Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Barrow revelations

Yesterday the 2004 issue of Lund Archaeological Review arrived. (Yes, they're behind schedule.) It contains a short, sweet and extremely interesting paper on barrows by Anders Berntsson.

Scandinavian archaeologists have long believed that the great barrows of prehistory represent a great investment in collective labour. More recently, it has also been suggested that as the barrows were made of grass turf, they also represent large-scale destruction of grazing land, a crucial resource to a cattle-based economy.

Berntsson makes two observations that turn this reasoning upside down.

Firstly, there is a simple error in the most widely quoted calculation of the amount of labour necessary to build a really huge Danish barrow. Instead of 13000 man-days of ten hours, it would actually have taken 3300 man-days. In other words, 300 people could have done it in eleven days. To build a normal size Scanian Bronze Age barrow in eleven days, you would only need 40 people. This brings the commanding power of the hypothetical Bronze Age chiefs down quite a few notches.

Secondly, the barrow building societies of Scandinavian prehistory did keep cattle, but they also grew crops, and the fields were tilled with ards. An ard is a primitive plough, one of the drawbacks of which is that it cannot cut turf. Turf. The kind that was used to build... barrows.

So the breaking of old fallow/grazing land for cultivation in these societies would have entailed the removal of a huge pile of turf. That could be put to creative use, for instance in the building of burial monuments, which would be particularly apt to mark ownership of newly cleared farmland.

I like this paper so much that I'd happily work for eleven days on Anders Berntsson's barrow if opportunity presented itself.
Berntsson, A. 2006. Me and you and a case of beer. How the Bronze Age barrows were built? Lund Archaeological Review 2004 (antedated). University of Lund.
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Monday, January 30, 2006

Isidor Atnister unmasked

Look at this man. What does he look like to you? Could he be... a financial analyst? Yes. That's what he is. He's a financial analyst and one of the directors of a respected financial research firm in London.

But he has a secret, and I am about to reveal it to the world.

The man in the picture is Isidor Atnister, translator into Swedish of Joe Dever's excellent Lone Wolf fantasy choose-your-adventure books in the 1980s!

If I were him, I'd put it on my calling card.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Shampoo pseudoscience

Some time in the early 90s I saw a TV commercial for shampoo, plugging an additive called Nanosphere Complex. Apparently, this was something that was really good for your hair in some unexplained way. Since then, I have often exclaimed "But does it have Nanosphere Complex?!" when subjected to silly adverts with pseudoscientific terminology. And they never do have it. Because Nanosphere Complex didn't in fact represent a dramatic advance, or any advance at all, in the science of hair care. It was just a marketing thing (as Hannah observes).

Shampoo is really just liquid detergent with perfume and a bit of hair oil. And then there are the magic ingredients that are supposed to give the stuff an edge on the competition. In the 60s it was chlorophyll. The latest one I've come across is Phyto-Dorphine™ Skin Booster, an additive to L'Oréal's "Happyderm skin exhilarating cleansing mousse". Note the trade mark symbol. It tells us that this is not a scientific term, but something dreamed up by the marketing people. I guess in this case they want to allude to plants and endorphins while sounding scientific. How exhilarating.

Anyway, I'm certainly not buying any Happyderm until they put Nanosphere Complex in it. Don't they know anything?

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Old barns

The Migration Period lasted for only about 150 years. This means that quite a number of the houses that were built toward the end of the Late Roman Period (AD 150-400) would still have been standing in the Early Vendel Period (AD 540-600). Many inhabited buildings probably burned down after a short time due to the poor fire safety of the day. But barns, where no fires were lit, were very likely quite long-lived. There are still 15th century or older wooden barns standing in the countryside of Sweden, more or less rebuilt, of course.

In the 6th century, the landscape was re-structured in much of agricultural southern Scandinavia. This may have been due to famine caused by the AD 536 atmospheric darkening event or to the Plague of Justinian (or both), and coincides with the shift from the Migration Period to the Vendel Period. It's the most dramatic change in material culture during the entire Iron Age in Scandinavia.

Anyway, in the mid-6th century drystone walls dividing the landscape were allowed to collapse and many settlements moved. At this time, there must have been a lot of 4th century building materials available. All you had to do was take an old barn down, load the posts on a wagon and use them at your new farm site. So if you’re into buildings typology, here’s a great argument to explain away those inconveniently early radiocarbon dates.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Distributed staring

You know the distributed computing projects? People all around the net can contribute some of their computers' unused processing power to searching for extra-terrestrial radio signals or modelling complex proteins, just to mention two of the more well-known projects. Typically, you install a screen saver that starts crunching numbers for the project every time your computer goes idle.

Now, NASA is preparing to use the distributed global participation model to process the sample collection gels from the Stardust mission: you know, the comet tail thing. But this time, it's not computing power they want: they need eyesight and brain power!

Apparently, there are no image analysis algorithms good enough to distinguish between random noise and cracks in the aerogel on one hand, and grains of interstellar dust and their impact tunnels on the other. But with a few minutes' training, any kid can do this easily and accurately. So the Stardust people are photographing the dust collection gels bit by bit through a microscope to send the pics around volunteers on the net. If enough people report a dust particle on a particular photograph, then bingo.

Here's a webcam showing the clean room where the sample gels are kept and studied. And here's where you sign up for staring duty!

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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Multivocal museums

Museums have been changing for a long time. These days, people in the trade even talk of "the paradigm shift": from broadcasting information to the public, to interacting with it and making room for other voices. The idea now is to let the people treated in the exhibitions or otherwise concerned, e.g. indigenous people, share the stage. This "multivocality" is good up to a point, but the openness must be limited. Otherwise, it would lead to extreme relativism.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the multivocal approach would open public museum exhibits on for example genocide and natural history to accommodate the views of neo-nazi revisionists and creationists. This thankfully isn't happening. So multivocality is not such a big deal after all: political correctness rules the museums.

I published an essay in Swedish on this subject in Folkvett 2005:3, and it's also available here.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Markus Andersson's photography

Markus Andersson is a proficient field archaeologist and a really nice guy. He's also a kickass photographer, to the extent that his colleagues call him "Photo Markus" to distinguish him from namesakes. He's got a portfolio on-line, highly recommended.

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Monday, January 23, 2006


Q: What do model railroads and womens' breasts have in common?
A: They're supposed to be for kids, but dad's the one who plays with them.

For Christmas, my wife and I got 7-year-old Samuel a cheap slotcar set made in Hong Kong. He thinks it's great, his friends like it, his kid sister likes it. And, of course, I love it.

I keep re-designing the track in weird ways. A simple favourite is to turn the power connection bit around after racing for a while, which means that the track changes directions. The other day, I joined up most of the 45º curves into a 150 cm sinus curve where the cars would judder through and nearly, but only nearly, skid off at every single curve. Saturday I built the Tower-of-Babylon spiral track shown in the pic.

The tiny drivers of the slot cars probably think of me as the Great Satan.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Birka museum gets reconstructed buildings

The island of Björkö (latinised as Birca) in Lake Mälaren was the site of Sweden's first town in the Viking Period. The trading settlement flourished for about two centuries from the late 8th century onward, population about a thousand.

Today, a lot of tourists come to Björkö, and a lot of them are disappointed. The place is marketed as "Birka, town of the Vikings", but when you reach the island you find that the town was actually razed a thousand years ago and its site is now a green pasture. Not a single house standing. What's actually visible today is the town's hillfort, ramparts and barrow cemeteries. There is also a small museum on the island. Björkö is great for anyone who knows enough about archaeology to appreciate the earthworks, but it ain't no town no more.

The company that runs the boat service for Björkö has now made a deal with the National Heritage Board to build four reconstructed Birka houses near the museum to make the place a bit more palatable to tourists. The museum is sited on land that has risen out of the lake since the Viking Period, so chances are slim that anything interesting will turn up when they dig the postholes.

I'm sure the buildings will do a lot to give visitors a better idea what the town was like in its heyday. To my colleagues out on the island, good luck with the project!

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Easing Swedish metal detecting restrictions

I'm working on a discussion piece about metal detecting together with detectorists Svante Tibell and Håkan Wahlin. Sweden has very restrictive legislation on this subject. Detectorists only ever come near ploughed archaeological sites in Sweden as part of organised research projects, and this occurs very rarely.

We believe that there should be restrictions on metal detecting to keep night hawks from robbing the public of its cultural heritage. But we also feel that the current legislation is robbing the public of valuable opportunities to take part of the cultural heritage in a constructive way.

Here are three arguments for easing the Swedish restrictions on amateur metal detecting:

1. The public has a right to take part of its cultural heritage in a constructive way.

2. Swedish archaeological research is decades behind Danish archaeology in some fields of study because of these restrictions. Danish detectorists make an enormous ongoing contribution to research at their own expense.

3. Copper alloy objects in the surface layers of ploughed fields don't lie around unchanged waiting for the archaeologists. They deteriorate rapidly. Detectorists are not interfering with things scholars would eventually find. They are rescuing things that no-one would ever get to see otherwise.

We propose a metal detector license, comparable to a hunting license. To become licensed, you would need to pass a test regarding knowledge of the rules for detector use, documentation methods and what to do with finds. To keep the license, you would have use your metal detector responsibly and according to the rules.

We've just started writing and would be interested to hear other people's thoughts. Have we missed any weighty arguments for or against an easing of the Swedish restrictions on metal detecting?

Update 22 June '07: A comment from my colleague Paul Barford made made me realise that I should clarify something about the Swedish legal situation, which is very unlike the British one.

Swedish law has stipulated since the 17th century that if you find ancient precious metals then you must turn them over to the State for a reward no less than 1 1/8 of the metal value. For about a century, the same has also applied to copper alloy objects and other materials found more than one object at one spot. In current practice, you usually get far more than the metal value to compensate for the collector's value of coins etc. I certainly don't propose to get rid of this legislation.

I don't want to enable Swedish detectorists to own finds. I want to enable them to find more stuff to turn over to the State, as their Danish friends have done dutifully for decades. In other words, as an archaeologist I want more free labour and more data that would otherwise be beyond reach to me.

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Internet for my pocket lint

It’s 2006, I’m a net head and funding bodies have smiled upon me. It’s time I got myself mobile internet access in my pocket.

I used to be pretty tech savvy, you know. I knew about PCs all the way up until, oh, about the introduction of the 486 processor. Then I let my PC Mag subscription lapse, ‘cause all they ever did was review stuff I would never have a use for nor be able to afford before it was obsolete. So, here I am – and I use this strong word advisedly – a user. I don’t even know what processor, how much memory or how large a hard disk our home computer has.

I’ve looked around the handheld computer market a little and got a vague feel for what’s available. Unlike cell telephony, I don’t need portable internet access very day. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to mean that I should get two gadgets: a 3G (or GPRS?) cell phone to replace my current clunker and provide bandwidth, and a PDA that will talk to the phone over Bluetooth.

And here’s where you, Dear Reader, come in. I’m gonna give you a few specifications, and you tell me what you think about them and what PDA I should get. OK? Here we go.

My future PDA has: Bluetooth (duh), wifi connectivity, a Swedish qwerty keyboard, an e-mail client and a web browser. (My idea is to leech off open wifi connections whenever I can, and use the cell phone line when I can’t.)

Got that? Now, please enlighten me in the darkness of my abject userdom.

Update, 24 January. Dear Reader, it seems that just like myself, you are not a tech whiz. The techies over at SKOM have made me a number of suggestions, and currently I'm leaning toward getting a QTEK 9100. If I understand things correctly, this is the ultimate blogger tool, allowing me to photo blog from a treetop in the woods if I want to. Have you heard of this little beastie?

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Tech note: adjustable type size

I recently learned something extremely useful, particularly to anyone who reads a lot of web zines and blogs.

Press the Ctrl key on your keyboard and roll the scroll wheel on your mouse (or paw at the vertical scroll bar on your laptop's little steering pad thingy). This adjusts the type size in the active window. Instead of leaning into your screen to read tiny type, you can inflate it to huge headline size, lean back, and read effortlessly!

Ah, ever onward-upward towards tech nirvana.

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Deluged hunting grounds

During the last Ice Age, so much of the world's sea water was bound up in glaciers that you could walk a straight line from Sweden to Scotland. Dogger Bank was a forest. The English Channel was a boggy valley.

The time between the end of the Ice Age and the adoption of agriculture in Northern Europe is called the Mesolithic, that is, the Middle Stone Age. It lasted for five thousand years, and a lot of its archaeology is now on the bottom of the North Sea. This means that when we dig Mesolithic sites on dry land, we can only study what people did when visiting the highlands of their day. If, for instance, we want to know what life was like around the mouth of the Thames in 7000 BC, we need diving suits.

Søren H. Andersen has a good little paper about this in the recently published issue for 2005 of Kuml, annual of the Archaeological Society of Jutland. He presents a pressure flaker fished out of the North Sea in 1989 by the crew of a trawler on Dogger Bank. A pressure flaker is a tool used to produce tiny flint blades, microliths, that were affixed to arrows or bone spear heads. This flaker is made of red deer antler with a radiocarbon date in the interval 7040-6700 BC, the late Maglemosian.

I find this instructive. Nothing is constant. An area larger than Holland and Denmark, home to hundreds of bands of Mesolithic people, a vast cultural landscape with place names, legends, oral history, camps tracks hearths tents graves, is now under tens of metres of icy brine, habitat for cod and whiting. And it isn't even anybody's fault. The sea just rose, slowly and steadily.

As H.P. Lovecraft so cozily put it,
Then, crushing what he chanced to mould in play,
The idiot Chaos blew Earth's dust away.
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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Static self

Here's some introspection. I'll make it brief, don't go away.

Scrolling through old diaries and reading other stuff I've written, I find that I'm essentially a static personality. Since becoming a dad, I've undergone very little directional development. Every day the same me wakes up to a new set of situations, and they hardly ever change me. You could stick my days of the past seven years into a bag, scramble them and serve them up to me in random order, and I'd react pretty much the same way again to everything that happened. My days aren't interconnected, they form no narrative, I hardly remember them at a few weeks' distance. Which is why I keep the diary in the first place.

I feel like a machine that is running nicely at its intended pace, and that will continue to do so until it either receives a violent jolt (loss, heartbreak, betrayal, victory) or something wears out (Alzheimer, death).

Don't get me wrong, I quite enjoy being me. I have no wish to become someone else, even incrementally. I do have ambitions, external situations I'd like to find myself in, but I don't feel like I need improvement or modification. I'm just sitting here watching myself interact with the world. Call me a complacent bastard, I guess.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

2005 Enlightener & Obscurantist Awards

The Swedish Sceptic Society's annual awards for 2005 were announced the other day.

Author and retired professor of psychiatry Nils Uddenberg received the Enlightener of the Year award, "for his well-informed and thought-provoking descriptions of the human species and its history grounded in both the humanities and biology, including the evolutionary perspective."

Chairperson of the Christian Democratic Party's youth section Ella Bohlin received the Obscurantist of the Year anti-award, "for her willingness to place science and creationist belief on equal footing in Swedish schools."

Enlightener Uddenberg is awarded a substantial cash prize. Obscurantist Bohlin is awarded a lot of bad press.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Portentuous sample canister

The Moon used to be a goddess. We went there, made tracks, planted flags, brought bits back. The planets were gods as well, once. We've photographed them and their moons and sent little buggies trudging through the Martian sand dunes, brandishing diamond drills and spectrometers in the face of the God of War. Only Pluto, half-assed icy Kuiper planetoid and Lord of the Underworld, remains to check out.

All of this is unbelievably cool. But Sunday, we got a delivery that in some ways beats them all. Humanity just went out and fetched itself a chunk of a Celestial Portent of Doom.

Comets used to scare the shit out of people. These long-haired stars would show up, seemingly with no regard for astronomical time tables, sometimes shining like kingdom come, and then disappear again. In 1683 the Ottoman Turks lifted a perfectly viable siege of Vienna and withdrew, probably because a huge shining sword suddenly appeared in the sky, pointing at the crescent moon, the symbol sitting on top of every mosque in the Empire.

NASA launched a probe at comet Wild 2 in 1999. It arrived a year ago, sent home pictures of the thing, showing it to be pretty weird even for a comet, collected samples of the sandstormy tail, and headed home to Earth. Sunday, the sample canister landed neatly in the Utah desert.

Now, this is exactly the sort of thing the space agencies should be doing. I want many affordable unmanned science missions, please. Sending people to the Moon again and then to Mars is a bad idea, because it'll dry up the funding for interesting science missions and almost certainly kill a number of astronauts.

Sending a human on a space mission is like using a laptop computer to hammer nails into wood. Humans are fragile, require complicated life support systems and are vastly overqualified for the job. Why should we equip our space probes with biomachinery that is capable of playing the piano and writing novels, and whose families will be worried sick for them for years? No. If you've got nails to hit, buy a hammer to get the work done. And then write a novel about it on your laptop.

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Thilly thnippet of thong

My friend Becca in Hindon, Wiltshire, sent me this fine piece of anonymous poetry.
The god of war rode out one day
Upon a pure white filly
"I'm Thor!" he cried
His horse replied
"You forgot your thaddle, thilly."
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Saturday, January 14, 2006

Chummy combatants

Uppsala, Friday afternoon. There we were, a large audience of jaded disputation attendees, hoping to see blood, eager to see Svante Fischer and Klavs Randsborg rip great bleeding chunks out of each other with their teeth. And they let us down. There was no show. They went all huggy and chummy on us. There was joking, there were laughs, the opponent paid compliments to the respondent.

Dr Fischer's thesis is named Roman imperialism and runic literacy. It's about the early runic inscriptions of the 2nd through the 8th centuries and their cultural context with regard to pan-European politics, the demise of the Roman Empire and the establishment of the Germanic successor kingdoms. According to professor Randsborg, this is a lively book that is unlikely to make the reader fall asleep, with many surprising digressions, written in a conversational and accessible style. I've read about a third of a manuscript version, and I think I'll agree with the professor.

But chummy opponents are common. What was singular about this disputation was the metamorphosis of the defendant.

I know Dr Fischer as an unshaven, ruffled character in a roots reggae tee-shirt and an old military jacket. He will buttonhole you at the Academy library and rant about Frankish warlords, big-game hunting and his plans to arm himself and fortify his summer house in preparation for the day that society breaks down irreparably. Think Hunter S. Thompson meets Rambo at the Society of Antiquaries.

The man defending Dr Fischer's thesis yesterday wore a conservative dark suit and a tie. He was clean-shaven, had recently had a haircut, and responded in accents mild and pedagogic to the opponent's questions, as if he were speaking to a beloved child. We started to recognise Fischer toward the end, when he poked fun at Danish nationalism, and with great relief we saw him bloom back into full existence after Randsborg's bit was done. The guy responding to questions from the audience was Svante Fischer, no doubt about it.

The aptly named runologist Rune Palm made a point that I agree with: Fischer's book contains a lot of confusing jargon, where words like technolect and reification are used in senses unique to this text, albeit explicitly defined at its start. Another gentleman made a less convincing argument that was forcefully pulverised by Dr Fischer in a shouting match. And just as our pulses started to quicken, just as our hopes of violent slugging re-awoke -- the disputation was done.

So, you runies, have a look at the book!

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Public disputation

Today is graduation day for Svante Fischer -- Dr Fischer to y'all!

To complete a PhD in Sweden, the final practical hurdle to pass is that your supervisor and the head of department must give the thesis manuscript their thumbs up. Then you're effectively done.

In Britain, the viva is an actual exam where examiners may tell you that in order to pass, you must write another chapter on this and strike out a lot of stuff about that. They may even flunk you.

The Swedish equivalent of a viva is called a disputation, and it serves no practical purpose. The thesis is printed before the event. If your supervisor and head of department have told you to send it to the printers, then you're OK. The examiners can't flunk you, because it would mean flunking your supervisor and head of department. Occasionally, this leads to extremely crappy work passing.

So, what sets a Swedish disputation apart from a British viva is most importantly that it's a mere ritual, but another difference is that it's public. All your friends are there, mom & dad, many of the department's undergrads, dozens of active and retired academics in your field. Ostensibly, the opponent's task is to convince everyone that your work sucks, and you have to defend it. (In actual practice, most opponents are very nice and constructive about it.)

To many people, the thought of arguing for two hours in front of a large audience is an absolute nightmare. To others, it's just fun. Dr Fischer most probably belongs to the second group. I mean, I’m a pretty loud person. But in Svante Fischer's company, I feel like a soft-spoken, balanced, low-key guy. Svante is brilliant, confrontative and apparently oblivious to whether people understand half of what he's talking about. And today he's up against professor Klavs Randsborg of Copenhagen, who is about as huge as Scandinavian archaeologists get.

It's gonna be the match of the decade. Watch this space for highlights and commentary.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Circulation 100 and rising

Dear Reader, I'm very proud to be able to tell you that the blog passes 100 unique visitors daily today, after four weeks. If I'm reading the stats correctly, this is largely thanks to people from web forums:
ocmb.xenu.net about Scientology from a critical perspective,

forum.skalman.nu about history,

www.arkeologiforum.se about archaeology, and

www.physto.se/~vetfolk/forum about skepticism.
Thank you for reading, and keep those comments coming!

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Gay mama

My two-year-old daughter is learning Swedish and Mandarin Chinese. Like most bilingual kids, she understands both tongues but avoids speaking the minority one. As my wife teaches her, a bit of Mandarin rubs off on me as well, but I make a lot of bizarre connections and I have the pronunciation of an intergalactic alien.

Laile, calls my wife: "coming". And every time, Eric Clapton's song "Leyla" starts playing in my head. Ni lei la?, meanwhile, means "You tired?", and off I go again, "Beggin' darling pleeeease, Leyla".

Gei mama, my wife says: "Give that to mother". A big fat gay mama!? Who? Where? Mama gei ni, "Mother'll give it to you", and there I am, thankful that mother's knee is the only part of her that is apparently gay.

When asking for soy sauce, you may get the reply, "mayo". No, they're not suggesting that you put mayonnaise on your mapo tofu: mei you means "there isn't any".

Mandarin distinguishes between a lot of sounds that English and Swedish treat as equivalent. Brother means the same when pronounced "bRRRotheRRR" as it does when pronounced "bwutha". This is particularly difficult with the tonality in Mandarin, where mere inflection will distinguish between for example whether weijing means "scarf" or "monosodium glutamate". But the spirants are tough as well: xiaoxin means "be careful", while Shaoxing is the name of a town famous for its rice wine.

It goes the other way around too, with Western languages observing strange distinctions between sounds. Some Chinese dialects, with millions of speakers, don't recognise the distinction between L and N. For someone from Jiangsu, neighbour and labour are just two ways of pronouncing the same word, and the difference is a mere quibble.

Luckily for me, my wife is a banana, a sleek machine running two cultural operating systems. She speaks better Swedish than I do, her pronunciation always crisp. I slur and drop syllables like an old drunk. To do that, you gotta be a native.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Swahili cell phone

My old cell phone is going to Tanzania, to be used for conversations in Swahili among a family of school teachers.

I bought the phone cheap from a melancholic Armenian two years ago. He was a part-time dad and told me about his unhappy divorce. I carried the thing around in my pocket, running on my Chinese sister-in-law's old SIM card, until the battery started to give up the ghost. Then my dad gave me his old phone, just as primitive as the previous one, but a lot smaller.

Tuesday, I sold the sorrowful Armenian's phone. I sold it cheap, advising its new owner to replace the battery. She's a visiting engineering student, specialising in methods to provide clean drinking water for rural Tanzania. She's also the mother of four and has ten siblings, most of them school teachers.

I've never been to sub-Saharan Africa, but now my phone's going. I wonder if they'll be able to hear whispers of Armenian, Turkish, Mandarin, Swedish and English if they listen carefully to the background static hiss.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Swedish ruins

Ruins are rare these days in Sweden. I don't mean Medieval ones: they're common, well tended and pretty much inert. What I mean is active, decaying ruins, the kind that look bad and get worse for every year that passes. Eyesore ruins, dangerous to visit.

Swedes are neat freaks: we take care of things like that fast, thank you very much. My British friend Howard, on a cycling trip in rural Sweden a few years back, once remarked that in this country, even inhabited farmsteads look ghostly and/or fascistic to an Englishman: extremely clean and well-kept, almost empty, no car wrecks or defunct washing machines in the yards.

This lack of familiarity with decay is actually a bit of a handicap to an archaeologist. You know what well-kept buildings look like, and you know what ruins open to tourists look like, but you really have very little understanding of how one turns into the other. This makes site formation processes (wooo, trade jargon) hard to visualise.

But we do have real ruins, modern houses and factories abandoned and left to rot in places where few notice them. And there are those who like to explore them. One is the secretive Rutger, a highly skilled photographer who runs a beautiful web site. The domain name tells it all: www.swedishruins.nu

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Songs that stick

I have a musical head. If you'd put your ear to mine, I'm pretty sure you'd hear music playing most of the time. Rarely an entire song, mostly just the chorus or a riff repeating itself again and again and again and again.

On SKOM, the on-line living room where I hang out, there's a conference on songs that stick in your head. I've been posting there about my cranial juke-box's selections since April 2002. Below are the songs that have haunted me the most relentlessly. They're wonderful, but you may want to dip in carefully. Because they stick and they nest and they make themselves at home. You need to ask yourself, do I really want my brain re-wired to resemble Martin's?

Now, read on, and listen at your own peril.

Beck, "Truck-drivin' neighbors downstairs"
Big Star, "Give me another chance"
Bo Hansson, "The Sun (Parallel or 90°)"
BRMC, "Whatever happened to rock and roll?"
Coral, "Simon Diamond"
Eddie Meduza, "Va' den grön får du en ny"
Frank Black, "Sir Rockaby"
King Crimson, "Starless"
Lenny Kravitz, "It ain't over 'til it’s over"
Liam Lynch, "Rock and roll whore"
Marshmallow Coast, "Classifieds"
Nashville Pussy, "Keep on fucking"
of Montreal, "Jennifer Louise"
Pink Floyd, "Time"
Qoph, "Herr Qophs villfarelser"
Ramsey Kearney, "Blind Man's Penis (Peace and Love)"
Soundtrack of Our Lives, "Psychomantum X2000"
Starlight Mints, "Blinded by you"
Super Furry Animals, "Dacw hi"
This Mortal Coil, "You and your sister"
Tom Jones & Cardigans, "Burning down the house"

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Shout! Let it all out!

Sweden shuffles into the limelight of written history very late. If for history we demand detailed and voluminous written sources produced by knowledgeable participants in the events themselves, then the history of Sweden begins only in the 13th century.

A major group among the earliest written sources is the provincial law codes. Medieval Sweden was a patchwork quilt of old tribal areas, recently confederated, most of them sporting their own laws.

It is a matter of debate whether these codes preserve a lot of orally transmitted legislation from the Viking Period or if they were mainly as new to Sweden as the stone architecture and the monasteries. Likewise, it is uncertain if the laws were actually enforced in every detail. Things could be a bit disorganised in an area with lousy communications and no police. Some statutes look like they were dreamed up by legalistic quibblers who didn't pause to think whether they would be at all practicable.

But despite all this, the law codes are treasure troves for details about rural life in the Middle Ages. They describe crimes, disputes and other situations that were clearly considered not unlikely to come about.

My colleague Alf Ericsson has pointed out a fine example to me in the law code for Östergötland, codified in the late 13th century. In the section on land rights, Byggningabalken §28:2, a procedure to determine the border between a private farmstead and the commons of the hundred is described.
"Here is a farmstead, settled and old, farmstead with mounds and from pagan times; it borders on the commons. Now the border is disputed. Then stand on the oldest edge of the property and cry, when the day is at its deafest, between the feast-day of St. Botolf and mid-summer; let the farmstead's property reach as far as the cry can be heard, and border upon the commons."

(My translation of Holmbäck & Wessén's paraphrase in modern Swedish, 1933, p. 216.)
Picture this. It's a beautiful day in early summer, 1306. A farm owner is standing at the edge of his land, bellowing like a madman, watched by a few neighbours and some incredulously giggling children. Meanwhile, a group of good men and true walk off into the woods, asking each other every now and then, "Can you still hear him?".

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Zap 'em with the Truth Machine

Polygraphs, or lie detectors, don't work. They're like cold fusion: would be nice to have, but sorry, no go. The ideas behind them are pseudoscience. The best you can hope for with a polygraph is that a suspect will believe that it works, and perhaps confess when you trundle it into the interview room.

But this doesn't stop the U.S. Department of Defense from wanting a polygraph that works at a distance and without the subject knowing they are being assessed.

Let me say that again. There's this machine that doesn't work at close hand, and now the DoD wants one that does its non-working thing at a discreet distance as well. Brilliant.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Off-line weekenders

Here's the frequency of Swedish blog posting per day for the last few weeks, taken from Knuff.

And here's the frequency of Google searches on the word "London" during 2005.

Look at the graphs. See those periodic dips? Bloggers don't post much in the weekends. And people don't use Google much in the weekends. This most likely means that

a. A lot of bloggers don't have internet access at home.
b. A lot of people are blogging and web surfing from work.

Maybe employers could raise their staff's productivity by subsidising their at-home internet connections?

Thanks to Per Melin/SKOM.

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Thursday, January 05, 2006

Wooden church found at Old Uppsala

In the 11th century, German cleric Adam of Bremen wrote in horrified detail about the main pagan temple of the Swedes at Uppsala and the gory cult of Odin, Thor and Frey that took place there. He used the word templum, "temple", to denote this structure, but on one occasion also triclinium, "dining hall". Most scholars today agree that what Adam was describing (at second or third hand) was in fact nothing like the Greek or Roman temples of the Mediterranean. Instead, the royal pagan cult at Old Uppsala took place in great single-story wooden long houses. Two massive foundation platforms of such feasting halls are still visible near the great barrows. The “temple" of Old Uppsala thus had much more in common with the mead hall of king Hrothgar in the Beowulf poem than with the Parthenon or Pantheon.

Pagan cult at Old Uppsala ended in the late 11th century, and we don't know how long the great halls were left standing. But in the 1130s Old Uppsala became an Episcopal see, and a Romanesque cathedral was built there, the chancel of which is still standing as a rural parish church. Choosing this particular site for the cathedral meant to appropriate, ostentatiously, the deep roots and legitimacy of the main cult centre of ancient Sweden.

What happened at Old Uppsala during the half century or so between the end of the pagan cult and the building of the cathedral? We have had very little data to judge from, until archaeologists Magnus Alkarp and Neil Price began working at the site. They present their results in a paper in Fornvännen 2005:4 that reached Swedish subscribers last Monday. Using non-intrusive ground penetrating radar, Magnus and Neil have documented a number of subterranean features in the cathedral area, for instance something that looks like the foundations of a previously hypothetic third feasting hall, located with one end under the cathedral on a perpendicular orientation (N4, N5).

But the most exciting result is that we now know what the Swedes did at the site after pulling down the feasting halls. They built a small wooden church, measuring 22 by 8-9 metres (N3), typical for the newly Christianised elite of the 11th century. These people had not yet established firm contact with the monastic orders and ecclesiastic hierarchy of the Continent, and so they did not build stone churches as was the rule farther south.

Thanks to Magnus and Neil, the sequence at Old Uppsala is now complete:
1) pagan cult in feasting halls up to the late 11th century,
2) a small wooden church in the decades around 1100,
3) from the 1130s on a Romanesque stone cathedral, and
4) after the arch-see was moved to present-day Uppsala in 1273 (taking the name with it), a small stone parish church.

The illustration is taken from Alkarp & Price's Fornvännen paper with the authors' permission.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Traitor to the Swedish tongue

My native language, Swedish, is small: less than 10 million speakers, plus 10 million speakers of Norwegian and Danish who understand Swedish when they want to. Scandinavians are extremely affluent and well educated seen in a global perspective, which accounts for the fact that these little languages actually produce a good book now and then.

As you may have noticed, this blog is not written in Swedish, but in my previously posited language-of-the-most-good-books, hegemonic English. This is because I want as many interested readers (and correspondents) as possible. The blog's subject matter isn't exactly front page issues, reflecting the fact that I have very little knowledge of and interest in such things. But writing in English and marketing the blog through Technorati, I hope to reach a global scattering of oddballs who may enjoy the blog.

After less than three weeks, the blog has about 40 unique visitors daily. About 80% of them are located in Scandinavia. I can see several reasons for this: I began by marketing the blog to my friends and colleagues (you guys are of course more likely than the random netizen to share my interests), I write a lot about Scandinavia, and in particular a lot about Scandinavian archaeology. This subject is for some reason not a very big deal outside of northern Europe (unlike Scandinavian furniture design, cell phones and pornography).

Dear Reader, I'm thrilled to have you. Please feel free to drop me a line, just to say hi or to send me a link to something fun and bloggable. And do tell your friends. Peace!

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Monday, January 02, 2006

English rules

Only a very small percentage of humanity is capable of writing anything worth reading. If everyone on Earth had equal access to education and leisure time, and if all cultures valued reading and writing equally highly, then it would follow that any year's harvest of good books would be dominated by the world's largest language.

The world's three most widely spoken languages appear to be Mandarin Chinese (>10 hundred million), English (5 hundred million) and Spanish (3 hundred million).

Excellent things are of course written in Mandarin and Spanish. But due to the unequal global distribution of wealth, far fewer books must be written per capita in either of these languages each year than in English.

Conversely, it seems unlikely that any of the world's smaller-but-still-big languages, French for instance, would exist under such socio-politic conditions that its speakers produce more books per capita than the English-speakers.

So most of the good books that appear globally every year are written in English. But as we all know, good ones are rare. Most books written in any language are crap.

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Shell midden

On New Year's Day, I made the embryo of a shell midden. I had bought oysters for my wife, but she didn't like them much, so I finished them off for lunch. Briny molluscous slither-downs. I much prefer moules marinière.

In the distant past, people would eat a lot of shellfish over long periods near good oyster banks, building small hills of shells; køkkenmøddinger in Danish, "kitchen middens". They're common around the world and often full of interesting stuff beside the shells: other kinds of refuse, hearths with datable charcoal, sacrificial deposits, even burials.

Two things may immediately be deduced from shell middens:

1. These places must have reeked to high heaven of rotten fish.

2. People must have boiled or baked the oysters before eating them, as it is almost impossible to open a live oyster with a flint blade.

And so, there is ample precedent for anyone who wishes to have their oysters cooked: hundreds of generations of prehistoric fishers can't be wrong.

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Sunday, January 01, 2006

Handling swollen goods

Rejoice, oh ye wankers, for Ivor Biggun's Fourth Coming is upon us!

The dirtiest secret of British comedy music released his third album in 1987. And then there's been silence (and a hits collection in 2000). What was the man up to? Apart from his palm-blistering favourite pastime? Do we want to know?

Eighteen years. And on the new album, Handling swollen goods, he hasn't changed one bit. The rock-bottom lowness and soaring wit, the excellent band, nineteen new hummable tunes including a few recorded live at a pub in Croydon, and a pack of new dogs to keep Rover company. Eee, by gum!

You haven't heard of Biggun before? Well, do you like Monty Python and dirty limericks? 'Course you do. This disc will have you snorting with laughter like a tosser on your daily commute. Now get thee to the on-line record store. And hands off of that ukulele, it'll cost you your eyesight.

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