Fund your project via the web


Money Shot. Photo (cc) Jessica Smith

I saw an inter­est­ing fund­ing oppor­tun­ity on ReadWriteWeb and, because it’s only open to Americans, I thought to share it. Kickstarter​.com looks like it could be use­ful for fund­ing small-scale aca­demic projects.

The idea is simple enough, you look through the vari­ous pro­jects on the web­site and if you see an idea you like you pledge some money to it. If a pro­ject raises all the money it needs in pledges before a dead­line then credit cards are charges and the pro­ject gets the money. If the pro­ject doesn’t get enough money the pledges lapse. The pro­ject gets noth­ing, but this also means there’s no oblig­a­tion to ful­fil tar­gets on a cut budget.

You’re prob­ably not going to fund a large or even medium-sized Hadron col­lider with this, but for sub-$5000 pro­jects, it might be a pos­sib­il­ity. It strikes me as a good match for some archae­olo­gical work. The dif­fi­culty is work­ing out what you can give back. Ideally you’d want to pub­lish all your find­ings, so it’s hard to jus­tify keep­ing back use­ful inform­a­tion for back­ers only. You could give pri­or­ity to back­ers like subscriber-only updates live from the field. The dif­fi­culty I fore­see with this is that it then means on top of work, you’ll want to spend a couple of hours each day pro­du­cing the updates. If you’re some­where where updat­ing from the field is dif­fi­cult, like the Sahara, then it’s harder to work this model. Tweets from a private account won’t be much of bonus if the back­ers can’t inter­act with the fieldworker(s).

On the other hand if you have a known budget with a known num­ber of back­ers then you can budget to include pro­du­cing premium con­tent. So say­ing that any­one that pledges over $X get a limited-edition hard­back edi­tion of the report is feas­ible – or at least it would be if Lulu’s cost cal­cu­lator had been work­ing when I wrote this. On the down­side $20 from a $50 pledge would be lost pro­du­cing the con­tent, but that’s still a net gain of $30. Giving some­thing back to the back­ers seems pretty essen­tial as they’ll be the obvi­ous mar­ket for your next project.

At the moment the site is lim­ited to American pro­jects because the sys­tem works through Amazon pay­ments. If it’s suc­cess­ful then it’ll either expand or else a big­ger start-up with open a globally-accessible com­pet­itor. Either way if the bal­ance between premium con­tent and open-access can be found, then it could be an altern­at­ive source of fund­ing, for pro­jects with pop­u­lar appeal.

I’m now giv­ing ser­i­ous thought to fund­ing future pro­jects of my own. Because I tend to stick to basic sur­vey, my own costs tend to be travel and car hire. One idea I’m con­sid­er­ing is com­mer­cial spon­sor­ship. If a non­sense sur­vey can earn someone £500 for simply attach­ing a name, then pro­du­cing a news-worthy story should be worth a few thou­sand to the right spon­sor. That means prov­ing news-worthiness. I’ll be look­ing hard at pub­li­city for my next paper as I got it badly wrong last time. If I learn from that I’ll take a rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent approach.

Religious Accommodation is a Political Issue

Mooney and Kirshenbaum wordled

Mooney and Kirshenbaum wordled

I’ve been sat on this post for a couple of weeks. One reason for not put­ting it up is I’ve been busy and this post might annoy a few people. Kicking off a dis­cus­sion and then ignor­ing it is impol­ite, so it has had to wait. Another reason is that it’s another post on whether (and how) aca­dem­ics should accom­mod­ate reli­gious beliefs. There’s been a lot of posts on this else­where because of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s invective-sodden pub­li­city howl for their book Unscientific America. Mooney and Kirshenbaum believe that people should show respect for reli­gious beliefs, and any athe­ist who dis­agrees is engaged in acts of viol­ence. There’s a rich vein of irony to be found in the head­line of their recent LA Times piece. You may won­der if they’re on a cru­sade for respect for a spe­cific reli­gious tra­di­tion rather than all of them. There’s many people who’ve writ­ten many posts about flaws in Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s reas­on­ing. Many of them are good, but I’m not inter­ested in simply adding a ‘me too’. At best it’s bor­ing. At worst its cow­ardly mob-following — and boring.

Still it’s pos­sible there could be some­thing to debate. By nature I prefer to work with people than against them. I’d like to say it’s because I’m such a nice per­son but I’m prob­ably con­fus­ing lazi­ness with nice­ness. Life is easier if you don’t have to work against people. If accom­mod­a­tion of reli­gious beliefs works then that’s so much less work to do. So what would an acco­mod­a­tion­ist stance look like?

An answer can be found in a book chapter by Kyle S. Van Houtan and Stuart L. Pimm: “The Various Christian Ethics of Species Conservation”. It’s a dis­cus­sion of an attempt to use theo­logy to under­stand some of the more reality-proof Christian groups in an attempt to change policy on con­ser­va­tion. If you’re expect­ing a laugh-a-minute decon­struc­tion of the paper then you’re in for a dis­ap­point­ment. It opens with a quote from William Placher which argues mor­al­ity has very little to do with reli­gion. Whether or not you agree with them Van Houtan and Pimm are clearly on speak­ing terms with reality,

The prob­lem addressed by Van Houtan and Pimm is the res­ist­ance to envir­on­mental cam­paigns by fun­da­ment­al­ists. Fundamentalists identify one of the evils of sci­ence in gen­eral is the lack of a moral imper­at­ive. Whether or not you’d describe Christian fun­da­ment­al­ists as moral is irrel­ev­ant here. Their per­cep­tion of sci­ence is that it is, at best, a moral vacuum. This con­trasts with eco­lo­gists who see their work as hav­ing a strong moral base. The first dif­fi­culty iden­ti­fied by Van Houtan and Pimm is lan­guage. If you’re in a nar­row mind­set where only Christianity is moral then iden­ti­fi­ably unchris­tian lan­guage is clearly used to describe immoral activ­ity. It’s a small step from Evolution, which is obvi­ously the work of the Devil, to Ecology. This puts Ecology firmly on the side of the apes. If you believe in angels this is a dealbreaker.

…[E]thics in non­theo­lo­gical lan­guage will be worse than unat­tract­ive to Christians—such eth­ics will be inco­her­ent. Theological lan­guage is what gives Christian eth­ics intel­li­gib­il­ity. As a res­ult, cas­u­ally using “nature” or “biod­iversity” in place of “cre­ation” is incred­ibly sig­ni­fic­ant when con­sid­er­ing Christian envir­on­mental ethics.

Van Houtan and Pimm p119

This is clearly dead centre in Mooney and Kirshenbaum ter­rit­ory. We have a sci­en­tific­ally illit­er­ate audi­ence. We have a crisis for which there is clear sci­entific evid­ence; Van Houtan and Pimm would like to save up to a third of the planet’s spe­cies from extinc­tion in the next cen­tury. We also have lan­guage iden­ti­fied as a major factor in pre­vent­ing action. It would seem that sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion is urgently needed, but to whom? After a brief sur­vey which shows that the planet’s eco­sys­tem def­in­itely is in danger. Van Houtan and Pimm move on to tack­ling the Christians. They are clear that Christians are plural.

This is one of my bug­bears. It’s cer­tainly easy to rail against stu­pid Christians, but stu­pid­ity is not a require­ment for many Christian sects. The idea that Christians are mor­ons is not just a case of lazy fram­ing by non-Christians. It’s a polit­ical gam­bit by fun­da­ment­al­ists too. If I’m head evan­gel­ist for the Church of Christian Lunacy then I won’t cam­paign against the teach­ing of sci­ence because it’s Lunatic policy. I’ll say that the cam­paign against sci­ence is a Christian mat­ter. This is a subtle attempt to pull Catholics and Protestants into the fight on my side because there’s the implic­a­tion that if you don’t accept this Lunatic idea, you’re not really a Christian. It works because, as Van Houtan and Pimm make clear, there isn’t really lead­er­ship from the Churches on eco­logy. There are many dif­fer­ent pos­i­tions. To make things easier Van Houtan and Pimm neatly con­struct a four-fold typo­logy of eco­lo­gical positions.

  • Earthkeepers. These are the people who see stew­ard­ship of the planet as an imper­at­ive, based on their read­ing of the bible.
  • Skeptics. These people see no con­ser­va­tion crisis. This would include the Southern Baptist Church and Focus on Family. These are the people who see Ecology as junk science.
  • Prioritisers. These people do not value eco­lo­gical mat­ters as much as other con­cerns. For instance con­ser­va­tion is a good thing accord­ing to the Assemblies of God, but you don’t want to really push it too much, else you’ll end up with New Age Earth worshipping.
  • The Indifferent. The people who take no position.
Van Houtan and Pimm p129-131

This recog­ni­tion of the diversity of Christian pos­i­tions mat­ters if you’re look­ing for a pos­it­ive action:

Experience teaches that, when par­ti­cipants in two dif­fer­ent fields of know­ledge meet, they will have sym­met­rical views. For example, when eco­nom­ists meet eco­lo­gists, the former have a detailed draw­ing of the eco­nomy and a single, simple box for “eco­logy,” whereas eco­lo­gists have a detailed draw­ing of envir­on­mental pro­cesses and a single, simple box for “the eco­nomy.” This seems the case for reli­gion and the envir­on­ment. Those con­cerned with the prac­tical issues of pro­tect­ing the envir­on­ment are likely to see the mul­ti­fa­ceted prob­lems of their trade, but view reli­gion, eth­ics, and the church as single and mono­lithic. The reverse is also common.

Van Houtan and Pimm p131

This is a use­ful insight. Again I think it could sup­port the Mooney-Kirshenbaum pro­pos­i­tion that pub­lic Atheism harms Scientific com­mu­nic­a­tion because, if people like Richard Dawkins are the most prom­in­ent sci­ent­ists, the obvi­ous label on the Science box is ‘god­less’. We there­fore have a start­ing pos­i­tion for rebuild­ing sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion. What do Van Houtan and Pimm give use as tools for work­ing on that? I’ll dis­cuss this in full below.

Now I’ve dis­cussed that, the next obvi­ous ques­tion is why do Van Houtan and Pimm say so little about sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion given they’re talk­ing about eco­logy? The reason is that they’re aware of the audi­ence they’re talk­ing to. The issue, even for those who’d style them­selves as sci­entific scep­tics, is not sci­ence. It’s reli­gion and polit­ics. They really go to town on this dis­cuss­ing the links between right-wing polit­ical groups and the nut­tier Christian fac­tions. They cri­ti­cise the Cornwall Declaration and its reli­ance on tech­no­lo­gical fixes to vari­ous inconveniences:

Overexploitation is not a con­cern because the abil­ity to extract nat­ural resources increases with tech­no­lo­gical advances. One assumes that even biod­iversity loss can be mit­ig­ated through bio­tech­no­logy. If spe­cies drift close to extinc­tion, surely their pop­u­la­tions can be bolstered through Jurassic Park–like efforts… Are we to believe these argu­ments? More import­ant, is there a bib­lical cause to do so?

Van Houtan and Pimm p134 (My emphasis)

This makes sense within the frame where Van Houtan and Pimm are work­ing. As far as I’m con­cerned the defin­it­ive state­ment bib­lical state­ment on eco­logy is purely of his­tor­ical interest. The idea that I should care about it as a guide to mod­ern liv­ing makes my men­tal gears crunch. If I were a Christian like Pimm and – pre­sum­ably – Van Houtan, I would see things dif­fer­ently, as they make clear in their conclusion.

Certainly, there are paths of envir­on­mental eth­ics that are sec­u­lar, some of which are cer­tainly unfaith­ful to both the Hebrew and Christian por­tions of the Bible. For those of faith though the primary con­cern is not nature itself nor human­ity, but obed­i­ence to the scrip­tures. The remain­ing chal­lenge then, requires theo­lo­gians to teach the scrip­tures, eco­lo­gists to meas­ure the state of the envir­on­ment, and both to work in con­cert… We do not call for a bap­tiz­ing of sec­u­lar agendas—either lib­eral or conservative—but rather obed­i­ence to God’s word.

Van Houtan and Pimm p136-7

I think, as far as it tackles the prob­lem iden­ti­fied by Van Houtan and Pimm, their paper makes com­plete sense. This is about gal­van­ising mil­it­ant Christians and you don’t do that with sci­ence. It’s an approach brings eth­ical prob­lems of its own and a polit­ical cost. For example, Van Houtan and Pimm show the import­ance of the bib­lical char­ac­ter of the mes­sage in its deliv­ery — but who deliv­ers it? Could a young black woman deliver this mes­sage to a white pat­ri­archal church in Florida? That’s a par­tic­u­larly poin­ted ques­tion, but accom­mod­at­ing the prin­ciples of vari­ous churches means that you state argu­ments from per­sonal rev­el­a­tion or pre­ju­dice should replace argu­ments backed with evid­ence in pub­lic debate. Science is about evid­ence so while this approach might work polit­ic­ally by get­ting a res­ult, in the longer term it is anti­thet­ical to sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion. Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s policy of accom­mod­a­tion sinks.


It’s hard to be cer­tain because this example isn’t men­tioned in their book. This is a bit odd.

Stuart Pimm cer­tainly is men­tioned in Unscientific America. He’s thanked for his com­ments on the book. It’s pecu­liar that he didn’t think to men­tion that he’d been involved in the kind of reach­ing out to science-resistant people that Mooney and Kirshenbaum were after. It’s par­tic­u­larly odd because Pimm is a Professor of Ecology at Duke University. Sheril Kirshenbaum, I’m told, is a Marine Biologist at Duke University. I’m not sure what her mar­ine bio­lo­gical work there is, because the only men­tion of her research I found was a ref­er­ence to her Science of Kissing but it’s likely she would have come into con­tact with quite reg­u­larly Pimm as she’s lis­ted as being part of Pimm’s work­ing group.

One of the recur­ring cri­ti­cisms of Unscientific America is that it’s shal­low and super­fi­cial. I think the above is a case in point. I have some dif­fi­culties with Van Houtan and Pimm’s paper, I don’t think it tackles the polit­ical envir­on­ment of Christianity par­tic­u­larly well. As they men­tion, dis­cuss­ing the fund­ing of the far-right Christian groups, there are bit social and polit­ical factors behind this. I think there’s inter­play between reli­gious belief and polit­ical fund­ing. The impres­sion I get from Van Houtan and Pimm is closer to a Patron/Client rela­tion­ship. That’s not an entirely fair cri­ti­cism though. For a start it’s the old chest­nut “They didn’t write an entirely dif­fer­ent paper that I wanted them to write.” It’s also not the end of the con­ver­sa­tion. I think their ideas could be use­fully picked up and developed or applied to other con­texts. It lays out a pos­it­ive argu­ment which you can dis­cuss. Bruising their Religion, the com­par­able chapter in Unscientific America, in con­trast says much more about their per­sonal blog-warring than it does about reli­gion and sci­ence in the USA. Mooney and Kirshenbaum may, or may not, agree with Van Houtan and Pimm’s ana­lysis but it’s clearly a missed oppor­tun­ity that they didn’t think to men­tion it.

It’s also worth return­ing to the box. Not all Christians are stu­pid. Van Houtan and Pimm are very clear about that and talk about tak­ing their mes­sage to spe­cific Christian groups. They do not, as far as I read the chapter, argue that all the pub­lic should be treated like they’re in the remedial class. In the mean­time since I star­ted writ­ing this Mooney and Kirshenbaum have pub­lished an art­icle in the LA Times. Having pre­vi­ously cri­ti­cised Dawkins for being an athe­ist in the pub­lic sphere, they now cri­ti­cise him for being a sci­ent­ist in the pub­lic sphere. I know Christians who hate what Dawkins says, or at least what other people say Dawkins says. Nonetheless they have a keen interest in sci­ence and are per­fectly cap­able of cop­ing with Evolution and sci­ence in gen­eral without any pat­ron­ising allow­ances. Van Houtan and Pimm’s model has the soph­ist­ic­a­tion to leave room for them. I much prefer fol­low­ing a policy that states reli­gious people are not inher­ently more stu­pid than atheists.

Local Archaeology at the river Trent


A couple of years ago Martin Rundkvist pulled together a series of blog posts from around the world under the head­ing The Ever-Present Past: Your Nearest Site. My nearest site is prob­ably an air-raid shel­ter from the Second World War, but des­pite three trips I couldn’t find any vis­ible remains. If you live in the UK there’s a very good chance the closest archae­olo­gical remains will be some form of civil defence from the 1940s but — until large num­bers of the British are will­ing to accept the war is over — it’s going to be hard to per­suade people they’re heritage.

There were two sites I could find and I was equidistant from both of them, so I chose Derby Silk Mill. Not every­one has a World Heritage Site on their door­step. If I’d gone a couple of miles in the oppos­ite dir­ec­tion this would have been the site posted.

Swarkestone Bridge

Swarkestone Bridge

This is Swarkestone Bridge, the longest stone bridge in England. It crosses the river Trent and its flood­plain. There’s been a cross­ing here since at least the fourteenth-century, but the cur­rent bridge mainly dates from the Georgian period with most of it built at the end of the eighteenth-century. It’s about a kilo­metre long and someone has kindly put up a video about it on YouTube.

I say mainly because often there’s dam­age from acci­dents; being a Grade I sched­uled ancient monu­ment isn’t giv­ing the bridge that much pro­tec­tion and it’s com­mon to see rebuild­ing going on. The bridge needs to be used as it’s still the main route from the city of Derby to Melbourne and the south of the county. A sens­ible solu­tion might be to build a second bridge along­side the old bridge and have each one take traffic in one dir­ec­tion obly. However, it’s prob­ably more cost-effective over the life of an indi­vidual admin­is­tra­tion to leave it to be dam­aged and replace it bit by bit, so in some ways it’s also a mod­ern recon­struc­tion of what a Georgian bridge might look like if it wasn’t rebuilt on a reg­u­lar basis.

The remains of a night of soup joy.

The remains of a night of soup joy.

It’s easy to over­look that ancient monu­ments have a life which changes in dif­fer­ent eras. If the bridge were purely Georgian, then it wouldn’t be around in the 21st cen­tury. The idea of sec­tion­ing of areas of the mod­ern world and declar­ing them to be the past gives them quite a bit of pri­vacy. It’s com­mon to find evid­ence of social activ­it­ies that you wouldn’t want to share with the wider pub­lic at ancient sites. For instance the tombs I vis­ited in Tunisia were quite deep in beer cans, which wouldn’t be some­thing you’d want out in the open in an Islamic coun­try. Visiting this morn­ing I found foil, a spoon and evid­ence of a small fire by the side of the bridge. It was hid­den amongst the under­growth and out of sight of the local houses and pub. Clearly this is evid­ence of a soup party. Obviously see­ing as the pub, a short dis­tance away, serves food people wouldn’t want to be seen pub­licly con­sum­ing home-made soup there. The land­lord would get tetchy. So instead, after a few drinks, they go the the pri­vacy of the bridge away from the mod­ern world and heat up small quant­it­ies of soup in a metal spoon over an open fire.

I don’t know of any archae­olo­gical stud­ies of mod­ern soup con­sump­tion at ancient sites, nor of extreme icing. Extreme icing is where you get the icing sugar and ice through a syr­inge and hypo­dermic needle so you can do the really fiddly bits on wed­ding cakes. Why someone would take a wed­ding cake to an ancient site is a mys­tery to me, but clearly they do because it’s not unusual to see the syr­inges and needles. I don’t know if you could get fund­ing for that kind of archae­olo­gical research though as it’s ver­ging on the socially useful.

A bridge too far.

A bridge too far.

If you’re a sym­path­iser of Bonnie Prince Charlie then Swarkestone marks the end of the road south. It was here where Jacobite forces, invad­ing from Scotland, came to a halt. Charles Stuart had invaded prom­ising his allies that had assur­ances that the English would rally to his cause. At Swarkestone he was forced to admit he’d received no such prom­ises. His coun­cil of war voted to return to Scotland.

Derby might also mark one of the few examples of Englishness as a form of self-defence. The Scottish army camped by Kedleston Hall one its way back. Supplies are import­ant, so someone from the army approached the hall to secure food for the 5000 sol­diers. Seeing the size of the army and the poten­tial ruin of his house­hold it is said the lord of the manor insisted every­one turn off the lights and pre­tend they were out. This surely has to be a mod­ern inven­tion, but I do like the idea of the lord pick­ing up a reproach­ful card slipped under the front door: “We called this AM/PM to pil­lage your hall for victu­als but there was no reply. Please con­tact us to arrange a more con­veni­ent time. Regards, the Jacobite Rebellion.”

A tomb is a machine for remembering



Some blog posts are a long time in the writ­ing, but this sets a new record for me. Around May 2000 I was try­ing to think of a way of rip­ping off Le Corbusier’s quote A house is a machine for liv­ing in with regard to tombs.

It’s not a pos­i­tion I’d strongly defend. Tombs do other things as well. They mark ter­rit­ory to new­comers who may not know the local land. They’re a way of appro­pri­at­ing resources and pos­i­tion for the indi­vidual, if they plan their funeral while they’re alive.

If you want to be poetic, they also could be time machines. Once you have a set­tle­ment with a concept of deep roots, then it becomes pos­sible to think about pro­ject­ing your influ­ence bey­ond your own life­time. You can touch the future from a dis­tance, but if that works, it only works in the memor­ies of the liv­ing. It’s might seem a fanci­ful idea, but it’s spelled out in the earli­est sur­viv­ing history.

This is the dis­play of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that things done by man not be for­got­ten in time, and that great and mar­velous deeds, some dis­played by the Hellenes, some by the bar­bar­i­ans, not lose their glory…

One of my super­visors has already writ­ten some­thing along sim­ilar lines about reach­ing out bey­ond the human life­time. The archae­olo­gical record is messy and often not in fine enough res­ol­u­tion to dis­tin­guish between one gen­er­a­tion and the next. Finding those dif­fer­ences is going to be harder when you start think­ing about how people tried to blur those bound­ar­ies.

It’s an idea I’d like to return to, but for now I’m just mak­ing this as a note to myself.

Starlight Expressed


This very briefly intro­duces the stat­ist­ical method I used to ana­lyse the Greek temples of Sicily for astro­nom­ical align­ments. It’ll be the basis for a paper On the Orientations of Greek Temples in Sicily. The whole thesis will be made avail­able later via Open Access some way or another. I would say via the British Library’s EThOS sys­tem, but I’ve had no luck with that.

Astronomy and the Oracle of Delphi


This is (what I hope is) the final ver­sion of the Delphi present­a­tion. It briefly cov­ers the ground that formed the basis for Knowing when to con­sult the oracle at Delphi. There’s more unpub­lished mater­ial, but rather than try­ing to pro­duce Delphi II, I’m going to make it part of the forth­com­ing Calendrical Calibration paper.