30 January 2004

Archaeology: Neanderthals

I really didn't think this was all that new, but I guess someone's done a definitive study:
The study found differences measured between humans and Neanderthals were significantly greater than those between subspecies of any single group, indicating Neanderthals were not a subspecies of humans.

Of course, what constitutes a "subspecies" is still very much debated. (Link via Pen-Elayne.)

29 January 2004


Besides their Belief-O-Matic (TM), Belief.net also has a What's Your Spiritual Type? quiz. I'm a Spiritual Dabbler, "open to spiritual matters but far from impressed." I suspect on a different day I might've answered some of the questions differently (there were several that didn't have quite the right answer, and others that I'd have answered somewhere in between two of the choices), and come out as a "Hardcore Skeptic."

Crackpot: Vikings in Duncan

In yesterday's Cowichan News Leader there was a story (almost a full page, plus a half page farther on) titled "Vikings in the Valley":
Could the Cowichan Valley be the Vinland of Viking legend, or is it only a modern-day Wineland?

Apparently, "author and amateur researcher" John Harris believes that when the Norse left Greenland, they went through the Northwest Passage and discovered Vinland--aka Duncan, BC. His evidence?

  • The Greenland Norse "disappeared without a trace" around 1500.

    Funny, I was pretty sure historians and archaeologists had pretty conclusively demonstrated that the "Little Ice Age" that began around 1300 gradually made voyages between Greenland and the Old World more difficult so the colonies were eventually abandoned. Some people probably died, and others returned to Iceland and Scandinavia before it was too late.

  • The St Roche made it through the Northwest Passage four years ago.

    Which means the Norse could've done it five to seven hundred years ago? What about that Little Ice Age?

  • Recorded sightings of blond Eskimos.

    Er . . . that's Inuit, I think. Thule, actually, as the ancestors of the Inuit are usualy referred to by archaeologists (ick, is my grammar dissolving?). I'd like to know what the records were, and who made them, and what criteria was used to define "blond" (for example, "blond" means something different in Asia, where most people have very dark hair).

  • A lot of the details of the description of Vinland from the sagas seem to fit the Cowichan Valley.

    If you want something to fit, it's not all that hard to make it fit. Bet I could make the descriptions fit Africa or Australia if I wanted to.

  • We've got Oregon Grapes.

    I expect the Norse could tell the difference between grapes and berries, despite the fact that we call them grapes. Fact is, actual grapes are found on the east coast.

  • The Cowichan people have weaving, whereas other cultures around them do not. In Atlantic Canada, weaving is an indicator of Viking presence.

    What?! I don't believe I've ever heard that native weaving was introduced by the Norse. Hasn't this guy ever heard of independent invention?

  • Spindle whorls used by the natives have spiral patterns, just like Viking ones.

    Never mind that the spiral is one of the most basic decorative motifs and has been found in pretty much every part of the world.

In other words, there is no evidence. There are no artifacts, no liguistic evidence, nothing. A mass of really bad similarities is not evidence.

To be fair, though, I haven't read Harris's actual essay (only the reporter's interpretation of it), which is enormously long, but which I'll probably print out and read over the next few days. It's available at his web site, along with a whole bunch of other crackpot stuff. Watch this space for further debunking, plus links (if I can find them) to some of the evidence against that I mentioned in the above rant.

Bacon the Prophet?

I was reading The Ancient Engineers by L. Srague de Camp recently, and came across this quote from Francis Bacon:
Vessels can be made which row without men, so that they can sail onward like the greatest river or sea-going craft, steered by a single man; and their speed is greater than if they were filled with oarsmen. Likewise carriages can be built that are drawn by no animal but travel with incredible power, as we hear of the chariots armed with scythes of the ancients. Flying machines can be constructed, so that a man, sitting in the middle of the machine, guides it by a skillful mechanism and traverses the air like a bird in flight. Moreover, instruments can be made which, though themselves small, suffice to raise or to press down the heaviest weight . . . Similar instruments can be constructed, such as Alexander the Great ordered, for walking on the water or for diving.

That's from Epistola de secretis operibus artis et naturae, written sometime in the 13th century, thouh not published until the 18th. You'll find it on page 348 of de Camp's book.

The thing that really struck me in reading this, is how accurate Bacon's speculations are. While I don't think anyone's yet invented a device for walking on water, the other machines are pretty dead-on. Which made me wonder why no one's claimed Bacon was a prophet who predicted all the advances of recent centuries. I mean, compare this passage with some of Nostradamus' drivel. But maybe it's a good thing. After all, what is obviously skilled thought about the potential applications of science in practical ares to a scientist would look like really good prohetic visions to a crackpot, and there'd be no arguing with the crackpot (or the scientist). Then again, it's seldom possible to argue with a crackpot anyway.

27 January 2004

Novels that Turn Out Not to be Novels

Strange things happen when you're lying in bed waiting for it to be 2 am so you can get up and drive your parents to the airport for their flight to Mexico. As always happens when I know I really ought to fall asleep, I started getting ideas about writing projects. And then I suddenly realized that the reason I'm having such trouble with White Foxes, Full Moon--it's too episodic, I can't seem to find the right point of view, etc--is that it's not meant to be a novel. It is, in fact, meant to be some of the many interconnected stories in Vinland Stories.

This is not as dismaying a realization as it might be. In fact, it's rather a relief. For one, it means that I can combine two of my New Years' resolutions into one. "Finish writing White Foxes" is now a large part of "Finish writing Vinland Stories." And for two, I was wondering where the heck the rest of the stories from Vinland were going to come from. Now I know. Well, there will be more, but this takes care of a lot.

25 January 2004

The Sound of Chariots

Acording to The Death Clock, I'm slated to die on Thursday, September 8, 2061.

23 January 2004

Can Anybody See This?

Hmmm. . . all that work and my brand new titles aren't even showing up. I shall investigate and see if I can fix the problem.

Edit: All fixed now. Needed to add some code to my template.

To School or Not To School

Okay, so my title's a cliché. But there are two reasons I've been thinking lately about giving this blog more focus. The first is this post from Language Log, on why the world needs more scholarly weblogs. I realized that the blogs I most enjoy are ones that have a specific topic. So I know if I want to read about books, I go to Bookslut; if I want to read about comics, I go to Journalista, or Grotesque Anatomy; if If I want to read writers' takes on the world, I'll head for Neil Gaiman's journal, or Caitlín R. Kiernan's, or Poppy Z. Brite's.

The second reason I've been thiking about focussing the blog, is that I'm considering going back to school. "Eek! Not again!" everyone shrieks. Well, I don't have a PhD yet, and I'm in that career limbo where I'm overeducated for most jobs, and not educated enough for the really good jobs. And I'm finally beginning to face the fact that even if I'm going to be a great writer, I still need a job. At least in the meantime.

As far as I can figure, I've got three choices for school:

  1. MA in Archaeology (possibly in an Anthropology department), followed by a PhD
  2. MFA in Writing (possibly in an English department), followed by trying to find a job (I don't think there are any schools offering a PhD in Writing, even through an English department, though I could be wrong)
  3. PhD in Folklore (probably at Memorial)

They've all got their attractions. I'd love to do some more archaeology fieldwork, and the only way I'm likely to do that is to back to school. Or move to Alberta and volunteer at a site. I'd also love to have a few more years in school where all I have to do is write. But then again, I periodically get the urge to do actual scholarship, and most of the topics I come up with are at least related to folklore. Some of them would also work in an English department, but I really don't have the background to get into an English PhD program (I tried at U-Vic), and maybe not even into an MA program.

So that leaves folklore, probably. The question then is what topic? Although I won't have to actually choose a thesis topic right away, an application isn't much good without a really good probable/possible focus of research to make those who read applications think, "Hey, this one really knows what she wants to do!" Anyway, topics I've been considering are:

  • Folklore in literature. This is the topic I proposed for my failed PhD in English application. Something about the use of folklore in contemporary interstitial fiction. I also want to investigate the possibility that writers in exile or in cultural diasporas are more likely to use folklore than those firmly situated in a culture. Also writers who feel detached from culture and are looking to belong (I think this is one reason I tend to get so folkloric in my writing).
  • Fairies in fantasy fiction. I've kinda been tossing this idea around for a long time. I gave a conference paper on fairies in Charles de Lint's fiction while I was a Master's student at MUN. It was fun, but I don't know if I could get a whole PhD out of it. Or one that really said anything new. The previous topic would work much better for that, as interstitial fiction is a relatively new (or rather, newly-named) category, so not much has been written on it yet.
  • Fairies and UFOs. Again, I don't know if there's enough in this topic for a whole thesis, but it's fascinating how many of the characteristics of fairy folklore--especially that surrounding abduction--have been co-opted by UFO folklore (again, especially abduction). I just read an article in a recent back issue of Skeptical Inquirer about UFO landing sites. They're the very same rings (mostly circles on turf caused by various fungi) that were once know as fairy rings. This is worth a good long article, at least.
  • Folklore of archaeology. I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately (hence, also, some of the changes I made to the blog). Basically, I'd start with a survey of some of the folklore associated with archaeological sites (lots of fairies and buried treasure), working up to crackpot archaeology (oops, I mean fantastic archaeology, or is it alternate archaeology?). Then I'd survey some undergrads to see what sort of crackpot things they believe (I'm thinking first and second year students in archaeology and folklore courses to lead into the last thing). Finally, I'd look at the different attitudes to fantastic archaeology expressed by folklorists and archaeologists.

It might be evident from what I've written that I'm currently leaning towards the last topic. I really, really like the first one, too, though. Anyway, I have a while to decide, as it's too late to apply to most universities for September entry, and not too many places have January start dates for grad students. But, y'know, the one thing I'm actually good at (besides writing, and maybe that's a happy delusion) is scholarship. (Some days I think I should've gone into the sciences.)


I thought it was about time this blog had a little more focus. I started it to make a sort of public record of my writing progress, on the principle that maybe I'd write more if it was possible for other people to check up on me. That's still my main reason for blogging, so "writing" gets to stay first in the description.

But beyond that, I have a tendency to just babble about whatever seems important at the time. Not that I'll stop doing that, either, but at least it'll be more organized. Hence the titles that shall appear at the top of posts from this day forward, etc, etc. So just in case someone who is not a friend or family member encounters this thing, they can easily find whatever topic it was brought them here. If that even makes sense.

In an effort to further focus my usual randomness, I've stuck some of the things I'm most interested in in the description (that's the bit under the title). Probably I'll reword said description so it's more attractive and pleasant to read. Books and comics are still there of course, but there are much better blogs for getting book and comic news. And I've added folklore and archaeology, which are the things I have degrees in (aside from writing). I've linked folklore and archaeology things before, so that's not so much of a change, though I haven't found any good folklore blogs yet, so that may be something I'll make an effort to blog more. For archaeology, a good place to look is Phluzein.

I've added "crackpot science" (might change that to "pseudoscience"), because it fascinates me, and because it--at least the "fantastic archaeology" part of it--occurs at the intersection of archaeology and folklore. And how pseudoscience is done is at least partly the concern of writing. So it's an ideal topic for me to focus on really. So that's what Niko Blathers On will be about: writing and crackpot archaeology, with a fair bit of real archaeology and folklore, plus some stuff about books and comics and the odd descent into whatever odd topic seems like a good idea at the time. Hmm . . . Maybe I should put that in my description. Not right now though, I need to get the dog outside before he starts to complain, and go get the mail.

18 January 2004

This looks really cool: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (title's a bit silly, but suitably retro). (Link via Sarah Dyer.)

13 January 2004

I just drafted an article (actually more of a personal essay) called "How Environmental Responsibility Led Me to Secular Humanism," except I probably won't call it that. It's too late to submit it to Humanist in Canada for the spring issue on Environmental Ethics, but I might submit it anyway. Especially once I find a better title.

I'm also working on turning my noonhour talk, "Fantastic Archaeology in 10 Easy Steps," into an article. It's made a little difficult by the fact that I can't find a copy of the talk, or even my notes. I do have an old undergrad paper I wrote on pseudscience in archaeology, and it has a few bits I scribbled on it when I first thought of doing the talk, but it isn't much. Luckily, I remember a lot. It was a fun talk. If the article turns out any good, I'll try sending it to Skeptical Inquirer. Yes, I'm on a debunking kick again. Maybe this would be a good time to work on Bunk. Except that's not in my resolutions, while two other novels-in-progress are. And a book-of-interconnected-shortstories-in-progress. And a novel that needs revising.

09 January 2004

This is what happens to archaeologists when building (and paving) techniques stay the same over really long periods of time. (Link via Neil Gaiman.)
Pholph's Scrabble Generator

My Scrabble? Score is: 20.
What is your score? Get it here.

(Link via Pen-Elayne.)

05 January 2004

Just had my thumb wrenched by an over-enthusiastic dog (not mine) and now my wrist really hurts. At least it was my left hand, so most fuctions are normal (typing a little awkward, though). Poor me.

The most exciting things to happen recently were a winter wren (I think) landing on my office window screen (in almost the same spot a flicker landed a few months ago). Drove my cat batty. And I identified a bird I hadn't seen before (or if I had, I didn't realize it): rufous-sided towhee. We have several of them, male and female, vying with the juncos (which are about half their size) for space at the feeder next door at Gramma's. There are more birds here than anywhere I've lived in Southern Vancouver Island (and possibly anywhere I've lived, period, except Virginia Beach). Oh yeah, and I finally heard the owls the other night when I took Darwin out.

04 January 2004

AS Byatt on the lure of the fairy tale. (Link via Neil Gaiman.)

03 January 2004

Richard Dawkins on science and religion:
My suggestion is that you won't find any intelligent person who feels the need for the supernatural. What you will find is the need for a sense of transcendent wonder, which I share as well.
I finally saw Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl on DVD last night. Johnny Depp makes a fine skanky pirate captain. I just want to know how someone can be icky and sexy at the same time. Shiver. I think this is my new favourite movie.

01 January 2004

'Tis the season for top ten lists. The top five reasons I'm not doing any top ten lists are:

  • The top ten books I read this year were not published in 2003. Well, one might have been. I could go and look but I'm too lazy.
  • The top ten comics I read this year were mostly collected editions of stuff not published in 2003. Except 1602, but it's not finished yet, so how can I comment?
  • The top ten songs I listened to were not released in 2003. In fact, I don't think any of them were even released in this decade. Shows you how well I keep up with pop culture.
  • I didn't watch ten new TV shows in 2003, or even ten TV shows that had new episodes in 2003.
  • I can't think of anything else that would make a remotely interesting top ten list.

    I will, however, make a few resolutions.

  • This year, I will revise The Secret Common-Wealth (that's January's project).
  • I will finish writing White Foxes, Full Moon.
  • I will finish writing Vinland Stories.
  • I will complete at least three more issues of Fey.
  • I will send out more stories.
  • I will revise Fox Point Dragon and send it to publishers.
  • I will revise Jenny's Troll and send it to publishers.
  • I will work very hard on Three Sisters.
  • I will look for an agent.
  • I will occasionally go outside to remind myself that there is a world.

    I think that's enough for one year. Check back at the end of 2004 and see how I did.

    Meanwhile, in reading land, I am enjoying Sherlock Holmes immensely. I finished The Sign of Four. Like in A Study in Scarlet, Doyle takes great pains to explain his culprit's motivations. Also, the culprit was wronged and seeking revenge, though this time he was already a murderer and a thief when he was double-crossed. I'm now in the thick of the short stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Did you know Holmes was outsmarted by a woman? I get the impression that Doyle had a rather higher opinion of women that many men of his day (but I could be reading things that aren't there).

    ". . . for strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination." ~Holmes to Watson in "The Red-headed League"

    Truth is stranger than fiction, in other words. This same idea is repeated later in the story, in a more complex manner. This is one thing I've always tried to impress on my students when I get the chance to teach (and one thing they often don't believe right away). I even wrote an article on it.
    I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbours, but I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes. Here I had heard what he had heard, I had seen what he had seen, and yet from his words it was evident that he saw clearly not only what had happened but what was about to happen, while to me the whole business was still confused and grotesque. ~Dr Watson in "The Red-headed League"
  • Belief-O-Matic: " Even if YOU don't know what faith you are, Belief-O-Matic™ knows." Apparently, I ought to be a Unitarian Universalist (you can believe pretty much anything and still be one, it seems), or maybe a Secular Humanist. Or maybe even a Liberal Quaker (must be due to the nonviolence question). I think I like Secular Humanism. So for my New Year's resolution this year . . . (Link via Pen-Elayne.)
    New Year's Superstitions.