, while the United States, preoccupied with terrorism, has seen its dominant status slip. Angola, once a cold-war pawn, can now serve as a kind of test case in the latest struggle to shape Africa’s destiny. Call it Chinese-style globalization.

The following story has two videos and a slideshow:

A Troubled River Mirrors China’s Path to Modernity

The source of the Yellow River, itself the water source for 140 million people in a country of about 1.3 billion, is in crisis, as scientists warn that the glaciers and underground water system feeding the river are gravely threatened. For the rest of China, where the economy has evolved beyond trading rings for sheep, it is the latest burden for a river saturated with pollution and sucked dry by factories, growing cities and farming — with still more growth planned.
For centuries, the Yellow River symbolized the greatness and sorrows of China’s ancient civilization, as emperors equated controlling the river and taming its catastrophic floods with controlling China. Now, the river is a very different symbol — of the dire state of China’s limited resources at a time when the country’s soaring economic growth needs more of everything.

Posted by Will at 10:56 PM

November 17, 2006

PlayStation 3 madness: blame Sony

playstation-3-gde.jpgI've been following the steady stream of stories having to do with today's release of the PlayStation 3 video game system by Sony. Remember the good ol' days when nerds used to line up outside of Radio Shack for the midnight release of Windows 95? Not any more. Since early this morning people have been shot with BB guns, real guns, trampled over, robbed, beaten, and assualted. Ex-senator from North Carolina John Edwards had a volunteer drop his name at a local Wal-Mart so his kids could have one. The problem? Edwards has been a vocal critic of Wal-Mart in the past. And I've just learned that a student was beaten and robbed on the campus of my undergrad school, UNC-Wilmington (also see StarNewsOnline.com)

Consumers going crazy over a new product are nothing new-we've seen it with basketball shoes, computer software, and wedding dresses. But I can't remember so much violence over a single item and all because of the limited availability of the product. Obviously the stores aren't to blame. They stock what Sony ships to them. The individuals who were shot, beaten, robbed, and assaulted are only partially to blame. The real culprit in my opinion is the Sony Corporation for obviously manufacturing demand and not having the foresight to see such a fiasco coming. Clearly Sony could have produced thousands of more PlayStations than they already have, but instead they wanted to create the sense that these things were in such demand that fans were camping out in front of stores and getting into fights. It makes for nice public interest news stories and is free advertising for Sony. Yet another glaring example of corporate irresponsibility.

From CNN.com:

Ralph Clearly celebrates with his new PlayStation 3 after waiting in line for three days at a Best Buy store in Los Angeles, California.
Clearly and many others across the country -- some die-hard gamers and some planning to re-sell the coveted units -- began lining up days ahead of the release of Sony's newest video game console. In addition to being a platform for video games, PS3 is a high-definition DVD player.
The PS3, which retails for $500 or $600, depending on how large its hard drive is, went on sale Friday morning. Some stores held special midnight sales.

Update: from the folks who brought us the classic SmashMyiPod.com comes the following video on YouTube, via SmashMyPS3.com:

Quite refreshing to see people taking their PS3 agression out on an actual unit rather than someone's face.

Posted by Will at 02:41 PM

November 13, 2006

Palos Blancos representin'

A few weeks ago I submitted a handful of photos from this past summer in Honduras to the International Photo Competition sponsored by the International Affairs at USF. The photo below won a grand prize and is supposed to be enlarged and displayed in that office for the next year. It was taken at the site I excavated in northwest Honduars, Palos Blancos, and features a bunch of the local kids who hung out with us on a regular basis as well as one of the field school students sifting some dirt. I found that the kids were really good at spotting artifacts before any of us Gringos.

Update: Click here to see the announcement of the 2006 winners. I ended up winning "Best USF Study Abroad Photograph."


Posted by Will at 04:47 PM

November 12, 2006

I've been touched by His noodly appendage!

Via Brian Flemming comes a link to this miraculous video from Germany of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I didn't think it was real. This is a glorious day...I am a Pastafarian.

Click here if you're still confused.

Posted by Will at 09:12 PM

November 10, 2006

Surveying at Crystal River

I was up in Crystal River again this morning at the beautiful Indian mound complex to do some survey/mapping work with some colleagues. Also got to see the long-range 3D laser scanning technology as well as mobile GPS in use, although unforunately I don't have photos of either of those (I'll be using mobile GIS for my thesis research next summer in Honduras). I did however upload some photos of us using the Total Station survey equipment. Boring to all except archaeology nerds and highway surveyors. Click here for the album.

crystal_river 019

crystal_river 006

Posted by Will at 05:38 PM

November 08, 2006

Four Stone Hearth Ed. 2

The second installment of the Four Stone Hearth anthropology blog carnival is up at Afarensis. Check it out, there's some good reading. Reminder, the carnival pulls into town here on December 20th.

Posted by Will at 09:14 PM

My letter in the St. Petersburg Times

After some back-and-forth with the Hernando editors of the St. Pete Times my letter was published today, the day after the election with the blaring frontpage headline "Crist Crusies." Anyway, I'll give a little bit of background on the story that prompted my letter and then let my comments speak for themselves.

On November 1 the Times published a story about comments made by Mary Ann Hogan, the wife of Henando commissioner Tom Hogan, Sr. Essentially, she was upset that public funds were used help a mosque celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid-al-Fitr at a county park. You can read the whole news story here.

To summarize, here are the relevant passages from the story, comments that Mrs. Hogan and her husband made that upset so many people:

“Overall, worldwide, it certainly is,” said Commissioner Tom Hogan Sr. “Don’t you read your own paper?” He went on to say, “There’s a saying out there, and there’s some truth to it, that not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims. It’s their thing.”
“They can call it whatever they want to,” Mary Ann Hogan responded Tuesday. “I’m calling them barbarians. ”
“Don’t the administrators of this county know that in honor of Ramadan the Muslims in Iraq have killed an even greater number of our soldiers and Marines than in the preceding months?” she wrote.
“The stated goal of the Muslim faith is to kill us, the 'infidels.’ By providing county employees for their use Hernando County is sanctioning this hateful, frightening religion.”
“Illegal is bad enough,” she wrote, “but helping to promote the Muslim religion is immoral and un-American.”
Mary Ann Hogan responded in a telephone interview Tuesday morning. “Even if they have gotten citizenship, they are not true Americans in my opinion. They all want to kill us,” she said.
She said political correctness keeps many from speaking out. “These people are trying to kill us. They want to kill us. Why can’t you understand that? They say that. It’s written in their bible,” she said.
She said moderate Muslims haven’t done enough to condemn and stop terrorists. “I don’t want to sound like a raving maniac, but I think some raving is in order,” she said.

First of all, one thing that I don't agree with is that all Muslims are terrorists. This clearly isn't the case. Also, I disagree with bringing in the whole "un-American" rhetoric that conservatives love to throw around. The War on Terror and the problem of religious fanaticism transcends anything having to do with being American, un-American, Iraqi, Middle Eastern, Arab, whatever. It has to do with dogmatically adhereing to the principles of Islam as presented in the Koran.

Here is the full text of my letter as it appeared on TampaBay.com (the newspaper's website) and in today's Hernando County edition of the St. Petersburg Times.

Faith is a motive for terrorism
I am saddened, but not surprised, that Mary Ann Hogan’s comments about the Islamic faith have left the Hernando community “aghast” and resulted in calls for the resignation of her husband, Commissioner Tom Hogan Sr. While indeed inflammatory to moderate Muslims and Christians, they have not said anything that is inconsistent with Islam as it is presented in the Koran.
We live in a society that happily picks and chooses our Christian or Muslim values, ignoring or downplaying the hatred, judgment and violence that permeate the holy books of these two religions. Although I depart from Tom Hogan in his statement that “all terrorists are Muslims,” I challenge the offended segment of the Hernando community to find an alternative motive for major terrorist attacks against America. Overwhelmingly, the base motive is religion, and until we as a society recognize this and are willing to criticize the irrationality of faith, we will continue to validate fundamentalism throughout the world.
- William Klinger, Tampa

Click here to view a PDF scan of the front page and my letter.

Posted by Will at 02:12 PM

November 05, 2006

Holy Caves of India

Today from the New York Times:


In the Holy Caves of India

It would have been hot, as it always seems to be in this eastern part of the Indian state of Maharashtra. The land ahead of him would have been much as it is today — fairly flat, dusty, yellow, featureless, tricked out with thick scrub and forests of mimosa and tamarind trees. He was a soldier, and his fellow officers would have been behind him, keeping as quiet as they could and well downwind of their prey, a thus far unseen tiger.
Then there was a gap in the scrub, the land fell away, and down, down, well below the eyeline, there lay, unexpected, a winding and noisily rushing river. Beyond it, filling his view, rose a cliff that was marked indelibly and incredibly with a horizontal tidemark of large and oddly shaped apertures, caves, perhaps, carved by water or winds. Or on second sight maybe not, since the openings seemed more like doorways, doorways carved and fretworked into the cliff-face stone.
He must have been amazed.

There's an excellent audio slideshow that goes along with the story too.

Posted by Will at 11:50 AM

November 03, 2006

Long live Dennett

dennett.jpgVia Ron of the God is for Suckers blog comes a link to a piece written today by Daniel C. Dennett, Tufts University philosopher and author of the fantastic Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Two weeks ago he was rushed to the hospital with a "dissection of the aorta", which is a bad thing. He was practially dead while doctors operated on him thanks to the miracle of...science. He's recovering now and amazingly provided his fanatics with a wonderful account of his near-death experience and recovery. So who does an atheist philosopher thank instead of God? Goodness. Everyone should read Dennett's piece...it's moving in its clarity and inspiration. Here's an exceprt:

The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come. Goodness comes in many forms, not just medicine and science. Thank goodness for the music of, say, Randy Newman, which could not exist without all those wonderful pianos and recording studios, to say nothing of the musical contributions of every great composer from Bach through Wagner to Scott Joplin and the Beatles. Thank goodness for fresh drinking water in the tap, and food on our table. Thank goodness for fair elections and truthful journalism. If you want to express your gratitude to goodness, you can plant a tree, feed an orphan, buy books for schoolgirls in the Islamic world, or contribute in thousands of other ways to the manifest improvement of life on this planet now and in the near future.

Thanks goodness, indeed. Speedy recovery, Mr. Dennett.

Posted by Will at 11:23 PM

November 01, 2006

My Letter to the Editor

This morning I e-mailed a letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times in response to this news story that was published today. I just got a call from the editor and it's supposed to be published in Friday's Times (largest paper in Florida, 24th largest in the country). Anyone who reads my blog on a regular basis can guess the gist of my letter, but I'll post a scan when it's published.

Posted by Will at 04:07 PM