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Posts Tagged ‘anthropology

“And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming”*…

 

lost city

Remnants of the ancient city of Cahokia, in what’s now southern Illinois

 

Not far from my grandmother’s house is a ghost city. At Angel Mounds on the Ohio river about eight miles southeast of Evansville, there are a few visible earthworks and a reconstructed wattle-and-daub barrier. There is almost nothing left of the people who build these mounds; in a final insulting erasure, the site is now named after the white settler family who most recently farmed the land.

There are traces of other dead villages along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, mounds scattered from present-day Indiana to Arkansas and Alabama. In southern Illinois, a few miles from the Missouri border, hidden among empty corn and soy fields, is the center of that dead civilization’s gravity: the lost city of Cahokia.

Cahokia was larger than London, centrally planned, the Manhattan of its day. Most people there would have come from somewhere else. There were defensive foundations, playing fields, and a magnificent temple. There would have been sacred ceremonies and salacious gossip. It must have been a very exciting place to live.

And then, relatively abruptly, it ceased to exist. We know of the city only because of the physical traces left behind. Few stories of Cahokia have survived; it disappeared from oral tradition, as if whatever happened to it is best forgotten. The archaeological record shows traces of the desperation and bloodshed that almost always accompany great upheavals: skeletons with bound hands, pits full of strangled young women.

The North American Drought Atlas, a historical record of climate conditions pieced together from the rings of old trees, provides a hint of what might have happened. The tenth century CE, when the Cahokia civilization would have developed, marked a distinct shift in the regional climate from persistent drought to rainier conditions more suitable for agriculture, centralization, and civilization.

But the good times were not to last…

Some people say “the climate has changed before,” as though that should be reassuring. It’s not: “Lost Cities and Climate Change.”

See also:  “A Quarter of Humanity Faces Looming Water Crises” and “What kind of climate change coverage do you read in the news? It depends on whether you live in a rich country or a poor one.”

* “Thanks to the centrifugal pump, places like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas had thrown on the garments of fertility for a century, pretending to greenery and growth as they mined glacial water from ten-thousand-year-old aquifers. They’d played dress-up-in-green and pretended it could last forever. They’d pumped up the Ice Age and spread it across the land, and for a while they’d turned their dry lands lush. Cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans — vast green acreages, all because someone could get a pump going. Those places had dreamed of being different from what they were. They’d had aspirations. And then the water ran out, and they fell back, realizing too late that their prosperity was borrowed, and there would be no more coming.”
Paolo Bacigalupi, The Water Knife (a powerful novel)

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As we face facts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1854 that Ticknor & Fields published transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s reflection on simple living in natural surroundings, Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

220px-Walden_Thoreau source

 

Written by LW

August 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Home’s where you go when you run out of homes”*…

 

home

 

When we imagine the homes of the future, we can’t just think about the technologies that could alter our domestic lives. We also need to think about the changing ways that people relate to their habitats.

For the past five years, Ikea has been on a mission to better understand people’s relationships with their homes by doing in-depth sociological studies of its consumers. The company publishes its finding in its annual Life at Home report, which began in 2014. Last year’s report involved visiting the houses and apartments of 22,000 people across 22 countries to better understand what everyday living looks like in today’s world.

What Ikea found was that our fundamental notions of home and family are experiencing a transformation. Plenty of demographic research suggests that major changes in where and how we live could be afoot: For instance, people who marry later may spend more years living with roommates. If couples delay having children—or choose to remain child-free—they may choose to live longer in smaller apartments. As people live longer, we might find more multigenerational homes, as parents, children, and grandchildren all cohabit under one roof.In addition to those demographic shifts, Ikea’s research uncovered something else: Many of the people in its large study were not particularly satisfied with their domestic life. For one thing, they’re increasingly struggling to feel a sense of home in the places they live; 29% of people surveyed around the world felt more at home in other places than the space where they live every day. A full 35% of people in cities felt this way.

Ikea surveyed 22,000 people in 22 countries, and came up with six visions for the future of our homes: “See Ikea’s 6 visions for how we’ll live in the future.”

* John le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy

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As we settle in, we might send pointed birthday greeting to Nicolas-Jacques Conté; he was born on this date in 1755.  A painter, balloonist, and army officer, he is best remembered as the inventor of the modern pencil.  At a time when the French Republic was at that time under economic blockade and unable to import graphite from Great Britain, its main source of the material, Conté was asked by Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot to create an alternative.  Conté mixed powdered graphite with clay and pressed the material between two half-cylinders of wood– forming the first the modern pencil. He received a patent for the invention in 1795, and formed la Société Conté to make them.  He also invented the conté crayon (named after him), a hard pastel stick used by artists.

220px-Nicolas-Jacques_Conté source

 

 

Written by LW

August 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that”*…

 

light switch

 

The inventor of the light switch, John Henry Holmes, was a Quaker, member of a doctrine generally united by a fundamental belief in the ability of each person to access “the light within”. The light switch, of course, enables each person to access the light without, and has been doing so, solidly, since 1884.

At least until the emergence of the voice- or presence-activated smart home version of lights, brave solution to an unspecified problem. Unlike contemporary design patterns, Holmes’s switch is a simple design that has lasted for centuries. Still, entering an old house, we brush our fingertips over the wall in the gloom, tracing spatial memories, caressing plaster or brick or wood before your hand brushes against an early plastic, or even Bakelite. The switch itself still tends to be firm, the ever-so-slight sensation of rolling as it moves to form a circuit, one of the most pleasingly robust ‘actions’ that an industrial designer could imagine.

It means the resilient light switch, like the door handle, reveals the accumulated touch of all those gone before, a patina of presence. Juhani Pallasmaa said that the doorhandle is the handshake of the building; is the light switch the equivalent for the room? It is the most universal of everyday objects…

If we always replace touch with voice activation, or simply by our presence entering a room, we are barely thinking or understanding, placing things out of mind. While data about those interactions exist, it is elsewhere, perceptible only to the eyes of the algorithm. We lose another element of our physicality, leaving no mark, literally. No sense of patina develops, except in invisible lines of code, datapoints feeding imperceptible learning systems of unknown provenance. As is often the case with unthinking smart systems, it is a highly individualising interface, revealing no trace of others…

From dark living rooms to dark ecology– a meditation on the humble, but crucial light switch: “Let there be light switches.”

* Dr. Martin Luther King

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As we shine on, we might recall that on this date in 1824 Beethoven’s Ninth (and final) Symphony, Chorale, premiered in Vienna, with “lyrics” by Frederich Schiller (part of his “Ode to Joy”); Beethoven’s chorus concludes:

Be embraced, ye millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, beyond the star-canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Be embraced,
This kiss for the whole world!
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
Joy, beautiful spark of the gods!

Facsimile of Beethoven’s manuscript for “The Ode to Joy”

 

Written by LW

May 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Status is welcome, agreeable, pleasant, and hard to obtain in the world”*…

 

fur-300x198

 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person in possession of little fortune, must be in want of more social capital.”

So wrote Jane Austen, or she would have, I think, if she were chronicling our current age (instead we have Taylor Lorenz, and thank goodness for that).

Let’s begin with two principles:

  • People are status-seeking monkeys*
  • People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital

I begin with these two observations of human nature because few would dispute them, yet I seldom see social networks, some of the largest and fastest-growing companies in the history of the world, analyzed on the dimension of status or social capital.

It’s in part a measurement issue. Numbers lend an air of legitimacy and credibility. We have longstanding ways to denominate and measure financial capital and its flows. Entire websites, sections of newspapers, and a ton of institutions report with precision on the prices and movements of money.

We have no such methods for measuring the values and movement of social capital, at least not with anywhere near the accuracy or precision. The body of research feels both broad and yet meager. If we had better measures besides user counts, this piece and many others would be full of charts and graphs that added a sense of intellectual heft to the analysis. There would be some annual presentation called the State of Social akin to Meeker’s Internet Trends Report, or perhaps it would be a fifty page sub-section of her annual report.

Despite this, most of the social media networks we study generate much more social capital than actual financial capital, especially in their early stages; almost all such companies have internalized one of the popular truisms of Silicon Valley, that in the early days, companies should postpone revenue generation in favor of rapid network scaling. Social capital has much to say about why social networks lose heat, stall out, and sometimes disappear altogether. And, while we may not be able to quantify social capital, as highly attuned social creatures, we can feel it.

Social capital is, in many ways, a leading indicator of financial capital, and so its nature bears greater scrutiny. Not only is it good investment or business practice, but analyzing social capital dynamics can help to explain all sorts of online behavior that would otherwise seem irrational.

In the past few years, much progress has been made analyzing Software as a Service (SaaS) businesses. Not as much has been made on social networks. Analysis of social networks still strikes me as being like economic growth theory long before Paul Romer’s paper on endogenous technological change. However, we can start to demystify social networks if we also think of them as SaaS businesses, but instead of software, they provide status. This post is a deep dive into what I refer to as Status as a Service (StaaS) businesses…

Eugene Wei (of Amazon, Hulu, and Flipboard, among other tech successes) on the implications of our hunger for recognition and rank: “Status as a Service (StaaS).”

Pair with: “Understanding Tradeoffs (pt. 2): Breaking the Altruism vs. Capitalism Dichotomy.”

[Image above: source]

* Buddha [Ittha Sutta, AN 5.43]

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As we contemplate our craving, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that a method for manufacturing elastic (rubber) bands was patented in Britain by Stephen Perry and and Thomas Barnabas Daft of London (G.B. No. 13880/1845).

In the early 19th century, sailors had brought home items made by Central and South American natives from the sap of rubber trees, including footwear, garments and bottles.  Around 1820, a Londoner named Thomas Hancock sliced up one of the bottles to create garters and waistbands. By 1843, he had secured patent rights from Charles Macintosh for vulcanized India rubber.  (Vulcanization made rubber stable and retain its elasticity.)  Stephen Perry, owner of Messrs Perry and Co,. patented the use of India rubber for use as springs in bands, belts, etc., and (with Daft) also the manufacture of elastic bands by slicing suitable sizes of vulcanized India rubber tube.  The bands were lightly scented to mask the smell of the treated rubber.

 source

 

Written by LW

March 17, 2019 at 1:01 am

“History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future”*…

 

P-prairie-creek-burial

Wrapped in a cotton shroud, Joseph Fitzgerald is laid to rest in 2013 at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery in Gainesville, Florida. “Green” burials like this are becoming increasingly popular.

 

Death has always been a fact of life. But somehow, even after endless repetitions of the cycle, we still haven’t figured out how we feel about dead bodies. Are they vessels of loved ones that should be preserved for as long as possible? Bundles of organic material that should be reunited with the earth? Harsh reminders of our own mortality that should be disposed of quickly and thoroughly?

Ellen Stroud, an environmental historian at Penn State University, explored the macabre history and legal ambiguities of American bodies in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science. From the one-footed 87-year-old man sold to a medical school for $10 in 1902 to the plasticized people put on display in traveling exhibits today, bodies continue to challenge our ideas of justice and humanity…

An environmental historian looks at how Americans treat corpses and what it means: “She Sees Dead Bodies.”

Pair with this (unsentimental, illuminating) account of the last words of the dying: “What People Actually Say Before They Die.”

* Robert Penn Warren

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As we muse on on the morals of mortality, we might spare a thought for Sir Charles Leonard Woolley; he died on this date in 1960.  Recognized as one of the first “modern” archaeologists– which is to say, one who excavated in a methodical way, kept careful records, and used them to reconstruct ancient life and history– his excavation (1922-34) of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur (in modern Iraq), the royal burial site of many Mesopotamian royals, greatly advanced knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian civilization, enabling scholars to trace the history of the city from its final days during the 4th century BC back to its prehistoric beginnings (c. 4000 BC).

His finds revealed much about everyday life, art, architecture, literature, government, and religion in this “cradle of civilization. ”  In royal tombs dating from about 2700 BC, he uncovered the practice of the sacrificial burial of a deceased king’s personal retinue. He discovered tombs of great material wealth, gold and silver jewelry, large paintings of ancient Mesopotamian culture at its zenith, and other furnishings.  His widely read Ur of the Chaldees: A record of seven years of excavation (1929), described his findings in a manner both informative to specialists and accessible by lay-people.

220px-Woolley_holding_the_hardened_plaster_mold_of_a_lyre

Woolley holding the excavated Sumerian Queen’s Lyre in 1922

source

 

Written by LW

February 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”*…

 

idea_sized-aymara-chile-35407509066_24c283c244_o

With the appearance of the first rays of the sun from Cerro Huantajaya in Alto Hospicio, northern Chile, people celebrate the arrival of the Aymara New Year, Machaq Mara, and the arrival of new energies.

 

For centuries, Inuit hunters navigated the Arctic by consulting wind, snow and sky. Now they use GPS. Speakers of the aboriginal language Gurindji, in northern Australia, used to command 28 variants of each cardinal direction. Children there now use the four basic terms, and they don’t use them very well. In the arid heights of the Andes, the Aymara developed an unusual way of understanding time, imagining the past as in front of them, and the future at their backs. But for the youngest generation of Aymara speakers – increasingly influenced by Spanish – the future lies ahead.

These are not just isolated changes. On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling – and, sadly, those of us who study the mind had only just begun to appreciate it.

In 2010, a paper titled ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ gave the field of cognitive science a seismic shock. Its authors, led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia, made two fundamental points. The first was that researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.

But there is a third fundamental point, and it was the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania who made it. In his commentary on the 2010 article, Rozin noted that this same WEIRD slice of humanity was ‘a harbinger of the future of the world’. He had seen this trend in his own research. Where he found cross-cultural differences, they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging. The signs are unmistakable: the age of global WEIRDing is upon us….

Are we breeding a global cultural and cognitive monoculture?  More at: “What happens to cognitive diversity when everyone is more WEIRD?.”

* Stephen R. Covey

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As we delight in difference, we might send utilitarian birthday greetings to Jeremy Bentham; the author, jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer was born on this date in 1748.  Bentham is considered a founder of modern Utilitarianism (via his own work, and that of his students, including James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill); he actively advocated individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children.

Bentham was involved in the founding of University College (then, the University of London), the first in England to admit all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief.  On his death, he was dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture– as he specified in his will.  Afterward– again, as Bentham’s will specified– the skeleton and head were preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet called the “Auto-icon”, with the skeleton stuffed out with hay and dressed in Bentham’s clothes.  Bentham had intended the Auto-icon to incorporate his actual head, preserved to resemble its appearance in life.  But experimental efforts at mummification, though technically successful, left the head looking alarmingly macabre, with dried and darkened skin stretched tautly over the skull.  So the Auto-icon was given a wax head, fitted with some of Bentham’s own hair.

It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of University College.  The real head was displayed in the same case as the Auto-icon for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, so is now locked away.

 see a virtual, 360-degree rotatable version here

 

“The years teach much the days never know”*…

 

Hoover Dam

On the western flank of the Hoover Dam stands a little-understood monument, commissioned by the US Bureau of Reclamation when construction of the dam began in 01931. The most noticeable parts of this corner of the dam, now known as Monument Plaza, are the massive winged bronze sculptures and central flagpole which are often photographed by visitors. The most amazing feature of this plaza, however, is under their feet as they take those pictures.

The plaza’s terrazzo floor is actually a celestial map that marks the time of the dam’s creation based on the 25,772-year axial precession of the earth…

Hoover diagram

Alexander Rose, Executive director of The Long Now Foundation, on the star map of “Safety Island,” a Hoover Dam feature that has baffled visitors for decades: “The 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument Hidden in Plain Sight.”

See also “Coventry Doom,” the story of a 15th-century “doom mural” (depiction of the Last Judgement) that remained hidden in plain sight for centuries.

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we watch our step, we might send unearthed birthday greetings to Mary Douglas Leakey; she was born on this date in 1913.  An archaeologist and  paleoanthropologist, she made several of the most important fossil finds subsequently interpreted and publicized by her husband, the noted anthropologist Louis Leakey. For every vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting evidence tended to come from Mary’s scrupulous scientific approach.

220px-Mary_Leakey source

 

Written by LW

February 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

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