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August 2007

The Excavation of Monk's Mound at Cahokia

IMG_3022.JPGThere is a really interesting discussion of the August 2007 excavation of Monk's Mound at Cahokia going on on the Talk Page for the Wikipedia entry for Cahokia. I was there was a tourist when excavation began and took a lot of photos, including some of the excavation. Someone has posted the following report of the situation.

Cahokia Mounds management did not have a permit to dig into monks mound. The Illinois Historic Preservation agency gave them permission to remove only the historic fill. The site director did this on his own initiative. I saw the letters on the IAS website detailing the site management's explanation of the work on monks mound. They claimed to be doing this work to reduce the risk of erosion and to correct the slumpage issue which occurred over 20 years ago. Their comments to the Illinois Archeology Society are an indictment that they never even considered the archeology when the 30,000 cubic feet of monks mound was torn out of the mound from three separate areas. The site management explanation makes the problem apparent that they did not consider the archaeological impact that this work would have. The fact is that the mound is actually a series of ancient sacred temples stacked on top of one another that the mound may have been covered with elaborate earthen layer of colored in blue, red, white, black, grey, brown, and orange soils. The site management never mentioned the other "Rejected Possibilities" that were proposed for this work in Cahokia Archaeological Society meetings. The website also makes it clear the professional archaeological community had no idea that this work was going to be done. I served as Vice President of the Cahokia Archaeological Society for 2004-2006 and this work of digging deeply into the mound was never mentioned to the CAS. However, the site management did state in the CAS meetings they said they were looking forward to doing some "minor cosmetic work" on the mound. An elaborate earth painting or series of earth paintings covering the mound is a real possibility considering the complexity of color use in the top 10 feet of the surface of the mound. The unfortunate fact is that no floats were taken, no artifact bags lying around, or clip-boards were on site, No screening took place and the dirt was removed with track-hoe (no hand excavations going on at the time of destruction), and the dirt was piled up in multiple areas around the mound. As of August 25th, the large piles of dirt were still piled on top of monks mound but the excavations were completely filled in with loam with grass seed freshly spread on the soil that had been dumped in place by a dump truck. There was a large geotextile covering half of the newly deposited soil. After attempting to inspect the mound, I was told to stay off the mound by construction workers, who had parked their vehicles on the top of the mound. Construction and crew workers were parking vehicles on top of the smaller mounds, not to mention very large backhoes parked on the top of the mounds. According to Paula Cross, they were only supposed to remove the previous repair fill - and not impact the mound fill. But they went over a meter deep through a 50 ft wide and 50 ft long area. I calculated the volume of removed moundfill to total 30,000 cubic feet based on measurements of the piled up dirt south of the silos that are between Monks Mound and Woodhenge. The IHPA gave site directors permission to repair the damage. The depth of the excavations may have been caused by accidental removal of too much soil. However, a contractor should know that when digging into an archaeological site, the permits must be followed exactly. After a circle of limestone slabs and cedar posts had been hit by the backhoes, Tim Pauketat, an archeology professor at the University of Illinois stopped this excavation and expressed his unhappiness with the work (according to the IAS newsflash website).
The site management told me that "as long as its ripped wide open" then we should salvage what we can find. So they hired archaeologists to look at the profiles of the excavations for a few days. During this time, there were drawings made and measurements taken of the exposed features. However, "as long as it's ripped wide open" was illegal and should never have happened. Foremost for the reason that it is a desecration of sacred burial mounds.

Continue reading "The Excavation of Monk's Mound at Cahokia" »

A Comment Section Problem

Lately, I've been really hammered with comment spam -- spam submitted as comments in my blog. Typepad is probably still filtering out a lot, but a lot more is getting through.

This morning, I discovered that enough was leaking through for Gmail to decide that incoming comment notifications from Typepad were spam, so there were ten or twelve real comments, some of them from my friends, and some serious and interesting comments from people I don't know, languishing in my account, waiting to be approved. (I've got Comment Approval turned on.)

Sorry folks. I'll try to watch more carefully (and try to persuade Gmail not to dump the Typepad notifications).

What Kind of Extremist Am I, Anyway?

I never take Internet quizes except when I do:

What kind of extremist are you?
Your Result: Rational Person

You consider these questions obvious straw men, designed to distract people from a meaningful investigation of facts and a serious discussion of relevant political issues. How boring.

Moderate Extremist
Right-Wing Extremist
Left-Wing Extremist
What kind of extremist are you?
See All Our Quizzes

Background to the Stuart Pivar Lawsuit: Money as "a Form of Behavior"

I've been following with some puzzlement the strange tale of millionaire businessman and art collector Stuart Pivar's lawsuit against science blogger PZ Myers claiming "Assault, Libel, and Slander" over Myers' negative review of Pivar's foray into evolutionary theory, a book entitled Lifecode:The Theory of Biological Self Organization, the only book published by one "Ryland Press, Inc."

I first read about the lawsuit on Making Light, but it has also been written up on Scientific American's blog, where Myers comments,

Huh. I'd heard some noise from Pivar threatening to sue, but this is the first I've heard of any formal action being taken. Since I'm a defendant (one who hasn't been notified of his status!) I suppose I should just shut up at this point and let justice run its course.

Since I'm a blogger, though, I can't completely shut up. I will just say that this is Pivar's attempt to squash a negative review of his book, which I posted here. Nothing in the review was motivated by personal malice, and I actually am inclined to favor structuralist arguments in evolution ... but I'm afraid my honest assessment of Pivar's work is that it does not support his conclusions. I still stand by my review, and now I'm a bit disturbed that someone would think criticism of a scientific hypothesis must be defended by silencing its critics.

One of the very first things I was ever told when my first book came out was never to respond to negative reviews. I have not entirely resisted the temptation, but have (I think) managed to limit myself to polite notes making what I felt were factual corrections. My first reaction, when reading about this lawsuit on Making Light was how much it reminded my of the Monty Python skit containing the line, He used sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and satire.

Of course, life is stranger than fiction; stranger, even, than Monty Python. I've spent most of the day reading for our Year's Best volumes, but spent a few minutes looking further into the discussion of the lawsuit, and found some really odd stuff.

Pivar, it seems, is used to being noticed and making waves, though in very different circles than biology or blogging. According to The New York Times (2004) he has a "long-running feud" with the New York Academy of Art which he helped found and where he alledges  that "organized crime" has taken over.

In 2006, he alleged that Sotheby's showed negligence to its stockholders in relation a refund given a Japanese collector for a statue for which Pivar had obtained a 1 million dollar appraisal.

But  the most interesting material relates to his friendship with Andy Warhol, which he wrote about for the Sotheby's Andy Warhol Collection 1988 auction catalog. The Warhol-Pivar relationship merited a really startling passage in an essay published by Artnet entitled "What Art Says about Money" by Charlie Finch:

That is the call of money, the fear of art as exchange value. Conversely, Claude Monet, the original Andy, would crank out his haystacks, take a small number to Marseilles, telling his buyers, "There are only a few, buy them while you can." Then he'd float another dozen stacks back in Paris.

This is more than making a living, or refusing to: It is the love call of currency at its most fetishistic. Steve Rubell famously showered Andy Warhol with buckets of bills at Andy's birthday bash. No artist was more the victim, and yet exploiter, of money lust than Warhol, wandering the souks of Soho with Stuart Pivar buying up everything in sight then dumping the unopened packages in his closets at night, full of unsatisfied shame. The pull of mammon was murderous even on someone so intelligent. For money is a form of behavior, abstract, hidden and irrational.

Here's more on the Andy and Stuart social scene from accounts by Heli Vaaranen, a Finnish model:

What united Stuart and Andy was that they appreciated success, and only it. If someone tried to get started with his or her career, Stuart and Andy were certainly the wrong persons to try to use. Stuart Pivar had a very exclusive taste in his social life. For instance, he used to arrange classical concerts once a week in his home, in which artists like members of the New York Philharmonic performed. Only the best was good enough for Stuart.

Both Andy and Stuart selected the company they associated with. Very carefully. Andy used to say that 'It's great to buy friends'. Vaaranen agrees that Andy's famous friends were bought with his fame.

In the past few days, there are any number of people who have called Pivar an idiot for filing this lawsuit. That seems to me too easy an assessment.

The truth seems to be much more novelistic in a Jamesian sort of way: Pivar strikes me as a feisty, confident man, a fighter, who has honed his tactics in intellectually and aesthetically complex circles, who is unable to understand why his visual sophistication is not taking him where he wants to go, and why money can't take him the rest of the way if visual sophistication isn't enough. (I hope for the sake of everyone involved that he is a quick learner.)

The Ghost of an Indian Mound at Cahokia Found in Google Earth's Elevation Data


Cahokia was once a city of 20,000 which was located where Collinsville, Illinois is now, just outside St. Louis. It is one of a small number of World Heritage sites in the United States. It was built by a mound-building culture, and flourished for a few hundred years about a thousand years ago.

We to Cahokia a few weeks ago while attending Nasfic. From our Collinsville hotel room, I looked at where we'd been on Google Earth and made an interesting discovery: the ghost of mound #31 lurks in the elevation data: An auction liquidation house now stands where mound #31 once stood. The elevation data shows the shape of the mound, whereas the aerial photo used by Google Earth shows the business that replaced it. (Download the_ghost_of_cahokias_mound_30..kmz)

Mound 31 was torn down in the 1960s as part of an expansion back when the building was a store called Grampa's. The main building was built in the 1940s as a nightclub. Mound 30 was torn down for the initial construction. GE probably uses the elevation data from the 1960s because it is 1 meter resolution. I'm guessing that this hi-rez elevation data dates from when the nearby interstate, which runs through the Cahokia archaeological site, was being constructed.

I looked into whether is was possible to do time-series digital archeology on sites like this, but the 1 meter resolution elevation data seems to have been a one-time thing, for Cahokia at least.

Cahokia Missing Mounds 30 & 31

Our photos from Cahokia are HERE.

That Wikipedia Is a Seething Mass of Self-serving Edits Comes as a Surprise to Some: Now Wikimedia should please provide a list of Wikipedia admin IDs along with corporate or organizational IP numbers they are known to have logged in from

See Wired's Vote On the Most Shameful Wikipedia Spin Jobs -- UPDATED for what's causing all the Buzz:

Caltech graduate student Virgil Griffith just launched an unofficial Wikipedia search tool that threatens to lay bare the ego-editing  and anonymous flacking on the site. Enter the name of a corporation, organization or government entity and you get a list of IP addresses assigned to it. Then with one or two clicks, you can see all the anonymous edits made from those addresses anywhere in Wikipedia's pages.

But Wikipedia is not ruled by people who edit without logging in. This is for the most part just drive-by stuff. [redacted 8/29/07 as a favor to an admin I'd singled out for criticism]

It's very nice of Virgil Griffith to out all of the corporate connections associated with interesting edits from anonymous IP#s.

Now we want the admin list. Never mind gossip about whether one prominent admin was responsible many years ago for getting the ABC offices raided by Scottland Yard. We don't need to need to know their names or CVs.

Wikimedia should please provide a list of Wikipedia admin IDs along with corporate or organizational IP numbers they are known to have logged in from. That's where the real story of Wikipedia manipulation by corporate and organizational interests is.

It is the admins, after all, who arbitrate Wikipedia conflict of interest disputes, and nearly all do so at present pseudonymously without disclosing their own connections. It seems to me that they lack the moral authority to do so.

8.0 Peru Earthquake and its nearby populations

I took at quick look on Google Earth to get of a situation involving the 8.0 earthquake in Peru, and it looks bad to me. Here's the USGS description:

Magnitude 8.0 Date-Time Wednesday, August 15, 2007 at 23:40:56 UTC Wednesday, August 15, 2007 at 06:40:56 PM at epicenter Time of Earthquake in other Time Zones Location 13.358°S, 76.522°W Depth 30.2 km (18.8 miles) set by location program Region NEAR THE COAST OF CENTRAL PERU Distances 45 km (25 miles) WNW of Chincha Alta, Peru 110 km (65 miles) NW of Ica, Peru 150 km (95 miles) SSE of LIMA, Peru 200 km (125 miles) SW of Huancayo, Peru Location Uncertainty horizontal +/- 5.2 km (3.2 miles); depth fixed by location program Parameters Nst=271, Nph=271, Dmin=155.4 km, Rmss=0.83 sec, Gp= 29°, M-type=moment magnitude (Mw), Version=9 Source USGS NEIC (WDCS-D) Event ID us2007gbcv

Here's a quick look at the epicenters location relative to populated areas on Google Earth (I've got NASA's earthlight layer turned on.)


The brightest nearby blog is Chincha Alta, a city of 100,000, 25 miles from the epicenter.

There are several rivers nearby (think wall of water from debris falling into the river in the nearby mountains). Also there are substatial mountainsides not far away.

"Bear with me as I unpack my indignation": Scientific American publishes an impassioned defense of science fiction

Cory Doctorow at the Nebulas

From the Scientific American blog: Science fiction is not obsolete--do you read me Bruno Maddox? by J.R.Mikel:

I strongly suspect that many of you who scan this web site regularly are fans of science fiction. Personally, I was a Heinlein kind of guy, though I made extensive forays into the worlds of Herbert, Niven and Bear, and sampled the ABCs: Asimov, Bester, Clarke. (Yes, I'm aware of Bradbury's work.)

I don't read the genre much anymore. Still, if you're anything like me, you screamed and stomped and pleaded with your girlfriend to understand the error of the August installment of Blinded by Science, an otherwise fine column in Discover magazine. The author, Bruno Maddox, was nominated for a national magazine award this year, and I have well enjoyed some of his writings. His riff on twins was singular. (Individuality is a construction--it's funny because it's true!)

Unfortunately for me . . . I must now heap punditocratic brickbats upon Maddox. For he has either let the zeitgeist slip through his fingers, or he has gone quite mad with power. Bear with me as I unpack my indignation.

Bruno Maddox attended the Nebula Awards weekend and was not impressed. Minkel gives a few examples of current sf writers whose work is highly responsive to and influential on science and technology. And I could do it to, in much more detail. I refer Mr. Maddox to our anthology The Hard SF Renaissance or to my chapter on hard sf in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction.

Maddox spends a lot of wordage demolishing the importance of Michael Crichton as a writer. (Please see Nature editor Oliver Morton's essay on Michael Crichton published in The New Yorker in which Morton carefully and clearly points out how Crichton is distinctly and essentially not science fiction.)

But Maddox's piece, despite its stated thesis, isn't really about the relationship between science and science fiction. It's about a man finding himself at the wrong party and feeling uncomfortable. Apparently, he was bored. Maddox says.

Then again, it could also be the other thing--the thing that nobody's quite bringing up over the plastic cups of Yellowtail Merlot. Which is that science fiction, the genre that lit the way for a nervous mankind as it crept through the shadows of the 20th century, has suddenly and entirely ceased to matter.

Maddox did notice Charlie Brown's shirt, but if failed to convince him that we sf folk are prophets:

Other than this, however—the design on the back of the Hawaiian-cut shirt of a very old man investigating the bean dip over at the buffet table—this gathering of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is palpably low on excitement. We’re on the 38th floor of a Marriott hotel in Lower Manhattan, in a poky beige suite filled with the same cheap, gestural furniture you find in those fake rooms that get set fire to in fire-safety videos. And with the exception, obviously, of this correspondent, we’re a fairly drab and subdued sort of bunch. The demographic is middle-aged to old. The median shirt type is sweat-. And there are several grown men apparently untroubled by the fact that they’re wearing backpacks to a social event, yet troubled to the point of madness and eczema by pretty much everything else.

(If Maddox had attended the LOCUS Awards instead, he would have seen a whole lot more Hawiian shirts.)

Maddox seemed to desire a confession of our own obsolescence in the form of arguments about whether sf was old and boring. If that's Maddox was after, he went to the wrong place. Never mind that there have been innumerable sf convention panels since at least the 1960s on the possible death of sf. The right place to have found this discussion would have been the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts held in March.

John Clute finishes Pam Zoline's dinner; people kissing in the background at Readercon
John Clute at Readercon

SF critic John Clute has been arguing for a few years that it  is basically over. My husband David Hartwell and others argue that it's not (though David edited an anthology, The Science Fiction Century, devoted to the proposition that science fiction was the characteristic literature of the 20th century). There is a certain amount of muttering that the reason Clute made this claim is that he finished the Science Fiction Encyclopedia in the mid-1990s and it would have to be revised and done again if sf wasn't dead, or become old and obsolete.

T'ffany: Valley Girl Klingon
Pink Klingon at Marcon

But I suspect a chat with Clute -- who despises SFWA and the Nebulas as much as Maddox apparently does -- wasn't  really what Maddox was after. Maddox was hoping for people dresses as Klingons. Again, he was in the wrong place. He should attend Marcon  in Columbus, Ohio where -- if you go to the right party -- you can even find people undressed as Klingons.

John Cramer at Apollocon

I didn't go to the Nebulas this year. We stayed home and frantically cleaned house. If I want vigorous, intelligent conversation  about sf and its relationship  to science, I go to, say, Readercon, or the ICFA, or Boskone, or smaller conventions like Confluence in Pittsburgh or Apollocon in Houston.

Maddox asks, "Why are they not holding their annual meetings in some sort of gilded purpose-built pyramid while humanity waits breathlessly outside to receive their inklings into our future?" That's Hollywood, dear. We're book people, and not rich book people like the techno-thriller writers.

Kathryn, Greg and Elizabeth Brown Benford

In the Sky Church

But if you want that sort of venue, try the Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductions held in the Sky Church of the Experience Music Project, which was built with Paul Allen's money. I'm not sure this would satisfy, though: Charlie Brown, a former nuclear engineer, would still be around in a Hawaiian shirt picking over the hors d’œuvres.

Minkel concludes that Maddox, not the sf folk he encountered, is the one stuck in the past:

I expect better from my lauded commentators. You see, the world has not outpaced science fiction. Rather, science fiction has outpaced Bruno Maddox. In the spirit of grand prognostications, I hope at least it was a planned obsolescence.

Nonetheless, despite Maddox's unwarranted conclusions about the health of the genre, his description of a SFWA party is wickedly accurate. SFWA is a trade organization. The event is a business cocktail party. For the most part, people attend the Nebula weekend because they think it's a good business decision, not for the intellectual challenge and inspiration. I usually skip it.

Vernor Vinge in a Hawaiin shirt
SF writer and techno-prophet Vernor Vinge

An animation of how the I-35 Bridge could have collpased with the failure of only 3 pieces


Yifan Hu at Wolfram Research has come up with a computer model of the I-35 bridge that shows how the bridge could have collapsed with the failure of only 3 pieces. He explains:

The picture below shows the computed stresses in a simple 2D model of the I-35W bridge, with red meaning more stress. (I got the geometry from news pictures.) There are definitely aspects of the model that are not realistic. For example, the weight of the trusses themselves isn't included. And, of course, it's in 2D.

So what happens if one of the trusses weakens?

It's easy to include this in the computation by adding an upper bound on the stress in that truss. That just adds another inequality--which FindMinimum has no problem with.

One can actually compute all this in real time inside Manipulate. Here's an animation of the result:

One sees that when the truss with maximal stress weakens (shown in yellow), the stress spreads out to other parts of the bridge. If one weakens the next truss, then the stress propagates further. And when one weakens yet another truss, then the constraints can't be satisfied at all any more--so there is no static equilibrium for the bridge, and the bridge cannot stay standing.

See it HERE.

A New Kind of Bridgebuilding: Stephen Wolfram on How We Might Design Better Bridges in the Future

In a short essay "The Space of All Possible Bridge Shapes," composed in response to the Minneapolis bridge collapse, Stephen Wolfram suggests design principles that could lead to stronger bridges:

. . . it's been known for a while that the best networks don't have that kind of simple structure. In fact, they almost seem in some ways quite random.

Well, what about bridges? I strongly suspect that there are much better truss structures for bridges than the classic ones from the 1800s--but they won't look so simple.

I suspect one can do quite well by using simple rules to generate the structure. But as we know from NKS, just because the rules to generate something are simple, it doesn't mean the thing itself will look simple at all.

Two students at our NKS Summer School (Rafal Kicinger and Tom Speller) have investigated creating practical truss structures this way--and the results seem very promising.

So what should the bridges of the future look like? Probably a lot less regular than today. Because I suspect the most robust structures will end up being ones with quite a lot of apparent randomness.