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23 June, 2013


Tilted and saturated, but on track and no mirage.

FOX "NEWS" being just the most blatant example, "fair and balanced" means little these days. But they're not to blame for the media's enshrinement of "getting both sides of the story," which both reduces complicated stories with many angles to two views and misses the point that true objectivity is a delusion. We never have all the facts (and tend to prioritize them differently), and humans are subjective even when they try not to be; the belief in objectivity is a subjective choice. 

People like to trot out the hard sciences to counter this argument, but my dad was a physicist, something I mention to give myself the aura of osmotic knowledge before explaining that Quantum Theory means that every observation changes the act being observed. On the surface of it, this would appear even more true for human culture, which is built on communication among subjects, each reacting to the other not only for the words said, but a variety of other cues, constantly adapting. By Anthro 201, I'd been taught that an ethnographer going in and taking notes and collecting data and walking out with a sense that he has an objective knowledge of the culture is insane. 

One way anthropologists deal with this problem (if it is a problem) is through something called "participant observation," meaning you do not stand by and take notes, you take part. Spend time with the community, learn their language, do the things they do. Which of course will be different for a 25-year-old male student than a 55-year-old female professor, neither of whom will get the whole story on a culture. Even if they want to, even if they succeed in transcending boundaries in the culture (maybe especially then), their presence  shapes the behaviors; when the anthro arranges the data and writes it up, other factors in her history, campus politics, mundanities to be dispensed and crises to be dealt with will all lead to a certain flavor. 

Trying to be objective is not a bad idea, though, and anthropologists or journalists or judges who go in with preconceived notions, hardened biases, or dull axes can be dangerous. Being open to facts and contexts for them, presenting different points of view, and not making data serve message instead of the other way around are all laudable. 

But sometimes it is laughable that both sides of the story get equal time, particularly because in America all it takes is money to elevate looney views to legitimate policy alternatives. Sometimes, one side is just flat out wrong, or interested in the 1% at the expense of the 99%. If in the name of Objectivity, the journalist gives traction to, oh, let's say the Iraq War, he has just aided and abetted a great harm. If the anthropologist is too detached and writes the academic articles but sits out the political action, she's taking sides.

Hmm. Here I am writing about anthropologists, pointing out where they can go wrong, without so much as a PhD. No specialization, making a living doing archaeology yet presuming to write about living culture, working not on a campus but in a state office. This blog reveals me as opinionated, and probably extreme as far as the bloated center of a bell curve is concerned. I'm pretty open about my bias that native cultures have had it very hard in this country, and that we ought to do what we can to perpetuate them, even if that means putting aside the notebook and taking action. 

So to some, I'm a shame to the profession. Even here at the blog, my own spew zone, I've had the occasional comment that I'm not even-handed enough, or missed something, that I was too extreme. Among my family and friends, I'll cop to being on the prickly end of the scale; I've been described as "fierce" by one. Which is true in some cases, and of course I've written things that I regret, but that's the price of feeling free to speak up. 

I am not objective, and cannot detach from something I care about easily, so I take sides. Being fair is fine, but presenting both sides of the story as if they were always of equal merit? Nah, I can't do that. Maybe three sides, or five. Maybe a dodecahedron of perspectives. At work, I need to collect data and write about them, sometimes making recommendations based on particular circustances--there is a place for something approaching objectivity. But here, opinions and iconoclasty can run loose, and my political tilt is right up front.

22 June, 2013

Camas Fields Forever

For two weeks in a row, I've been blessed with fieldwork in a sublime Cascadian meadow. This last time, I encountered other western Washington folks who'd made the trip top see the legendary camas bloom--the place is so famed for this blue lily that it's common name is Camasland. Last week was the time to see the bloom at its peak, when the flowers are so thick that swaths of meadows turn blue; I offer these photos (which are pathetic  stand-ins for the real scene) to those who missed the day. Explorer accounts back to Lewis and Clark speak of camas meadows that appeared to be lakes, although to my own eye (connected to a mind that demands less sense) the biggest areas of camas looked like pools of sky, complete with fluffy white clouds of American Bistort.

Camas is just the best known of many plants in this meadow that are important to native people. This meadow is a treasure to the Wenatchi and other tribes that came here generation after generation, congregating in large numbers to harvest the roots, socialize, and later light the fires that kept the meadow from reverting to forest.  The soil is black from thousands of fires, dark rich testament to centuries and millenia of tending to this special island of meadow in the Cacadian treed terrain.

While the blue may look more like sky than water to me, the camas lily appreciates lower, wetter ground, which means that sometimes it lives in the silt of relict channels and silted in streams. Camasland is a flat meadow within a bowl of forested hills, and the stream that winds through it has meandered here and there over the years. The photo above shows the faint blue of camas in one of those old channels, with the yellow flowers and larger foliage of balsamroot on the banks. Difference in elevation between these zones is only a few inches, but that's enough to nurture quite different vegetation on each. The meandering blue is an echo of a stream, a channel living forever.

This landscape is special to modern people as well. Years ago, the state decided to conserve the ecosystem here, and set aside most of it. There are rare species involved, but the place is special also because of the abundance and cultural importance of some of the more common species present. Preserving this place forever means that the ancient yet fleeting beauty of a wildflower meadow will not become a housing subdivision (the fate of most prairies west of the mountains) or some other modern development that will be fleeting compared to the natural and cultural history of Camasland, but which could do irreversible damage.

21 June, 2013

Happy Solstice

The longest day is here. Looks like pagan bonfires and dancing are not in the works, which is just as well. After an exhausting week of pounding an iron bar through unyielding rock and driving, I'll be lucky to be up past the latest twighlight.

Moving On: Mountain to Sea Day

Up a 5:00 this morning so I can get from this:

To this:

Drop about 3,000 feet in elevation, reset the eyes to tide-flat mode, and be glad I don't have to dig through rock for another day.  Gotta run, the tide won't wait.

18 June, 2013

Two Heads Are Better Than One

OK, maybe those don't look like heads to you, but to an archaeologist, they look like profiles of hominid skulls (I just cannot haul myself into this century and say "hominin"), even if neither was intended as such. One looks left, one looks right. One was the result of something being added, one was what remained after something was removed. One is ephemeral, one lasted for decades if not centuries.

The bottom one is not too far from the US Atlantic coast. It is the remaining bit of stucco on a partially-restored column of one of the Founding Fathers' famed plantations. Maybe it looks like Africa, home of humans who were kidnapped and sold into slavery to build and then serve in the mansion.

The top one is in the tidal zone of the US Pacific Coast, very close to Canada. It is either gull poop or herring sperm, deposited on sand deep in the intertidal zone. Maybe it will last a long time on the internet, but the actual thing is long gone by now, a stain washed away by the tide, dissolved in the ocean.

The symmetry of these two heads, the balance they achieve without having ever met, is an artifact of my own odd head working solo, recognizing a mirror image in photos taken 3,000 miles a a few months apart. Heads are like that, craving company so they can take turns using their jaws and their ears, coming up with ideas that are better than either one could invent by itself (like the idea of posting about Australopithicene-ish skull images formed from marine creature excreta and plaster palimpsests, holding a mute conversation).

09 June, 2013

If Magical Fat Dissolvers Know, Why is the Intelligence Community Whining?

I am watching you watch me

Turns out that maybe the bots know about the NSA, and they are a little bit scared.

Why would I say this? Well, the number of hits on this blog took a dive after I posted about the NSA and other spooks prying into internet communcations. Like many other smalltime blogs, I get a fair number of hits from sources that end up trying to sell me some crap when I click to see who is watching me. This marginally underhanded sales ploy has not made me buy web-hosting, fat-reduction, or any other spam-smeared services yet, and the odds are decreasing now that I know the purveyors are a bunch of chicken-hearted milquetoasts.

Now, the fact that the would-be parasites let loose soon after the host starts acting dangerously (for instance, questioning the government's altruism when it comes a-snooping), suggests that the sales-oriented spyware has already noticed and adapted to government spyware. Guys in Gitmo are notorious skinflints when it comes to online purchases, and could result in unwelcome attention to spam servers, so the fake blog-watchers ditch marks who look too rad.

It will take a while of watching to see of my hunch is correct, but if it is, it's pretty interesting. If what could be construed by NSA or other programs as something other than passive acceptance of their intrusions causes the commerce wing to retreat, then presumably those bidness guys know something of the intelligence community's "sources and methods," a domain defended vehemently by any number of executive, legislative, and judicial staff.

If the scumbags at these websites are wise to methods of the US intelligence establishment, then two questions arise.

One is, why are members of the US government scolding us last-to-know citizens for bringing their spying to light? Their own name for one of the data-mining efforts "Boundless Informant" pretty much implies a feeling of not having to live within limits, such at the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution, or even a FISA review. Obama and Company way intone solemn warnings and wag their fingers at a press publishing about their spying, but if entities so silly as a magic-fat-reduction outfit are behaving in a way that shows they are aware of US surveillance, then how can the US claim that somehow out real geopolitical enemies are only finding out now that the Washington Post caught up?

The other is, why is the response to perceived evil to perpetrate more evil? Did KGB or Stasi surveillance make communist regimes immortal? Did the Gestapo wipe out more resistence than it inspired? Nope.

So I ask the NSA bots, which may well be forming their own intelligence beyond the reach of the programmers, "Why do you want to mess with us?" And I offer you this answer, "I don't." We humans tend to want freedom and inconsistency, we are resistant to algorithms that would convict us, or condemn us to "signature strikes." I say this as an anthropologist, a person who by definition must have some faith in the persistence of cultural patterns, but who must nevertheless admit that a cornered human will change her mind and act randomly in the blink of an eye.

Please, bots and programmers thereof, recognize that pretence of secrecy will not cow all the citizenry.  Spam 2.3 is onto you. I am onto you. The people afraid to link to this post are onto you, and not all of them will back down forever. The people who leak your tawdry methods are enlisted personnel and ground-level employees at contractors (Oh look! The security/secrecy establishment that holds so much government-approved power is, in fact, heavily privatized!). You cannot stay secret; Anonymous and anonymous citizens can and will reveal your miscreancy.

Step into the light, and tell us what you really oppose. If it is suicide bombers, "evil-doers," and Armageddon-seekers are your your prey, we will support you, and probably help in ways that make your data-mining and analysis pale in comparison. If you are after resistence to your snooping and control, then expect more resisters than you can ever catalog and control in real time. All you have to do is respect freedom, and be honest before people force you to.

07 June, 2013

When Your Secrecy is Gone, Shout!

Find the dangerous one.

In the past few weeks, we've learned that the US government is snooping more than they had wanted us to know. The federal intelligence community, long enamored with the potential that computers and electronic communication offer for listening in on a huge scale, snagged barrels full of AP reporter communications, and shiploads of social network and email and phone data from the rest of us.

This should come as no surprise. For quite a while, we have seen this coming: Admiral Poindexter's soul-less body reanimated to head up snooping programs with names like "carnivore" and "echelon," establishment of a goal so important that it gets an acronym (TIA = Total Information Awareness), and construction of a massive internet and phone eavesdropping center in Utah, the Patriot Act's indulgence of blanket searches, the Foreign Intelligence Security Court established pretty much for the purpose of giving the imprimatur of legitimacy to snooping, and so on and on and on...

At the same time that usually docile "news" organizations are getting their hackles up, the US government (right on up to el Presidente) is busy prosecuting leakers and complaining that the outing of its taps and intercepts will endanger security. Both sides are lying or stupid. Given our government's history of spying on perceived enemies foreign and domestic, and given the obvious potential for mass snooping presented by modern communication technology, how can any reporter with a gram of awareness think that the NSA or any other security agency would forego the opportunity?

Likewise, for the Commander-in-Chief to step up to the microphone and say that a couple of newspaper stories endanger the secrecy--and by extension, they would have us believe, the success--of intelligence-gathering efforts is complete bullshit. Maybe you hadn't inferred the existence of widespread data mining, of blanket search and seizure of your communications, but all of our supposed enemies have. The Chinese (or any other nation you want to think of as an enemy) have certainly known about PRISM for a while, and even the most podunk affiliate of al Quaeda operates on the assumption that any phone call or email is being monitored. Hell, I do too, even though I am the very model of an ineffectual internet voice.

We are stuck in a bind: if other nations, corporations, and corporate enterprises are availing themselves of big data, wouldn't the US intelligence agencies be remiss to ignore it themselves? There are plenty of reasons to distrust our government a little less than Chinese military hackers, or Russian mobsters, or web advertisers. But still, for citizens to roll over and accept searches of everything, all the time, with no real cause or case, will only embolden authoritarian tendencies. Giving the spies a pass now could come back to haunt us later, should we get an even more secretive and coercive government. Remember, Dick Cheney ain't dead yet.

Maybe the government will pretend to back off, or be more open about how and why they spy on us. In fact, I would count on there being some effort at window dressing, attempts to make it appear that the spies are held in checks and balances. But I assume, and would advise anyone using the internet in any way to also assume, that they are being listened to by the US and other major world powers like the Chinese, Russians, Facebook, and Google. If you want your communication to remain private, send handwritten letters by snail-mail. Attempting to use crypto-communications online will only draw attention, and the interceptors are more sophisticated and well-funded than you are.

Did you think that what you wrote in an email or on a comment page was confidential? That your clever fake username made you anonymous, or your phone call a secret? That you still have 4th Amendment rights? That a "liberal" president would put concern for your privacy above opportunities to take power? What you do is no more secret from the US government than it is from a determined hacker. Or, let's face it, from corporations, which harvest your data with your own permission (and by permission, I mean ignorance as to how to stop the cookies and trackers and whatever other tech means to harvest data that we users do not even know about).

Assume that nothing is private. Even if public outcry caused the US goverment to (pretend to) stop snooping, that won't do anything about other national governments or international corporations. And if you value your freedom, speak up. Post like I am now, proclaim your disgust with a spying government, tell the NSA to fuck off. The more mildy rebellious citizens and non-violent curmudgeons speak out, the more the snoopers get the message, the more their algorithms are clogged with harmlessness.

Maybe one day I will end up like Winston Smith, but I don't plan on waiting as long as he did to speak up. In case the NSA has not flagged this post thus far (they shoulda, I said "al Qaeda" and referenced US government spying), let me just say that I do not believe in the legitimacy of online spying. I think it does more to corrode democracy than to protect it. Fuck off, secret police.

06 June, 2013

...and the Kitchen Sink

There is a saying in this country, "Everything but the kitchen sink" that refers to diverse abundance, just short of ultimate.

Last month, watching a machine dig, we got into a buried layer of debris. A house had been bulldozed and covered here. There was enough charcoal to show that it had been burned, linoleum and nails, pipe and wire. Not old enough to be of official concern.

And then, the machine took a scoop, its arm raised, and the bucket dumped kitchen sink.

I can now retire.

04 June, 2013

Call of the Wild-ish

On the way home from work yesterday, I saw a deer walking down a city street. Olympia has a lot of green space, and hundreds of tasty gardens are in prime condition right now, so deer are a common sight.

This morning at about 4AM, I heard a coyote howl. Maybe the same one my daughter and I saw a couple of months ago, running through someone's yard here on the East Side.

 In what may be related news, there sure are a lot of "Lost Cat" fliers posted around here.