Thursday, July 31, 2008

Summer reading

This trip to Crete has really kicked off summer reading. The list includes a number of books I brought with me (The Mirrored Heavens, The H-Bomb Girl, Axis, The Prefect) and a bunch I picked up while traveling from the airport, hotel "exchange shelves," and a small bookstand in Rethymo Crete that we found (a good deal: bring in two used books, get one free). The books I picked up along the way included a couple of crappy "physical anthropologist solving crime" type stories - told poorly. But its all good in the summer...

A Painted House- John Grisham - Picked this up at the bookstand in Crete. It is a "slice of time and place" kind of story about a seven year old boy growing up in northeastern Arkansas - Craighead county in the 1950s. The story takes place in the county a bit north of where I did my dissertation research and along the St. Francis. So the landscape he describes I know well (though, its a different world there now). The kid wants to be a Cardinal baseball player when he grows up but he's living in a time where cotton is picked by hand and there is a lot of cotton to pick. An relaxing summer read.

The Mirrored Heavens - David J. Williams - This is one of those hyper-cyber-techno-future type books that is largely derivative of Gibson's work. It is a bit underrealized in terms of technology and characters. Much of the story line hinged on people in fantastical suits doing crazy things with weapons and armor. Nonetheless, it is a good read. I think this was a first novel - perhaps future work will be less ambitious in terms of scope and more detailed.

The Ring - Stephen Baxter - This volume finishes (as far as I can tell) one of the branches of Xeelee series (Raft · Timelike Infinity · Flux · Ring · Vacuum Diagrams · Reality Dust · Riding the Rock) and the Michael Poole series (Coalescent · Exultant · Transcendent · Resplendent). In the story, we finally find out about end of the Xeelee as they engage in megayear battles with non-baryonic matter birdlike entities who are altering the structure of stars to be more stable for their version of the universe. Its a far out story of course, but full of details about the inner workings and evolution of stars as well as implications of anti-particles and the dark matter universe. Geeky sci-fi.

Relentless - Simon Kerrick - I picked this book up in a little used book stand in Rethymo Crete simply as a beach read. That's really all its worth - a hack tale about a guy who is being pursued by some evil dudes who want him for a reason that doesn't become clear until the "surprising" end (which turns out to be his wife who was having an affair with his best friend who was a lawyer for a judge that was involved in a pedophile ring that also involved an evil developer but it also turns out that his wife was having an affair with a woman who worked at the university and was ... well, its a big mess). Hack writing, easy reading.

Written in Bone- Simon Beckett - One of the now-popular tales of a forensic anthropologist who solves crimes. Here, the main characters travels to an island off the Scotland coast to explore a mysterious death that turns out to be a murder - the wrap of this one is hilariously convoluted in terms of the "who dunnit" and involves a twisted maze of characters. Fairly generic murder mystery stuff combined with basic forensic anthropology (mostly focused on the effects of bodies that catch on fire - so lots of gruesome descriptions of heads exploding, limbs curling and meat sizzling). Another easy beach read.

Axis - Robert Charles Wilson - A sequel to Wilson's book Spin about a world that is made accessible through a giant arch that is placed by the "Hypotheticals" - a set of mysterious aliens that no one ever sees. The idea is that these aliens are some vast set of replicators that do odd things like trap the Earth behind a big stasis shell and then let the universe age 5 million years. In this volume, we learn more about the Hypotheticals as their remains rain down on this alterna-Earth and genetically engineered children become communication conduits. Sadly, it's pretty forgettable really - I had to think hard about what the book was about to write this summary.

Odd Thomas- Dean Koontz - I picked this up at the airport on the way to Greece as something really throw away (really throw away.. I never intended to bring it back). It's the story of a dude named "Odd Thomas" who can see the dead (sound familiar?). Anyways, he sees dead people and gets involved in resolving bad things that had happened to them. The main arc of the story is about a big disaster that is coming to a little town that Odd tries to stop (he knows its coming because of some mysterious dark creatures that only he can see that gather before a bunch of deaths). Like most of Koontz's book - its quick read, good for about one cross country flight - but nothing particularly redeeming about it.

Narrow Dog to the Carcassone- Terry Darlington - I swapped one of the other books at our hotel in the hills above Chania, Crete. It's a nonfiction account of Darlington's trip in a crazily long motor boat - 62 feet long, 3 feet wide - that was built to travel the absurdly narrow canals of England. Darlington with his wife and a whippet named Jim motor this tube of a boat across the English Channel - and then across the canals of Belgium and France. It is a funny story, though decidedly British in its humor. I liked it particularly because it reminded me of the Free Spirit and the numerous adventures we had on that old wooden Chris Craft in the Puget Sound.

Raw Shark Texts- Steven Hall - A completely unexpected tale of someone who finds themselves waking up and not knowing who they are but with letters coming to themselves from themselves (ala Memento). But in this story, the protagonist finds himself chased by conceptual sharks that swim the seas of shared ideas. It's a cool exploration in the notion that our ideas of the world form the world and that there can be beasts/replicators that evolve in the information landscape (and prey on generators of ideas). A weird but excellent book that I know Tim Hunt, Mark Madsen, and Mike Pfeffer will love.

The H-Bomb Girl - Steven Baxter - A fun alternative history/possibilities story about a girl who meets versions of herself from potential bleak futures. It takes place in the early 60s Liverpool. Light sci fi.

Currently reading and still on the stack..

The Prefect - Alastair Reynolds

The Line War- Neal Ascher- Neal Ascher - I started this one and right off the bat is a great extension of the Cormac series.

House of Suns - Alastair R - Alastair Reynolds

Saturn's Children - Charles Stross - Charles Stross

The Execution Channel - Ken Macleod

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Today was a good day to blimp. The first flight of the morning was over the acropolis - cool stuff. The second flight was likely good but ended in nothing since the battery on the camera died almost right away. Crap.

But the shots from the first part of the day are great...



Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More blimp photos

Yesterday morning was a great time for blimpin'. The wind conditions were perfect (none), the light even and the results great. We got a series of photos from the excavation area down the valley including new areas that Christofillis want's to acquire. Below is excavation area showing the architecture and the folks working in the units.


Unfortunately, the afternoon was less successful due to failure of the rig to trigger the camera. We had great shots of the slopes of the acropolis and a large part of the acropolis itself. But no photos. Damn.

This morning, the winds were up and gusty. Since the areas we wanted to cover were close to the acropolis (up wind) there was no way of really flying the blimp. So we bailed and came back down to the hotel for some writing time. We are hoping to put together a list of projects that would be integrated into the collaborative teaching class this fall/spring and then lead to student projects in the summer.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Field Photos

Spent the day working on the blimp. Oddly, the blimp didn't have much lift today. I suspect this is because of the heat of the sun warming the air so that it is less dense and thus lowering the helium effect. But it seems about as hot as it was in Guatemala, so I am not sure. The weight of the rig is the same as it has been, so its not a problem with the payload. Tomorrow, we will start flying the blimp @ 6:00 so we can get cooler air. Perhaps that will help. We really need to get this much higher. I also will use the .5x wide angle lens. That should help significantly but not add any weight.


Another issue is the picavet system -- when the blimp is floating in no wind and the camera hangs straight up and down, the rig tends to be tilted. I am not sure how to fix that yet - it causes spin as well. You can see a bit of the tilt here in the photo above. P7140004.JPG

Above: Will Gilstrap (CSULB grad student), Christofillis Maggidis (Director, Dickenson College) and Paul Scotton (Director of Hellenistic excavations, CSULB). For the record, Paul is wearing a Huntington Beach Hawaiian shirt. Will is wearing a hat he found in the trash.

The day ended on a bit of a bummer note when an unnamed (yet pictured above on the left) person opened a freezer (yes, there is a freezer at the excavation site!) and ripped a large gash in the blimp. We repaired it in the afternoon using gorilla tape from a remarkably prepared graduate student named Joe. Hopefully, that will enable us to fly this morning (its 12:30 AM right now).

Mycenae - First Blimp Mosaic

Flew the blimp today and took some photos of the excavation areas that are in work this summer. This is the new "lower town" that was identified via aerial photos, gpr and magnetometry. The walls are just centimeters below the surface -- all Helenistic stuff. The bronze age material is below that. Here's the first mosaic from this morning's work. We will be doing more tomorrow morning (early, 6AM) and then up to the citadel on wednesday. There is a japanese news crew here so I suspect they will love the blimp.


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Mycenae, Greece

Made it to Mycenae yesterday after a long-ass flight from JFK to Athens. The allure of international travel is truly gone - that was an 11 hour domestic flight with the same # of amenities (none) and leg room (equally lacking). Oh well. We arrived in the airport, zoomed through customs, and met a taxi guy who drove us down to Mycenae. Why are taxi's in european countries usually in car brands that we can't afford in the US-- this was a mercedes benz, like most of the taxis around here. Sweet ride.

Got to the hotel and I passed out. I probably shouldnt have but I just couldnt keep my eyes awake. Forced myself to get up around 6 and went to find the students and other CSULB folks. We drank some beverages, ate some pork, pita and tzatziki (and terrific greek salad) -- then I passed out. I woke up at three but forced myself back to sleep (well,that wasn't really that hard). Got up at 7 and ate some bread, drank coffee, and began the day..

IMG_0006.JPG View of Mycenae acropolis and the new "lower town" excavations below.IMG_0031.JPG View across the plains...


drinking greek bear with chris lee, paul scotton, and leo.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Off to Mycenae, Greece

Got up hideously early to catch a plane to Athens this morning (n.b. why do you "catch" a plane when you've booked it weeks in advance, have at the airport hours in advance, sit waiting to let you board it, and then it sits there for what seems like hours more before leaving? Planes seem to catch us more than anything. I suppose for argument sake this word comes from jumping into a trolly ("catching it") and maybe once upon a time one was able to look at a schedule and speed to the airport in the nick of time to duck in the door before the air hostess closed it [just before serving the fresh lox, orange juice, bagels and coffee)]. I really find no pleasure in getting up at those early hours - despite the cultural pressure (or maybe its just the crap I read) to "enjoy the quiet early hours before the hubbub of the day..." Anyways, its not for me - let me sleep.

The plane to Atlanta is full to the gills, folks are stacked in here like one of those japanese hotels where they slot you into a drawer. Except for here, of course, you dont get to stretch your legs out and the seats make it impossible to fully open a laptop (i have mine tilted at some crazy upward angle so I can reach my fingers around the case to type). Ah, the joys of travel and the jet set. Cattle cars of the air. Moo.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Morning at Seal Beach...

A break from the story... here's a view from the parking lot at Seal Beach in the morning, with surfers lined up across the shore waiting for their sets to roll in. A perfect morning in SoCal

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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Advice to Archaeology Graduate Students

I just finished reading Anthony Bourdain's wonderful book, "Kitchen Confidential" that describes his life in the world of cooking and his take on being a professional cook. Given his interest in straightforward hardwork and dedication to the craft of food, his words are inspirational for anyone who strives to be a professional. Bourdain is honest - he knows he doesn't have what it takes to be a 3-star chef. There are culinary geniuses out there that Bourdain recognizes and reveres, but he doesn't count himself as one of them. Bourdain greatness is not in poofy, foamy, arty stuff - but honest good food (the ingredients (the nasty bits), the mechanics and the tastes). This is what makes him what he is: integrity, demand for honest work, and insistence on a good product. He takes no prisoners in this approach and doesn't suffer fools easily. It's a great read.

It occurred to me as I read the book that what Bourdain was describing was a work ethic that resonates well with anyone striving for professionalism. As an advisor of students, most of my work is to get them to work towards the high mark of professionalism. This doesn't mean I necessarily expect them to reach that point - hell, they are students and thus learning (and making mistakes) is part of the process of becoming a professional. That's the point of being in an educational program -- to learn how to be a professional. My job is to demand this standard - consistently - and to provide feedback as to how what may be currently a pile of crap can be transformed/reworked/amended/restarted/scraped/changed into something that is a professional product. And this doesn't apply to just writing a paper - but to learning how to think like a professional, talk like a professional, dress and act like one. On the thinking end of things, one must demand critically sharp logic. When speaking or writing, choose one's words carefully and make sure they mean the same thing every time you use them. These kinds of lessons are basically the bread and butter of being a professor - what makes students turn from slouchy mumblers with a glint of potential, into polished scientists capable of rendering any problem into a series of logically related concepts and solutions.

In one of the latter chapters of Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain writes about a commencement address he would give (or perhaps has given) to culinary students upon graduation. The points he lists are remarkably applicable to graduate students. With recognition of Bourdain's initial formulation, I list them here modified to address the basic principles of professionalism for archaeology students wanting to enter graduate school.

1. Be fully committed.

If you are not fully committed to becoming a professional archaeologist and keeping your eye on that goal, just pack it in right now and get an MBA, learn genetics, or take up programming. Don't even think about starting graduate school in archaeology if you are instantly repulsed by the idea of sitting in a crappy classroom at 2:30AM on a thursday night measuring projectile point lengths for the 50th time to generate error terms while your bank account hovers near zero, your debt climbs faster than the kudzu, your partner hasn't seen you in 6 months, your car has 12 parking tickets and the paper you need to work on and submit by monday is still a glimmer in your brain. This is what will happen - count on it. The lucky (and by no means smarter or more talented) few who get scholarships and the like don't always become the best archaeologists. If its too easy, it probably is. If you aren't struggling to change the way you think and do work, then the program you are in sucks. Pack your bags and find and leave immediately. Find another program. The fact is that anyone taught that archaeology is easy or that we are just "dangerously close to science" doesn't deserve to teach archaeology. We are talking about the science if history here, man! It had better be damn hard if we as a species can manipulate the basic elements of matter and yet have failed at building a science of our own fate. It's certainly not for the lack of trying. So if your brain isnt spinning for the first decade of studying this stuff - you just aren't being taught well. Suffering in graduate school isn't about suffering per se - but about committing your life to becoming a professional. Lots of things that you once believed were necessary or essential (friends, money, good food, leisure time, new wardrobes, vacations) will be stripped away. Now this doesn't mean that one must take a life of a monk to be a professional in archaeology - it just means that when you need to do something, you will be completely, utterly, absolutely committed to doing it.

2. Learn to write, speak and think.

Don't assume that because you were able to squeak good grades out of your papers in undergraduate that you know how to write. Also, don't assume because you can order chicken from a car window, that you can speak. Same goes for believing that are a critical thinker because you think you are smarter than the average bear: everyone believes that so it can't true. Committing to becoming a professional means that you need to start taking writing, speaking and think very seriously. Your ability to do these things is directly related to your ability to being a professional. Do poorly at any one these things, and you might as well pack it in.

All three of these skills are obviously linked. But being able to do one doesn't mean that you can automatically do the others. And you can't skimp on any of them. Attempting to discuss issues with speaking skills that are filled with "uhs, ums" and ad hoc statements will quickly get you ignored. Don't even think about using the word "like" in your sentences. Speak in full sentences - have those sentences form full thoughts that are linked together. The same goes for writing. All of this about building up your logic skills. Learn to take a premise and then break it down. What must necessarily be true if the statement you or someone else has just said is to be believed? Are statements and assumptions logically connected? If not, why? Treat everything you write as a geometric proof. Assume nothing - be explicit. Define your terms.

Reading how to write is a good first step. I recommend Zinseer's book: "On Writing Well". Practice a lot. Practice writing out your ideas. Practice talking with your colleagues. Practice, practice, practice until logic in your writing, speaking and thinking is second nature.

3. Be open, sharing and honest.

In academia, ideas form the basic currency. One might imagine that hoarding ideas might be a good practice in order to "protect" one's assets. Nothing can be further from the truth. Ideas have no value unless shared. Share your thoughts, schemes and ideas. Once you are learning to think you should find yourself overwhelmed with ideas about dimensions of problems that you think you can resolve. Share those -- surely you don't have enough lifetimes to do it all yourself? Create a community of ideas around yourself with your friends and colleagues. The interchange is more valuable than the ideas themselves and the greater they are shared the greater the value. Good ideas are always those that are shared.

I have met graduate students and colleagues who walk around tight-lipped about what they are up to and who are afraid to share their work for fear of someone "scooping" them or perhaps demonstrating why what they are doing is wrong. Dumb-asses, all of them and of very marginal value as colleagues.

At the same time, be honest about where your ideas come from. If you've talked some idea over with a friend, be sure to recognize them. Reference your sources, identify those that share your ideas. While counter-intuitive to the "hoarding" folks, this kind of attribution only strengthens the value of the ideas since these notions aren't something that come of out left-field -but are part of emerging community consensus about the topic. Attribute folks to a fault!

4. Deliver what you have promised on time.

As a student, this is especially important. Don't let your advisor down by not following through on what you have said you would do. This wastes everyone's time and starts a reputation for yourself as being one of those students that talk big, but cannot finish anything. This is not a reputation you want to have since it will follow you throughout your career and will close doors to opportunities you didn't even know you had. If people feel that you are never able to turn a chapter in on time, what's the chance of getting invited to contribute to a volume? While the late papers and incompletes you are doing in graduate school might seem like a minor thing, they are most certainly not. Commit and do what it takes to get your work done.

5. Never make excuses or blame others.

If you screw up, just own up to it. Nobody remembers the occasional mistakes of the person that owned up to them and corrected the error. The person that tries to make his mistake someone else's fault will eventually gain a reputation as being a slippery and untrustworthy character. These folks are the worst because they infect organizations with mediocrity and make others work harder to pull up the slack. Ultimately, no one cares who created a problem -- all that matters is fixing it and preventing it for the next time. If there is a problem, take responsibility for it even if you think it wasn't your fault. Don't wait to point the finger - be the one who is one step ahead.

6. Never call in sick.

Commitment means that you take your work seriously and will do whatever it take to get it done. Unless blood is pouring down your face, get your work done. And if blood is pouring down your face, get some stitches so you can return to getting your work accomplished.

7. Lazy, sloppy and slow are bad.

Becoming a professional means that you take everything you do seriously and the point is creating a solid, meaningful product not just getting the work done. Those who see archaeology as simply a means to an end are not committed to what this is all about. Commitment means that you take whatever step necessary to make sure what you produce is really what you say it is. This means independent measurements.. lots of independent measurements. This mean development strategies for evaluating your work as you are doing it rather than piling it up and hoping that you generated what you think you generated. Be careful and deliberate in your recording of information - make everything you do instantly understandable by other people. Do not drop out details. Record everything.

As for slow being bad - I mean that in the sense of get stuff done. Generate your data and get it summarized and into some analysis as soon as you possibly can - sooner even. Never let things linger or put off doing what you need to do until "some other day."

8. Be prepared to witness every variety of human folly and injustice.

People are sometimes very bizarre and when you're thrown into a pressure-filled situation weird things happen. Graduate school is filled with freakish people and even freakier faculty. Field, lab and class situations can mix together every sort of individual in remote, difficult or crazy locations. Be ready for this and don't get sucked into the personal ego battles. Keep focused on why you are doing what you are doing: to learn how to be a professional. Don't whine about how some individual is being paid more than you though with less experience, Don't go on about your need to get your turn on some piece of equipment. Who cares? Focus on whatever you are doing and do the best possible job at doing it.

9. Assume the worst.

Bourdain warns that you must be careful to not let this seemingly negative outlook poison you. You need to think of this piece of advice as developing the ability to realistically calibrate your expectations of people and situations so that when things get messed up you aren't so surprised that you can't function effectively. Be ready to deal with broken computers, fail lab results, exploding printers, crazy colleagues, demented faculty and the like. These are just the cost of doing business.

10. Avoid advisors who insist on being first authors on papers they do with students.

Faculty who have tenure should be in the game to promote their students not promote their own, increasingly crappy, work. Faculty who continue to publish first author articles that are based on student work think far to highly of themselves and not highly enough for their own students. Who cares if some senior faculty adds another article on to their resume consisting of 140 entries? What difference does that make to anyone other than the advisor's ego? A student, on the other hand, really benefits from the article AND the association with the supposedly big name advisor.

You might even want to extend this point by avoiding advisor's who are pre-tenured altogether. Usually they are so focused on their own success they will have little time for students other than using them to generate results to pad their resumes. They also typically have no experience being an advisor and will likely have no idea what to do. Pick an advisor who has experience and has produced quality students that you can evaluate. Forget the newbies until they ripen a little more.

11. Think about that resume!

Everything you do should somehow be adding to your resume. Figure out how to take class papers and projects and turn them into something you can present at a local meeting (or national! thing big!) or produce as a published paper. Jump at every opportunity to gain experience whether paid or unpaid. Too many students cannot see that the plethora of instruments, talent, knowledge and projects that are available at most universities are a treasure chest to plunder. Don't expect to get paid - do everything for your future. Learn everything, get experience in as many dimensions as possible. Volunteer. Do whatever it takes to get involved in as many projects as possible.

12. Read!

While this point might see obvious, it is something that many graduate students forget: they read the required reading and then stop there. No matter how massive a reading list or bibliography might be, the volume of archaeological literature that is available for any topic is nearly inconceivably large. Never stop with the required readings -- what are the readings upon which those readings are based? What has happened since the articles were published?

Subscribe to the table of contents services for every journal you can think of - go far beyond archaeology journals and look at science, engineering, evolution, biology, genetics, material science and so on. All of these disciplines intersect archaeology one way or the other - and you need to know about them. In fact, most of the best literature out there isn't published in archaeology - in fact it rarely is: most stuff archaeologists do is crap. So, never stop exploring - be a master of everything. Use RSS lists to keep track. Send interesting things you find to your colleagues - trust they will do the same.

Don't just look at the titles, too. READ the articles you collect. Set aside a chunk of time everyday where you read. Never stop reading.

13. Never stop learning.

One can always spot the archaeologist who has just given up and simply rehashing the same old shit -- they've stopped learning and are no longer able to generate new ideas or conceive of the world in ways other than the way they were taught back in their graduate career. These folks are relics - useful reminders of ideas of the past and perhaps repositories of once-current method and concepts. But they are effectively dead. Now this doesn't mean that you should leap onto whatever archaeological bandwagon happens to be passing by -- the majority of them are rickety death traps driven by hucksters and carpet baggers. Your learning should build on what you know (assuming you had good graduate training in the first place and actually learned something useful). Keep adding to your knowledge, challenging your ideas and looking for inspiration. This is the mark of the professional - never satisfied with the product and always looking for improvement.

14. Don't forget to have fun.
Being professional doesn't mean being dour and overly earnest. In fact, folks who confuse dour and earnestness with professionalism are some of the saddest cases of academics I've ever seen. The SAA meetings are chock full of these folks - solemnly carrying their slide deck around with furrowed brows and steadfast determinism. It's almost as if that they believe that if they take themselves really seriously, then everyone else will too. This is usually a bad sign - the ideas may be serious, but you don't have to be. In fact, being serious tends to inversely correlate with serious ideas. I mean, how can one possibly get all worked up about research claiming that small shallow pits are excavated by children while deeper ones are excavated by adults?

So, have fun - take your work seriously, not yourself.