Bones of Turkana: Meave and Richard Leakey on human ancestors and the Leakey legacy

The Leakey family is like the Kennedys, but for paleoanthropology instead of politics. Think about any hominin fossil or artifact you can name.

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Why Debt is creeping into so many science fiction discussions

On Tor.com, author and reviewer Jo Walton has an insightful look at why so many science fiction readers and writers are discussing David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years, a book that is already a darling of the Occupy movement:

One of the problems with writing science fiction and fantasy is creating truly different societies. We tend to change things but keep other things at societal defaults. It’s really easy to see this in older SF, where we have moved on from those societal defaults and can thus laugh at seeing people in the future behaving like people in the fifties. But it’s very difficult to create genuinely innovative societies, and in genuinely different directions. As a British reader coming to SF there were a lot of things I thought were people’s amazing imagination that turned out to be normal American things and cultural defaults. And no matter how much research you do, it’s always easier in the anglosphere to find books and primary sources in English and about our own history and the history of people who have interacted with us. And both history and anthropology tend to be focused on one period, one place, so it’s possible to research a specific society you know you want to know about, but hard to find things that are about the range of options different societies have chosen.

What Debt does is to focus on a question of morality, first by framing the question, and then by examining how a really large number of human societies over a huge geographical and historical range have dealt with this issue, and how they have interacted with other people who have very different ideas about it. It’s a huge issue of the kind that shapes societies and cultures, so in reading it you encounter a whole lot of contrasting cultures. Graeber has some very interesting ideas about it, and lots of fascinating details, and lots of thought provoking connections.

For a more academic discussion of Debt among political scientists and economists, see this Crooked Timber seminar on the book, and the author's reply. I liked Debt, but was also frustrated by the amount of circling back and meandering the author engages in. That said, it was one of my more thought-provoking reads of 2011.

The Best Science Fiction Ideas in any Non-Fiction Ever: David Graeber’s Debt: The First Five Thousand Years

The Grammar of Happiness: An Interview with Daniel Everett

Daniel L. Everett is Dean of Arts and Sciences at Bentley University. He is the author of Language: The Cultural Tool and the subject of the documentary A Grammar of Happiness.

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Tales of a great Pacific Coast earthquake passed down in legend

Last year, the Eastern coast of Japan was struck by a massive 9.0 earthquake and tsunami. Since that happened, you've heard researchers talk about how it was not the first time that region had experienced an earthquake that large. Although the 2011 Tohoku earthquake has been called the biggest earthquake in Japan's recorded history, that's really only describing the relatively short history of scientifically measured earthquakes. The Japanese have kept written records, describing earthquakes that sound as though they could have been every bit as destructive. And those records date back 1600 years.

But written records aren't the only way of preserving local memories, or warning future generations about the destructive power of the Earth.

Geologic evidence shows that North America's Pacific Coast has experienced earthquakes on the scale of the Tohoku earthquake. (In fact, the Pacific Northwest is probably due for one of these large quakes. It's not an "if", but a "when".) The last time it happened, nobody in the area was keeping written documents. Instead, the story of a massive earthquake and a devastating tsunami—which probably occurred around the year 1700—have become a part of oral storytelling traditions. Ruth Ludwin, a seismologist at the University of Washington, has been collecting these stories since the early 1990s.

"There was a shaking, jumping up and trembling of the earth beneath, and a rolling up of the great waters."

So says an ancient tale told to generations of Quilleute and Hoh Indians. Variations of this saga of an epic battle between the Thunderbird and the Whale are found among Pacific Northwest Tribes from Vancouver Island to Oregon's Tillamook tribe.

The Whale was a monster, killing other whales and depriving the people of meat and oil. The Thunderbird, a benevolent supernatural being, saw from its home high in the mountains that the people were starving. The great bird soared out over the coastal waters, then plunged into the ocean and seized the Whale.

A struggle ensued first in the water, the tribal tale says. "The waters receded and rose again. Many canoes came down in trees and were destroyed and numerous lives were lost."

The Thunderbird eventually succeeds in lifting the evil Whale out of the ocean, carrying it "high into the air (and then) dropping it to the land surface at Beaver prairie. Then at this place there was another great battle."

"A picture began to emerge that looked a lot like what you'd expect from a major quake," she said. One tribe even had what sounds like an explanation for aftershocks, noting Whale had a son, Subbus, who took Thunderbird several more days to locate and kill. The earth-rumbling struggle persisted, but eventually Subbus was subdued.

"I can't say for certain this was the 1700 event, but it sure sounds like it," Ludwin said. "You hear the same story from tribes all along the coast."

Read more about how Ruth Ludwin connected the story of the Whale and the Thunderbird to the 1700 Pacific Coast earthquake.

Image: Simulation from a U.S. Geological Survey research report, showing how the 1700 Cascadia earthquake might have created a tsunami that reached Japan. Written documents in Japan describe a tsunami from that year with no "parent" earthquake. Cascadia might be the source of the so-called "orphan" tsunami. You can read the full paper online.

Taxonomy and history of rage-faces


On Ars Technica, Tom Connor does a great job producing a taxonomy and history of rage-faces, showing how they evolved from a set of proscribed, orthodox uses on 4chan to a wider set of uses and meanings in several online communities.

Rage faces slowly migrated from 4chan into other communities. There, they gained popularity and expanded their numbers as artists introduced new faces, and particularly humorous comics went viral in their communities. Though the faces were no longer exclusive to any single forum, they stayed true to the originals in style.

More people got involved, the cartoons mutated and evolved, and like any successful species, they adapted to fit into a wide variety of habitats. "You can trace back the origins to 4chan so you can say [the faces are 4chan's] baby, but it's evolved on such a wide scale that it's gone beyond anyone's single ownership," Swanson said. "Mostly the original faces are from 4chan, but a lot of the newer faces have come out of F7U12, or other places like FunnyJunk."

Fffuuuuuuuu: The Internet anthropologist's field guide to "rage faces"

Interview with a cyborg anthropologist

Jon Lebkowsky sez, "Former bOING!bOING! 'cyborganic jivemeister' interviews 21st century cyborg anthropologist Amber Case. A discussion of cyborganic mind and memory and the new world of digital tribes. In the SXSW Interactive issue of the Austin Chronicle."

Case spends a lot of time studying and thinking about how digital extension affects our brains and behaviors. "The brain doesn't really need that much stimulus in order to create a virtual reality," she says. In early computing, "we thought it would take much more to incite people into these realities," but text and good two-dimensional interfaces are enough to absorb us totally in virtual worlds. "It's mixed reality, where you can be anywhere and you have different virtual realities going on around you – the different tabs in a browser window, text messages you get, Facebook messages, Twitter messages. All of those are different realities in simultaneous time zones that people are living in all the time, and we switch rapidly between these contexts all the time. People are living multiple virtual realities while existing in one reality at a time."

I asked about the overhead for all the virtual switching we do as we bounce from one to another reality, referring to it as "virtual jet lag." "To be fully aware of an environment and take something in that is not fragmented is important for learning and embodying knowledge," she says. "But the problem on the Internet is, say you learn something on Wikipedia; you're not embodied in that knowledge. Rather than learning in a lab, you're reading something about biochemistry on Wikipedia, learning it there. And halfway through the article, you may be checking your email or looking at Facebook; it disrupts the writing of that memory to your brain." This leads to greater fragmentation of memory than we might otherwise experience. "By the time you've finished loading that memory, you've only loaded part of it," she notes. "And if you stay up late, don't get enough REM sleep, your brain can't get through the natural defragmentation process. And you wake up with a sloppy hard drive of a brain."

Man or Machine? Circle Option C. (Thanks, Jonl!)

Killed by something that doesn't exist

Placebos have no repeatable physical effect that can be broadly demonstrated to exist. But, if people believe the placebo can help them, it often does—especially for inherently subjective issues like pain relief.

Nocebos are what happens when a placebo (again, something that technically has no physical effect on the body) causes a negative side-effect, simply because the person believes that such side-effects are likely to happen to them.

There is a lot we don't understand about both of these effects. After all, running really detailed tests would inherently involve unethical behavior—intentionally not treating patients or intentionally trying to induce a negative reaction in them. But that doesn't mean you can ignore these phenomena.

A great example comes in a recent column by Alexis Madrigal on The Atlantic. You're probably familiar with the idea of sleep paralysis—the experience of waking up, being mentally awake, but still physically paralyzed. This happens to people all over the world. And, all over the world, it's long been explained in folklore as the work of demons and evil spirits. (The fact that sleep paralysis is often accompanied by feelings of terror, and the sensation of something sitting on your chest doesn't hurt in that regard.) Normally, sleep paralysis brings a few minutes of terror, but no lasting harm. In the mid-1980s, however, it suddenly became capable of killing. The catch, the men it killed were all recent Hmong immigrants, living in the United States. Researcher Shelley Adler thinks it was actually a nocebo effect that killed these men—they believed themselves into an early grave.

[In America] some Hmong felt that they had not properly honored the memories of their ancestors, which was a known risk factor among the Hmong for being visited by the tsog tsuam. Once the night-mare visitations began, a shaman was often needed to set things right. And in the scattered communities of Hmong across the country, they might not have access to the right person. Without access to traditional rituals, shamans, and geographies, the Hmong were unable to provide themselves psychic protection from the spirits of their sleep.

Drawing on all this evidence, Adler makes the provocative claim that the Laotian immigrants of the 1980s were in some sense killed by their powerful cultural belief in night spirits. It was not a simple process.

"It is my contention that in the context of severe and ongoing stress related to cultural disruption and national resettlement (exacerbated by intense feelings of powerlessness about existence in the United States), and from the perspective of a belief system in which evil spirits have the power to kill men who do not fulfill their religious obligations," Adler writes, "the solitary Hmong man confronted by the numinous terror of the night-mare (and aware of its murderous intent) can die of SUNDS."

Via Christopher Ryan

Sex is Fun podcast: How sexism affects your sex life

I've been doing periodic appearances on Sex is Fun, a sex-positive podcast aimed at providing fun, informative sex ed. for grown-ups. Last time I was on the show, we talked about some funny animal sex studies and what they can and can't teach you about human sexual behavior. This time around, we talked about a couple of recent studies focusing on sociology and sex.

In particular, we focused on a study from last fall that surveyed students at the University of Kansas to find out how men's and women's internalized sexism affect their relationships with each other. If you've ever watched one of those shows about so-called "pick up artists" and wondered, "Who the hell are the women falling for this crap!?", then this is the show to listen to.

Check out the podcast at the Sex is Fun site!

Image: IMG_9459, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jon_knox's photostream.

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": Recreating an exhibit that no longer exists

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

Not every museum exhibit will survive untouched from your childhood to your grandchildrens'. Over time, historic and scientific accuracy, changing mores and aesthetics, and improvements in design will force some exhibits off the main stage and into the dusty storage room of memory.

But you can still love them from afar.

On this, the last day of "My Favorite Museum Exhibit" week, I'd like to include one man's tribute to a long-dismantled museum exhibit. Tom Luthman writes:

When I was a kid in the 1970s, I'd go to the Center of Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio (COSI). COSI opened in 1964, in the old Franklin County Memorial Hall, built in 1906. It closed in 1999, or rather, it moved to a new location, and most of the old exhibits didn't make the move.

One of the exhibits was THE TRIUMPH OF MAN, a leftover exhibit from the 1964 World's Fair in New York City, built by the Travelers Insurance Companies. You'd walk down a darkened corridor, and off in alcoves were 14 paper-mache scenes depicting the history of humanity. All accompanied by a recorded narration from the World's Fair. It was also sold in the gift shop as a 33-1/3 record, which we had.

Now, Luthman has put that recording to good use, incorporating it into a Flash-based recreation of THE TRIUMPH OF MAN* that will live online, long after the physical exhibit has decomposed in a landfill somewhere.

This is a really neat project and worth checking out, even if you don't have the emotional connection to THE TRIUMPH OF MAN that Luthman does. Just make sure you're someplace where you can crank up the sound and enjoy that sweet, sweet mid-20th-century triumphalism in stereo.

A virtual recreation of The TRIUMPH OF MAN

*Of course it's in all caps every time. It's THE TRIUMPH OF MAN, for god's sake.

The last thing I will post about apocalypse in 2012

Seriously. If you haven't figured out by now that the world is not ending and that any Mayan predictions claiming otherwise are largely fabricated pseudoarchaeology, then I'm not sure that I can help you. One last try, though. Please read this excellent FAQ, written by actual archaeologist (and my former professor) John Hoopes. I did an interview with Dr. Hoopes last year about the 2012 as a phenomenon, but the new FAQ covers, in detail, why a 2012 apocalypse is bunk, and what sources you can check out to find further accurate information about the confluence of ancient Mayan mythology and modern Western mythology. And that is all I have to say about this for the rest of the year. Coming in 2013, though: Lots of stories about Mayan archaeology. Just to mess with you.

Inside a fossilized cell

Here's something that's just a little mind-blowing: Synchotron tomography, a type of medical imaging related to CT scanning, allows scientists to look inside the cells of fossils. Check out this post on Lawn Chair Anthropology about a recently published paper that used synchotron tomography to study clumps of fossilized cells and rule them out as being one of earliest ancestors.

The academic linguistics of LOLspeak

On Submitterator, Musicman pointed me towards this great presentation on LOLspeak as a form of language play, and why people engage in that play. According to Lauren Gawne, who gave this speech last week at the Australian Linguistics Society conference, the choice to use LOLspeak has a lot to do with establishing identity—the playful identity of "cat", and the serious identity of "knowledgeable Internet user".

Includes an explanation of why LOLspeak is language play and not some language mashup "kitty pidgin".

You can read more about this on Lauren Gawne's blog Superlinguo.

The video, by the way, is 20 minutes long. It's also got a little bit of weird, warbly feedback in the audio, but that doesn't get in the way of hearing what Gawne is saying.

A brief history of the apocalypse

A good soul named Chris Nelson has taken the time to catalog some of history's greatest end-of-the-world predictions and arrange them in a handy timeline format. Use A Brief History of the Apocalypse as a fascinating way to explain why you are pretty certain the world won't end on x date. Or, use it to help plan your 2012 End of the World-themed parties.

The fine art of the scathing insult

One of the things I enjoy about writing for BoingBoing is the opportunity it's giving me to learn how to write reviews of books. That's not something I'd ever done before I started writing here. And I'm only now getting around to experimenting with not only describing books I like, but figuring out how to talk about books I find to be flawed. Fair criticism is a difficult skill to learn.

That's why I'm sort of simultaneously terrified and in awe of this 1991 book review, published in the International Journal of Primatology. In it, anthropologist Matt Cartmill expresses his opinions about sociologist Donna Haraway's book Primate Visions. I don't know enough about either scholar, or the book, to have an opinion about whether Cartmill is right or wrong. But, wowow, is that a blistering review.

This is a book that contradicts itself a hundred times; but that is not a criticism of it, because its author thinks contradictions are a sign of intellectual ferment and vitality. This is a book that systematically distorts and selects historical evidence; but that is not a criticism, because its author thinks that all interpretations are biased, and she regards it as her duty to pick and choose her facts to favor her own brand of politics. This is a book full of vaporous, French-intellectual prose that makes Teilhard de Chardin sound like Ernest Hemingway by comparison; but that is not a criticism, because the author likes that sort of prose and has taken lessons in how to write it, and she thinks that plain, homely speech is part of a conspiracy to oppress the poor.

This is a book that clatters around in a dark closet of irrelevancies for 450 pages before it bumps accidentally into its index and stops; but that is not a criticism, either, because its author finds it gratifying and refreshing to bang unrelated facts together as a rebuke to stuffy minds. This book infuriated me; but that is not a defect in it, because it is supposed to infuriate people like me, and the author would have been happier still if I had blown out an artery. In short, this book is flawless, because all its deficiencies are deliberate products of art. Given its assumptions, there is nothing here to criticize. The only course open to a reviewer who dislikes this book as much as I do is to question its author’s fundamental assumptions—which are big-ticket items involving the nature and relationships of language, knowledge, and science.

Via Evgeny Morozov

Image: Fear and Suspicion, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from alyssafilmmaker's photostream

Otzi the Iceman and life after death

In Science Ink, Carl Zimmer's new book collecting photos of cool science tattoos and the stories behind them, there's a photo of a guy who got tattoos to match those found on Otzi, aka The Iceman, who died more than 5,000 years ago in the Italian Alps.

Mike Goldstein, the guy who got the tattoo, said the series of 10 simple lines arranged in groups of four, three, and three served to remind him that you don't have to be incredibly important during your lifetime in order to be important. "It reminds me that I can live however I want," he says in the book. "I don't have to work in an office or wear a tie, as are the expectations of our culture. I can walk across the Alps and die in a swamp, and that's OK."

I was reminded of that quote today, while reading my news stream. There's no evidence that Otzi was a particularly important figure to his culture. But here we are, thousands of years later, still debating the minutia of how he died. Emily Sohn writes about new Otzi research for Discover News:

...new analyses have revealed that a deep cut likely led to heavy bleeding in the man's eye. In the cold, high-altitude conditions where he was found, that kind of injury would have been tough to recover from.

The official opinion remains that an arrow in his left shoulder was the cause of death for Ötzi. But the new study raises the possibility -- for some, at least -- that he fell over after being shot by an arrow. And, at higher than 10,000 feet in elevation, his alpine fall may have made the situation much worse.

"Maybe he fell down or maybe he had a fight up there, nobody knows," said Wolfgang Recheis, a physicist in the radiology department at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. "With this cut alone, at 3,250 meters, it would have been a deadly wound up there. Bleeding to death in the late afternoon when it was getting cold up there, this could be really dangerous."

Granted, most of us have a better chance of making an impact after our deaths by helping other people during our lives. Or by donating our bodies to science. But it's still interesting to think about all that could happen to you thousands of years after you're gone.