08/1/14

Neolithic site dig uncovers sophisticated structures


Orkney dig site
A Neolithic site in the Orkney Islands shows our ancestors had sophisticated building skills more than 5,000 years ago. According to a story in The Scotsman,

A groundbreaking excavation of a 5,000-year-old temple complex in Orkney has uncovered evidence to suggest that prehistoric people were a great deal more sophisticated than previously thought.
The archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar, which is still in its early stages, has already thrown up discoveries that archaeologists say will force us to re-evaluate our understanding of how our ancestors lived.
The picture that has emerged so far points to a complex and capable society that displayed impeccable workmanship and created an integrated landscape.

Well, it’s very premature to identify it as a “temple complex.” As for any structure being a “temple” or the whole site being a “temple complex” – that’s just a guess.

The article’s headline is hyperbolic: “Orkney dig dispels caveman image of ancestors.” This is followed by the equally fatuous opening:

THE image of our Neolithic ancestors as simple souls carving out a primitive existence has been dispelled.

I suppose that misrepresentation may have been dispelled from the writer’s rather confused mind, but few others are likely to be that daft.

Orkney dig

The media are ever wont to sensationalize things in this manner. I can’t imagine anyone with at least an elementary school education believes people living 5,000 years ago were “cavemen.” This time is contemporary with the development of early (“proto”) writing in many cultures, and actually later than some finds from 7th millennium BCE China (the Jiahu symbols from Henan, 6600 BCE). It was the time when the first towns were formed.

We’ve known about Neolithic building from the many megaliths and gravesites uncovered, as well as the communities already unearthed. The most famous of which is, of course, Stonehenge, built roughly in the same period as the Orkney site. You can see an imagined reconstruction on the National Geographic site. It’s impressive, but hardly spectacular in the way Stonehenge, Macchu Picu, Angkor Wat or the Pyramids are.

Cavemen, as they are inappropriately called, refers to people living in the Paleolithic period, which Wikipedia reminds us extended,

…from the earliest known use of stone tools, probably by hominins such as australopithecines, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 BP.

The Neolithic is when human communities first start developing beyond the tribal stage; when architecture and agriculture, music, language and religion all developed. While archeologists and anthropologists bicker over the exact time span, in general it ran from about 10,000 BCE to about 4,500 BCE, although some place it as recent as 2,000 BCE for some groups.
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07/25/14

Gangs of Feathered T-Rex


Packs of tyrannosaurs
Imagine, if you will, an early morning scene in the late Cretaceous. The air is quiet as the day warms. At the edge of a large forest a plain of ferns ripples in the light breeze (grass would not evolve for another 20 or so million years). Under the canopy of the ancient beeches and maples, there is movement. Nothing fast, just a hint. A flash of mottled colour against the background. A glint of light off an eye. A soft snuffling. A feather falls silently to the forest floor.

Among the nearby ferns, a pack of ceratopsians grazes, adults watching the woods carefully, nervously, herding the young towards the safety of the pack’s centre with prods of their heads, honking to get the young ones’ attention. They eat the flowers that dot the plain among the ferns and cycads, chew the horsetails that grow at the edge of the ponds and streams. A youngster sees a tasty patch of moss and, unnoticed, slips out between the elders to get it.

Suddenly the forest explodes. Leaves scatter and branches snap as the muscular forms crash through the cover and converge on the young triceratops, separated from the horned protection of the pack. Two large adults, a teenager and two younger tyrannosaurs running a well-coordinated hunt as they have done many times int he past. Their speed makes them a blur against the trees.

The ceratopsians bellow in fear and rage, and quickly form a circle, heads out, protecting the oldest and youngest within the centre. The pack of tyrannosaurs’ charge sounds like thunder, and they screech in anticipation as they race to surround the doomed youngster. They circle rapidly, darting to avoid the feeble attempts at defence from the surrounded dinosaur.

The herd can’t save it, and they move away, quickly, the outer ring still shuffling backwards to keep their ferocious, horned heads facing the danger. The tyrannosaur pack ignores the herd as it feeds, tearing off chunks of the living flesh as the youngster’s screams get fainter.

Their hunger slaked for the moment, the pack would soon retire to the forest to look for another easy target that might venture close by.

Triceratops vs tyrannosaur

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06/18/14

The Strange World of E-Writers


Pulp magazinesThere’s always been a place for amateur or new writers to present their efforts and hope to see print: publications where you could submit your work and hope the editors found it good enough to print in an upcoming issue. That’s how some famous writers got their start, in the pulp magazines of the 1930s and 40s: Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Isaac Asimov and many more. But all of these depended on getting past the gatekeeper, someone like John Campbell: an editor who set standards – slim as they may sometimes be – and wrangled clumsy prose into shape for publication.

And then there have been self-publishing houses that can eschew the editor and simply print your book as you submit it – as long as you paid the bill to do so. This type of publishing house is still operating and plays an important role in getting many local and personal or family books into print. Many authors, frustrated at not being able to find a national publisher, has resorted to self-publishing. The wonderful book of local oral history, Butchers, Bakers and Building the Lakers used this method to get into print.*

Self-publishing runs the gamut from quality books like this to family genealogies, first novels and collections of atrociously sappy poems. It’s not simply self-printing: it’s self-editing, self-layout and self-design (unless you hire a professional to do it for you – there’s still a role for freelance editors and designers). Still, it has a respectable place in the history of publishing.

I remember in the 1950s and 60s there were ads in magazines for poetry books – submit your poem and an amount of money and you would get back a book of poems by aspiring writers like yourself, the printing paid for by the collective authors. No editor, just a compositor and printer. And usually awful stuff between the covers. But who cared about the rest if you saw your name in print?

Then came the internet and a new venue for self publishing: the website. And from that sprang the blog. But most of these efforts have been limited in scope and size. Almost no one reads a novel online, and would-be authors have had to either break their work into smaller parts or bundle it into a downloadable file for offline printing and reading. With the dwindling public attention span, it’s hard to get readers to stick around a website to read even something as long and rambling as these blog posts, let alone a whole book.

The Net also gave a boost to fan fiction because it allowed fans to collectivize and publish online. Like many other forms of writing, fan fiction has a long history. I remember many years ago, in the 70s, writing fantasy short stories in the world created by Fritz Leiber in his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series. Never saw print, mind you, but it’s interesting and entertaining to work within the universe created by another writer – and great practice for the wannabe novelist.

In a similar vein, the original Dungeons and Dragons gamified a fantasy universe for players to both participate in and develop their own, personal story lines – some of which led to fan books and magazine stories.

Now, with the arrival of e-readers, those authors have a new platform, a new audience, and what a world it has spawned.

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06/13/14

When good people do bad things in groups


Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

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06/11/14

E-readers: worth the investment?


BookshelfI have a passionate, somewhat obsessive, relationship with books. Real books: paper, ink and glue. Not digital books. I have a lot of books and I treasure each one like an old friend. I love reading – I read books at least an hour every day, and usually much more. The feel of a book in my hands is a comfort and a delight.

I worked in book publishing – a dream job for anyone with a passion for reading.

I’ve never been seduced by an e-reader – even though at heart I’m a techie geek who likes hardware and gadgets almost as much as books. E-readers always seemed to cater to the pop-fiction crowd and I don’t read much contemporary fiction (mostly non-fiction: science, history, politics fill my shelves). However, I do read fiction: mostly the classics.

I also resist buying a digital book if I can’t share it, can’t keep it on a shelf to re-open later, can’t write my name on the inside, can’t clip it into a pocket or a knapsack. I like to have a small, unruly stack of books beside my bed so I can read chapters from several titles before I sleep. And books on the dining room table. Books on the toilet tank lid. Books on the floor. On the coffee table beside the couch.

An e-reader just seems so tidy.

But I suppose it’s not really very different from buying a computer game or DLC on Steam or buying vehicles on World of Tanks (which I’ve done without any philosophical pondering). They’re digital downloads, too, not actual purchases, like e-books.

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06/3/14

Is silver safe as a medicine?


Effects of colloidal silverThe short answer to that headline question – based on everything I’ve read of late – is no. It’s not that silver has no medical uses – one form has been used in dressings and bandages as an antiseptic (not, as is sometimes claimed, an antibiotic). Silver nitrate is sometimes used to treat warts and corns.

However, the benefits and long-term risks of silver in any form – especially an ingested form – have been not been fully researched.

It’s not that colloidal silver – an entirely different product from topical silver – may not have health-related benefits. It’s just that we don’t really know because there is no solid, peer-reviewed research to back up any of the claims. And those claims make it nothing short of miraculous. Quackwatch lists AIDS, chronic fatigue, herpes, TB, syphilis, lupus, malaria, plague, acne, impetigo, and Lyme disease among the diseases sellers claim their colloidal silver will cure. Others include “Common cold, stomach ulcers, acne, burns, shingles, arthritis, strep, tuberculosis,” fungus, bacteria, polio and cancer.

A 2013 study found colloidal silver (silver ions) improved the efficiency of antibiotics. But the study’s authors warned that this was just a preliminary effort:

Before adding silver to antibiotics, “we’ll have to address the toxicity very carefully”, says Fowler. Ingesting too much silver can also cause argyria, a condition in which the skin turns a blue-grey colour — and the effect is permanent.

Collins says that he and his colleagues saw good results in mice using non-toxic amounts of silver. But, he adds, there are ways to reduce the risk even further. “We’re also encouraging people to look at what features of silver caused the helpful effects, so they can look for non-toxic versions,” he says,

Silver is used in water purification: “The World Health Organization includes silver in a colloidal state produced by electrolysis of silver electrodes in water, and colloidal silver in water filters as two of a number of water disinfection methods specified to provide safe drinking water in developing countries.” That doesn’t mean that it’s safe to drink the stuff from a bottle.

Rosemary JacobsArgyria is an irreversible effect that comes from ingesting too much silver. It turns your skin cyanotic: blue-ish; from the bright blue face at the top of this post to the slate-grey face of Rosemary Jacobs shown here. Jacobs was given colloidal silver by her doctors and ended up with her discoloured skin. her story is tragic but illustrative – and a lot more real than the anonymous “testimonials” on many of the sellers’ sites.

My caution is mostly because of the charlatans in the alternative-health industry and how they promote their products.

Without considerable effort and research on the part of the consumer, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to determine which product is actually what it claims and is safe. My spidey-sense warns me that if it’s so hard to be sure, it’s best to avoid the product entirely.

Far, far too many of the sites that claim research or proof of colloidal silver’s efficacy as a cure point back to one another site that promotes colloidal silver – usually companies or individuals selling related products. Talk about a conflict of interest! Their “testimonials” are often unsubstantiated and anonymous. As Science-Based Medicine notes;

What perpetuates the use of colloidal silver are testimonials, like the nurse who suggested silver to prevent H1N1. The interwebs are filled with unsubstantiated testimonials, for common infections and unusual infections, with one gentleman crediting colloidal silver, rather than the vancomycin and gentamyin, for the cure of his subdural empyema (pus between the brain and skull).

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05/11/14

Confused Science


Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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