Monday, July 31, 2006

Caught A Lite Sneeze

Went to bed last night with the realisation that I'd caught a throat bug. Woke up with a smarting port-side tonsil, powered up the laptop, and found that I've also been hit with a friendly blogging chain letter, The Book Meme. Boys 'n' girls, in dealing with smooth lova Carl at Hot Cup of Joe, keep your mind protected!

1) One book that changed your life?
    J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Sent me questing through Fantasyland for years, including a decade in the Stockholm Tolkien Society. Probably made me an archaeologist as well.
2) One book you have read more than once?
    Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad. Quirky and hilarious robot stories.
3) One book you would want on a desert island?
    It'd have to be long-lasting and it'd have to be practically useful. Does Encyclopaedia Britannica count as one book?
4-5) One book that made you laugh/cry?
    Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole. The Cappuccino Years. Those books make you laugh and cry.
6) One book you wish had been written?
    Hygelac Hrethelson, Chlochilaicus. An autobiography. Vols 1-7. We could really use some good historical sources for early and mid-1st millennium Scandinavia.
7) One book you wish had never had been written?
    Michael Shanks & Christopher Tilley, Re-constructing archaeology. Theory and practice. Anti-science in our midst.
8) One book you are currently reading?
    Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers. It's like a Beatles record, incredible brilliance from someone who's 24.
9) One book you have been meaning to read?
    Joseph Addison, Selected essays from "The Tatler", "The Spectator" and "The Guardian". I really like essays and I'm working through the bigguns of the form.
10) Now tag five people -OK, people, you know what you gotta do.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Free Beatles E-Book

The Beatles' 1966 album Revolver marks the beginning of their late, psychedelic period. It's widely regarded as the best guitar pop album released not only by the Beatles, but by anyone, ever.

Raymond Newman of London has celebrated Revolver's 40th anniversary by releasing a well-written and painstakingly researched e-book about the album, its making and its context. The book is Creative Commons, free to download and disseminate in unmodified form. I've read the first quarter of it and can't wait to continue!

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Tech Note: Qtek 9100 PDA Improvements

I've spent nearly six months with the Qtek 9100 Pocket PC, and I'm very happy with it. I use it for a variety of purposes:
  • Phone
  • Camera
  • MP3 player
  • E-mail
  • Web browser
  • Geocaching database
  • Word processor
  • Calculator
  • E-book reader
  • Games
  • Flashlight
Really not bad for something the size of a soap!

But of course it could be improved. Here's a list of things I'll be looking for in my next handheld.
  • Better wifi antenna. The one in the 9100 only lets you connect when you're sitting nearly on top of the router.
  • Better camera and/or camera control software. The one in the 9100 sucks spectacularly.
  • Better touch screen accuracy. The 9100 and I quite often do not agree about exactly what part of the screen I'm touching with the stylus.
  • Hardware key lock button. Getting the machine out of key lock mode with the aid of the touch screen and a fingernail is tiresome.
  • Full-screen time & date readouts when in sleep mode. The 9100's readouts are tiny and invisible in sleep mode.
  • Standard USB drive capability. In order to get stuff off from and onto the 9100, I need to install ActiveSync from Microsoft on the host machine. I just want to plug and play on any machine I happen to sit at.
Update 29 July: How could I forget? There's one more thing I want in my handheld:
  • A GPS navigator.
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Fritz Leiber, Skeptic

I just read a delightful little anthology of short writings by Fritz Leiber, one of my favourite authors. Leiber (1910-1992) was an American writer, editor and actor who is most well known for his immortal sword & sorcery stories about Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Leiber in fact coined the sub-genre's name, although Burroughs and Howard had of course written in a similar vein before him. As his main literary influences, he named Shakespeare and Lovecraft.

The anthology, The Book of Fritz Leiber (1974), interleaves short fiction, essays and reviews. The last piece is a short story from 1969, "Cat's Cradle", with a wryly painted scene from Leiber's home life.

Helen Hunter, wife of late middle-age sf writer Harry Hunter, invites their attractive new neighbour Eloise Neering for drinks. The young woman turns out to believe in UFOs, and the evening ends with Mr Hunter teasing Neering about her ideas while making clumsy ouvertures to her under his wife's watchful eye. Neering goes home, Mr Hunter passes out from drink in an armchair, Mrs Hunter goes to bed, and the story turns to the Hunters' cats who go out on a nocturnal adventure.

Before falling asleep, Mr Hunter makes a rousing skeptical speech to his wife, who "knew the habit husbands have of berating to their wives any woman to whom they are sexually attracted". Clearly, not much has changed on the nutty fringe since 1969.
"God deliver me from that incredible kook! Not only a saucer nut, but she believes Bacon wrote Shakespeare -- while riding in a saucer over New Atlantis, I suppose. It's the invariable sign of the crackpot -- they believe not just some but all of the guff. Not only saucers and Bacon, but vegetarianism, reincarnation, compost farming, pyramidology, Hollow Earth, instant wisdom through psychedelic drugs, gut-level thinking smarter than Einstein's induced by bongo drums, the whole lot, besides being unalterably opposed to every chemical and engineering discovery that's holding our collapsing civilization together. Did you notice how she didn't turn a hair when I mentioned plutonium in the drinking water, but went pale when I added fluoride? What an ignorant bitch!"
The cats, of course, encounter an actual flying saucer.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

List Wars

Technorati has finally gotten its shit together and updated the link count for Salto sobrius after almost two months. I'm proud to find that I am now way past my Christian pal Claude Mariottini again on the archaeology Top-10.

Another entity doing well in the lists is Scienceblogs, the portal page of the science bloggers affiliated with Seed Magazine. Here's where you'll find Pharyngula, for instance, which I read religiously. Errm. Scienceblogs has just reached the Technorati Top-100. That's not a thematic group like the archaeology list: a science page is actually one of the one hundred most linked-to blog sites of any description. Encouraging!

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Lennart, International Casanova

We have a new neighbour whose son is named after a movie star, let's call him Archibald. He's reminded me of an old ICQ pal, let's call her Ella, whose son has the same name. Here follows the story of how Ella fell in love over ICQ with a dead-beat Swede, let's call him Lennart, and had a baby named Archibald.

ICQ ("I seek you") is a real-time chat program like MSN Messenger. I've been using it for years to keep me company while working at my solitary desk. It allows me to keep in touch with on-line friends and share the daily woes and victories, and now and then somebody new pops up and says hello. I used to get a lot of hellos from women in Asia and Eastern Europe who were looking for a Western husband and spoke very bad English. This was frankly tiresome. But since I put in my personal description on the chat service that I'm married with two kids, there's little of that.

I got to know Ella in early 1999. She lived in, let's say, Australia, and was a teacher. Divorced, one kid, tentatively interested in finding a new boyfriend. And she started talking to Lennart from Malmö over ICQ. He was really sweet, really nice, and told her he was divorced, with small kids. She invited him to Australia, he came to live with her, and they had a son. I don't know how she imagined that he'd solve the problem of having kids in Sweden too.

In November 2002, Ella got in touch with me after a long hiatus. She asked me if I would translate a letter to Lennart's parents into Swedish for her. Lennart had zipped off home to Sweden without saying goodbye, and to hide his tracks he had fooled Ella into believing that his folks didn't understand English. It was, as you can imagine, a very angry letter, and it was accompanied by pictures of paunchy Lennart at Ella's place and of their beautiful little son. Archibald has European and Aborigine ancestry, absolutely adorable.

A week later I had the novel experience of acting as a telephone interpreter between Ella and Annika, the mother of Lennart's Swedish children. Annika understands but cannot speak English. During this friendly and supportive conversation, Annika explained to Ella that she and Lennart had never even gotten separate apartments before he vanished to Australia. Lennart had apparently lied compulsively to both ladies. He was now living with Annika and the kids again, including a new infant conceived during a short visit to Sweden in 2001. I helped the ladies to make certain plans.

Another week later, Ella and little Archibald came to Stockholm and stayed a few days with us. Then they took a train to Malmö. And one morning, Annika's door bell rang about eight o'clock... Here's what Ella told me afterwards.

Lennart came blearily out of the bedroom and caught sight of Ella and Archibald. "What the hell are you doing here!?", he stuttered. Then followed a three-hour cross-examination where the mothers of Lennart's children took turns at interrogating him in Swedish and English. He made a lot of visits to the bathroom and looked increasingly haggard as the morning passed. Meanwhile, Lennart's Australian son played peacefully with his Swedish baby half-sister. Every time Lennart lied to one lady, the other shouted "Not true!". He had no idea that they had agreed on a battery of questions beforehand, tailored to expose his lies and conflicting versions. Nor did he know that Annika had read a sizeable sample of his love letters to Ella.

There was news too. For example, while Annika was giving birth to her youngest daughter, Lennart had been in bed with Ella in Australia. After returning to Sweden, he had told everyone that he was working for an international company that had in fact sacked him in Australia the preceding summer. Ella duly produced a letter of "recommendation" from this employer, which stated that Lennart was a hopelessly undependable slob. He then confessed that he had actually spent the days of the past month in a Malmö coffee shop, telling Annika he was working.

Before Ella left Annika's apartment, little Archibald asked his father, "Why Lennart leave Archibald? Why Lennart leave?". When Lennart didn't reply, the boy said, "Lennart yucky!".

I don't know how things worked out afterwards. I think Ella got single custody and alimony, to the extent that it would be possible to wring any cheques out of Lennart. She told me that he wouldn't be able to visit Australia again, because then her father and brothers would beat the man to death. I gather their ancestors used to be warlike people.

Dear Reader, feel free to say hello to me on ICQ. My number is 3776153. Just please don't try to talk me into making any babies.

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[Tuesday evening. The email link to Blogger didn't work.]

With the ladies of my family, I'm on the Turku-Stockholm ferry, having spent two days with friends at their summer house in Marttila parish, Finland Proper province, Finland.

The name translates to St Martin's, the patron saint of the parish church. The current wooden structure dates from the 18th century, the first erection on the site took place in 1503, and before that there were small wooden chapels from the 14th century in neighbouring villages. Some clunky wooden sculpture -- including part of a mounted St Martin -- and a baptismal font survive from that time.

Marttila is mostly woodland and fens, what the Finns call erä, or korppi, or salo. A hundred words for boggy evergreen forest... We hiked a few kilometers to a rocky island in a fen, walking on wooden footbridges, picking cloudberries. Beautiful view. Earlier today we went swimming in a disused sand pit and had a look at the spindly skijumping tower that suicidal locals have raised. Two snowmobiles sat under it, waiting for winter.

Marttila village has three great stone memorials. The biggest one is in the churchyard: a collective tombstone for the war dead of WW2. Finnish regiments were organised by village, which gave great troop morale: routing or deserting is out of the question when you fight alongside relatives and neighbours. But this also meant that if a regiment was wiped out, then a village lost an entire generation of men. As did Marttila. The grandfather of our hostess died this way at age 31, leaving a widow and five kids. She later married the farmhand, 15 years her junior, and had another five kids by him.

Another memorial stone marks the place of a battle in 1599 during the Cudgel War under Carolus IX.

The third stone memorial is a bit weird. It was put in place by the Lions' Club in 1974 to commemorate the last beheading in Finland, in 1824. A young man had struck his father so that the man fell and hit his head against the fireplace, dying. The murderer wanted nothing more than to be executed. But what was the intent of the memorial? To celebrate the beheading of a murderer? To celebrate that Finland quit using this particular method of capital punishment very early? Or just to memorialise something Historic taking place in this otherwise fairly anonymous village?

Historic, schmistoric. Our car got really dusty today on the forest tracks, and that's a historic event too in the only meaningful sense, that is, that it actually happened in the past. Dear Reader, please let me know if you erect a memorial to this event.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Happy Meal Pop

The other day my kids and I had lunch at the Meat Clown's establishment. With my son's Happy Meal came an interesting toy. It's a hand-held music player, capable of blaring a single hard-wired song by a British girl group put together on a reality TV show, emulating the Spice Girls. For obvious reasons I haven't taken the thing apart (yet), but I imagine it's actually got a microprocessor and a sizeable chunk of flash memory. Pretty impressive for something you get with a hamburger.

But it's a nasty piece of work, for several reasons. It's loud enough to hurt the kids' ears, especially since it's shaped like a phone handset (or is that a toilet freshener?). Also, judging from a minuscule "garbage can forbidden" ideogram on the back side, its paired LR44 batteries aren't environment-friendly. Finally, it does get a tiny bit on your nerves when your three-year-old suddenly gains the power to play music at you: but only this one song, again and again and again.

And the music? It could have been worse -- pretty unremarkable, but not without qualities. Still, if the record company thinks I'll order a CD... No, amigos, this is the kind of marketing ploy that provokes boycots.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ohio Rock

Geographer Ulf Erlingsson, author of a book identifying Atlantis with Neolithic Ireland, has kindly alerted me to an unusual find. It's a worked sandstone slab found by Mr William M. Smith near Manchester, Ohio in 1977. The slab's function and date are discussed among amateur archaeologists, but apparently no professional scholar has published any views about the find. The finder believes that the artefact is very old indeed and that it is a casting mould used to make an astronomical instrument. Although I am completely ignorant of the archaeology of Ohio, I do make my living as an archaeological research scholar, so I thought I might collect my thoughts on the matter and put them on-line, for what they're worth.

Here's a Quicktime animation allowing you to rotate the slab and look at its top face from different angles.

The stone is a flat triangular sandstone slab measuring about 1.5 m across, with a shallow V-shaped trough carved on one side, and half a funnel-shaped depression remaining between the arms of the V. The funnel looks like half a water drain. The trough looks a bit like a bird bath, an interpretation considered by the finder.

I have no detailed information as to the find context. The spot (N 38°42.867,W 083°34.116) is about 200 m from an old cabin foundation. Other finds include "broken flint pieces".

I believe that the finder has been misled in his archaeo-astronomical interpretation by zoologist and nutty-fringe epigraphist Barry Fell who corresponded with him on the matter in 1979. An archaeologist has also told him that the carving has been made with stone tools, which seems highly unlikely.

Writes Steve C. Gordon:
For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ohio was a national leader in the production of building stones ...


In simple terms, the building stones of Ohio are all sedimentary rocks represented by fossiliferous limestone and carboniferous sandstone. Ohio's earliest commercial sandstone quarries, located near Buena Vista in Scioto County, were opened ca. 1830 and supplied much of the quality "freestone" used in buildings along fashionable streets in Portsmouth and Cincinnati. Commercial sandstone quarries opened in Berea and South Amherst in northeastern Ohio a few years later. These became one of the nation's chief sources of buff-colored sandstone.

Sandstone, softer, less friable, and more uniform in texture than limestone, was well suited to architectural details, finish work, and carved ornament. Blocks of it with neatly tooled margins were frequently used for foundations and wall surfaces, plinths, quoins, beltcourses, lintels, and lugsills. Its virtuosity as a building stone and decorative element would not be challenged until the mass production of terracotta and concrete. [Link]
The object is in my view most likely a piece of recent post-Columbian building stone having something to do with water (viz the funnel-shaped drain).

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Carnival Crowd

As noted here before, participating in popular blog carnivals is a good way to market your blog. But, Dear Reader, the real kicker is hosting one. Yesterday the Tangled Bank carnival opened here. Look at the daily unique visitors stats for 1-19 July to the right.

But I shouldn't kid myself. These readers follow the carnival, and they don't care much where it's hosted as long as it appears on time. But even if only 0.5% of the carnival visitors stay on as regular readers, it would mean a significant increase in the blog's readership. And most of these new regulars would be Americans, that is, furriners.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Tangled Bank 58

Photograph by G. Tingey -- see below.

Dear Reader, welcome to Salto sobrius and the 58th Tangled Bank blog carnival. For first-time visitors, let me mention that Salto sobrius is a blog about archaeology, skepticism and sundry musings kept by an archaeologist based in Stockholm, Sweden. Depending on what direction you're looking from, archaeology is a subject in the humanities or the social sciences, heavily dependent on methods from the natural sciences. But science isn't defined by what you look at, but by the way you look. So I'm proud to have had a number of entries on Tangled Bank over the past six months, and even more proud to host the carnival now. Lots of very good stuff here!

I've ordered the entries thematically and sorted them from the most recent thing to arise in the world on down to the earliest. That's how I'm used to working in the field: first de-turf, then move down through the deposits documenting and classifying stuff until you hit unaltered geology or come out in China. Enjoy!

Culture & Tech
Zoology & human physiology
Cellular biology
Molecular biology
Greg Tingey took the picture of tangled greenery above in his London garden and kindly allowed me to publish it here. Says Greg,
I deliberately try to get a high species count, as it encourages the wildlife, up to and including foxes. And down through the frogs, newts, dragonflies and damselflies to frog-food etc.

The white flowers are a native wild species, Common Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea). The very green leaves coming up are Angelica, grasses various, the leaves of a potted (you can't see the pot) Melaleuca drooping down on the left, and a couple of leaves of Buddliea lindleyana showing. You can also see a dwarfed (I prune it) Betula pendula and a potted/bonsai Carpinus japonica.

The pieces of log are also Silver Birch - deliberately brought from a wood about 20 km away, in the hope that the mycorrizia from various Boletus species will grow - I've spead over-ripe caps there as well, and it all makes a good home for the beetles.

What you can't see is the Pinus taiwanensis over the top, which hosts a fine crop of ladybirds in the first warmer Spring days - nine species (so far) this year.
That's all for this time. The next Tangled Bank will open on 2 August at Science and Reason. Don't miss it!

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Turn Off, Tune Out, Write a Book

Somebody kindly clued me in to ex-hippie Chris Locke's hilarious blog Mystic Bourgeoisie. It chronicles his work on a book-to-be about the rise of New Age Boomer anti-intellectualism in the US.

"The unlikely story of how America slipped the surly bonds of Earth & came to believe in signs & portents that would make the Middle Ages blush". Great stuff for anyone with a soft spot for the sillier side of the counterculture. R.A. Wilson fans, take note.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Overheard in Stockholm

Overheard in New York is a great blog that publishes conversations overheard in the streets and on the subway (with humorous commentary). The Swedish version is called Tjuvlyssnat and is also very good. This entry just came up.
A very hairy guy in shorts and a tank top gets on the subway train.

Boy 5+: "Mommy, why has that man got fur?"

Mother: "Oh, hush!"

Boy 5+, yells: "But why has he got fur?"

Everyone around smiles except Hairy Guy who scowls at the kid.

Boy 5+, a little frightened: "Mommy, now the bear's looking at me in an angry way!"
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Food World

One of the perks of living in Fisksätra is the food. The people here make a cosmopolitan mix, and they sure haven't forgotten Mom's cooking, even though they may no longer live on the same continent as her.

Our Turkish grocer is particularly good. He's from Istanbul, "nearly Greek", as he says himself, speaks several languages, a former history teacher and revolutionary who was encouraged by the authorities to leave Turkey for greener pastures. He's now a petty capitalist with a nice house, but there's still a bust of Lenin in the living room. Our kids are in the same Kindergarten.

At his store, Matvärlden, i.e. "Food World", we get a lot of affordable exotic foodstuffs in really funky packaging from unusual places. European Turkdom maintains its own distribution channels, so a lot of interesting stuff comes to us from the southeast. Not just Near Eastern food, but German and Polish as well. For instance, I recently discovered Berner Würstchen from Wolf GmbH in Schwandorf. They're extremely succulent sausages with built-in Emmenthaler cheese, and, get this, they're wrapped in bacon when you buy them. Eat one, swoon, and fill that week's need for protein and saturated fats at one go. Spitzenqualität!

Another cool product is sour-cherry jam from the Dashte Morghab Food Industrial Group in Iran. Sweet, slightly tart and aromatic, the cherries still very berry-like and sometimes with pips. The Dashte Morghab Group also boast that they supply 50% of the Iranian market’s tomato paste. "We freeze, squeeze, pickle & preserve them for you." Awesome.

I could go on. How often, for instance, do you see cassava or dried kelp from Chile, both looking a lot like firewood, in your grocery store? Five-litre glass jars of Polish pickles? They've got great mutton too, from Gotland -- our southerners take mutton very seriously. And eating Gotlandic mutton chops helps to keep the kind of sites I wrote my thesis about free of undergrowth.

The only disappointment I've had with the Turkish store is their cookies. I must have tried twenty varieties of cookies from obscure Greek and Turkish factories, and they all suck. But if I move a bit up the price scale, they have some serious baklawa and kataifi...

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Prehistory of an Airport

Large airports are just about the most futuristic environments I know of. Deliberately hi-tech-looking new buildings, glass and steel, and the rest covered with tarmac and roll-out lawns. They might as well be spaceports. It's as if these places had no history.

I visited Arlanda airport north of Stockholm today. It's the largest one in the country. Like something out of a Gibson novel, it does have a lonely 11th century runestone sitting in Terminal 2. But otherwise it's all brand new.

Still, quite a bit is known about the Arlanda area's history and archaeology. The airport is on land that used to be commons between the hundreds of Ärlinghundra and Seminghundra in the Middle Ages. The name Arlanda is actually a recent reconstruction based on a 1316 mention of Ärlinghundra (provincia Aarland). According to place-name scholar Stefan Brink, it harks back to an early 1st millennium tribal area named *Arland (cf. Sollentuna - *Soland, Vallentuna - *Valland, and Oland). When the first humble beginnings of the airport were inaugurated in 1954, it was simply called Halmsjöfältet, "the [air] field at Lake Halmsjön".

A lot of excavations took place in the late 90s before the third landing strip was built, and there's a good book (see below) presenting some of the results. The hundreds commons (häradsallmänning) were infertile areas of hilly woodland, and they haven't been attractive to farmers for over two thousand years. But before that, while primitive agricultural methods were still in use, the area was full of settlements. A number of very nice Neolithic sites were excavated.

The area is full of archaeological sites in the National Register. That is, the airport is surrounded by a dense carpet of sites (black-edged blobs) that somehow seem to avoid the landing strips and surrounding installations. This is of course due to the fact that the airport was built before the national ancient monuments survey had learned to recognise settlement sites. But there are still ancient things creeping up on the glass-and-steel: for instance, something that looks a lot like an Early Iron Age stone setting (Raä Husby-Ärlinghundra 93) just outside Terminal 2. Oh yes, the archaeology is still there. All we have to do is wait for the airport to fall out of use too and become one big mutha of a site.

Anund, J. (ed.). 2003. Landningsplats – forntiden. Arkeologiska fördjupningsstudier kring yngre stenålder, järnålder och historisk tid, inom det område som tas i anspråk för den tredje landningsbanan vid Arlanda flygplats. Riksantikvarieämbetet, Arkeologiska undersökningar, Skrifter nr 49. Stockholm. 220 pp. ISBN 91-7209-294-7. [Review]
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Friday, July 14, 2006

Rupert Sheldrake Gets Air Time

I listen regularly to the BBC's weekly technology podcast, Digital Planet. Always interesting and fun. But I was surprised and disappointed by the podcast from 10 July. It included a segment on discredited parapsychological researcher Rupert Sheldrake, occasioned by his internet telepathy test.
In short, although Sheldrake commands some respect as a scientist because of his education and degree, he has clearly abandoned science in favor of theology and philosophy.

Skeptic's Dictionary
But the programme hosts' attitude was basically "this is funny stuff, but it's good to know that a Real Scientist such as Sheldrake is performing these Experiments to check it out". Sheldrake was allowed to quote, unchallenged, test results with great statistical significance suggesting that telepathy is real.

What the hosts should have mentioned, but did not, is:
  • That similar but more carefully controlled experiments have been performed time and time again without anyone finding any support for the hypothesis that telepathy exists,
  • That Rupert Sheldrake is a scientist with a really bad reputation, and
  • That Sheldrake's internet test is completely useless as it incorporates no way of ensuring that the subjects are blind to each other.
Gareth Mitchell and Bill Thompson, your show is usually excellent. But I'm very sorry: this time you've really slipped up.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Geocaching Around Lake Orlången

Spent the afternoon geocaching around Lake Orlången with my daughter. We took a break at a little beach where Signe dug sand and I read (and dug) Heinlein, and another one for shish kebab and a hot dog. Here's some of what we saw thanks to the caches:
  • A freight container graveyard / hibernation site
  • Pond lilies
  • A 19th century windmill
  • The site of a watermill
  • Mysterious plastic-lined ponds in the middle of the Gladö woods
  • The entrance to a radio installation under a mountain
  • A space communications firm with innumerable large satellite dishes whose servos were keening softly in a hi-tech manner
  • A roebuck
  • A cat hunting for voles
  • An Iron Age hillfort with a view (above)
  • A toad crossing the road
On the way home I listened last week's episode of Escape Pod, with a particularly good story by Mur Lafferty: "I Look Forward to Remembering You". It's about time travel and prostitution. Imagine not being very happy with the way your sex life once started out. What if you could send a hot trained professional back in time to do something about it?

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Underwater Geocaching

I did something pretty far out today with my daughter and a couple of geocaching friends. We went out in a little boat and found an underwater geocache (waypoint code GCJ384), sitting on the bottom of Lake Mälaren at a depth of four meters. Underwater visibility was only two meters. Before locating the cache, I found a broken scuba flipper. The lengths to which some people will go for their hobbies!

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Eva Olsson 1954–2006

When I started blogging I had no idea that I'd be running obituaries here. But in the last few months I've found myself writing about Bengt Händel and Christian Lindqvist, and last week I learned about Eva Olsson passing away. I really didn't see that coming. I've known Eva since the early 90s, met her in March at her office in Örnsberg and we chatted about her work with Pitted Ware. OK, I knew her health wasn't great, but now she's gone!? Some banal wound leading to blood-poisoning and then game over.

I liked Eva a lot though I can't say I knew her very well. So instead of writing something myself, I asked Roger Wikell to become Salto sobrius's first guest blogger. The following is his appreciation of Eva, translated by myself.

Eva Olsson
By Roger Wikell

Less than a week ago I received the sad news that Eva Olsson has left us all too early. A restrained Britta Kihlstedt called me from her holidays. I was looking forward to a month's holiday myself: the weather was as good as Swedish summers ever get. Sun shining from a clear blue sky. A warm sea breeze. The archipelago, friends, world cup football. The news about Eva was as if a dark cloud had suddenly appeared, casting a chilly shade despite the summer heat.

This is really hard to understand. The brain translates the words: you can read them and see them, but understanding emotionally isn't as easy. Immediately you're stuck by what you should have done – and by what Eva should have done. Her archaeological knowledge was great and you could always turn to her with questions. Now there's a gap.

Eva had worked in archaeology since the 70s, and those who have collaborated with her are many. Some have worked with her far more than I have, and might be more suited for writing this. But since Martin asked, I'm carving these runes from my own perspective. Even though I haven't really realised yet that she's gone.

The first time I met Eva was in the early 80s. She was kind enough to work with local historical societies, hembygdsföreningar, and I was active there on amateur excavations. I learned my first lessons about Stone Age settlement sites with her as site manager in 1984 on the Late Mesolithic site at Häggsta in Huddinge parish, Södermanland. Two years ago we celebrated 20 years of field archaeology together in the region. Eva was always keen on new source material and new interpretations. It's been an exciting ride, extending our knowledge of the Stone Age of Eastern Middle Sweden. 10 000 years in two decades, quite the intellectual adventure. Eva always took part in the discussion, not only regarding the Stone Age. How can a voice just fall silent like this?

Eva was always meticulous in planning, documentation and reporting. Her exacting, sometimes even pedantic control would sometimes feel a bit constraining, but it was also a source of inspiration. The work got done well. I always felt goaded to think and write clearly, and not make any half-baked statements. Eva always had time for questions, and her knowledge was great. If she couldn't give you the answer, then she could tell you where to look for it. But she was also interested in what you were doing and how you were feeling outside archaeology. There was always time for some warm-hearted words.

This sudden silence – it's a damned shame.

Larsson, M. & Olsson, E. (eds). 1997. Regionalt och interregionalt. Stenåldersundersökningar i Syd- och Mellansverige. Skrifter / Riksantikvarieämbetet, Arkeologiska undersökningar 23. Stockholm. [Review]

Kihlstedt, B.; Olsson, E. & Runeson, H. 2004. Skärgårdsbor med vida horisonter. Uppdrag arkeologi. Stockholms län under dina fötter 2004. Stockholm.

Update 3 August: Funeral service on Friday 1 September in Högalid church, Stockholm. (I don't know the time.) Everyone welcome. To join the tea party afterwards, give notice to Halldoff undertakers on 08 - 10 56 02 no later than 28 August.

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Carnival's Coming

A blog carnival is a regularly appearing thematic collection of selected blog writing. Carnivals move from blog to blog according to a pre-agreed schedule, just like a real-life carnival travels from fairground to fairground. Entries from Salto sobrius have appeared regularly on a number of carnivals, and now it's time for me to host my first: the science carnival Tangled Bank is coming here on Wednesday 19 July!

Tangled Bank is organised by one of my favourite bloggers, the atheist liberal biologist PZ Myers, and so it is mainly about biology, medicine and natural history. But it's got yielding thematic boundaries: my science posts are mainly archaeological in nature, but have nevertheless been accepted. "It's sufficient that you show some passion for the science of the natural world."

I'd be very pleased if Salto sobrius's regulars would contribute something to the carnival to show what we've got going over here in our neck of the woods. Just write to, put the words "Tangled Bank" somewhere in the subject line, and provide a link to your article along with a sentence or two of descriptive summary. You won't regret it: Tangled Bank has a huge readership and generates a lot of exposure.

Oh, right, the pic. Blog carnivals obviously take their name from travelling amusement parks, not from South American samba parades. But I really like that pic, for reasons of biology and natural history. So it's far from gratuitous in this context.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

Rock Festival: Accelerator 2006, Stockholm

I've never been to a real rock festival, and I must say that I find the idea unattractive. I mean, living in tents, makeshift toilets, mud... Not to mention the fact that several days of non-stop rock concerts sounds like a nasty chore. But I do like urban mini-festivals, which allow me to hear several bands in a few hours and then go home. Last night I attended the Accelerator mini-festival in Stockholm, and I had a great time. So many talented, innovative, hard-working musicians! I am in awe!

The festival was in the old converted Munich brewery near the terminal of my commute train line. (This happens to be the venue where I heard Mercury Rev in 1999, approached a girl unsuccessfully, ended up talking with her friend instead, and the friend later invited me to a party, where I picked up this hot Chinese girl, and we just celebrated our seventh anniversary. But I digress.)

Much of the festival premises were under open sky, it was a beautiful evening, and the brewery is on a hillside overlooking Riddarfjärden, "Bay of the Knights". So there was a nice view quite apart from that of the sun-tanned and summery attendees.

I heard hour-long concerts with six bands. (I just can't bring myself to saying "I saw a band". That expression always makes me want ask, oh, really, what where the band members doing when you saw them? Having lunch? Shopping for undies?) All are centred on standard guitar-pop quartets, some with various extensions.

The Spinto Band from Delaware were new to me. All I'd heard of them before were four songs from their 2005 debut album Nice and Nicely Done, but I was already enthusiastic. New-wavy psychedelia with a lot of harmony singing. They're a college boy six-piece, the basic quartet augmented with keyboards and an extra guitar, and mandolin on some songs. Turns out they're a sight to see as well: The Spinto Band do choreographed rhythmic spazzing. Yep, the front men move as if they suffered from cerebral palsy, in time with the music. And to one side, the portly keyboard player gazes out over the proceedings with a beatific, baffled smile as he sings "ooooh, aaaah". One of the front men, by the way, looks, moves, dresses and sings like a young David Byrne.

Apart from their own very strong material, the band covered Tiffany's "I Think We're Alone Now" from 1987 and The Motors's "Airport" from 1978. The Spinto Band are highly skilled musicians and composers, but they're also clowns, and everything they do seems tongue in cheek. Keep them in mind for the future.

From quirky exuberance I went straight to Johnny Cash Land to listen to the Silver Jews from Nashville, Tennessee. They are a six-piece too with the same instrumentation as the Spinto Band's, but that's as far as the similarity goes. The Jews are touring with their fifth album, 2005's Tanglewood Numbers, recorded after the band leader almost died from depression and substance abuse. He cut a striking figure last night, a tall emaciated man with a black beard, like a mournful prophet straight out of the Old Testament. But his wife is really cute and plays a mean bass, so I think he's probably happier now. And they have a really good lead guitarist. I liked them much better live than I did in headphones.

Then, aah, one of the bands that made me buy a ticket: the Essex Green, from Brooklyn, NY. Pure power-pop bliss. They're a basic quartet plus a keyboardist who also plays the flute. Heart-rending girl-boy harmony singing. I heard them in Stockholm two years ago, and since then they've put their old touring bass player behind the drums and stolen The Ladybug Transistor's bass player. Great band, great show as the sun went down, sheer joy.

As the evening cooled down, the big names played. First the Raconteurs from Nashville. I've written about them here before: they're a supergroup with Jack White of the White Stripes and Brendan Benson of solo fame as front men, a basic quartet plus a touring keyboard player.

Like most bands, the Raccoon Turds rock more heavily on stage than in the studio. They made a point of startling us into submission with a furious intro. White is really larger than life, sings and plays the guitar like a man possessed. This makes a funny contrast to the extreme poker face of the bass player, who by the way plays a semi-acoustic bass. I'd have liked to hear more of Benson's love of melody, but still, great band, great gig. I'm glad I was there.

A band that deserves the hype they ride on is the Arctic Monkeys. Neo-post-punk sung by teenagers in a grating Sheffield accent may not be for everyone, but the Monkeys have authority far beyond their years. A very tight and hard-rocking classic quartet. They reminded me of The Jet, poor bastards, who haven't been able to put out a second album because of touring with Oasis, shudder.

The evening ended after one o'clock with another band I'd never heard of before: the Islands from Montréal, Quebec. Their debut album Return to the Sea was released in April. It's ambitious, soft progressive psychedelia, some of it a bit turgid, but with a great tracks too. Their performance yesterday was surreal. For the moment, the constantly changing band was a seven-piece including a basic quartet and keyboards, but the members also kept switching instruments among violin, bass clarinet, even oboe. A lot of different skin colours were represented, and one of the violinists and singers was a girl of a very tender age, right off the scale on the avuncularometer. Everybody wore white, and the unsmiling front man had a necklace of plastic bones. I think the audience was a bit apprehensive at first, but the band won us over and everybody was happy. They made the most use of dynamics of all the bands on that guitar-soaked night, I had to remove and replace my earplugs repeatedly. I'll definitely check these weird Canadians out some more.

Between acts, I also heard a few songs each by Swedish teenie twin-sister duo Taxi, taxi!, American Lydia Lunch follower Josephine Foster, British folkies King Creosote and British electro collective Hot Chip, and they all had some very good things to offer. Live music is magic! But it's got to be in small venues like last night, where Jack White can pour water on you and you can study the drummers' amusing facial expressions.

Because I didn't want to hang around waiting for a bus, it took me an hour and a half including a long solitary walk to get home. But I listened to the Fiery Furnaces on my pocket computer, saw the first touch of rosy-fingered Eos on the northern (!) sky and took a nice pic, so I'm happy anyway. Just a little tired.

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Farthest Skerries

The summer issue of Fornvännen just arrived on our doormat. I've already told you about Marianne Görman & Mikael Henriksson's juicy paper on the Celtic god mask and its religious context. I'd also like to direct your attention to Mattias Pettersson & Roger Wikell's paper: "Mesolithic settlement sites in the Stockholm archipelago" (Swedish with English summary).

Much of Sweden rises slowly out of a depression in the Earth's crust caused by the weight of the inland ice. This means that as long as the sea level doesn't rise faster, land is steadily gained, as I have explained before. It's been known for quite some time that hilltops on the mainland near Stockholm were once an archipelago inhabited by Mesolithic seal hunters. But now Mattias & Roger have done something new and very cool: they've gone to Muskö, a large hilly current island in the Stockholm archipelago. It's only accessible by boat now: in 5900 BC when the shoreline was at 50 meters above the current one, it was veeery far out to sea. Particularly for people who moved around using kayaks. We're at N 59˚, the latitude of southern Alaska and southern Greenland. And what do you think Mattias & Roger found? Mesolithic hunting stations full of knapped quartz! These hunters are everywhere! They seem to jump onto every little skerry as soon as it breaks the surface. And they seem to have been doing it as a constant unbroken tradition ever since the ice melted away 10 000 years ago.

So, the paper is breaking news, and it's also written in the poetic tradition of nature essayists such as Sven Barthel. A Medievalist colleague who usually doesn't care much for prehistory loved it. Highly recommended.

Pettersson, M. & Wikell, R. 2006. Mesolitiska boplatser i Stockholms skärhård. Fornvännen 2006:3. KVHAA. Stockholm.
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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Film Review, Tokyo Godfathers

As regular readers may have realised, I am not much into film and it is rarely mentioned here. But I have just seen a good one that I'd like to recommend.

Tokyo Godfathers is a Japanese animated feature film from 2003, written and directed by Satoshi Kon. It's a variation on the theme of John Ford's Westerns Marked Men from 1919 and The Three Godfathers from 1948, both based on a 1913 novel by Peter B. Kyne. But Kon's version is highly individual. Here the unlikely three who find an abandoned baby are homeless people in the gothamesque Shinjuku precinct of Tokyo. A shaggy drunk, a middle-aged transvestite and a runaway teen share a makeshift cardboard dwelling and take turns foraging for food. And on Christmas Day, they suddenly hear the cries of a baby in a dumpster.

The film is visually quite stunning: hyper-realistic yet aestheticised scenery à la Black Rain, characters portrayed in an anime style that mixes realism and cartoonish grotesquerie depending on context, little nods to traditional Japanese art here and there. A lot of foul language, a lot of humour, all quite heart-warming. This is very far from the flinty hard side of the Japanese psyche that has produced harakiri, kamikaze and karoshi. A feel-good movie, but in touch with the realities of homelessness, and not too sentimental.

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Stuffy Inquirer

Skepticism, for those of you who don't use the word fifteen times a day, means an unwillingness to believe anything without good reason. These days, it's also an international movement that can be seen as the antithesis of a) New Age, b) pseudoscience. Skeptics don't believe in herbal remedies, astrology, spiritism or self-improvement coaches. But they do believe in rational scientific enquiry and deliberation.

I'm one of the editors of the Swedish skeptic magazine Folkvett. It's a quarterly publication of the Swedish Skeptic Society, Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning. (This actually means "The Society (for) Science and Popular Enlightenment".) I'm also a subscriber to two large US skeptic magazines, Skeptical Enquirer and Skeptic Magazine. Skeptic Magazine is good fun, always a lot to read. But I'm dropping Skeptical Inquirer. It takes me a quarter of an hour to flip through it, because there's very little in it I want to read. Here's why.

S.I.'s content appears to be written by old men for old men. Now, many elderly people of course retain their intellectual vigor and curiosity. But many don't. And few of them realise what they've lost. We all run the risk of becoming slightly pompous, a bit too fond of hearing our own voices, of losing touch with what happens now, holding on to what we learned in the prime of our lives as if it were timeless wisdom. (Ask me about this in 2046 and check out how I'm doing.)

The summer issue of S.I. reached me today. On the cover is a lady of about 65, holding a giant magnet to her head: the cover story is about medicinal magnets, which are of course a load of crap. It was written by the celebrated professor Bruce L. Flamm, who has practiced obstetrics and gynaecology for over 20 years and looks fiftyfivish in photographs.

Other features and columns in this issue were written by:
  • D. Alan Bensley (57)
  • Mario Bunge (87)
  • Kendrick Frazier (about 65? S.I.'s editor-in-chief. He's been an journal editor at least since 1969)
  • Ragnar Levi (45)
  • Joe Nickell (62)
  • Massimo Pigliucci (42)
  • Massimo Polidoro (about 35?)
  • Paul Quincey (about 50?. PhD 1986)
  • Robert Sheaffer (about 60? CISCOP Fellow since 1977)
They're all men, and their mean age appears to be about 55. This is perhaps not surprising given the age and gender of the editor-in-chief. And there's no denying that these guys have seniority and authority. But there's something lacking. A lot of the articles in S.I. seem to be about hoaxes and "mysteries" current when I was a kid. Uri Geller is still very much an ongoing concern in S.I. And in the current issue they discuss Central American crystal skulls again! Every issue carries an ad where the reader is invited to provide for the journal in his will.

I certainly don't mean to say that all old folks are boring. But I do believe that, sadly, most old folks were a bit more fun back before they became old. Ideally, I think a journal should have contributors of various ages and genders, to tap the insights of people whose minds have been formed in different times and environments. So until Skeptical Inquirer lowers the mean age of its contributors and finds a few more ladies, I'll stick to Skeptic Magazine.

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Monday, July 03, 2006


From a scientific point of view, the idea of invisible supernatural beings is, as Pierre-Simon Laplace put it to Napoleon, an unnecessary hypothesis. Nothing in the world becomes easier to explain if we make assumptions about gods working behind the scenes. Quite the contrary, such an assumption leads to the insoluble problem of theodicy: if this god person is so powerful and benevolent, then why isn't life nicer? Ockham's razor prunes the god hypothesis immediately from rational deliberation.

The only reason to believe in such a being is if, for some reason, one chooses to see a book or preacher as a definitive authority. And this, of course, is not a good base from which to convince others of one's beliefs.

"I believe in God because the Bible tells us He exists".

"OK, but why would anyone believe in the Bible?"

The main reason that people profess and internalise such beliefs is social: if many important people around you hold some authority dear, then you must have a highly independent mindset to question their beliefs. Also, such questioning of the sacred beliefs of your people is not a good way to stay a member of said people.

I used to feel that the scientifically most well-founded position on the god issue was agnosticism: "we have no way of knowing". But I've already mentioned Ockham. Without his rule, that unnecessary hypotheses should be avoided, we wouldn't be able to do science at all. So I'm an atheist. Science is no different from our everyday way of perceiving the world, just more systematic. And in science or everyday life, let's just forget about fairytale characters.

In Sweden, this is largely a non-issue. Here, people with fervent religious beliefs are seen as slightly nuts and/or quaintly ethnic. But in the world's most powerful nation, it's of course a huge deal. President Bush II isn't afraid to say in public that he's acting on the orders of an invisible being. If our prime minister said that, we'd have him committed.

There's a lot of discussion in the US about whether scientists should come clean about atheism or keep quiet about it to avoid alienating believers. So just to lend them some friendly support, let me say that I am an atheist scientist and that I think atheism is the only reasonable position to take if you know anything about science. But then, being Swedish, I have absolutely nothing to lose saying that. It's almost as uncontroversial as saying that scientists should not condone infanticide.

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