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30 October, 2013

Ironic, or Just Sad

Having clicked somewhere, sometime, I now get emails from Move To Amend, a group trying to "get money out of politics." You can read that phrase at least a couple of ways, but what they mean is not to wring cash from politics, but to eliminate the influence of money in elections.

Sadly, the solution is to, uh,...raise money. Will it work? Not unless they raise a bunch. True, it can take a 3 to 5-fold advantage in evil money to win over for-the-general-good money, but as soon as it becomes a money race, the poor are at a disadvantage. Sure, Move To Amend is after a multitude of small donations, but all it takes is a few super-rich guys (like, Sheldon "Drop a nuke in the Iranian desert to show them we mean business" Adelson) to wipe out the advantage. Play the money game against plutocrats, and you'll probably lose.

Alternatives? I got none. Our country's education policy over the past generation or two has dumbed down then population to the extent that we're exceedingly unlikely to vote in out own commoner interest, against the oligarchs. Revolution? Unlikely, and unlovely if it were to happen in a country so saturated with guns and fundamentalism. It's a sad state we're in.

29 October, 2013

Velvet 6 Feet Underground

Last Shot. October 2013, lifted from
Flags at US Government facilities were ordered flown at half-staff today. Officially, this commemorates the recent death of Tom Foley, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

Un-officially, let it mark the death of Lou Reed, representative of the avidly un-official.

26 October, 2013

Post 400: What Bots Like

Top hits this week.

October is when I typically start getting visitors here looking for information about heatilators, the passive convection fireplaces that harvest cool air from a room and spit it back out, heated. It turns out that my idle fascination with this technology made a couple of posts about heatilators perennial (if seasonal) favorites. If you blog about something that is both obscure and practical, people will find the post. They don't stick around to read the other posts, but over time the numbers pile up.

In the past couple of weeks, though, a new post shot to the top of the list. The title is generic enough that it should not stick out in google the way "heatilator" does. The topic--a discussion of agriculture, evolution, misperception among anthropologists, and risk--doesn't seem fascinating enough to justify 700 hits in a couple of weeks. I'm not seeing traffic sources that would indicate the hits are being generated by academics, and besides, there are no comments telling me where I am wrong, which the archaeologists would never be able to resist.

So, it's gotta be the bots. Why they like this topic more than teacher pay, or backroads, or whatever, I cannot fathom. I'm more interested in what the next post striking human interest will be.

12 October, 2013

Agriculture and Bias

Orchards count as agriculture

In the past day or three, I've been reminded of how weird our understanding of agriculture is in modern America. Another blog that I regularly read, written by an educated, smart woman, linked to an article about the novel theory that the introduction of agriculture actually led to instability and population collapse in Europe. Then today, working with some other archaeologists and archaeologists-in-training, we talked about how generations of our forebears (and their cultural anthropology kin) have sworn that in the Northwest there was no indigenous agriculture or horticulture, just hunting and gathering.

Like most children of Western civilization, I was taught that the rise and refinement of agriculture allowed production of surplus, which was what allowed humanity (some of it, at least) to step off the dreary treadmill of subsistence, so that some people could become businessmen, priests, bureaucrats, artists, and all of the other divisions of labor that make up a civilization. Even among the cynical who viewed some of these jobs as blights upon humanity, there were few that argued the basic tenet that by making the transition from gathering and hunting wild foods (yes, in that order, if you are to be honest about where the calories came from) to farming domesticated crops represented an advance, creating some respite from the struggle for survival.

Only, if you look at it from an evolutionary point of view (so long, Bible Belt readers), agriculture does not provide stability. It is inherently unstable. From a diverse spectrum of wild plants, adapted to local conditions over millenia and more, people came to depend on a select and quite small group of species, using temporaryu success to grow larger human populations. Over time, this became more pronounced. Hundreds of wild starches gave way to dozens of grains and roots, and ultimately to a handful of cereals and russet potatoes, often grown outside their optimal range through generous application of non-renewable chemicals. Nomads moved to villages, which became cities and morphed into megalopolises. We stand now as the coyote did in the old road runner cartoons, over a canyon on a board nailed to a board nailed to a board, cantilevered so far out on a gamble that we are doomed to fall, unable to skitter back to solid ground. Evolution punishes monocroppers and urbanites who forgot how to find or grow their own food.

In our hubris, we have assumed that human selection can successfully replace natural selection, when in fact all domestication amounts to co-evolution. From corn's point of view, it has caused humans to adapt their behavior toward its own ends. We winnow down the gene pool to emphasize the parts that maximize kernel production, eliminating competition from weeds and even regional maize variants, maximizing acreage, extracting fossil fuel to fertilize and distribute the crop. Zea mays has domesticated and trained Homo sapiens to its benefit, not ours.

What amounts to genocide of other grains and the once diverse array of locally adapted cultivars of corn has resulted in such a narrow, patented gene pool that we are now at greatly increased risk of collapse in a major element of our food supply (and the same goes for soybeans, rice, wheat, and any other major food crop) should evolution create super-bugs, fungi, weeds, or diseases that could rip through the millions of acres planted in the same damned genome. Or maybe  the dirty work will be done by climate change, or the growing scarcity and cost of the chemical additives and artificial genetic alterations that are already deeply entrenched responses to the biological and climactic threats we already face.

Our smug modern bias that by replacing a "primitive" society (in which nearly every family produced its own diverse and locally adapted bread, vegetables, and protein) with a few corporately owned farms churning out the national output of food and food-like subtances is misplaced. Even before evolution engineers collapses in production, the elmination of diversity and removal of people from the healthful effects of working the land has created epidemics of heart disease, diabetes, and the other diseases of civilization that decrease individual fitness and create increasing drains on social resources. More angioplasty, less art.

Camas fields do not count as agriculture

But let's step back from that brink, back to the early days of agriculture. The domesticated crops all began as wild plants. As a young anthro, I was taught that this happened in a few select places: Mesopotamian cereals, Mesoamerican grains, Andean tubers, and a few others. While this select club would be expanded from time to time, membership rested on transformation of primitive forms to highly productive domesticates. People who ate "wild" foods were not agriculturalists, or even horticulturalists. They were foragers.

A prime example of that class were the indigenous tribes of the Northwest, who stood out among hunter-gatherers in having a higher level of social stratification and cultural elaboration than anthtropologists expected of tribal, non-agricultural peoples. Being an exception only proved the rule, however, since it was pointed out that a peculiar natural abundance of food, from salmon runs to camas meadows, was what allowed them to advance beyond, for example, their Great Basin counterparts.

But the more we look, and the more we listen to the Native cultures, the more we see that the Northwest tribes (and although I am ignorant of the details, I would have to suspect the tribes in other parts of the country) were not passive collectors of a random bounty. People burned meadows to return nutrients to the soil to such a degree that once-poor glacial outwash became black loam, while at the same time arresting succesional processes that would have liked to establish forest where berries and root foods grew. Harvesting techniques aerated the soil, gave next year's crop room to grow, rotated the burden of harvest, and propagated new generations of food. There was weeding and transplanting. Just because Tribal knowledge acknowledges first and foremost the role of Coyote for the origin of many foods does not mean that the actions of mortals played no role in the perpetuation of those foods. My suspicion is that the "wild" characterization of foods like camas and cous has as much to do with our lack of investigation as with absolute reality--the same people who weeded out the death camas, who harvested roots and berries over millennia, am I to believe that they never rooted out smaller, sicklier plants in favor of tastier or more productive ones? Are we supposed to think that because a food plant is found within it's "natural" range, it was not the result of transplanting or establishment of patches convenient to trails and settlements? I find that hard to swallow.

But our bias is that if a plant is native to its range (typically defined thousands of years after people began eating it, hmm...), it is wild. If it is not ridiculously oversized, the food part dwarfing the other elements, it must not be domesticated. If it is merely tended, rather than planted in rows or milpas, it is not agriculture. Our bias is that hard farming work, rather than knowledge of how best to feed off of natural systems with minor inputs, is superior.

We see what we want to see (I'll admit that I want to see humans who adapted to a place over millennia as pretty wise to its ways), and so Euro-Americans who conquered continents generally want to see that as progress. Casting agriculture as a noble effort, even as a single God's will that Man exercise dominion over the earth and its lesser creatures (Indians included), serves that goal. Defining what everyone else did as inferior helps make the stealing and subsequent transformation of the land more justifiable to most Americans, eases the guilt of wiping out thousands of little societies attuned to nature to make way for a large one attuned to itself. Bad as that particular bias may be, the one that may come back to haunt us more deeply is that other bias, the one in which we presume that civilization is always getting better, that we are exceptional, and our agriculture is smart and sustaining, rather than unstable, a dangerous taunt toward evolution.

09 October, 2013

Yellow Matter Textures

If for no other reason than the last post being a bummer, here's something completely different: a couple of yellowish photos. Since the advent of digital cameras has made it incredibly cheap and easy to take lots of shots, I supplement the "archaeological object with scale" genre with pictures of pretty much anything else of interest: landscapes, mylar balloons in unexpected places, pretty rocks, funny signs,...and textures.

Shooting an image that lacks a specific point of interest, a textured wash of color, can be a nice departure from my usual focus, complexion instead of complexity. Also, they can make nice backgrounds for slide shows that I occasionally give at a conference or presentation (because something in me rebels against the powerpoint pre-fab options).

These two shots, miles and months apart, are just a couple of examples. The bottom one is the "mother," a mat of microbes on the surface of apple cider I was letting ferment itself into vinegar. The top one is what some people call beach dodder, Hawaiians call kauna`oa, and biologists would call a species of Cuscuta. Parasite, lei material (it's Lana`i's official flower), colonizer of seashores all over the earth, background for a slide,...the shot with no focal point is open to whatever story you lay on it.

04 October, 2013

The Curse of Oh No, or, The Rum Diarrhea

The week took it's time in skulking up behind and bludgeoning me with what I can only assume was a femur unearthed from the San Quentin boneyard. If I'd been more aware, the signs were there: truck reluctant to travel, resulting in a starved frenzied drive to the very tip of the lower 48, a headache so long in the tooth that it reached my manawa, the skull-top whose calcification signals passage to something beyond infancy for all but our Tea Party brethren.

But for the time being, said signs hid and instead I saw the rainbow over an inlet, and enjoyed the presence of mind and present of time to pull over and photograph this glowingly fine apparition. I felt the truck complain and turned back before I ended up stranded hours from town. I got another evening in my own bed. I spent the next two days at an uncharacteristically sunny Neah Bay, basking in the warmth of government and tribal resource managers mostly in agreement. Somewhere offshore, I was sure, sea lions and lambs lay together in harmony.

I, I, I. As long as my phone was back home and the internet proved too slow to deal with. Everything was fine, as long as it was just I. Aye-aye-yai. No them.

Them them phoned in on Thursday. Him, specifically. He who is a legendary island archaeologist and drunkard (there is a difference, so he gets double credit), who began working in Hawai`i about when I did, and whose strait is now dire (same as it ever was). He who was not cajoled into an MA, or out of the field and into the bidness, or into a marriage. He who now faces another bout of unemployment with no back-up. He who is one of the best in his field, but archaeological fields are parochial, so when there is no work locally, emigration is no option unless cannibals nip at his heels. If some project does not emerge soon, he's fucked.

So he was frustrated, down, and was several days out into booze ocean when I heard from him. Gone the moderate wine of the past few months--down the gullet with rum and coconut milk. I had to go not long after he called, but rang back later only to get an answering app. Responding later that evening, having forgotten what day it was and that we'd talked earlier, he was Out...



Which I can understand. No job. He made the calls and found no work among the usual suspects (the only kind there are in the islands, really), so who's to question despondency and maybe even dependency on a bottle of that which will be there (for a while) when employment (gainful or joyful) has walked out? So a guy may well plead the fifth, and then another, and so further past a gallon, maybe firkins and before all is said and done a hogshead. But to any hard drinker, it's not about the cumulative total, it's about taking it one bottle at a time.

But so goes the spiral that heads down or stagnates. There are few ups from weeks blacked out and besotted. Regrets, yes, sometimes leading to another round. Recoveries, perhaps, but sure to be challenged by another layoff.

If we lived in a world where enthusiasm, skill, and knowledge were rewarded, he'd be fine, and if being funny counted he'd be sitting pretty. But we live in a world where "just" being a field guy comes off as unambitious, and skepticism spiced with comedy comes off as trouble-making. Besides which, it's easier to hire new kids who work for peanuts than to offer a man a living wage because he gathers the data upon which the whole enterprise depends. Predictably and sadly, this is true even if the kids have little clue and the 40-something vet has the benefit of decades of experience. Missed sites are bulldozed away, none the wiser except for the veteran shovelbum who knew the deal, and was cut out or walked out.

But the honor of a guy like my friend, who would walk out on a crook's deal, does not demand much on the market. If it's not for sale, the fixers and fiends find a work-around--someone willing to sell fake honor, typically--and then honor's Cash Value = Zero. As a consolation prize, cast-aways of this system receive enough unemployment to live a seriously bleak life or a drunkenly numb one.

Either ailment in this short list of options weighs so heavily on any one man that recovering without company can crush vertebra. So, I'll keep calling from time to time. Maybe I cannot fix the economy, or thirsty genes, but I can be better than nothing, if only barely.