Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Big Move!

Over the summer, I departed the sunny shores of Long Beach (and had to put my surfboards into sad storage). I am happy to report that I have landed at the shores of the beautiful campus of Binghamton University!. For those of you who do not know where Binghamton, NY sits, it is effectively in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, about 3 hours from NYC, 5 hours from Boston and 5 hours from DC. The town is an old 19th industrial center that is now dominated by the University. I will be home in the Department of Anthropology but directing the Environmental Studies Program. My family and I are very excited about this new change and look forward to Fall and (the challenges of) Winter! One major perk of the new university is the fantastic Evolutionary Studies program run by David Sloan Wilson. Vast new collaborative activities await...

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Frequency Seriation


Over the past year or so, Mark Madsen have been working on a research related the measurement of cultural transmission using frequency seriation methods. This work builds, obviously, on stuff we started back in 1997.  Our primary goal has been to explore the link between the processes that produce the archaeological record (cultural transmission structure combined with assemblage accumulation and sampling) and the patterns that frequency seriation exploits for generating chronology.  To do this effectively, we had to implement frequency seriation methods in a way that (1) matched the requirements of the method (i.e., the deterministic components) and (2) was automated so that we could begin to computationally evaluate the parameter space established by the processes producing/sampling the record.  It is important to recognize that the means by which many people “do frequency seriation” — i.e., through probabilistic tools such as correspondence analysis — do not meet the requirements of the method, namely continuity and unimodality. In this effort, we wrote an iterative algorithm that constructs seriations from their smallest sets (sets of 3 assemblages) and then explores only the solutions that are valid when additional assemblages are added to the ends of the starting sets.  While the approach does not solve all the problems inherent in frequency seriation (which has an incomprehensibly large search space when assemblages become >15), it makes it possible to systematically explore solutions for many archaeologically reasonable sets.   The technique has led to some useful conclusions about seriation as a whole and has opened up new directions for studying cultural transmission. We will certainly be pursuing these in the months to come. 

If you want to read more, we have just published a paper in PLoSOne: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0124942 Mark has set up a discussion session for the paper at Academia.edu: https://www.academia.edu/s/e376baef7d   We’d love your feedback!



Monday, May 4, 2015



Big changes and big news! Starting in the Fall of 2015, I will begin as Director of the Environmental Studies Program at Binghamton University. My ‘home’ department will be Anthropology - a large active department with lots of great people doing fantastic research. In addition to the incredible EnvStudies program, I am particularly excited about the chance to work with PhD students  and the opportunity to work with David Sloan Wilson and his fantastic Evolutionary Studies Program

We will be moving over the course of the summer. Good bye California beach and sun. Hello, woods of the Northeast!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

TEDX Bermuda

In October, I gave a TEDX Bermuda talk on my research. The video is now online. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kzV6_7PVMaI 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Mata'a: "Weapons of Mass Destruction?"

Often in lectures, I bring up the point that some researchers have argued that the stemmed obsidian tools of Rapa Nui (see one below) were used as so-called "lethal weapons.”  This notion is part of the “Collapse” story that Diamond has made popular.  The argument goes that since these obsidian (sharp!) tools are found laying around the island (lots!) they must the leftovers from scenes of great battles in prehistory (the horror!).  In my classes, I often jokingly say that these researchers treat these treat these stone tools as the smoking gun.. the “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”  The thing is… these kinds of claims are actually being made.  And worse, they are being made by people who study ACTUAL WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION. You know... the kinds that kill people, not the “rocks on a stick” kind.  Check out this paper from two reseachers (Rasmussen and Hafez) at the Naval Post Graduate School, Defense Threat Reduction Agency. No, really… Check it out. 

“Terrorist Innovations in Weapons of Mass of Effect: Preconditions, Causes, and Predictive Indicators.” 


If the Defense Department is confusing rocks on sticks with weapons of mass destruction, we are in big trouble. 

Figure 1: Rock on stick sans stick.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014


While there are those that continue to assert that cultural variation is driven by the embedded homunculus in each of us, the more we know about the way in which change occurs, the more we see ourselves as part of the natural world, and thus explicable in the same terms. This realization doesn’t imply that we only change only in a genetic fashion but that cultural change can be accounted for as an additional aspect of the an overarching general framework.  One way we can see that is in our creativity. The homunculus believers hold that creativity comes from some inner genius who magically instantiates ideas out of the ether. More careful study of the process reveals a cultural inheritance basis in which patterns observed in one area are applied to a new one.  Isaac Asimov seems to have recognized this in his essay 55 years ago:


“Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.”

“Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a ‘new idea,’ but as a mere ‘corollary of an old idea.’”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Quote of the Day

Atholl Anderson (1987: Introduction to Archaeometry: Further Australasian Studies, Ambrose et al. (eds), University of Australia)

"If there is a single obstacle to our progress it is that, in an absence of a stabilizing core of theory, archaeologists have adopted the supertramp strategy (Diamond 1977) rapidly colonizing each newly attractive methodological patch spawning a breed of cryptic offspring and moving on."