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December 29, 2006

"How then is conversation between us possible?"

As 2006 comes to a close, I can only hope that we survive 12 more months as a society. I'm not a pessimist, however, because I believe in dialogue, like Elie Wiesel (see below). Upon entering 2007 I am optimistic that America and other parts of the world will experience the beginnings of what may one day be progress. The key is talking and keeping open lines of communication between all sides of whatever the issue is, whether it be as contentious as religion and politics or as infinitely critical as America's Middle East policies. It is even more important to recognize one's own ignorance; to admit proudly when you don't know something. It's ironically rewarding to proclaim, without a hint of timidity, "I don't know" when debating religion, politics, or science. It gives pause to your debate opponent because the dogmatic nature of opinion forming in American society is so pervasive that people are often bewildered that you so readily admit you don't something that they think you should. Accordingly, my New Year's resolution is to embrace my ignorance and strive to eliminate it as much as possible, constantly reminding myself that there will always be someone out there smarter than I am. Almost invariably, dogmatism breeds arrogance and this is no more true than with the current debate in America about the intersection between religion, politics, and culture.

The Washington Post and Newsweek have teamed up to assemble a rather impressive panel of observers and critics to discuss the current "state of religion", if you will, in American politics, culture, and society. The series is called "On Faith" and every week the two moderators ask post a question, elicit responses from a rather impressive panel, and open the topic to discussion. There are perspectives from all sides of the debate. The panel list reads partly like a who's who of my favorite authors: Sam Harris, Susan Jacoby, Karen Armstrong, and Daniel Dennett are among the panelists and provide a voice of reason. Richard Dawkins is listed but doesn't seem to have posted a response yet. There are scholars, musicians, politicians, and writers. The questions are thought-provoking and the answers equally so. The website is a good way to explore the current debates on religion in America and the rest of the world so you can form your own opinion. To give you a sample, I quote a few of my favorite responses below:

Karen Armstrong on how no one can have the last word on God:

karen_armstrong.jpgThe reality that we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or the sacred is transcendent. That is, it goes beyond our mundane experience. Nobody can have the last word on God. That should be the principle that underlies religious dialogue. Throughout history, Jews, Christians and Muslims have all insisted that the ideas we have about the divine can never measure up to the reality itself. The Greek Orthodox believed that every statement about the divine should have two qualities. It should be paradoxical, reminding us that the idea of God cannot fit neatly into a human system of thought; and it should be apophatic ~ it should reduce us to silence, in the same way as a great poem or piece of music. Sometimes at the end of a symphony, there is a beat of silence in the concert hall before applause starts. That is what every theological statement should do. In the modern West, we have lost sight of this apophatic vision, and imagine that our statements about God and the ultimate are accurate expressions of this transcendence, whereas in reality, they must point beyond the limitations of our human minds.

Daniel Dennett on a no-longer-silent minority:

daniel_c_dennett.jpgIn the meantime, can we public atheists have productive conversations with believers? Certainly. We can discuss every issue under the sun, and particularly the great questions of ethics and public policy, respecting each other as citizens with honest disagreements about fundamental matters that can be subjected to reasonable, open inquiry and mutual persuasion. As I said in my first posting to On Faith, we all need to agree to live by the principles of rational discourse. That, and common courtesy, is the only rule we need–-just as in science.

Susan Jacoby on America as a "Christian nation":

susan_jacoby.jpgOne of the most repellent examples of this kind of thinking appears in Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion in one of the so-called "Ten Commandments" cases. The Court was wrong to order the removal of Ten Commandments plaques from courthouses, Scalia wrote, because the nation's historical practices clearly indicate that the Constitution permits "disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists."
That is precisely what the Constitution does not allow. It has nothing to say about God, gods, or any form of belief or nonbelief--apart from its prohibition, in Article 6, against any religious test for public office, and the First Amendment's declaration that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
If the founders had wanted to establish a "Christian nation"--as opposed to a nation in which everyone possessed the freedom to believe or not to believe in any type of religion--they would have ended the First Amendment with "free exercise thereof--as long as the faithful worship one Christian God."

Sam Harris on dialogue:

sam_harris.jpgAs to whether atheists and believers can have “a productive conversation,” I am quite sure that the answer is “yes.” But I am uncertain whether this conversation can bear fruit quickly enough to keep civilization from becoming fully engorged by Iron Age stupidity and horror. Our capacity for self-destruction is now spreading with 21st century efficiency, and yet our beliefs about how we should pass our days and nights on this earth still spring from ancient literature. This marriage of modern technology and preliterate superstition is a bad one, for reasons that I should not have to specify, much less argue for—and yet, arguing for them has taken up most of my time since September 11th, 2001, the day that nineteen pious men showed our pious nation just how beneficial religious certainty can be.

And finally, from Elie Wiesel (a Holocaust survivor and author of "Night"), an eloquently brief post that almost completely encapsulates the debate between faith and reason. This is destined to become my favorite quote in a long time:

elie_wiesel.jpgThe fanatic does not believe in dialogue; I do. How then is conversation between us possible?

Posted by Will at 12:42 PM

December 28, 2006

Test your "brain sex"

I took the Sex I.D. Test on the BBC website and discovered that I have a brain more like a woman than a man. Needless to say, I take the results as a compliment. It takes about 20 minutes, and as PZ points out one shouldn't put too much stock into the results because of normal human variation. Regardless, I'm sure I'll score some points by telling my girlfriend the news...


Posted by Will at 06:07 PM

December 24, 2006

Happy Holidays from Nomadic Thoughts!

As is the tradition, here is the second annual Nomadic Thoughts "War on Christmas" card. Haven't heard too much from O'Reilly and Gibson this year, so I suppose they won the war after all. Best wishes whatever you celebrate (or don't)!


Posted by Will at 10:54 PM

December 20, 2006

Four Stone Hearth, No. 5

Welcome to the newest installment of the anthropology blog carnival, The Four Stone Hearth. The submissions this time are quite good, so let's get right to it:

Cheers to Carl at Hot Cup of Joe (Dallas/Ft. Worth, United States), who writes about GPS use in archaeological field work. I'll be using Mobile GIS technology (which utilizes GPS) in my own research next season in Honduras, so I found this post particularly interesting. He first summarizes a few features of GPS and how it can be used in archaeology, like for site discovery and remote sensing. Then Carl describes a few projects that highlight the benefits and limitations of GPS and offers some insight about the future of the technology:

The future of GPS in archaeological applications will certainly include data collection, particularly as equipment becomes readily available to excavation teams. The ease of use, increased rate of data collection, the quality of data, and the ability for a single surveyor to collect data will be appealing to archaeologists seeking to maximize their time. In addition, the ability to transfer data from the GPS to a laptop in the field for processing and rendering to a map further simplify the survey process and, perhaps, eliminate errors in calculation that can occur with optical methods.

A blogger after my own heart, Tim at Remote Central (London, England) highlights the almost always problematic relationship between religion and science. He describes a recent story involving leaders of the Pentecostal Church in Kenya and how they are trying to curb the teaching of evolution in classrooms by way of actually criticizing fossil evidence for human evolution. Tim provides extensive analysis of the situation and thoughtful comments, concluding that

...the light of spiritual enlightenment coupled with its scientific equivalent, should have combined to produce something that was even brighter - instead, the result so far has been sonic in aspect, a deafening cacophony of bitter accusation and recrimination, fueled by the deep resentments of two mighty adversaries engaged in a fight to the death, as they bid to gain control of a world, its opinions and ultimately its very soul.

Next up is Martin (Stockholm, Sweden), who writes at Salto Sobrius about, I am not kidding, Tolkien and Archaeology. Unfortunately, the world of Middle Earth doesn't agree with the archaeologist in Martin:

Actually, my studies of archaeology and neighboring subjects have somewhat diminished my enjoyment of Tolkien. They have made the flaws, joints and white spots in his work apparent like they never were to me as a child. Middle-earth doesn't really work when seen from anthropological and economic viewpoints. And Tolkien's world-building makes heavy use of models and interpretations of real-world history that are no longer accepted by scholars. But still he's one of my great favourites.

I found this post infinitely fascinating because I just fishing reading Tilley's A Phenomenology of Landscape, which is essentially a postprocessual treatment of Wales' and England's ancient landscape. Tilley argues that the relative location of megaliths and natural land features tell a story about how the ancient Mesolithic and Neolithic peoples viewed their world. Martin notes how the ancient monuments of Middle Earth contribute to the "landscape" of the book itself. Very interesting read.

Switching gears, Yann is back (Albuquerque, United States), talking about group competition and human cooperation. He's prompted by a recent Science article to explore the evolutionary bases for altruism and cooperation among humans. I'm glad he posted this because I read the article myself and had trouble digesting it, so it's helpful to read a different take on the issue. According to Yann,

...using the Price Equation for the evolution of altruism which takes into account the balance of a within-deme and between deme effect, and some estimates of group competition and within-group relatedness among modern hunter-gatherers, S. Bowles argues that with group competition and group relatedness being high enough (and he provides evidence that it may indeed have been) and with reproductive leveling due to monogamy (thereby reducing the amount of inter-group competition), human large scale cooperation can flourish.

Finally, but certainly not least, is Scott from Bipedal Locomotion writing about progressive evolution. He gives a great overview of the concept and offers a bit of his own perspective. I found this post easy to read and informative, so definitely check this one out. He concludes with a point that I think is completely missed by many people who claim to have an informed opinion about evolution, especially in the United States:

So, the take home message is essentially that biologic evolution is a series of processes continually acting on organisms, producing new morphologies, genotypes, and species. There is no single, inexorable direction that these processes take. Evolution is contingent on random, chance events, and our own existence, rather than an inevitability, may simply represent only one of numerous possible evolutionary outcomes.

Well, that's it for the fifth installment of the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival. I had a great time reading all of the submissions and have since added a couple of blogs to my list. There really are some great writers out there and I can't wait to read more from them. Hope everyone has a nice holiday. Cheers!

Posted by Will at 12:51 PM | Comments (2)

December 15, 2006

Four Stone Hearth coming to Nomadic Thoughts

Just a reminder than the 5th edition of the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival will be hosted here on December 20th. If you have any posts you would like to submit, e-mail a link and short description to submit@fourstonehearth.net!

Posted by Will at 10:05 AM

December 14, 2006

Seriously, car accidents?

Via Yahoo! comes a story only a yahoo could take seriously:

So, what's your sign? You crash here often?
TORONTO, Dec 13 (Reuters Life!) - Never mind how careful you are behind the wheel or how long you've been driving, the signs of the zodiac may be bigger factors behind your ability to avoid car crashes -- or why you have too many.

While I've never taken astrology seriously, I've never been more proud to be a Libra:

The study, which looked at 100,000 North American drivers' records from the past six years, puts Libras (born September 23-October 22) followed by Aquarians (January 20-February 18) as the worst offenders for tickets and accidents.

Posted by Will at 11:01 PM

Getting started is the hardest part

Here is a screenshot of what I've been staring at for the past half hour, trying to formulate a preliminary thesis proposal. I think I watched the cursor blink about 1,000 times before I snapped to. A journey of a thousand miles really does begin with a single step, if you can ever figure out in what direction that step should be.


Posted by Will at 10:55 PM

December 12, 2006

Top Tens from National Geographic

Check out the Top Ten Stories and Top Ten Videos of 2006 from National Geographic News.

Posted by Will at 02:01 PM

December 10, 2006

Go fish

I was treated to an incredible fishing trip with my buddy down at his parents' home in Boca Grande, FL this weekend, a well deserved end to a long semester. Not being a huge fisherman myself, I ended up catching the biggest fish of my career. I am now the sheepshead's worst enemy.

boca_grande 029.jpg

Posted by Will at 12:58 PM

December 07, 2006

More mappy goodness from the Earth Institute

The Earth Institute at Colombia University has compiled a bunch of 2000 census data into several maps of the United States that reveal patterns in things like education, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. The most interesting (to me at least) is the map that shows percentage of people 25+ with a BA degree. You can clearly see concentrations around cities with major university, such as the Triangle region of North Carolina (home to U. of NC, NC State U., Duke U.). If you look close enough, there's even a little splotch over Wilmington in southeast North Carolina, where I got my BA degree.


It is also very interesting to look at different maps and see how certain areas overlap depending on the thing being measured. For example, look at the maps of American Indian individuals and then percentage of people living below the poverty level (notice the Four Corner region in particular).


Previously on Nomadic Thoughts: Poverty Maps

Posted by Will at 11:12 AM

Four Stone Hearth #4

The Four Stone Hearth, the latest and greatest in anthropology blogging, is over at Yann Kilmentidis' Weblog. I submitted my post about the Steven Johnson piece in the New York Times. Also, Nomadic Thoughts is up next on December 20 so stay tuned for info about submitting posts.

Posted by Will at 12:17 AM

December 06, 2006

Bruce Trigger, 1937-2006

McGill has the offical news release posted:

Bruce Trigger, 1937-2006
December 2, 2006
Bruce Trigger, renowned archaeologist, author and McGill professor, died Friday, Dec. 1, in Montreal, after a year-long battle with cancer. He was 69. Prof. Trigger's career in McGill's department of anthropology spanned more than four decades, during which he published more than 20 books, including A History of Archaeological Thought, which became required reading in the discipline.
Prof. Trigger, whose exhaustive exploration of the origins of the Hurons earned him an honorary membership in the Huron-Wendat Nation, was considered an authority on aboriginal cultures in northeastern North America. He was respected internationally as a scholar of early civilizations and revered by students as a man whose enthusiasm for archaeology made him an ambassador for his chosen field. His death came just two months after the October release of The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger, in which 22 scholars paid tribute to Prof. Trigger's influence on generations of archaeologists. At the launch of the book, Prof. Trigger said, "This last year has been one of the happiest of my life. First of all, I've been able to spend time with my wife and family, which is always very pleasant. In June, I was made Professor Emeritus and now this book, The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger, is evidence in print of my colleagues' appreciation."
Prof. Trigger was an officer of the Order of Canada and the Ordre national du Québec, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1991, he won the Quebec government's Prix Léon-Gérin. He is survived by his wife of 38 years, Barbara, two daughters, Isabel and Rosalyn, and grandchildren David and Madeleine.

Posted by Will at 05:11 PM

National Geographic "excavates" file footage amid Apocalypto hype

I hate to sound like the typical arrogant archaeologist but I feel the hype surrounding this Friday's release of Apocalypto is going to get old pretty fast. National Geographic has some "archival footage" of Apocalypto's resident archaeologist Richard Hansen excvating a tomb at the "lost city" of El Mirador. Note the spotless white shirt and pants of Hansen in the video, even though he is "searching for the tomb of King Great Fiery Jaguar Paw—perhaps the namesake of Apocalypto's hero, a commoner called simply Jaguar Paw." Hell, I was just looking for a few pot sherds this past summer in Honduras and I still have dirt in my ears.

Posted by Will at 04:53 PM

December 05, 2006

The Sandhill Crane of Florida: 4-foot-tall beauty

crane2.jpgOne of the more exciting aspects of living in Florida is the wildlife (indeed, one of the only things I like about the state). My apartment overlooks a small lake and when I look out of my back porch I get to see all kinds of cool stuff, including an alligator that lives nearby. One beautiful bird, the Sandhill Crane (scientific name Grus canadensis), has been making an occasional appearance on the banks of the lake out back and most recently right next to my car in the front parking lot. Apparently these guys (and girls, I presume) are harmless unless provoked, but even then they seem pretty docile, just walking along minding their own business as if being a 4-foot-tall bird with an attractive red head was no big deal. I have yet to capture them on film myself, but will try next time they're hanging around.

Well, someone has to go and try to ruin one of the few redeeming aspects of the Tampa Bay area and cut off the legs of these magnificent creatures for a reason only fathomable to the moron who cut them off. The St. Pete Times is reporting that Sandhill Cranes are being tortured in a Pasco County subdivision. Incidents have occurred elsewhere. As if it wasn't bad enough that we are encroaching on their habitat, someone has to rub it in their faces. It's akin to someone busting down your door, drinking all your beer, and then punching you in the nuts just for the heck of it. I promise you although Florida is one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse states in the country it is home to one species that I wouldn't mind seeing going extinct, Gigantus idiotsis (common name: big idiot).



More about the Sandhill Cranes from Houghton Mifflin and Wikipedia.
Nature photos from birdsphoto.com.

Posted by Will at 12:40 AM

December 04, 2006

New buzz about "Apocalypto": excellent movie, but an Oscar?


Mel's new movie opens this Friday, and speculation about whether or not it will be considered for an Academy Award. From the New York Times:

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 4 — With some early reviews lauding the audacity and innovation of Mel Gibson’s bloody Mayan epic, “Apocalypto,” Hollywood’s tight-knit community of Oscar voters may find itself facing a difficult dilemma in the coming weeks: Will they consider the film for an Academy Award?

Early informal reviews are also starting to trickle in:

“Apocalypto,” which will open on 2,500 screens across the country on Friday, is as different from a typical Hollywood film as Mr. Gibson’s last one: it features unrelenting, savage violence, is told in an obscure Mayan language and uses many nonprofessional actors with a primitive look born far from Hollywood.
Most critics (including this newspaper’s) have yet to weigh in on “Apocalypto,” but the excitement of those who have — like that among journalists who lingered to debate the film after a screening ended in Los Angeles last week — has been palpable.
“ ‘Apocalypto’ is a remarkable film,” Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety. “The picture provides a trip to a place one’s never been before, offering hitherto unseen sights of exceptional vividness and power.”
“Gibson has made a film of blunt provocation and bruising beauty,” Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone. “Say what you will about Gibson, he’s a filmmaker right down to his nerve endings.”
Other reviewers allowed themselves to psychoanalyze Mr. Gibson even as they praised the film. In a mixed review in The Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt observed that Mr. Gibson “knows how to make a heart-pounding movie; he just happens to be a cinematic sadist.”

And I have to share this absolutely beautiful photograph that accompanied the NYTimes piece of actor Fernando Hernandez (excuse me while I mop up the drool):


Posted by Will at 09:38 PM | Comments (1)

December 01, 2006

World's oldest ritual discovered

Pretty crazy/exciting stuff:

A startling archaeological discovery this summer changes our understanding of human history. While, up until now, scholars have largely held that man’s first rituals were carried out over 40, 000 years ago in Europe, it now appears that they were wrong about both the time and place.
Associate Professor Sheila Coulson, from the University of Oslo, can now show that modern humans, Homo sapiens, have performed advanced rituals in Africa for 70,000 years. She has, in other words, discovered mankind’s oldest known ritual.
The archaeologist made the surprising discovery while she was studying the origin of the Sanpeople. A group of the San live in the sparsely inhabited area of north-western Botswana known as Ngamiland.
"Stone age people took these colourful spearheads, brought them to the cave, and finished carving them there. Only the red spearheads were burned. It was a ritual destruction of artifacts. There was no sign of normal habitation. No ordinary tools were found at the site. Our find means that humans were more organised and had the capacity for abstract thinking at a much earlier point in history than we have previously assumed. All of the indications suggest that Tsodilo has been known to mankind for almost 100,000 years as a very special place in the pre-historic landscape.” says Sheila Coulson.

Full news release from EurekAlert.
More from LiveScience.
Also, my pal Kambiz from Anthropology.net got a leg up on the news and has some additional comments.

Posted by Will at 07:38 PM

R.I.P. Bruce Trigger

One of archaeology's greats has passed, Bruce Trigger at the age of 69. Still early news and no official announcement yet from McGill University in Canada, but stay tuned to Anthropology.net where I first found out.

Bruce Graham Trigger
June 18, 1937-December 1, 2006

Posted by Will at 05:52 PM

Sam Harris Christmas ad campaign

I received an e-mail from Sam Harris today shamelessly promoting his latest book: the fantastic, timeless, classic Letter to a Christian Nation. Spread the word of reason with the following cleverly designed flier (larger version for printing available on Sam's website):


Posted by Will at 02:51 PM