Saturday, July 16, 2005

Attention archaeosophers! Calling all archaeosophers! (And archaeosophists, too.)

Is Theory over? Is It in its twilight days? There's a vigorous discussion going on over at the Valve about Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent (edited by Daphne Patai and Wilfrido Corral and published in May).

Why not join the party?

You can find the first post announcing this 'book event' here (in case it's already fallen off the blog's front page), but it appears they've put all contributing posts into their own 'Theory's Empire' category, so you can find all the contributions conveniently gathered together here. (And if you really want to go hog wild they've even set up this Techonorati tag.)

And you should really not miss Timothy Burke's contribution, which he published over at his own blog and which you can find right here.

Friday, June 24, 2005

He's back!

And, ladies and gentlemen, so are we. Not that we've been slacking. No way, José. We've been out spreading truth near and far throughout the blogosphere, one click at a time. We were just cruisin' along, and -- lo! -- an all points bulletin comes crackling in through our radio from deep within the Delta Quadrant: is back in action! Could it be true? We had our doubts... But then we noticed that all three links in Dr Shanks's most recent post (and three of the four in the one before that) went -- in true Archaeolog fashion -- to pages somewhere within his own MetaMedia MegaSite. Nope! No fakes or counterfeits here -- this is the real deal. Well, we welcome you back, Dr Shanks. We hope you've managed to dig yourself out of that mountain of comment spam, and we look forward to reading the posts to come.

But since we just touched on the topic of numbers... Congratulations on your blogospheric success.
Archaeolog receives 60k hits and about 15 thousand visitors a month.
That's fantastic. Or perhaps we should say fantastical. Because -- well, we admit it -- we snooped around a little and took a look at your site stats. And, mirabile visu, your hit counter started ticking eleven months ago, almost to the exact day! And -- since our maths skills are crap -- that made it a bit easier for us to do the calculations. And here's what we saw earlier this morning, as you can see from the timestamp in the image:

So let's see here: 409,908 ÷ 11 = 37,264. Hey, wait a second -- that's only 63% of the monthly '60k hits' you counted. And those '15 thousand [presumably unique] visitors'? Hmm. 72,062 ÷ 11 = 6,551. That's less than half of your count. In fact, at 44%, that's more than 10% less than half... We think. Our brains are beginning to get boggled.

And who exactly is reading, besides us and Alun? Let's take a look!

Looks like... A lot of people surfing for pictures. God only knows what of. And if you were to scroll down that list a little further:

Poker anyone -- maybe soome Texas Hold 'Em? There's and Or maybe you'd like to take a new mortgage out at Could it be that somehow all that comment spam was helping MetaMedia rack up some of its thousands of hits? We haven't a clue. We're not all that good with these computers and stuff.

Anyway, we look forward to the forthcoming rants and ruminations. And we're particularly curious to see how the plan to collectivize Archaeolog works out -- as we said many months back (just scroll two posts down), archaeology and classics have been pretty lousy at exploiting the Web's dialogic potential. But wait -- wasn't the MetaMedia wiki supposed to be a collective? Oh, never mind. What an utter pain in the arse those wiki things are to use anyway. We always thought the perfect thing for Shanks & Co. would be Scoop -- heck, it even bills itself as 'Collaborative Media for the Masses'. It's a completely different beast from simple group blogs (like ours), and it's been used with great success at places like TPM Cafe and The Daily Kos -- anyone can just sign up for a diary or blog within the site and throw in their deep, deep thoughts. For all MetaMedia's bells and whistles, so far it's been way behind the curve in the bigger universe of collaborative projects. But maybe were entering into a brave new world.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Nature vs. Culture

Engaged in a recent peripatetic Étude, two Trireme Veterans found themselves momentarily trapped in a dire modernist predicament. Here we see them in their heroic but vain struggle to close the conceptual gap between Nature and Culture, as they reflexively contemplate their relationship to the landscape, its uses and re-uses, built environment and the material residue of the past as well as its belles noiseuses inscribed everywhere in their surroundings. They survived this human-nonhuman imbroglio, made a full recovery after a brief course of conceptual therapy and returned safely to a state of Nature Transcendent. (Chiffonage [?] by La Perla)

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Welcome, new readers!

The Trireme Veterans would like to thank Alun over at Blogographos and David Meadows at Rogueclassicism for linking to us on their sites. I think we're getting an uptick in traffic.

The Web does all sorts of wonderful things with information. One of the great things that blogs do is enable people to carry on 'conversations' about a countless number of things.

Classics sites have been doing a great job for some time now of aggregating news (and even aggregating aggregated news). But we thought there was a distinct lack of the kind of commentary and opinion-sharing that so relentlessly drive the blogosphere in so many other areas like politics, economics, law, science, etc., etc. We started the TVfT blog in order to begin filling that gap. Our interest lies in pretty much anything related to Greek and Roman literature, archaeology and history (and the people involved in these fields).

We'll try to post with greater frequency, but for the moment we should probably warn you not to hold your breath. We suggest you use a newsreader or a syndication-friendly Web browser that can grab new posts off our Atom feed when we write them (you can find the Atom badge linking to the feed in our sidebar to the right). If you have no clue what that means read this short introduction from the Blogger help pages to get started (it's easy).

We hope you read us every now and then. Comments are welcome from everybody.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Happy Darwin Day!

(Click me!)
God bless 'im. Today he would have turned 196 years old (thanks to Pharyngula for the tip -- and for doing the math). I was doing some catch-up today and reading over some of Dr Shanks's more recent posts. Did anyone read the one on 'Creationism, Intelligent Design and Redefinitions of Science'? Were you a little confused? Me, too. Does he like evolution? Dislike it? Did he like it before he disliked it? It's not immediately clear. But heck, let's take a stab at it anyway.

Let's begin by debunking some statements in Dr Shanks's post:
Intelligent design is another old theological idea meant as a proof of the existence of god.
Well, it's sort of old -- over a decade older than what the IDers want you to think in their challenge to the secular scientific establishment to be open to 'new' ideas. And it's kind of theological -- in the sense that it posits some sort of inscrutable designer or planner. But it's definitely not meant as a 'proof' of God's existence. In fact, the IDers would like nothing more than to be as fully dissociated as possible from faith in the eye of the public. More on this in a moment.
If you were to come across a complex mechanism, parsimony of explanation, the argument goes, would have you infer that it was made by a skilled and intelligent maker, rather than have you posit a long and involved process of mutation, selection and adaptation.

Life is complex. Evolutionary science cannot agree on the precise processes that govern the emergence and disappearance of life's complexity. Surely a more parsimonious adherence to the wonder of the world is to believe in a skilled and intelligent maker?
No. No, it's not. Positing a 'skilled and intelligent maker' is not coming up with a parsimonious explanation. It's cheating. Shit. Maybe the Tooth Fairy dropped off my mail today -- that's a lot more 'parsimonious' than describing the string of post offices, delivery legs and mail carriers in order to explain how the mail got from point A to point B.
Continue reading the rest >>
No serious scientist is going to say that evolution is a fact.
Actually, a great many will and do. See 'Evolution is a Fact and a Theory' published over at the Talk.Origins Archive for starters on this one.
The "truth" of "facts" is a matter for metaphysics, not science. So yes, this brings the truth of evolution into the same theological field as faith in creation.
Uh-oh. Here comes the relativist argument. You knew it was in the pipeline. (Note to the ignorati: my Pocket Postmodern Phrasebook tells me that 'to be in the same theological field' means to have an equally tenuous claim to truth or, alternatively, to require an equivalent leap of faith to believe.) Sure, 'the "truth" of "facts"' is a recondite problem of metaphysics -- but does the process of inference based on logical reasoning and observed data really count for nothing? Is evolution really floating around 'the same theological field' as Genesis and the countless other accounts of how things came to be? (One thing I can tell you for sure: this is beginning to bear an uncanny resemblance to the wingnut rhetoric that casts secularists as parishioners of their own godless church. Here's a great example from David Klinghoffer's recent controversial op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: 'Darwinism, by contrast, is an essential ingredient in secularism, that aggressive, quasi-religious faith without a deity'.)
What gets called postmodern relativism challenges ideas of absolute truth and reality. Whatever the excesses of some of this thinking, it is also now very clear from detailed historical and sociological studies of scientists that they are flawed humans like the rest of us, and science is something done in messy social circumstances. Real science is not some abstract confrontation of reason with the forces and forms of nature.
OK, buried in here is the kernel of something we can agree on -- what Dr Shanks calls the 'messiness' of science. But... Who is it that still believes in the romantic image of the genius individual scientist producing immutable truth by relentlessly applying logic to the data generated in the solitude of his laboratory? The last people on earth to buy into this picture are the scientists themselves. Professional scientists -- those who are constantly paranoid that they'll get 'scooped' by an archenemy in a competing lab, who spend at least as much time seeking funding (and dealing with the messy politics associated therewith) as they do running experiments, who have to deal with moronic colleagues who constantly take their reagents without asking, who heroically rerun experiments in full knowledge that useful results will emerge only a small fraction of the time (if at all), who are all too aware of the potential for error that lies with contaminated samples and sloppy work on the part of subordinates -- these are the people who would be the first to denounce the image of science as an 'abstract confrontation of reason with the forces and forms of nature'.

But herein lies one of the big problems I have with Dr Shanks's post: he seems to think that the messiness of the process of science inevitably contaminates its product. Because the scientific process is fundamentally social, historical, particular and idiosyncratic, he thinks the truth-claims made by scientific ideas -- the theories that emerge from the messy process -- ought to be suspect. And with this I could not disagree more strongly: the truth-claims made by scientific ideas become stronger the more they run through the dirty process of day-to-day scientific work, and it is the messy process itself that makes scientific ideas more worthy of belief than theological ones. Scientists work all the time with what they call facts, but they don't ascribe eternal, immutable truth to their explanations. They begin by throwing out hypotheses, and then they turn around and work to keep their reputations intact by running these ideas through the wringer to see if there's any way they could possibly be wrong. And if they don't, their competitors most certainly will. Ultimately, via a process curiously similar to natural selection, some hypotheses survive because they pass all sorts of clever tests involving positive and negative controls, they accommodate new data as they appear, and they make predictions about observations that turn out to be true. At this point the scientists begin to think they're about as close to truth as they're ever going to get, and they begin calling their hypothesis a theory. Like relativity or quantum electrodynamics. Or evolution. And it's the dirty, sloppy, messy, error-prone, politically influenced and historically and culturally specific process of science that gets them there. The only way Dr Shanks can toss scientific theory into the 'theological field' is if he critiques reason and the inductive process itself. Does he dare to do that? Will he go there?

The other big problem I have with Dr Shanks's post is connected with its title. The ID vs. evolution controversy isn't really about 'redefinitions of science'. This is about nasty, gloves-off, below-the-belt politics. After reading the post one could be forgiven for walking away with only the vaguest sense of what a politically hot issue it is in the United States right now. But this is not some sort of big communal discussion of what science is. The clearest sign of this is that the proponents of intelligent design themselves want nothing more than for ID to be endowed in the eyes of the public with the aura and imprimatur of mainstream, establishment science.

In order to clarify this, let's have a little review, shall we? In fact, let's be fashionable and call it a 'genealogy'. In the beginning God created the local Bible-thumping, forehead-slapping, literalist, fundamentalist preacher. The Bible-thumping preacher and his brethren begat the 'young Earth' creationist movement. In the early 1960s the young Earth creationists begat the 'creation science' movement. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court slew the creation science movement with Edwards v. Aguillard, but even in the throes of death the creation science movement begat the intelligent design movement. And the ID movement is alive and well today. Chris Mooney gives a wonderfully succinct summary of this history in a 'Doubt and About' column on the CSICOP Web site (follow the link in our sidebar to get to CSICOP). What he shows is that with each successive ideological generation, the anti-evolutionists further attenuate the religious content of their message and at the same time ramp up their efforts to knock evolution out of it's position in the curricula of public schools. They're like zombies -- every time they get killed by the judicial system they keep coming back from the dead and fighting with whatever they have left. At this stage of the story, the IDers will vigorously deny any religious basis to their ideas -- indeed, they will condemn any inquiry into their religious beliefs as a personal attack -- but they've forged ahead with their strategy of 'teaching the controversy', by which they mean forcing local school boards across the country to teach the 'problems' with evolution along with evolution itself. This is the best they can do at the moment, because they haven't come up with anything with solid enough scientific credentials to teach next to evolution. Not yet, anyway -- but they're trying very hard. In fact, late last year they finally found what was something of a Holy Grail -- a peer-reviewed publication promoting ID (by the Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer in the obscure taxonomic journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington -- a whole other story). Now the IDers can claim some scientific street cred, no matter how mendaciously, and this has gone a long way toward fueling the debate over ID currently raging in America.

The IDers don't want to redefine science, Dr Shanks. All they want is to find a way for their crypto-creationism to fit into the old definition of science. Because then it can legally make its appearance in the classroom. And this means adopting all the institutional trappings of science, including journals, 'research' institutes and peer-reviewed articles. In fact, trappings are all they've got, because in the idea department they're running on empty.

So what's going on here? Dr Shanks tuned into the ID controversy (oddly enough through a summary in the British press) because he saw what he thought was the flicker of kindred spirits -- people who, like him, have a bone to pick with scientific orthodoxy and who are swimming against the current of consensus:
And there is much on the side of the creationists and intelligent designers -- when the terms of the debate are no longer religious faith versus the supposed atheism of science. ...

Creationists are smart and know science is flawed.
(Note again the rhetoric of science's pseudo-secularism.) What I've tried to show is that the IDers don't think science is flawed -- they think Darwin is, because evolution turns the creation narrative into an allegory instead of a literal truth revealed by God (funny how they never 'teach the controversy' in any other branch of science). What's peculiar though is that there are a variety of aspects to science that one would think Dr Shanks would warm up to, like its creativity, its embrace of new technologies and methods and (especially) the fundamentally collaborative and interdisciplinary nature of the scientific process. What's more, social science approaches to the human past have often been very good at belying the illusion of man as controller of his environment and destiny. Hasn't Jared Diamond done as much as anyone to undermine homocentricity in history and to understand man as an actor within a bigger environment rather than the master of it? Curiously Dr Shanks seems to make gestures in the opposite direction, by claiming that we should recentre human consciousness in our accounts of the past. Here I'm thinking of another of his recent posts, one on Neanderthals, where he urges us to consider 'ways of thinking and ways of life ... everything to do with the cognitive and cultural capacity to deal with life' as the engine of cultural change instead of biology. So it's hubris if you think that inference based on reason and observed data yields any access to truth, but it's not hubris to believe that what people think and feel -- despite all the messy semiotic difficulties involved in recovering those thoughts and feelings -- can explain why long-term human history unfolded the way it did. Yeah, the Trireme Veterans are still figuring that one out, too.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Disaster porn and Pompeii

Dana Stevens, TV and pop culture blogger at Slate, shares some interesting thoughts about the Discovery Channel's special Pompeii: The Last Day:

In the recent (and excellent) documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, the director and film scholar Thom Andersen makes the argument that disaster movies tend to appear at moments when a culture is in crisis about the legitimacy of authority (hence the burgeoning of the genre in the post-Watergate years). Representations of natural destruction on a massive scale—fires, floods, earthquakes—must be somehow paradoxically comforting, he theorizes, perhaps because they allow us to imagine the worst fate the gods can visit upon us, while still allowing us, the viewers, to survive.

I wonder what it says about the current cultural moment that this weekend there will be a golden opportunity to ponder the wrath of nature on television. The Discovery Channel special Pompeii: The Last Day, premiering Sunday night (9 p.m. ET), combines science documentary and historical fiction to create a variant on the genre the writer Paul Lukas once dubbed "weather porn." Pompeii is natural-disaster porn; it may rely on impeccable historical research and painstaking dramatic reconstruction, but its real reason for existence is the money shots, spectacular sequences of mass chaos and suffering that, as Lukas writes, "leave you staring slack-jawed at the screen, mumbling, 'Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God' and 'Holy s**t, holy ****ing s**t.'"

Read the rest of her post here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Jacques Derrida, R.I.P.

The Trireme Veterans will soon celebrate our three months of survival in the Internets -- and the three months since Jacques Derrida shuffled off this mortal coil. We never paid our respects. In a small gesture to remedy this we republish below the obituary written by Fafnir of the incomparable Fafblog, whose eloquence is beyond our capacities:
flowers for derrida

Jacques Derrida died yesterday. We threw a Deathday Party to undermine the hegemonic life/death binary but for some reason everybody was still kinda sad.

"I don't get it," says me. "How could Derrida die? He was a social construct."
"True," says Giblets. "Nothin is outside the text, includin Derrida."
"Then he couldn't die," says me. "After all if he did he would be reinforcin the hegemonic Dead Derrida/Live Derrida binary."
"We must deconstruct Derrida's death!" says Giblets. "Beginning by inverting the priveleged duality! Derrida is alive!"
"He's stuffin his face with cake right now over there!" says me.
"Mmmfff," says Derrida. "Waffff uppppf fellaf."
"Derrida stop eatin all our cake!" says Giblets. "That cost good money!" Man that Derrida's always been a greedy bastard.