fun


Among Anglo-Saxons, tonight is Halloween, a rather frivolous holiday with some serious undertones. American movies and TV have propagated the holiday to such an extent however, that the lowest common denominator of the event is relatively well known across the world: small—and big—kids dressing up and collecting candy (“trick-or-treating”). Here’s a pic of my kids six years ago:

Halloween 2004, copyright F. Deblauwe

Of course, the connection with  superstitions about the Undead is easy to spot, be they disguised as the All Souls Christian holiday or el Día de los Muertos in Mexico. As a child in Belgium, we didn’t celebrate Halloween but I did make a scary-face lantern around this time of the year albeit not using a pumpkin but a sugar beet. If I remember correctly, popular lore somehow connected the lanterns with St. Maarten (St. Martin), a saint that actually in some regions of my home province of West Flanders even substituted for Sint Niklaas (St. Nicholas, i.e., Santa) in his gift-giving-to-kids role.

This is primarily an archaeological blog though. So what are the connections between digging up the past and zombies, witches and other scary critters and dark practices? Here are a few choice links:

Archaeology is a famously ghoulish pursuit whose practitioners are always on the look-out for dead bodies to gloat over. If we can’t find a grave, then at least we’ll try to get hold of animal bones from kitchen middens and sacrificial deposits. I’ve seen desperate Mesolithic researchers cackle with funereal glee over the toe bones of long-dead seals. Osteologists are of course the worst necrophiliacs of the lot. But nobody’s immune. There’s an anecdote going around about my old favourite teacher, where he lifts a pelvis out of a Middle Neolithic grave, licks his lips while turning the charnel thing over in his hands, and exclaims, “Now this was a very beautiful woman!”.

A bit of archaeological/anthropological light entertainment this time.

Tom Elliot (Pleiades Project) sent me a link to a pretty hilarious discussion attempting to place archaeologists into a taxonomy based on their data sharing habits.

Tom self identifies as a “cranky space monkey“, and points to Bill Carahrer who thinks of himself as a squirrel. This was all touched off by Charles Watkinson who said that “grey panthers” (tenured people at the top of their field) are far more likely to experiment with total data transparency than would struggling junior faculty or graduate students.

Of course, Watkins has a good point, and has some more good thoughts about ways to link data publication with narrative publication. Sebastian Heath added some interesting discussion about back-and-forth linking between primary data and published narratives. I’ve been thinking about these issues too, and am working with my colleague Erik Wilde on a (hopefully) elegant approach to the issue based on his work on Linkbases. We’ll try to have something to publicly demo in the next few months.

Back to the taxa. In general, I also think that “grey panthers” are more likely to publish data than junior scholars, because junior researchers have more reason to be risk adverse. That said, like most things, there are plenty of exceptions. Some senior people may have excellent publication records but have shoddy field documentation and don’t like the idea of transparency. Some junior people act very openly with their material. Open Context has a mixture of datasets contributed from very prominent “grey panthers” (see Petra) and junior researchers who like this opportunity to advertise the quality of their research (see Justin Lev-Tov’s zooarch analysis of Hazor material).

As far as my own taxonomic self-identification, that’s a hard question. Open Context has been my main project for some time now, and its main aim thus-far has been to validate a common data model with lots of eclectic stuff (though we’re transitioning over to doing more thematic collection building). I’ve been eclectic and opportunistic in building Open Context content (and refining schema mapping processes etc.) with whatever people want to provide.

So I guess that makes me something like an Eastern Bluebird, since they build nests out of whatever is handy.

Hi Everyone.

This has nothing to do with archaeology, but I couldn’t help but to note this interesting April 1st development. It’s something of a follow up to my earlier posts on Google and its ambitions here and here. Please take a look at this short video by Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/v/PmSdy_9blB4]

That’s right. They claim to be teaming up with Virgin Galactic to colonize Mars. Here’s Richard Branson on the “project”:

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/v/gWCQYcPlUng]

They’re calling it an “Open Source Planet”. The funny thing about this April fool’s joke is that it comes from a wildly ambitious and seemingly unstoppable firm (however, note that even Google seems to be constrained by market forces). Given their other goals, colonizing Mars almost seems like business as usual for Google.

At the last ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research), Gary L. Christopherson (University of Arizona) gave an interesting talk called “‘Google’ Archaeology: data and applications for everybody”. The talk discussed the huge and under-recognized impact Google is having in archaeological research. Google continues to add ever more free services, ranging from search, book-scanning (but with controversy), mapping, visualization, and “software-as-service” applications (office-suite tools called GoogleDocs). Without us really noticing, larger and larger chunks of our research activities are mediated by Google.

Where is this going? We should probably worry about being so dependent on one behemoth commercial service provider. Siva Vaidhyanathan has a fascinating blog “The Googlization of Everything” that takes a critical look at Google’s immense power in our society and economy.

Because Google is such a force, and something of an enigma, rumors and questions about its ambitions and intents flourish. Some of these rumors are fed directly by statements by Google’s leadership, such as when Larry Page told an audience at last year’s American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences meeting that Google was working on developing an Artificial Intelligence, and will do it on a “large scale”. Sergey Brin is reported to have said that the perfect search engine would “look like the mind of God“. Similar ideas, but less extravagantly worded, have from from Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of Search Products and User Experience when she talked about how Google’s massive data stores and sophisticated algorithms are acting more and more like “intelligence”.

Pretty heady stuff.

I really don’t know where “Moore’s Law” and other rapid technological changes are taking us. Some of the ideas seem really extreme (see the so-called “Singularity“). But, I’m not a computer scientist or artificial life researcher, so I can’t dismiss these ideas out of hand, though I strongly suspect things will not work out in ways expected by starry-eyed futurists or techno-determinists.

What seems far more likely about Google’s statements in this area, is that they help fuel a mystique about Google as an unstoppable force that will shape the future. Who can contend with them if they have irresistible technologies on their side? It is powerful marketing, even if Artificial Intelligence remains 20, 2000, or 2 million years in the future, or always in the future.

But what seems absolutely clear is that all “digital archaeology” is done now in reference to Google. For better or worse, it will continue to shape archaeological cyberinfrastructure, research and education into any future I can see.

In a fascinating discussion of Google and it’s AI ambitions on Edge, George Dyson closed his article by quoting Simon Ings, and it seems fitting to do the same here:

“When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did it so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or a prophet would have dared complain.”

This quote applies to Google, with or without “AI”. Its services are simply too useful and powerful. Hopefully, we’ll not all be fools for letting archaeology (not to mention other facets of our lives) become “Googlized”.

I’m at the iCommons iSummit and will be blogging periodically about it.

I just a saw a clip of “Star Wreck“, a Finnish science fiction movie made for something like $20,000. The movie is available for free download and has been since pirated(!) in Russia and China. According to the producers, the piracy and free download helped spread a buzz about the movie, and it has got the attention of major studios and distributors. They made 20X more money by giving it away.

What a model for the future of scholarly publishing.

While at the SAA conference in Austin, I went online to check news. The Free GeoTools blog posted an irresistible link to a new Federal service, “EarthNow! Landsat Image Viewer“. It’s nearly real-time imagery from Landsat satellites. Flying over the Earth at 20,000 MPH or so is oddly entertaining, and sucked away some time I should have devoted to preparing for my “Discussant” role (something new for me).

It’s nice to see my tax-dollars going into something that just reduced my productivity a notch or two. Of course, by linking to it, I’m endangering your productivity too.

Then again, it is nice to take some time out once and a while and just enjoy the neat technology now available.