The three pyramids of the Giza plateau from top-right: Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure
This isn’t an entry I particularly wanted to write, but another sci/tech magazine has bit the dust. I had bought every copy of Focus up till a couple of months ago. It started as an intelligent science magazine, but after the onslaught of the Loaded era it dumbed down somewhat. Sadly it has now skipped out of sensible science altogether.
I can’t comment on last month’s issue (cover story the Secrets of UFOs), because I’d decided to skip buying it after they printed a piece that claimed the Mitchell-Hedges Crystal Skull was an unsolved mystery for Mayan archaeologists. Certainly one unsolved mystery is why did Mitchell-Hedges claim to have found the 19th century German crystal skull in a Mayan city, when he had in fact bought it from Sotheby’s. That took 30 seconds to find on the internet. In the same issue the Op-Ed column sagely berated those who spouted junk rather than spend a brief time checking the facts first which, they noted, was even easier these days thanks to the internet.
So what persuaded me to buy it this month? The cover. Amazing New Discovery: The Lost Ark of the Covenant: It vanished over 2000 years ago but now experts think they’ve found it.
I’ve found a poll I set up on Mister Poll. The aim was to perm answers to end up with nonsensical conclusions. For instance if a large majority of people said that it was unlikely that people were connected to Neanderthals and in a later question a majority thought their neighbour could be an example of a Neanderthal then you get the result “At least n% per cent of people thought it unlikely that they were descended from Neanderthals, but that their neighbors probably were”. I thought it would be a way of generating an easy press release for the i-science course at Leicester. However it hasn’t worked out and I’m too lazy to work out the odder combinations for now.
Nevertheless there are some interesting results:
11% of people think “The biggest problem with Genetically Modified food is the ‘Alien’ effect where evil genes leap out of your stomach explosively.”
12% of respondents agreed that “People only go into science to pull chicks.”
68% of people think Evolution is a fact, though only 60% are so certain about Gravity.
19% of people would prefer the Leap Year Day to be on June 31, so we get an extra sunny day.
and finally my favourite:
10% of people think the discovery of Sedna will make gasoline prices rise.
Only 2% think it will make horoscopes even more accurate.
Full results available at: http://www.misterpoll.com/results.mpl?id=683967483
or cast your own vote at: http://www.misterpoll.com/683967483.html
One of the big problems with contract archaeology is finding out what the results of an excavation or watching brief was. The results are rarely fully published, which would suggest that a lot of the work is a bit pointless. Thankfully the situation is improving. Dave Edwards has passed along a URL for the ADS. At http://ads.ahds.ac.uk/catalogue/library/greylit/ you’ll find a store of grey literature for free browsing. If you want to find out what it is that Wessex Archaeology have been doing, now you can.
In theory an equinox should be easy to define. It’s the point halfway between the solstices. However, in what way do we mean halfway? Halfway in space or halfway in time? Or something completely different?
I sat down to read New Scientist yesterday morning. I’m buying regularly it now, so I can’t tell if they’ve dumbed down or I’ve matured. Anyhow the reviews section is always worth a read.
This week there’s a review of Big Weather by Mark Svenvold. Mark Svenvold is not a professional tornado-chaser himself, but has been hanging out with them to write his new book. “What relevance to Boilerplate Archaeology does this have?” you may ask. Well to quote from the review:
Svenvold grants the origins of tornado watching to ancient British pioneers because “Archaeologists believe that 5000 years ago the inhabitants of Stonehenge honoured the storm god by digging ditches parallel to the tracks of tornadoes.”
Around Christmas time I found a dictionary of postmodern terms, which I didn’t buy on the spot. I planned to buy it later as it defined Linear Thinking as “Unfortunate, controlling, impoverished, male variety of thinking that’s all hung up on logic, evidence, chronology, causation, and pedantic in-the-head stuff like that.” Unfortunately I forgot the title and couldn’t find it on Amazon. It turns out the authors of the book edit a site I’ve been visiting every so often for the past few months, Butterflies and Wheels, and the book is called “A Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense”.
The dictionary is available on site. The book has over 500 entries but I don’t think that many are available on the web. I don’t know for certain. I could count them to find out, but that would be an appeal to Empiricism (absurd notion that observation and measurement are useful in getting to know about things).
I am open to the idea that postmodernism might have something useful to say if it’s done well. However the appeal to obscurity that is tolerated in academia means that there’s no particular need to do it well. In fact for many, doing it well and meaningfully would be missing the entire point. I was tempted to try and prove this, either by adapting the Postmodernism Generator to produce archaeological theory, or else give a computer generated conference paper. However, I’ve been beaten on this last point by a couple of people who created a CompSci paper generator and got one random paper accepted at WMSCI 2005.
Is it any good? You can try it out for yourself at SCIGen.
This could potentially have very positive uses. I’ve got an experiment running which I hope to report on in a couple of weeks.
Handshouse Studio have a site that’s worth looking at. They’re the people who designed the sand system for the NOVA documentary on Raising the Obelisk / Secrets of Lost Empires. I have to admit I wasn’t impressed by the documentary. I thought there was far too much faffing around and the experience of the workers seemed to be ignored. Luckily for me I saw the system in operation at the AIA conference in January and I was much more impressed. They had an excellent model which gave me much more confidence of the physics of how the system worked. Crucially, the people demonstrating were the people who designed the system and they did a much better job of it than the TV crew.
Their site also shows some of their other work including the Bushnell Turtle. It’s an excellent way to lose an afternoon when you should be working.
The editor of Scientific American is taking an interest in The Onion and Boilerplate Science (via Keat’s Telescope). It’s a look at generic science stories that you know are coming up in the next few months, like a gene for ________ being identified in mice complete with a picture of a normal white mouse to illustrate what a mouse looks like. Here’s my attempt at a story which you’ll see sometime in the next month and a half.
For more than 4000 years Stonehenge has remained shrouded in mystery. Some researchers have Stonehenge was the site of a solar temple. Others say it was an astronomical computer. Some have even argued it was alien spaceport.
Now a University of somewhere not near Stonehenge researcher claims to have solved the puzzle.
There is a problem in archaeology, which Francis Pryor neatly encapsulates in at the start of his book Britain BC:
Stories have plots and themes, and I have fashioned this book around what I think are the most important. But inevitably I have had to omit an enormous amount of significant material, simply because it fell outside the immediate scope of the story. However Britain BC is not intended to be a textbook, nor is it in any way comprehensive. It’s essentially a narrative – and a personal one at that.(Pryor 2004:xxvi)
It’s a problem referred to by Campbell (1996), idea that popular and scholarly are polar opposites. Ultimately it leads to the belief that if a text is written so as to be inaccessible then by logic it must be highly scholarly. If (by avoiding writing a textbook) Pryor aimed to produce an unscholarly work he has, thankfully, failed spectacularly.