Wednesday 4 December 2013

Cheers, Dears! Happy Holidays From The Subversive Archaeologist!

Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us now. With a little over three weeks left to procrastinate before old Santa comes down the . . . in my case it would be the electric baseboard heater . . . I've decided to announce the Christmas 2013 list of the top ten wishes closest to my heart. So, Dear Reader Santa, get that free-loading elf off your lap and let me have your ear. Please?

Never mind! No. Really. It's fine. I can sit over here by the really ugly indoor-mall fountain, and the makeshift little fairyland of red and green cardboard with white flocking everywhere—because my enchanted eyes can see only dreams of . . . 

Wish 1— 
A refereed-journal Referee with a pulse. I swear [sorry, Santa] to gawd, if I'm ever asked to be a referee for Nature, Science, the Journal of Archaeological Science, or PLOS ONE, I promise I'll stop drinking a minimum of eight hours before I start ploughing through the submission with red pencil in hand. Hell! If they let airline pilots fly as long as they haven't had a drink in 8 hours, surely a peer-reviewed scholarly publication could expect no more of its referees!
A true megafaunal sloth (Marsupialia, Nothrotheriops shastense), the Shasta ground sloth. Give or take 6 m from nose to tail-tip. Or, if you will, as big as, if not bigger than, an African elephant.
Wish 2— 
Some way of tracking bona fide visits to The Subversive Archaeologist. The staff here at World Headquarters go squirrelly whenever I ask them to summarize the latest stats for me to use when thanking the readership for their loyalty and low boredom threshold. Here's what I'm talkin' about. It seems that whenever I use a well-known icon of popular culture to illustrate a point, all the little ankle biters with second-hand PCs who want to see something on the web about their favourite cartoon character or celebrity mindlessly clicks on the Google link to SA. So, all of a sudden, an off-handed mention of S.y.d. the sloth in the animated classic, I.c.e. A.g.e., brings a deluge of untutored minds who take one look at the page where I mention the cartoon character and run screaming from the web. The visit counters can tell me how many unique IP addresses have visited in one stretch of time. But the page-view counter doesn't know if it's just some kid looking for a funny picture of a sloth or someone older, with more up top, who's there to read what yours truly has to say of a perceptive and insightful nature about S.y.d. the sloth. I'm not here to entertain callow youths, or doddering emeritus professors with nothing better to do than show up on my virtual doorstep hoping for a laugh! This is a serious blog! Seriously. For reals. 

By the bye, for those who've never heard of Shasta, the source for the species name of the not-S.y.d. sloth shown above, here's a picture of the volcano, at home in northern California.
Northern California's Mount Shasta, a dormant volcano [evidently]. Photo by Ewen Denney, Wikimedia Commons.
Wish 3— 
A job doing something I like, that will be so deeply satisfying [and sufficiently remunerative] that I can come home after a day at the office and sit down to give you the low-down on the latest howler from PLOS ONE. [Update: I've just been offered a "casual" position as a "Technical Editor" for one of the world's largest environmental consultancy and project management company. It's a temporary gig. So, *cough* technically, my wish still stands—until I'm hired full time.] 
Steelcase says it designed the new "Gesture" task chair to mitigate all of the various ways that you and I might want to sit.
The Steelcase "Gesture"
Wish 4—
One of those truly ergonomic, outrageously expensive 'task' chairs that let ageing dodos like me sit at their 'puter for 8 hours at a time without enraging one muscle or wearing down any connective tissue. I really need this.

Wish 5—
Someone to cut the grass. No, wait. I'm already paying somebody to do that. [No. I'm not a man of means. Having somebody else cut my grass twice a month means that I have to go a whole week every month without something to drink that's stronger than orange juice!] [That should give you some idea of how much I loathe mowing the lawn.] Yet again, I've signed a lease on a rental property that DOESN'T have a dishwasher. So. I don't need a gardner; I need someone to do the dishes. I'm happy to cook a little extra for someone who'd do the dishes afterward. Is that too much to ask? 

Wish 6—
A real physicist without an axe to grind ['hand-' or otherwise] who can walk me through the 30-something mathematical transformations necessary to turn a sample of quartz grains from inside a cave into a meaningful estimation of how long that grain had lain undisturbed in said cave. Only then might I have the wherewithal to offer an informed assessment of all those extremely old dates for modern human behaviour in the caves of southern Africa. [Sorry. Don't want to step on anyone's toes. But I've learned, by experience, how easy it is to build houses of cards, and how frightfully difficult it is to blow them down from such a long way away.]
Twice a Nobel Laureate—in Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911)—Marie SkłodowskaCurie, b. 1867–d. 1934. Among other high-profile contributions to knowledge, Madame Curie gave us a theory of 'radioactivity' [a term she coined], techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, discovered polonium and radium, isolated radium,. 

And, just to show you that I'm not makin' stuff up, have a gander at the string of numbered and unnumbered equations, transformations, assumptions, presumptions, and malfunctions evasions that're involved in obtaining OSL age estimates from quartz grains that may—or may not— have been fully bleached by the sun when last it saw the light of day. To obtain a straightforwardly accurate and precise estimate of the age of an archaeological stratum you need to KNOW that the grain you're examining WAS fully bleached by the sun before it found its way into the cave and came to rest in that selfsame archaeological stratum. ONLY when it has been fully bleached before burial out of the light will that quartz grain's radioactive timer be set to zero. Luminescence dating demands that the last heating or bleaching was thorough. If you can't be sure, you have to go through the rigamarole that follows. I've left out the "let x equal y times z" bits for brevity's sake. The mathematical process comes to you, courtesy of:
R.F. Galbraith, R.G. Roberts, G.M. Laslett, H. Yoshida, and J.M. Olley. “Optical dating of single and multiple grains of quartz from jinmium rock shelter, northern australia: Part I, experimental design and statistical models,” Archaeometry 41: 339–364, 1999.

They lost me at palaeodose!

It's hard to fool Mother Nature!
Wish 7—
One. Just one. Only one. It's all I need: a geneticist who's happy to admit that any scenario they might want to paint using just DNA from an extinct species and us—people like you and me—will be provisional forever, or until the DNA from the last common ancestor can be sequenced, whichever comes first. John Hawks, I'm sorry. We've never met. And on a bad day I can't even remember where to put the umlauts in Svante Pääbo's last name. But let's be real, gene people. Your modern human sample is not representative of humanity, nor even of the historic range of African genomes. And whether or not you can create an algorithm that'll make sense of your data, without that common ancestor your hypotheses are still born. Be that as it may. I will wish you happy holidays with the same sincerity that I reserve for best friends. But don't push your luck. I might think differently this time next year.

Charles Schulz, we hardly knew ye.
Wish 8—
About that job. It needs to be one that I'm not embarrassed doing. Linus once said that there's no heavier burden than a great potential. I'm living proof. So, every job I had after high school was of the sort where, when asked, I'd answer, "It's not the sort of job that I'd want to do forever." Until I 'went back to school' and began working toward my Ph.D. and a career in Archaeology, I was, as they say, 'unfulfilled.' Back to my great potential. My parents and other grown-up relatives used to tell me that I was SO smart I could do anything I wanted. [That impressed the hell out of my cousin cohort, I can tell you. I'm sure that's the reason I was the 12-year-old guy cousin that got to play 'house' with the six-year-old girl cousin while the other 12-year-old male cousins went off with the 12-year-old girl cousins. I can only guess what they got up to, but I spent an excruciatingly uncomfortable hour or so with a bratty little girl.] 

O' course, what I wanted to do with the rest of my life was unknown to me until I reached the age of 33. For a while after that it was all about getting credentials, up to and including the Ph.D. I could hold my head up during that process, because I knew it wasn't just education for its own sake. I was determined to become that person that I should've wanted to grow up to be, all along. So, I was proud of my scholastic achievements: a 3.85 cumulative grade-point average in my Archaeology B.A.; pre-graduate-school publications; GRE scores of 97 and 93 in verbal and analytical, respectively, an all-expenses-paid doctorate at the best public university in the U.S.A. After they conferred the doctorate I worked for a few different cultural resources management companies, as a 'shovel-bum.' Then a lectureship in Australia. Big move. Big move back for personal reasons. CRM again. And a dead end. There followed eleven years of not being able to hold my head up, and most recently, almost a year unemployed. So. Please, Santa. Find me that full-time, permanent job making other people's writing sound better. And, make it snappy! [Er. Was that too pushy? I can tone it down if your Your Magnificence thinks I'd have a better chance of getting my wish.]

Wish 9—
Penultimate wish. Christmas eve spent by the fire, with seasonally appropriate music, the aroma of a Grand fir all trimmed and glittery, a room filled with my favourite archaeologists, and a most delicious winter libation—the Polar Bear. Dead easy to make. And wicked good. A jigger of peppermint schnapps in a steamy, foaming, cup of hot chocolate. It was the official drink of the Chase Bridge Project in November of '87. A huge shout out to my fellow travellers on that dig: Heather, Mike, Richard, Howie, and the rest whose names I've inconveniently forgotten.

Wish 10—
Last, but not least. I'm wishing for a very Happy Holiday Season for you, Dear Reader! Thank you for your support. Get your own Polar Bear, and keep your mitts off mine!

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