Anthropology: the job anthropologists won’t do

After putting up a post entitled Anthropology sucks, not two days later I find myself reading an article regarding interesting advancements in the field. I thought I might have to eat crow. Were anthropologists doing academic work after all, and shining a light on humanity? Were they doing, in other words, their so-called job?

As it turns out, no, they weren’t. However not every academic department is intellectually dead:

Now, a provocative new study suggests the fates of societies hinged on a subtler problem with these plants. And if it’s right, it could dramatically complicate the popular theory of the agriculture-driven dawn of civilization that has appeared in textbooks for generations.

The study, published last year by economists at the United Kingdom and Israel doing novel work on archaeological and anthropological evidence, attempts to explain a strange pattern in agricultural practices.

Emphasis mine. You really can’t make this stuff up. Of course it had to be someone from another field to question baseline anthropological assumptions, because once critical theory takes hold all mental activity ceases.

I’m not saying it’s aliens, but–

KIC 8462852 Star Mystery Just Got Even Deeper

Astronomers Bradley E. Schaefer from Louisiana State University takes a different approach to find out more about this star. He looked over a collection of sky photographs in the archives at Harvard College Observatory, a collection which covers the entire sky from 1890 to 1989.

Then he measured 131 magnitudes of KIC 8462852 star from 1890–1989. Results? The star appears to be dimming slowly, over the course of the past century;

KIC 8462852 star displays a secular dimming at an average rate of 0.164 magnitudes per century. This century-long dimming is unprecedented for any main sequence star. Such stars should be very stable in brightness, with evolution making for changes only on time scales of many millions of years.

Of course there are many possible explanations for the other data (which are all, themselves, outlandish in their own way) but none of them seem to account for this. Why would a star dim at this rate? One hypothesis is that a Dyson sphere/swarm is under construction before our very eyes.

It’s not necessarily the case, but what is cute is that, for astronomers, being the first person to rule out ‘aliens’ is like a race. Mark my words, astronomers, one day it will be aliens–and the lot of you will wind up feeling very silly. Or, I don’t know, maybe you’ll go and scream into your collective pillows like a lovestruck teen girl.

Doom Paul

Paul Ehrlich is singing the doom song again. You might remember him from hearing about (or worse, reading) his darkly prophetic manifesto The Population Bomb.

Putting aside for a moment the issue of whether the earth is overpopulated–parts of it certainly are, such as the beltway around Houston–I wonder where he would put the “Maximum Occupancy” sign so that it was fully visible to all inhabitants of our once lovely planet. What breed of bouncer would be required to remove the excess patrons from the premises?

The WEIRD people (white, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) have already voluntarily enacted Ehrlich’s dream of barely replacing themselves. Now we just have to convince the PoCs of the world to stop breeding. I’m sure there would be an audience for that sort of program.

Despite the fact that The Population Bomb was famously wrong on many of its predictions, like every true prophet Ehrlich maintains that he was only off on the timing. Without his book, though, we probably wouldn’t have the movie Zardoz, so it can’t be said that nothing good came of it.

He’s an easy figure to make fun of so I should say, at some point, that I agree with him about his new apocalypse. Mostly because it is currently and clearly observable: we are living in an anthropogenic mass extinction. WaPo cautiously headlines that we are only on the brink of it, and perhaps it can even be ameliorated, but I consider both of those things off base. It is happening, Ron Paul style.

The term ‘mass extinction’ calls to mind a brief cataclysm, like an asteroid impact, but it’s useful to remember that all of human history is a flash of geologic time. So this mass extinction started thousands of years ago, and would potentially look to some future archaeologist as contiguous with the Quaternary extinction event. That was the one that killed the mammoths.

Now whenever I feel down, I’ll just remind myself that I’m part of something much greater than myself. We’ll make this the biggest die off since the Permo-Triassic.

Clearly what has transpired is that humanity collectively heard Ehrlich’s warnings regarding overpopulation and agreed with them wholeheartedly. Oh, was he talking about humans?

Bullish on space

The inflatable BEAM module has arrived at the ISS, courtesy of a SpaceX cargo shipment. If you’d told me when the ISS was launched in 1998 that there would come a day when NASA had no heavy lift capability, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. If you told me that was a good sign, I definitely wouldn’t have. It is, though, in my eyes–private industry should be in the business of space logistics. NASA would do best to focus on the science.

An interesting tidbit from the article:

The Dragon’s arrival marked the first time that two U.S. commercial spacecraft were berthed to the space station simultaneously. Orbital ATK’s “S.S. Rick Husband” Cygnus cargo carrier launched to the station on March 22 and was attached to the Earth-facing port on the Unity module four days later.

A few months ago Air&Space had an article about the inflatable BEAM module going up. It’s a good read.

When the Shuttle program died I’d assumed that manned space travel had officially been tried and found wanting, but recently commercial enterprise and new ideas seem to be breathing new life into the field. Just a few days ago before SpaceX stuck the landing. You get the sense that mankind is creeping back into the stars, and this time it’s not about beating the Reds.


I’m ambivalent about robots. Income inequality increased throughout the computing age even as real purchasing power of families remained stagnant or decreased, so the age of robotics (forever just around the bed) might exacerbate these same trends. How many people living today could survive the obviation of manual labor?

Could society come to resemble an ancient civilization, where you had the robot slave-owning upper classes and the incredibly poor (yet nominally free) lower classes? Based on trends we are already observing with computation, that could be the case. In the past productivity gains have resulted in a richer society, but surely at some point people simply aren’t smart enough to participate in the remaining jobs available in the economy.

The other part of me, which has remained largely intact and unchanged since childhood, finds robots amazing in every way.

Look at those guys go! It’s like baby’s first steps. Note how elegant the Japanese-developed Schaft robots are compared to the hulking Boston Dynamics models. How stereotypical.